Category Archives: Leadership

What is the Pastor’s Role?

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WHAT IS THE PASTOR’S ROLE?

Since starting seminary this question has been on my mind more and more.  After all that’s the reason that I am here:  to learn what it means to be a pastor so that I might faithfully live out that calling upon ordination.  But what is a pastor’s job?  What’s his role?

For the sake of full disclosure, I have yet to take a course on pastoral theology and the nature of the ordained office, but what’s funny about being at seminary is that there are as many answers to this question as there are people.  As I’ve been dropping in on the conversations of my fellow students it is kind of funny to hear what their responses are.  Of the responses that I’ve heard there are a couple that keep cropping up in some form or fashion:

  • The pastor is the administrator of Word and Sacrament
  • The pastor is the under-shepherd over God’s people
  • The pastor is like a COO, overseeing the proper order and operations of the church
  • The pastor is like a CEO, pushing forward and safeguarding the vision and values of the church
  • The pastor is the lead missionary
  • The pastor is a preacher and teacher

While there is probably some truth to all of these things, what I’ve found in each of them is that they are, essentially, task oriented.  Each of the distinctions describes things that a pastor does, but none of them answers the “Why?”  Why does the pastor administer Word and Sacrament, serve as under-shepherd, oversee the church, safeguard vision and values, and so on and so forth?  What is the goal of the pastoral office?  What should drive the heart of a pastor?

As I’ve been thinking about this, my mind keeps coming back to one verse from Scripture:

[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.  For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

~Colossians 1:28-29 (ESV)

If I were to sum up the heart and passion of the pastor it would be this:  to present everyone mature in Christ.  And I emphasize the everyone in that verse.  Here is the pastor’s call to both ministry and missions in a nutshell.  We are called to reach all people, the churched and unchurched, the lost and found, the Christian and the non-Christian, with the Gospel message and help them grow up as mature men and women in Christ.

This calling to help all people grow into maturity in Christ is the end to which all of our pastoral activities must be directed.  Whether serving the sacraments, stewarding the resources of the church, teaching and preaching from Scripture, or leading the body of Christ in evangelism, justice, and mission, we should always strive to help people grow in Christ.

Sadly there are times when I think our church’s traditions have fallen far short of this glorious calling.  Too often the pastor becomes the Bible answer man, the one to whom everyone goes with their questions.  And sadly, pastors have enabled this mentality rather than helping the people of God grow in their own understanding of Scripture and how to apply it to life.  I see this immortalized in the pastor-led Bible study, which, in many cases, is simply another sermon before or after the Sunday morning service.  But this is not the only way in which I see this take hold of the church.  I can think of several congregations in which the pastor is the sole leader of all forms of ministry, from small groups to outreach events to mercy ministries.  Why?  Because the pastor is the “called and ordained servant of the Word,” as if everyone else is just a spectator or a cog in the church machine.

I would submit that this is not only unhealthy, but it is unbiblical.  Paul’s desire was that everyone would grow to maturity in faith.; that they would increasingly see their lives through the eyes of Scripture, living lives submitted to Christ and helping others to do the same.  And our role, as pastors, is to serve this end.  This is why Paul writes:

And [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and the teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

~Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis mine (ESV)

This is my calling as a pastor:  to serve the world so that as many people as possible might grow to full maturity in Christ.  This is the end to which I endeavor.  This is the calling which I must seek to live out.

So, as I continue in this seminary journey I am trying to keep this in mind.  My driving question must be: How can what I’m learning be used to help people grow to maturity in Christ?  And it is my prayer that those under my care, whether in my field education church or at my home church, would daily grow up in Christ, to the glory of God.  Amen.

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A Time Apart

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“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.  Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.'”
~Mark 6:30-31

With the busyness of moving winding down and a month still before the start of the Fall quarter, I’ve been spending more and more time reflecting on this current season of life.  When I first learned, back in April, that I was being let go from my position at Trinity my mind immediately flooded with questions:  “Why would God call me to this church only to call me away after a year?  What will my next steps be?  What does this mean for my future in ministry?”  It was a time of turmoil, confusion, heartache, and deep soul searching.

The weeks that followed were filled with a lot of conversations and discernment.  That process ultimately led me to St. Louis and Concordia Seminary.  At first this was a decision that was made, admittedly, with a bit of frustration.  In many ways I’ve approached this season of full-time graduate work as just another hoop to jump through.  I have felt called to pastoral ministry for a long time, been actively involved in vocational ministry for 7 years, and had already been working toward my M.Div when this change was made.  Concordia seemed like just another barrier to overcome.

However, as I’ve reflected on where we have landed I have increasingly had a sense of peace about where we are.  The truth is that taking a break from vocational ministry may actually be healthier for me in the long run.  Here’s why.

When I first started working in vocational ministry several people warned me about the dangers of attrition.  Attrition is what happens when, suddenly, all of those things that were so refreshing and nourishing as a church member begin to lose their luster and your own spiritual life begins to diminish.  You begin to notice it as you’re sitting in worship services. Rather than just soaking it all in, you find that you’re analyzing the sermons, evaluating the theology behind the songs and hymns, and taking note of the overall flow of the service.  It creeps into the small groups that you lead as you begin to focus more on group dynamics, facilitating discussion, next steps, follow-up, solid application, and fielding questions rather than discovering Scripture for the pure joy of it.

Attrition is what many people who are called to vocational ministry encounter once they begin their work.  It happens when doing ministry becomes separated from your own spiritual growth as a leader.  Attrition is what takes place when your personal times of Scripture study are replaced by sermon prep, when worship becomes nothing more than something to arrange for the weekend, and when prayer is squeezed out by hectic schedules and ministry demands.  Slowly but surely the work of God becomes more about the work and less about God.  And, for too many of us, myself included, attrition creeps up on us without even realizing it.

With this calm between the end of my ministry position at Trinity and the start of seminary, I’m beginning to see just what a toll attrition has had on me.  In the empty hours of the day I’ve begun to realize how much I’ve missed reading Scripture for the sheer pleasure of it, attending worship just to be with fellow believers and receive the gift of worship, and just talking with God in prayer.  Furthermore, I’ve seen the negative effects as well:  a shorter temper, greater impatience, and a spirit of discontent.  After 7 years of ministry, I think it is safe to say that I’m a little more burnt out than I thought.

Which is why these past several days have been so nourishing.  I’ve been spending time reading through the gospel of John and, as I’ve walked with Jesus through these pages, several passages have struck a chord.

“Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
~John 4:14

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.  These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
~John 5:39-40

“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
~John 6:26-27

Over and over again Jesus has been issuing an invitation to me; an invitation to come, rest, and be fed by him.  I think this is the reason why, after abundant times of ministry, he would beckon his disciples to come away with him and be restored (Mark 6:30-31).  Too often it is easy for leaders in ministry to focus so much on what needs to be done that they forget that, first and foremost, they are called to be fed, nurtured, and formed by Christ.  It is from the overflow of that relationship that all other ministry comes.

As I wait for the school year to start, I think Jesus has been using these crucial weeks to reframe my understanding of who I am and what it means to be called into pastoral ministry.  Before I am bombarded by readings, papers, quizzes and exams, Jesus is taking this time to remind me that all of this study, all of this preparation, is nothing if done without Him at the center.  This is a time to rest, to be fed, and to grow in my walk with Jesus.  Anything else is just the overflow.

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Mentoring Leaders: “What Are You Reading?”

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Over the past several years I have the privilege of meeting with a friend and mentor of mine, Eboo Patel.  He is the founder and executive director of one of the fastest growing and most influential non-profits in the world, the Interfaith Youth Core, which is based in Chicago.  Occasionally we will get together to catch up and talk about what is going on in our lives.  As we’ve met over the years I’ve noticed a pattern.  Every time we get together he will always ask me, “What are your reading?”  And usually there is a series of follow-up questions:  “What are you learning?  How are you applying those lessons?” and so on.  During these conversations he always listens intently, offers his own insights, recommends other resources, and encourages self-reflection and growth.

Eboo is a visionary and an entrepreneur, but more than this, he is an excellent mentor for young leaders.  As I’ve observed him in his interactions with me and with other young leaders, he routinely asks this question.  “What are you reading?  What are you learning?”  Through these conversations he models a couple of principles that I think anyone who mentors leaders should emulate.

First, Eboo exemplifies what it means to be a life-long learner.  He has a passion for always encouraging people to grow as independent and sophisticated thinkers.  And so he wants to know what the young leaders under his care are reading.  In a world of tabloid media, Twitter, email updates, and blogging, young people are bombarded by a lot of junk.  As such, Eboo knows that intake is just as important as output.  Our minds are shaped by what we read, watch, and listen to.  So he takes time to encourage the life of the mind in those whom he leads.

And this leads to the second principle:  Eboo knows that integration is key.  He is always encouraging me to read from writers who represent a wide array of perspectives on various subjects.  But more than this he challenges me to think about how to apply the lessons I’m learning from those various writers to my own life and leadership.

And this is where the lesson lies.  When it comes to mentoring leaders, we should care just as much about the forces shaping them as what they themselves produce.  When we learn to ask the question, “What are you reading?” we take a direct interest in the shaping of their minds.  But more than this, we need to encourage them to integrate and apply those lessons to their own lives and leadership.  Leaders are those who learn to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in a way that shapes not only their own behaviors and practices, but in ways that serve and benefit the communities they lead.  Eboo understands this and mentors with this vital lesson in mind.

So, the next time you are mentoring someone, it might just be worth asking the question, “What are you reading?”

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News: Leaving Trinity

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“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps”
~Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)

“Nothing before, nothing behind;
The steps of faith
Fall on the seeming void, and find
The rock beneath”
~John Greenleaf Whittier

Several weeks ago I was hanging out with a couple of friends.  We were talking about the job market when one of them made an interesting remark:  “At least you have job security. You’re a pastor.”  How I only wish that were true…

On Monday night the news was made official to our congregation:  due to budget cuts at the church, I, along with two other staff workers, are being let go from serving at Trinity.  There is no longer a pastoral position for me for the coming year.  In the short time since the announcement was made I’ve already received a number of emails and condolences.  Others have expressed anger and disappointment at the circumstances that have led to the present.

So how do we handle something like this?  What is the proper response when the times require us to make difficult choices?  As I’ve reflected on this, a couple of things have come to mind.

A Grateful Heart

First, I am grateful.  Too many pastors and church leaders leave their ministries because of personal moral failings or bitter infighting within their congregations.  For me, neither is true.  I leave this post with my family in one piece, my integrity intact, and the love and support of my church community.  If I have to leave a pastoral position, this is how I would prefer it to be.  As such, I am grateful to God.

An Invitation to Self-Reflection

Second, I think this is a great opportunity for our congregation to do some soul-searching.  While it is true that our church is finally being affected by the tough financial times, the reality is that the reason we have had to make these cuts is because the level of giving over the past several months has varied drastically, with some months being marginally in the black only to be followed by others deeply in the red.  Our lead pastor has commented that he has never seen giving trends like these in all of his years in ministry.

As such I believe that our present situation is an invitation for further reflection as to the reasons why we are in the circumstances we are in.  This is an opportunity for us to ask questions and foster healthy dialogue around them.  I offer up the following questions as a guide for us in these times:

  • How comfortable are we, as a church, when it comes to talking about finances and tithing?  What are our hang-ups and how can we grow past them?
  • In what ways can we better equip and support men and women to be good stewards of the resources God has given them?
  • What does it look like for us, as a church, to model generosity, not only as individuals, but also as a congregation?
  • For those of us in leadership:  How might we better teach, celebrate, and model a lifestyle of extravagant generosity and sacrificial giving?

In all of this, I believe we are being invited by God to truly trust in him as our Provider.  Furthermore, he is reminding us that we, as his image bearers, are called to be generous with what he has given us.  As the Scriptures say, “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.  Test me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it'” (Malachi 3:10).

A Call to Unity

Nevertheless, I am aware of how painful going through this process has been and will continue to be.  It is not easy being told that you are losing your job.  Furthermore, as a community, what happens to those of us on staff affects the rest of the church.  Not only have I been wrestling with my own pains and frustrations, but I’ve also heard how upset many people in the congregation are about the news, how decisions were made, and how everything is being communicated.

So how do we deal with these emotions?  The other day I spent some extended time praying and reading Scripture.  It was my way of clearing my head and seeking guidance from God.  As I was reading, I came across this beautiful section in Ephesians:

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.  “In your anger do not sin”:  Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold…Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

Note what Paul says:  anger is not bad, but allowing it to fester breaks unity.  As such, he encourages us to share our hurts and frustrations openly, honestly, and directly with those with whom we are upset.  Such an attitude is God-pleasing because it offers us an opportunity to extend and receive forgiveness with each other.  In doing so we reflect the forgiving nature of our Father in heaven.  Furthermore, such honest discussion actually builds unity rather than breaking it, for it reminds us that we are all one body and, as such, are called to work and live together in harmony.

When we do this, we prevent the devil from getting a foothold.  Difficult times like these are ones that the devil loves to prey upon, for he knows he can sow the seeds of discord and strife.  Paul’s exhortation:  don’t let him.  As difficult as these times are, we must not allow the unity of the church to be broken.  Rather, we must learn to interact with each other as family in God’s household, extending love and grace to one another even as we disagree.  Even as we fight.

My hope is that this season will only strengthen Trinity further as we learn to work through these difficult times together; asking for and extending forgiveness to one another.  And I pray that the God of forgiveness and love would receive glory through this difficult chapter in our church’s life.

Where Will You Go From Here?

In closing I wanted to answer some basic questions.  Many people have asked me what my family and I will do as we move forward from here.  At present, there are two options before us:

  • We can stay in the area.  My wife has been interviewing for different foreign language teaching jobs.  If she were to go back to work full-time, I would probably go to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School full-time to finish up my Masters of Divinity there.  If we were to take this option, though, it would probably mean that I would not be able to be ordained in the LCMS as recent developments have prevented pastors who’ve received their education at non-Lutheran institutions from becoming ordained in our denomination.  As such, we would eventually need to leave Trinity Lutheran if I want to continue to pursue my pastoral calling.
  • We can go to St. Louis.  Trinity Lutheran has generously offered to help me cover the costs of my Masters of Divinity program if I were to transfer down to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.  If we were to take this route Trinity has offered to bring me back to Lisle to do my vicarage with the goal of eventually bringing me back on staff as an ordained Lutheran pastor.  This route would, in total, take us 3 years (education+vicarage), but it would ensure that I get to stay in the LCMS as a pastor and continue to pursue my calling there.

There are several other scenarios on the table as well as some other job offers which have been coming in (thank you for those, by the way).  We are considering all of them.  What I would ask, though, is that you pray for us to have wisdom as we discern what our next step is.  I believe God knows where he wants to send us and my prayer is that Jenny and I would have open hearts and minds to hear him when he makes that calling known.

One other question that I have received is, “What can we do to help?”  Here are a couple of things that you can do:

  • Continue to pray, not just for us, but for Trinity, that we would come through this a stronger church than before.
  • Pray also for the other staff who have been affected by these changes.  They will need your help and support in the coming months.
  • Come to the Voter’s Meeting on June 17th and be a part of the discussion.  This is a great chance to hear about our new strategic plan as well as to get accurate information about the budget changes.  You can get more details in the weeks ahead by visiting our website at www.tlc4u.org.
  • Hang out with us.  More than anything we just want to spend time with our friends at Trinity.  We’ve deeply appreciated the love and support we’ve gotten from so many people throughout this process and for that I am truly grateful.
  • Be involved in the life of the church.  More than anything we need each other if we are going to continue to pursue the mission that God has given us.

In all of this, I just want to say thank you to everyone throughout this whole process.  You have been amazing and my wife and I appreciate all of the love and support you have been pouring out on us.  I’ll continue to post updates here on my blog as we continue to figure out our next steps.  Until then, I close this post with the words of Paul from Ephesians:  “Peace and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Ephesians 6:23-24).

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We Don’t Need Another Manual

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18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
~Matthew 28:18-20

Flavor the the Month:  Discipleship

If you were to survey the largest church leadership conferences in the United States from the past 12 months, odds are that the major theme of the conference had something to do with discipleship.  From Verge to Exponential, there is no doubt that discipleship is the flavor of the month.

I find this shift encouraging.  Having worked in a mission-minded college ministry for so many years, it is exciting to see churches operating less like corporations and more like indigenous missions agencies.  I believe that this shift in the Western church is a helpful corrective to the insular, institution-driven models which have, for so long, quenched the fires of evangelism and mission.  Furthermore, this renewed emphasis on discipleship and mission is so widespread that it appears to be less a part of the latest fad and more a reflection of the Spirit-driven nature of church responding to the call of the Great Commission.

Consuming Discipleship

However, one of the things that I am worried about is the increasingly consumer-oriented nature of this shift.  Nowadays I can’t turn around without running into another book on discipleship.  There’s David Platt’s Follow MeMike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture, and Francis Chan’s Multiply.  There’s Jim Putnam’s Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual and Greg Ogden’s Transforming Discipleship.  The list is large and continues to grow.  Leave it to us Americans to take an awesome idea, package it, and sell it for the greater glory of God.  (And yes, I did just link all of those to Amazon.  You are now free to indulge your shopping impulse).

Now I genuinely believe that these authors have a deep desire to help men and women grow to maturity in Christ and that these books are not written for personal gain.  However, what I see when there is this explosion of books is a mad dash to buy, read, consume and regurgitate without thought to the consequences and without critical reflection on Scripture and our own contexts.  We end up going and attending conferences with these authors, spending money on airlines and hotel rooms, eating out, eating in, and buying more books, all in the name of advancing the cause of discipleship.  Finally, if any of this is actually applied, it is applied by buying more books, giving them to more people, and telling them to go and do likewise.  The result:  cookie cutter disciples being cranked out by the latest book buying craze.

Now all of that sounds rather cynical, but for the record I write this as someone who has partaken.  I am just as guilty of following this model as the next pastor and for that I must repent.  The reality is that we spend so much time reading and talking about discipleship that we miss the point:  to help people to grow into full maturity in Christ.  And the truth is that we don’t need another manual to help us do this.  Why?  Because we already have the one manual we will ever need:  Scripture.

Spending Time with The Rabbi

What I find interesting about the vast majority of these discipleship books is how they all center around one simple idea:  look at what Jesus did the in gospels and do likewise.  That’s it.  Jesus not only came and died for us, but he also modeled for us how to live.  Furthermore, when he gives the Great Commission to his disciples he is essentially telling them to do exactly what he did with them.  “Go and make disciples…baptizing…and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).  Jesus makes clear that his intention was for them to follow the example that he had laid down.  So, I think the challenge for us is to set the manuals down for a while and to just spend time with our rabbi.  Jesus shows us how to make disciples in the way that he taught, and he invites us to join in him in that process.

So here is a challenge for all of us:  before picking up another discipleship book or training manual, spend some time in the gospels and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did Jesus help people grow spiritually?
  • How did he help shape and form his disciples as people?
  • What were Jesus’ rhythms of life with his followers?
  • How did he teach, both in word and deed?

I think we will be surprised by what we find.  Furthermore, this approach puts us right where we need to be:  at the feet of Jesus, watching what he does and learning from him.  My hope is that this will be the key to our discipleship; that we will be trained in the way of and formed by Christ himself, and sent to help others do the same.

QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION:  As you read the gospels, what have you learned about how to make disciples?  What has Jesus taught you be his example?

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Jesus’ Other Role

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The following post is a re-post of my latest column piece for RELEVANT.  You can view the original article HERE.

When I was in high school the most common word that I heard associated with Jesus was “Savior,” as in, “Jesus is my Savior.” It was a prominent youth group emphasis: Jesus was always shown in the “rescuer” role, as the one who pulled us all out of our sin and expresses God’s grace and love. So we sang things like, “I am a friend of God,” and, “Jesus’ blood never fails me,” and it slowly shaped our faith.

All of this, of course, is true. But in our emphasis on Jesus as Savior, I wonder if we have developed a blind spot for His other—and equally important—role. 

In recent years, evangelical thinkers from Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost to Francis Chan and David Platt have begun to focus on another name for Jesus. “Jesus is Lord,” has become the battle cry for a generation of young evangelicals who are tired of the cushy, safe, anesthetized versions of Jesus that have been far too prevalent in our American Christian subculture. We are experiencing a renewed emphasis on radical discipleship, in which we take the commands and the red letters of Lord Jesus more seriously with greater authenticity and real devotion. “Jesus is Lord,” the earliest of Christian creeds, is making a comeback.

Perhaps this renewed emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus is a helpful corrective. I’ve seen the frustration of church leaders as they have wrestled with the lack of discipleship in their communities. Why is it, they ask, that so many people call Jesus their Savior and yet continue to live self-centered, morally compromised lives? Why is it that people can praise Jesus on Sundays and then curse out their neighbors and family members on Monday? Why is it that people will give millions of dollars for bigger church buildings and louder sound systems, and not take up the causes of social justice and world missions?

Perhaps contributing to this is the fact that we’ve only glimpsed a part of the fullness of who Jesus is. We’ve emphasized “Jesus as Savior” over and against “Jesus as Lord.” But in doing so, we have told people a half-truth. We’ve told them that God loves them, but forgotten that God has also commissioned them. We’ve told them that they are forgiven, but failed to remind them that they are now temples for the Holy Spirit. We have not remembered Paul’s words: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19). We’ve allowed ourselves to get comfortable with Jesus saving us while forgetting that He bought us for a purpose.

“Jesus is Lord” is a helpful counterweight to the overly comfortable, seeker-sensitive, consumer-oriented evangelicalism that has characterized too many American churches. It reminds us that there’s no room in His call for self-centered living. He came to bring us from death to life and invites us to be a part of the kingdom He is building.

But it must remain just that—a counterweight—rather than a new emphasis to swing us out of balance once again to the opposite extreme.

Because the new emphasis on radical obedience to Lord Jesus runs the risk of becoming the new legalism. Too many times I’ve seen my own generation gravitate toward a new kind of super disciples. In an effort to shake their fellow Christians out of the malaise of comfortable Christianity, they begin to heap expectation and guilt down upon their brothers and sisters. We begin to hear phrases like, “Who is really a disciple of Jesus?”

The result is that the Christian faith becomes a new list of to-do’s. When Jesus becomes Lord to the exclusion of Savior, we risk making Jesus into nothing more than an angry taskmaster: Someone who is sitting on His throne waiting for the apocalypse, all the while hurling down commands for His people to get into shape. I’ve seen too many Christians crushed by this new Pharisaism, thinking that they have somehow disappointed their Lord unless they are perfectly living out the Sermon on the Mount.

So how do we strike the right balance?

I think we begin by looking to the cross. When Jesus was crucified, the Roman soldiers nailed a sign above his head: “This is the King of the Jews.” Who is Jesus? He is the crucified King, the suffering Lord. In Jesus, we see the Lord of Time, the pre-incarnate Word, the one who holds the universe in his hands, living in our midst. We see the Lord who becomes our Savior.

What we must remember is that, yes, Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Yes, He tells us to go and make disciples of all nations. He certainly lays out commands for us to follow and obey. But He is also the Lord who tells us that He is always with us, to the very end of the age. Jesus is the Lord who gets down in the dirt with us to lift us up when we fall.

The truth is that Jesus is both our Savior and our Lord. When we reduce Him to one or the other, we minimize the power of His message. And when we begin to see Jesus in the fullness of who He is, as crucified Savior and as reigning Lord, we are moved to worship Him more fully ourselves.

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How to Pray for a President

In honor of Inauguration Day, I am re-posting of my latest piece on RELEVANT Magazine‘s website, “How to Pray for a President”.  Head on over and check it out.

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“In God We Trust.” Since 1864 it has been stamped on every U.S. coin. In 1956 it was added to our paper currency. During the Civil War this motto came to represent the reality that, in moments of national turmoil and strife, our ultimate trust is not in any earthly authority, but is found in God alone.

The relationship between faith and country has always been a tenuous one. Yet regardless of how you might feel about having this motto on our currency, the question of who we trust is ultimately an important one to consider.

For those of us who are Christ followers, the truth is that no administration, no party and no political system will fully represent all of the values that we hold as members of God’s kingdom. And Christians, like everyone else, have divided over who they voted for in our recent election. Regardless of how you voted, it’s clear our nation is facing many challenges and the debates over what needs to be done from here are deep and complex.

So how do we come together today on the Inauguration of Obama’s second term? Well, I think that we do what we have always done: We pray and we work for transformation. Now, as in times past, we must be people of prayer who humbly serve alongside those in authority for the greater glory of God.

But how do we pray for and work with our government, even when we won’t always agree with its policies or decisions on every point? In Romans 13, the apostle Paul gives us some powerful words by which to measure ourselves as we consider our relationship with the governing authorities. He writes:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God…For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good….They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

Of course, our democratic context is far removed from the totalitarian state under which Paul lived. However, the main thrust of Paul’s message was to help the early Church view their own interactions with the state through the lens of God’s authority, realizing that all human authorities ultimately stand under God’s sovereign reign.  As a result, they were to live as God-honoring citizens who fulfill their duties to the state in a way that ultimately pointed those in power back to the God as the rightful ruler of the universe.

This truth in our current context requires us to engage in the political process as citizens of the Kingdom by playing a transformative role in our society and by pointing all authorities back to God as the ultimate sovereign. We do this not by criticizing and condemning those in authority from afar, but by serving them in ways that ultimately reflect our commitments as members of Christ’s kingdom.

Paul’s words here remind us that those in authority have a staggering responsibility. In verse 4, Paul notes that the authorities have been charged with pursuing justice in a world broken by sin. As such, we should honor them where honor is due and pray for them because they are, ultimately, going to be held accountable by God for their actions.

Because of this incredible responsibility, we, as God’s people, must diligently pray for and lovingly serve those in authority. As President Obama today stands for his inauguration into his second term, we pray for him and for his cabinet and advisors, that they would use their power wisely, exercising justice for all people and pointing them back to God as the source and definer of what true justice ultimately looks like.

Furthermore, we should partner with those in authority as much as possible to pursue ends that advance the kingdom of God. As children of God, we are supposed to have a transformative effect on our society—and that means that we are all called to political engagement.

Of course, sometimes having a transformative effect on society also means holding the authorities accountable and calling them to a higher standard. Martin Luther King Jr., who we also celebrate today, is a model example of this. As a Christian minister, Dr. King understood what it meant to be prophetically engaged with those in Washington. During his last speech, Dr. King spoke these powerful words:

“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or Russia or any totalitarian country maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”

Dr. King embodied what it means to faithfully and lovingly call our authorities to the greater calling of justice, and to work alongside those who did so. He had plenty to criticize America for, but he chose the difficult road by engaging this broken system rather than standing apart and condemning it. So must we.  In God we trust.

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A Prophet’s Life Verse

This week I have had the privilege of posting on one of my favorite blogs:  “Release the APE”.  I’ve re-posted the piece here, but I encourage you to head over to their website and check it out for yourself.

Jeremiah

Since becoming a Christian I’ve heard lots of people talk about having a “life verse”.  Usually it is a passage of Scripture that they feel embodies their own journey with God.  It could be something that they received at their baptism or during confirmation, but whenever they discovered it has (hopefully) become a motto for how they live as a follower of Jesus.

For a while I was unsure whether I had a life verse or not.  There are tons of passages in the Bible that I love, but a “life verse”?  I wasn’t too sure about that.  And then I attended a staff training event with InterVarsity.  During one of our sessions together we were encouraged to pray for each other.  Eventually it was my turn to be prayed for by my team, so I sat in the middle of the group as the others gathered around and began to pray.

Suddenly, one of them said, “I’m getting the sense that I should pray a verse over you.”  And this is what she read:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  “Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”  But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’  You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.  Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant.”
~Jeremiah 1:4-10

I wish I could say that it was a lighting-bolt moment, a moment when the heavens opened and I heard the voice of God.  But honestly, I walked away thinking, “Wow that was cool,” and pretty much forgot about it after that.

That is until I began to transition off of IV staff and into pastoral ministry.  I was taking a look back over my 6 years with InterVarsity and saw a theme:  everywhere I went I was uprooting and tearing down, building and planting.  With each ministry assignment I was questioning old ways of doing things, offering up new and different paradigms, and calling out systems and structures that hindered our witness and were stalling people in their walks with God.  Without realizing it, this verse had become my life verse.

For those who have the prophetic edge to their ministries, I believe that this verse contains within it some important lessons.  But the one that I want to really hone in on is verse 10:  “I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  Often, the prophetic calling is described in light of the first portion of this verse:  uprooting and tearing down.  Prophets are talked about as those people who stir things up, get things moving, and critique established structures and paradigms.

As such, being a “prophet” has become pretty sexy in our postmodern, post-churched society.  Nowadays anyone who has an opinion or a bone to pick is a prophet.  In fact, I think being prophetic has started to become a code word for simply being a jerk.  The truth is, just because we have a critique does not mean we are serving in a prophetic way.  Too often would-be prophets have simply absorbed our surrounding culture’s disdain for the church and cynicism toward any kind of structure.  Such an attitude is not redemptive and ultimately does more harm than good.  I say this as someone who has fallen into this trap so many times that I’m a bit embarrassed.  My first two years with InterVarsity I was, for lack of a better word, a jerk.  There was no humility in my work.  I was constantly cutting down what others had to offer.  I was being an idiot.

The truth is, the prophetic calling does involve stirring things up, getting things moving, and critiquing established structures and paradigms.  But it involves something else too:  building and planting.  Prophets are not people who are obsessed with attacking the status quo.  Prophets are people who are captivated by a greater vision of what could be. This is where their desire for movement and change comes from.  It is a putting off of the old ways of the world in the pursuit of the new ways of the Kingdom of God.

The image of building and planting is a powerful one.  Like trees planted near sidewalks, prophets break up the concrete as new roots take hold and the tree expands.  Prophets cultivate the growing of the kingdom of God and, as such, will critique and question things that would seek to hinder that growth, whether within or outside of the church.  But such critique is not malicious or self-serving:  it is always in service to the greater glory of God.

The reality is that being a prophet is hard work.  You can’t just come into a church or organization, spout off your angry platitudes, and run.  You have to commit to the long haul.  Uprooting and planting takes time, patience, gentleness, wisdom, and insight.  It takes submitting ourselves to the timing of the God who calls us.  And it often means that we need to know when to speak and when to listen.  We do all this so that the church might grow, not so that it will be torn down.

This is a calling that will take a life-time to learn.  It will be filled with disappointments and frustrations, difficulties and challenges, hurt, anger, pain, rejection and so forth.  We will make mistakes.  We will hurt others.  We will fall on our faces more times than we can count.  But it is also a calling filled with joy, excitement, and new life as we participate in the work God is doing in making all things new.  That is the life of a prophet and it is a life worth pursuing.

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What Does the Next Generation Want from Your Leadership?

AND book coverI have been reading the book AND:  The Gathered and Scattered Church by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay for our church’s strategic planning team and I came across one page that really struck me.  It spoke about what the next generation of church leaders wants from the present generation of leaders.  I was so moved that I literally highlighted the entire page, partially because this is exactly how I feel as a young pastor, but also because it is a reminder of what I need provide the next generation as I grow as a leader.  Here is what it says:

“Let me give you a few hints as to things that the next generation of church leaders probably don’t want or need from you:  your building (if it carries a big mortgage), your debt, the unchurched culture’s present level of disrespect and disdain for the church, and your parishioners’ apathetic consumer tendencies.  Younger leaders won’t want our iron-clad denominational loyalties, outdated ministerial codes of ethics, insensitive and unrealistic success measurements, or lengthy academic requirements that make them put real life and ministry on hold for a paper degree.  They won’t have much use for our massive wood pulpits, our pews, our individualistic communion trays, or our choir robes.

But here’s what they do want from us:  they will want your Bible commentaries and some use of your buildings, as long as it doesn’t carry a lot of cost or control over their lives.  Other than that, and a little cash, what they want most is your expertise, your mentoring, your encouragement, and a chance to hear the stories that will inform and inspire their leadership roles.  They want tangible memories of how you modeled sacrifice, humility, teachability, risk, and courage in the face of ecclesial political pressure.  They want to be inspired by how you gave away ministry, prestige, and power.  They want to be entrusted with levels of responsibility that make them desperate for God’s help.  They want freedom to invent new ways of cultural engagement, discipleship, and teaching without being belittled if they fail.  They want you to trust them to know how to reach their own generation.  In short, they want a concerned but nurturing coach and someone after whom they can pattern their faith and leadership.  The biggest gift you can hand down is faith.” (Halter and Smay, pg. 199)

Powerful words to live by and strive for.  Thanks to the teachers and mentors who have poured so much into me over the years.  You know who you are and you mean more to me than I can express.

PS Buy the book.  It is worth the read:)

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Who Shepherds the Shepherds?

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”

~John 10:14

I had just spent the evening preaching to a group of college students from the University of Chicago at their Fall Retreat.  The topic of the retreat was discipleship.  After sending the students off to a time of personal prayer and reflection, I sat down with two of my friends and former colleagues from InterVarsity.  As we spent time catching up, one of them asked me about my transition from IV to pastoral staff had been going.  As I recounted the ups and downs of this change, one of the things that I kept coming back to was how much I missed the level of soul-care and development that InterVarsity gives to its staff workers.  I realized that, after a weekend of talking about discipleship, I was missing that same kind of discipleship in my own life.

In his book Building a Discipling Culture, Mike Breen says that disciples of Jesus are people who dedicate themselves to being life-long learners of Jesus.  Furthermore, they engage in mission by intentionally teaching others to be life-long learners of Jesus as well.  For the disciple of Christ there is this ongoing process of learning and teaching others.  It is a compelling picture of what discipleship can and should look like in the church.

But this is where I struggle.  As a pastor, it is our responsibility to build up, encourage, and train the people that God has placed under our care.  In essence, we are to be disciple-makers.  There is a high calling to the “teaching others” sphere of discipleship.  Yet, I am finding that when it comes to our own development as disciples, such intentionality is not always there.  In the language of church leadership development we often talk about helping people become “self feeders” in terms of their spiritual life.  What we mean by this is that we want people to move from being passive, spiritual sponges to becoming people who actively seek out opportunities to grow and put into practice what they are learning.

However, often this language of “self feeding” leads to an image of discipleship and growth that is highly individualistic:  “It’s all up to me to ensure that I grow.”  Yet when I look at Scripture, the model that I see is not one of the Lone Ranger disciple, but rather of a tight-knit community of believers who walk together, encourage each other, and train one another as they pursue the mission that God has given them.  There is a balance of pouring into others and being poured into BY others:  a willingness to teach and a hunger to learn.

And it is right here that I find myself falling short.  As a pastor, I’m missing being poured into by others.  When I worked for InterVarsity there was an intentional effort, as an organization, to build community among staff workers.  Just as we were encouraged and empowered to “go and make disciples” we were also poured into and cared for as disciples.  The result was that ministry was extremely dynamic and life-giving.

Yet, since I’ve transitioned to pastoral staff I feel I have really been missing that piece in my life, and I worry that the language of being a self-feeder might be at the root of it all.  As pastors, people who are charged with being leaders in the church, I think that the assumption is that we are already “self feeders”:  that we know exactly where to turn for our own growth and discipleship.  But here is my confession:  I don’t.  I don’t know exactly where to turn.  I’m in a denominational structure that I don’t understand.  The church leadership team works hard, but I feel like we are all moving so fast I don’t even know when or where I can slow down and just “do life” with my fellow pastors.

I don’t say this as a criticism.  As a leader, I see this as a reminder that I need to step out and seek those opportunities out, and I realize that I could be placing more of a priority on this in my personal life.  But I share this simply as a way of expressing how unprepared I was for the level to which this would be lacking in my new position.  Many times during my seminary career and during my years in InterVarsity I would hear pastors and professors talk about how serving in pastoral ministry can be one of the loneliest positions in the world, but it never really sank in until now.  And I’m realizing just how much I need it.

But on another level, I think this is a keen reminder of how vital it is to be discipled as we disciple.  After all, we cannot give away what we do not have, and we cannot disciple if we do not know what it means to be discipled.  So, over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be taking some time to talk with people in my life who are in pastoral leadership and looking for relationships/networks/resources through which I can be developed and led even as I seek to develop and lead others.  But I’d like to open this comments section to the rest of you:  if you are in leadership in the church, whether as paid staff or as a congregational leader, what relationships have you cultivated that are truly life-giving in terms of your spiritual walk?  Who do you look to, spend time with, and learn from as you grow as a disciple?

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