Why Character Matters

2 February 2021

I have seen more than one ministry implode. Beyond the obvious scandalous causes (pastor sleeps with counselee, treasurer runs off with the money), there are some less-discussed, but very common, patterns.

I’ve seen relational problems build up over time: petty power plays, minor wrongs never confessed, refusal to forgive, personal jealousies, frustrated ambitions, etc. Then one day, people begin seeking occasions for accusation and conflict rather than reconciliation. Out of nowhere, there’s a long string of “offenses” and “concerns,” often never raised before, that preclude discussion and demand immediate action. (Either the “offended” party leaves in a huff, or arranges the ouster of the “offender.” Either way, it doesn’t generally end well.)

I have made the mistake of recruiting someone for his evident skills, and not looking closely enough into the character underneath. Those skills that I thought were so valuable, such a good complement to my areas of weakness, were turned against me and people I cared about, to devastating effect.

From a distance, you can’t necessarily tell these things are happening. A lot of these cases get disguised as a doctrinal disagreement, a difference in philosophy of ministry, or just papered over with a simple “we feel the Lord is leading us in a different direction.” Everybody buys it, partly because they respect their leaders, and partly because it would be too uncomfortable to call BS on the easy explanation and find out what actually happened. But I’ve been in the ministry world my whole life, and I’ve had ringside seats for a bunch of these messes.

Very often, at the root of it all is a simple lack of character, a preference for taking the easy way out rather than doing the hard work of keeping short accounts, a desire to hide rather than live in the revealing light of openness to God and each other. Anyone who’s been in ministry for a while has had similar experiences.

Godly character–a cultivated habit of openness, and willingness to do the hard thing rather than take the easy way out–is the foundation for everything else. Skills and gifting are important, but without the character to support them, they’re a house built on the sand. In ministry, we’re in the trouble business; there’s always another storm around the corner.

That kind of character is impossible without the Spirit. It’s easy enough to be loving and inviting if you never say hard things, and it’s easy enough to say hard things if you’re not loving and inviting. To do both, and expose your own flaws in the process–that takes the Spirit of God, drawing you into the life-sharing dance of the Trinity. Which, in the process, brings you into step with all your other brothers and sisters who are also in the dance.

There is no crucible for building those habits like the one Jesus used: immersion in ministry, bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom everywhere you go…and debriefing along the way. We should do more of it.


40,000 Reasons to Reconsider Seminary

12 January 2021

So let’s talk about seminary. You ship yourself off for two to four years of preparation, and come out the end ready to go, a newly-minted ministry professional. What’s not to love, right?

Well…

You’re attending an Institution of Higher Learning. There are Impressive Buildings, Distinguished Faculty Members, and Excellent Administrators (more layers of them every year!). There’s a library measured in acres (which will be named the Big Donor Resource Center; “library” is entirely too prosaic). It’s a wonderful place to read and study, it really is. (I get it; I love the smell of books too!) But you know who pays for all that academic and architectural bling? You do. Sure, generous donors cover some of it–note the bronze nameplates everywhere–but you cover a significant portion.

So what does that look like? As I write this, I’m looking at a fairly typical degree plan from Major Seminary (I won’t mention which one). It’s a three-year M.Div. requiring 78 credit hours, at about $580/hour, for a total of $45,240. (Another one I’m looking at totals just under $60K, so you’re getting off cheap with that first one. Count your blessings.) Unless you’re pretty rich, you can’t afford that, so you’re going the student loan route. If you borrow the whole amount, you’ll come out saddled with about $500 a month in loan payments, for 10 years–which would be absolutely crippling. But that’s silly. Of course you’re going to work while you’re in school; let’s say that you can afford to pay a little under half the school bill as you go, so you only need to borrow $25,000. (By the way, that means you’re paying over $550/month during your 3 years of school; good luck!) After you get out, your monthly loan payment will be roughly $275. A little more doable.

You graduate and take an entry-level job in a ministry field, paying, what? $30,000, if you’re lucky? That’s $2500 a month. More than a tenth of your meager income is going to your student loan. And then the kids come….

But it gets worse, because that’s assuming you land a full-time job. Let’s be honest, those jobs aren’t exactly growing on trees. More and more of us are bivocational, because our ministries just can’t afford to fund full-time workers. At the last church I worked for, every person on the pastoral staff was bivocational; we all had one or more side gigs that we needed, just to make ends meet. The few full-time jobs that are available usually require 3-5 years of experience. So probably you don’t land one of those right away.

How are you planning to gain experience? Well, you’ll take a youth or associate pastor gig that pays $600 or maybe $1000 a month for what they’ll say is 10-15 hours a week (actually 20+), and then you’ll do something else on the side. Barista, bus driver, parking valet, waiter–the kind of jobs that have flexible hours so you can do the ministry work. You’ll be bouncing back and forth between your “side gig” — which actually pays most of your expenses–and your ministry job, struggling to get by, and paying an extra $275 a month for your student loans…for 10 years.

Sounds fun, yeah?

I thought not. There is another way, an older way. A way closer to what Jesus did, a way that the Church used for centuries, until very recently. It’s better than grad school–and coincidentally, it doesn’t leave you in crippling debt. What if we tried that?


Body and Corporation, Part II

15 December 2020

The body is the church. The corporation is an asset of the church, a possession. It not the church, it is something the church owns. Once we understand that, we know what to do with the corporation. Use it, just like we would use any other asset of the church: a building or a van or a sound board. It does not exist as an end in itself; its job is to serve the needs of the body.

We would find it odd if the whole church directed its energy toward the upkeep of the church van. Can you imagine? The whole church turns out on a Saturday morning to wash the van. The VBS sponsors a bake sale to get a new turbocharger. We don’t let the youth group use the van, because they always leave Cheeto crumbs under the seats.

When something like that happens, we realize that the van has become an idol. Likewise, when all our energy is being misdirected into the corporation to keep it running like a good business, things have gone awry.

And it is really easy for things to go awry in exactly that way. It turns out that the corporation can survive quite handily without indulging in the messy and inconvenient business of bringing its people into real relationships that provide fellowship and accountability. As long as the people keep attending, keep giving, and keep volunteering, the corporation hums along like a well-oiled machine. The metrics look great.

And–in our present cultural milieu, at least–many of the people have no interest in getting mired in such challenging relationships anyway. They want to be consumers of religious services, and the corporation that can provide the programs they’re shopping for will get their dollars and volunteer hours.

And so the vast majority of churches have established and well-understood patterns for taking care of the corporation’s needs, a clear understanding of who is responsible, and meaningful accountability to ensure that the job gets done. These same churches often have no established pattern for moving people into deep relationships that strengthen and feed them, do not understand the process, and hold no one accountable for doing it.

For example, I once worked for a church under the title “Pastor of Discipleship and Logistics.” During the two years I held that job, I had regular accountability and support around items like getting the bulletin done on time or ordering up on copy paper. Never once did anyone in my chain of command initiate a conversation about discipleship, check to see who I was discipling, how it was going, or if I needed support.

Not once.

In two years.

I wish I could say that’s an extreme example. In fact, it’s very common.


Flipping the Language

8 December 2020

In the previous post, we looked at how the interests of the body and the corporation diverge. In this post, we’re going to look at a very common failure to understand what the Bible says about life in the Body.

New Testament churches didn’t have a corporation. The New Testament doesn’t contemplate the needs of the corporation, or give commands regarding its upkeep.

As a result, there aren’t easily preachable biblical commands about taking care of the corporation, which presents a problem. How do we inspire the faithful to make sure the needs of the corporation get met? Well, there are a bunch of biblical commands about the individual believer’s relationship to the body. It is convenient for the corporation to re-interpret those commands (loving one another, accountability, fellowship, etc.) as though those commands were speaking of things that benefit the corporation.

And so commands to fellowship, for example, are taken as though they are simply commanding regular church attendance. Commands to be generous with the poor are taken as commands to give to the coffers of the corporation.

In order to shove the new corporation-serving meaning in, the old body-oriented meaning frequently gets shoved out. A person who regularly attends church is understood to have fulfilled the command–even if he gets no actual fellowship, as he frequently does not. A person who gives to the capital campaign is counted generous, no matter how he ignores his poor and needy neighbors. And so on.

The person who attends such a church often feels as if something is missing. He’s frequently isolated, lacks deep relationships, living a shallow spirituality. But the very commands that would guide him into a more godly and fulfilling life have been emptied of their life-giving meaning. Even when he’s looking right at the passage, he doesn’t see it.

He is likely to remain blind until someone shows him the real thing.


Body and Corporation

1 December 2020

Regardless of what our doctrinal statements say about the church really being the people, the American local church manifests itself as a corporation with property to maintain, payroll to meet, bills to pay. It’s important to remember that the body and the corporation really are two different things — witness the fact that over the past two thousand years, most local churches have managed to exist without drawing up corporate papers. Imagine trying to explain the church structure we take for granted to, say, the first-century church that met in Philemon’s house. “Corporate papers?” they would ask. “Isn’t that something you do for a business?”

Conversely, it’s entirely possible to be a service organization with corporate papers and not a church at all. The American Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Boy Scouts of America have been managing it for decades.

But more often than not, in North America, we try to do both at the same time. The juggling act can be challenging. The corporation theoretically exists in order to serve the needs of the body. But the body is a familial structure and the corporation is a business structure. Families and businesses are different sorts of entities, and they operate on fundamentally different principles. What’s good for one is not always good for the other, and so the interests of the body and the interests of the corporation are often not well aligned.

Over time, the interests of the corporation almost always come to dominate. The needs of the corporation are immediately pressing and measurable. It’s easy to tell if you have enough money to cover this month’s mortgage and payroll, or enough volunteers for the fall program. You can give an employee a mark to hit, and everyone will know if he hit it. You can hire a slick, upwardly mobile manager of ecclesiastical affairs who will make sure he hits all the marks. As with any other such managerial position, you’ll work to find a good one, but if you’re willing to pay a competitive salary, you’ll get what you need. Thus far the needs of the corporation.

The body needs real, personal connection and relationships. These things provide no short-term benefit to the corporation, and they come with a huge opportunity cost: they’re messy, labor-intensive, and high-risk. The energy invested in doing them well could be going into something else, something that does the corporation measurable good: a glitzier children’s program, a slicker bulletin, the next capital campaign. Trying to find a capable manager for the corporation who will put the needs of the body first is…challenging, to say the least.


On Being Misunderstood

24 November 2020

Paul required that elders be of good reputation among those outside the faith (1 Tim. 3:7)–and this in a culture that sometimes accused Christians of atheism and cannibalism, that crucified us, threw us to the lions, burned us alive. Paul himself had quite the criminal history as a Christian, as did that escaped jailbird Peter and many others, all following the condemned and executed Jesus. Plainly Paul did not mean that you can’t serve in church leadership if anybody has bad things to say about you. He cannot mean that you’re only qualified if your godly conduct has never been misunderstood by the world. 

Yet we are surrounded by Christians who think that’s exactly what having a good Christian testimony means. These credulous folks have been lulled by four centuries of unprecedented prosperity and freedom, during which the culture took it for granted that being a Christian was a good thing. (Perhaps a little too wholesome and not much fun, but a good thing nonetheless.) But it has not always been that way, and–have a look around–it is not really that way now. 

We are going to be misunderstood. Sometimes it will be an honest misunderstanding brought about by simple confusion. The devil excels at manufacturing that sort of thing. Sometimes it will be a tactical misunderstanding, and the wounded party will be flopping about like a French soccer player, even though nobody was within 3 yards of him. There’s a great deal of the latter, actually, and our National Evangelical Leadership (all rise!) has been steered by the flopping soccer players of the secular world for some time now. Steered straight into severe compromise, and all in the name of empathy for the player with the allegedly injured leg. 


Why Prepare When You Could Practice?

13 November 2020

When Jesus called Matthew, He didn’t put him in a classroom. He took him on a three-year adventure. They cast out demons, healed the sick, baptized converts, preached the Kingdom of God. They did the work together, and along the way, Matthew absorbed Jesus’ teaching so well that he eventually wrote a book about it—the Gospel According to Matthew. Matthew organized his gospel around big teaching sections, a series of lectures Jesus gave, you might say: the Sermon on the Mount, the sending of the Twelve, the Kingdom Parables, and so on. But those lectures are interspersed throughout a historical narrative that covers Jesus’ ministry. It’s not that Jesus didn’t give lectures. It’s that Jesus gave them in a context of ministry. He didn’t spend a year preparing the disciples for the work; He took them with Him into the work right away, and trained them as they went.

In the modern church, we have succumbed to an ethic of over-preparation. We’ll yank you out of your context for three years of schooling–during which we’ll keep you entirely too busy reading fat books to really try applying much of what you’re learning–and only then turn you loose to really do it. By then, you’re on your own. If you’re lucky, you have some good people to debrief with, but sometimes you won’t. And all too often, your first few years of ministry will be filled with “Welp, they didn’t teach me that in seminary!”

What were they teaching you? Wasn’t the whole point to prepare you for the work?

Jesus had a better way. His way was to practice, right out the gate. If you were at your job, minding your own business, and Jesus called you: “Hey, you! Come follow Me!”–you didn’t go into a classroom to prepare. You went with Jesus to practice ministry with Him. You would preach, pray, heal the sick, cast out demons, go to a wedding, do whatever He was doing that day. You were in it all the way, right away. And it worked! The people Jesus trained that way turned the world upside down.

So what about you? Do you want to go prepare, or do you want to practice?


Dodging the Ditch

6 October 2020

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.

In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.

Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:

  • Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
  • Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.

Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.

It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.

As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.

This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.


One Mind?

22 September 2020

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phil. 2:1-2)

What does God’s idea of “one mind” actually look like? In an age of ideology, we look for the wrong thing. We look for someone to parrot the party line, to have no “unapproved” thoughts, no unexpected questions. If we’re impatient, we punish anyone who deviates from expectations with whatever label our community uses to mark out Something You Can’t Say (i.e., blasphemy): “heretical,” “problematic,” or the ever-popular “racist” or “sexist.”

But God is not an ideologue, and we are not Unitarians. We are trinitarian, and that means we expect to hear the truth in multiple complementary voices. Our proverbs have two lines. We don’t all sing the same note; we believe in harmony. We even believe in discord: Jesus died on a tree. That was a hell of a note, but it’s not the end of the song.

On a walk recently, the Lady Wife and I were talking about the relationships where we have one-mindedness, and what characterizes those relationships. There’s certainly a lot of agreement, but that’s not the thing. We disagree too, and not just temporarily. I often find myself “holding hands across the fence” with someone who on paper holds a view on the other side of the ideological bright line, but has the same heart I do, and we are nearer to one another than we are to other people who *on paper* are on “our” respective sides.

Where we disagree, we find — Kimberly’s words here — “a place of peace where we’re not sinning” against each other, we’re not mad about it, and the work God’s called us to can go forward. We’re not all singing the same note, but there’s harmony. Even discord doesn’t in itself mean we’ve lost one-mindedness; it just means we’re doing jazz — if you keep playing, it wasn’t a mistake, and it will come to resolution in time.

Of course, as our more ideological brothers will be quick to point out, there is such a thing as intractable discord, and that really does create problems. Part of maintaining unity is discernment and discipline.

But the ideologues are good at discipline and no good at discernment, and as a result, they have conformity, but not unity. They don’t know what they’re missing.


Is There An Interpretation?

15 September 2020

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives instructions for the use of tongues in public worship. It profits on one, Paul says, for someone to blather on in a tongue if nobody understands it. The tongues-speaker is welcome to speak to himself and to God in private, but in public worship, Paul says, tongues must be interpreted.

Makes sense, right? Seems simple enough.

Here’s the problem, though: how do you know if there’s an interpretation?

Think it through like a scene in a movie. Someone feels moved by the Spirit to stand up and speak in a tongue, but he’s not supposed to do it unless someone can interpret it. Does he have to find an interpreter in advance? How does that work? (“Hey, buddy — I’m gonna speak in tongues. Do you have the interpretation?”) Does he just speak, and trust that the Spirit will give someone the interpretation? How long do we let him go on before we decide there’s no interpreter, and have him sit down?

See, Paul sets them up for a “try it and see” model here. To even have a hope of following Paul’s instructions, they’ll have to rely on the Spirit, and discern His will together.

And so should we all.