Research Pastor?

13 April 2021

I had two conversations yesterday about the ways in which the American church has grown like other organizations, and how that has caused severe problems.

In one conversation, we were discussing this article, which compares the traits we generally hire for in a megachurch pastor with the traits comparably-sized businesses hire for in a CEO. Big surprise: same basic profile, and it comes with the same basic set of temptations and problems. Shocking, right?

I’ve written elsewhere about the problems of trying to map business culture onto the church, so I won’t belabor it here. Best case scenario? Your church gets run like a business instead of the house of God. Worst case? Your church leaders misbehave like businessmen do…which happens constantly.

The other conversation was with a church member (different church, far away) who was observing a disparity between pay and productivity. In his church, part-time (i.e., bivocational) staff members do most of the work, but the senior pastor is negotiating for a raise. In my friend’s view, the senior pastor contributes less (doesn’t counsel or disciple parishioners, preaches three times a month), and flatly refuses to be bivocational for various reasons. Offhand, I observed that this sounded a bit like the academic world. As I spun the analogy out, it worked even more closely than I’d thought, and it made me a little sick.

A lot of the necessary grunt work is getting handled by the adjunct grades. In many churches, the youth pastor position is the career equivalent of the guy who teaches the night section of freshman comp at your local community college: entry level, bad hours, but if you put a couple years in you can move up. The logistical heavy lifting (committee chairing, managerial continuity) gets handled by the mid-grades (assistant/associate professors, assistant/associate pastors). At the top of both ladders is a research professorship where you get paid to study the stuff you like and give maybe 2-3 lectures a month.

There is a big difference, though. When the research professor in the academic world comes out to give a lecture, it’s cutting-edge research. When the senior pastor comes out of the study to give a sermon, it’s first-year Bible school stuff: basic Bible exposition, basic doctrine, basic application. Why does it take 20-30 hours in the study to produce that?

The seminary I attended (and for a while, taught for) lives on the fringes of a tribe that calls itself “the doctrinal movement.” Their pastors spend 30+ hours a week in the study (actually, most doctrinal pastors would consider it slacking off to only put in 30 hours of prep!), and deliver long, detailed lectures multiple times a week. I have my differences with their approach to church, but at least they’re delivering a proportional return on the study time they’re putting in.

Other pastors? Not so much.

I do want to carve out some exceptions here. There can be myriad nigh-invisible demands on a pastor’s time, from preparation for a budget meeting with the church trustees to a steady stream of people calling, emailing, or dropping by the church to talk with him about some personal crisis. When everybody wants 20 minutes of your time, that adds up! If the pastor is actually spending time tending the flock that Christ entrusted to him, then all is well. If the pastor is wearing through the knees of his pants praying for his people, then all is well. If a pastor is a newbie, and it genuinely takes him 30 hours to get his sermon prepped — again, all is well, at least for his first year.

There’s another population of pastors, though, that’s spending days in the study preparing sermons that show no sign of needing that much attention. Those guys need to get to work.


Living with your results

9 February 2021

In my experience with grad schools, I’ve found that unfortunately, they mostly think of character formation as someone else’s job. The church should do it, or the students should find a mentor on their own, or…well, someone else, anyhow. The school focuses on knowledge, and somebody else can worry about the students’ character.

It makes a kind of sense. Grad schools are classrooms, doing what classrooms are good at: book knowledge, and lots of it. They’re sticking to their strengths. But the brutal truth is, the church looks to the schools to prepare people for ministry, and the schools expect someone else to handle the character component, because they’re not set up to do it. All too often, no one does the hard work of character development. Who loses? You do. And so does everyone you minister to for the first few years while you catch up…if you catch up.

Grad schools have the luxury of taking a hands-off approach to character formation because they don’t have to live with their results. You go to them for training, and then you leave, and become someone else’s problem.

Apprenticeships work differently. If we’re mentoring you, we have to live with your mistakes the whole time you’re with us. Also, we hope to keep some of our apprentices even when they’re ready to launch, because the harvest is plentiful around here, and we could use the help.


Maybe We Won’t Have To

4 November 2020

I have made it my life’s work to know and love people who are very unlike me. As a result, I have a wide network of friends and contacts all across the political spectrum. I’m speaking to you all right now.

I wish you all knew each other the way I know you.

Most of the people you fear, or even hate, aren’t what you think they are. I know this, because I know them.

You could, too. The common ground is there. It might not be much, and it might not be something that’s all that important in the grand scheme of things: baseball cards, ‘40s movies, green chili. It might be something more consequential: losing your mom, a cancer diagnosis, raising kids, staying sober (or not). You all live in the same world; there are countless ways to connect.

Even as I write this, I can hear you thinking “Why should I? They [fill in the blank here].”

I know. Has it occurred to you, though, that human connection is a weapon? That it will be harder for them to hate and fear you after you’ve connected over your shared love of watercolor landscapes or good ice cream or jazz whatever it turns out to be? Has it occurred to you that they will have a hard time coming out of that experience unchanged?

So, of course, will you. Which may have something to do with your reluctance, if we’re honest.

Y’all are all over my feed promising not to give up fighting for your cause no matter what, and I’m not even gonna try to talk you out of that right now. But I’d like to see you add one more promise: commit yourself to make a human connection with someone that — if civil war broke out tomorrow — you would probably shoot.

Because then maybe you won’t have to.


A Choice of Judgments

18 August 2020

Once upon a time, David led the nation of Israel into a serious sin. God was going to judge him, but He offered David a choice of which judgment the nation would suffer. The story appears in 1 Samuel 24:11-15:

When David got up in the morning, a revelation from the Lord had come to the prophet Gad, David’s seer: “Go and say to David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am offering you three choices. Choose one of them, and I will do it to you.’” So Gad went to David, told him the choices, and asked him, “Do you want three[a] years of famine to come on your land, to flee from your foes three months while they pursue you, or to have a plague in your land three days? Now, think it over and decide what answer I should take back to the One who sent me.” David answered Gad, “I have great anxiety. Please, let us fall into the Lord’s hands because His mercies are great, but don’t let me fall into human hands.” So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the appointed time, and from Dan to Beer-sheba 70,000 men died.

The 2016 presidential election was just such a choice, and 2020 is shaping up to be more of the same. You don’t have to be a howling fan of one of the options to prefer one over the other. In fact, you can even strongly prefer one over the other, without losing sight of the fact that all of this is divine judgment.

We are being given the candidates we deserve. The ostensible progressive candidate is the kinda guy #metoo was about, and an architect of mass incarceration, to boot. The ostensibly conservative candidate is manifestly neither principled nor conservative, and yet by every meaningful measure, has outperformed any of the real conservative candidates in the past two decades.

I repeat, we are being given what we deserve: liars and hypocrites. If we want better, then we need to repent of our hypocrisies and beg God for mercy. There is no way out of this but repentance. 

Christ have mercy. 


Working Through the Risk

5 August 2020

“We get it, you miss your friends and your normal life. The virus doesn’t care. Don’t be selfish. Stay home. If you can’t order it online or pick it up curbside, you don’t need it.”

It’s time we thought through that message.

Some people really can live that way. Everything they need is delivered to their doorstep, or they go drive by the store and pick up their purchase at the curb. But plainly, these people’s “unselfish” and “safe” lifestyle is dependent on another whole class of people who deliver their goodies to them — and those people definitely cannot work from home.

Question #1: Why should the delivery driver leave his house to deliver goodies to yours? Because your life is of incalculable value, and his is worth $12 an hour (until he gets sick and can’t work, that is)? Surely not.

In the end, though, this is what it comes down to: he does it because he can’t afford not to. And you stay home because you can afford to.  Your safety comes at his expense — and you pay him for that. (So tip well, y’all.)

Question #2: If he needs to go out into the world in order to support himself, what do you think he should do for church? Is worship less important than work, or is it more important? He risks no more going to worship than he does going out to make the rent; why shouldn’t he?

So when you decide that it’s too risky to open the church doors…you are denying him the opportunity to worship, because gathering in person seems so risky to you. And remember, the delivery drivers, paramedics, nurses, mechanics, social workers, etc. never stopped working. If there’s such a severe risk that you’d put yourself under house arrest to avoid it, then how dare you demand that they take those risks without the opportunity to gather and draw strength from corporate worship? What gives you the right?


No One Else Can

28 July 2020

If you’re sleeping with someone else’s spouse, I need not inquire into the motives of your heart to know that you are in sin. God has already told us that there is simply no righteous way to do what you are doing. Before we even look, we know that the motives of your heart are going to be a mess. (What sort of mess, we’ll find out when we look. But there will be a mess, right enough.) As a minister of the gospel it is my solemn duty to name your adultery for what it is and encourage you to get out of it, right now.

But when it comes to what you eat or don’t, which holidays you celebrate, and similar matters, I am not allowed to tell you what to do, and you are not allowed to let me. Colossians 2 and Romans 14 are painfully clear on this point.

Christian liberty does not mean that there is no way to be wrong before God. It means that the nature of the issue is such that it’s your mistake to make. The thing may be fine in itself, but something God is calling you to leave behind as a hindrance for you. I don’t get to make that call for you; my pastoral authority does not extend that far. I can (and do, cautiously) make observations and suggestions, but the matter is between you and God.

God may give you Rolex watches, catalog dresses, snazzy cars, ice cream, good Scotch, fat theology books, interesting movies, thick steaks. These are all good gifts to enjoy, so enjoy them, knowing that a day may come when He calls you to give them up. As David Field recently put it, there is nothing in your life that you did not already lose the day you became Jesus’ disciple. God can, at any time, with anything you have, say, “I’ll have that back now, thank you.” He has given you everything, down to your very breath — and the day will come when you release a breath, and God does not give you another.

So hold it all loosely. God might call you to wear your blue jeans to church in order to mortify your vanity. He might call you to wear a suit and tie to church, to mortify your sloth. He may call you to dye your hair pink for reasons that aren’t quite clear to you, or to quit dyeing your hair pink…or even to quit dyeing your hair its pre-grey natural color (gasp!) because that’s become an idol for you. Now taking one thing with another, hair dye is among those things which perish with the using, and I don’t have the right to tell you what to do. This matter is within your liberty, and that means that you are permitted to do as you like, even though you may be dead wrong.

The point is not that God can’t or won’t require you to move in a particular direction; the point is that nobody else can.


Lost Worlds?

24 July 2020

These days, pretty much everybody who calls themselves “Christian” accepts the resurrection of Jesus, but I’ve noticed a trend among Bible scholars. The more academic accolades they aspire to, the less of the Bible they take seriously in its historical details.

The grace gospel is founded on taking the biblical story seriously, down into its details. God blessed Adam and Eve before they’d done anything to deserve it. Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. David celebrated having no sin imputed to him, despite the fact that he’d sinned grievously.

On that point, this article is well worth reading. Here’s one money quote, to whet your appetite:

Taking Genesis 1-11 seriously invites mockery and ridicule, not to mention exclusion from elite intellectual circles. Walton’s “Lost” series is an attempt to “save” Christians from the embarrassment of believing the Bible, without actually denying our faith….


Political Perpetual Motion

24 June 2020

Suppose a group approaches your city government with a proposal for clean energy in your city. You go to the town hall meeting, and the proposal sounds good to start with. They’ve identified some real problems in your city, and they’ve been able to present the problems clearly. As they start to lay out their solution, they’re clear and compelling, and you’re really exited about it…until you realize that the core of the whole approach is a perpetual motion machine.

You can’t believe they would seriously propose that, so you ask outright: “So…am I hearing that the foundation of your new power plant is a perpetual motion machine?”

“Well, yeah,” they say, “but you have to understand that the other perpetual motion machines you’ve heard about didn’t implement the theory properly. This one’s gonna be different.”

How likely are you to keep listening?

Suppose they complain that you’re no longer listening; why won’t you hear them out? Well, for the same reason that the U.S. Patent Office stopped accepting patents on perpetual motion machines — because all of them contradict known realities about the way the world works. It’s a waste of time.

***

For those of us who pay attention to the real-world results of experiments in political philosophy, this is what it’s like when someone highlights real problems in our society, but then moves into analysis and policy prescriptions based in a Marxist view of the world.

Marx was wrong, period. He didn’t understand human motivation or the value of risk — major mistakes for an economist. He overestimated the ability of human planning to account for the complexities of the real world (to be fair to him, this was the intellectual fashion of his time, but we should certainly know better now). Every place his ideas have been put into practice at scale, the result has been bureaucratic nightmare and economic disaster. Safely sheltered from real-world consequences in the hothouse environment of the university, our academics have been cultivating new and virulent strains of Marxist theory. However good they may sound in a graduate seminar, they fail dramatically in the real world. They are (to borrow a phrase from Peter Hitchens) “a beautiful idea, and a terrible reality.”

The real-world failures of Marxist theories in turn cause a fundamental problem in the conversations we’re having about how to address the injustices found in our culture. We have real and outstanding injustices that must be addressed, but often the most popular proposals for addressing them rely on utterly false assumptions about how the world works, and this creates a serious problem in the conversation.

On the one hand, I love the people I’m talking to, and I owe it to them to hear them out. It won’t do to take real injustices lightly — which is what I’ll be doing if I dismiss the entire conversation out of hand. On the other hand, the policy prescriptions on the table are wicked, and too much damage has already been done by foolish people who take them seriously.

We can’t do more of that nonsense. It’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. Let’s do something that might work.


Three Critical Failures

17 June 2020

Critical Race Theory is much under discussion these days. My first exposure to critical theory was in literary criticism and classical studies a few decades ago. I’ve seen it applied in a host of other areas since, and to my eye, critical theory in general suffers from fatal flaws common to all its applications. It flatters us with a series of comforting lies: that our problem is smaller than it really is, that the solution is shallower than it really needs to be, that our human group identities are bigger and more important than the claims of Christ on us. In more detail:

  1. The lie that our problem is limited to oppression. Critical theory rests on an inadequate hamartiology in which the only sin of interest is oppression. Relatively few critical theorists would go so far as to claim that the oppressed can do no wrong or that oppression is the only sin, but in critical theory the sins of the oppressed are of no interest, and in practice, un-addressable. As against this, Scripture teaches us not to show partiality either against the poor (Ex. 23:6) or for the poor (Ex. 23:3) in judgment. Paul gives instructions to both masters (Eph. 6:9) and slaves (Eph. 6:5-8). In Scripture, everyone’s sins should be repented of, and there are no rules about just preaching to your own class (however defined). Paul didn’t tell Titus to “stay in his lane” because Cretan foibles are the product of a unique cultural situation, and he’d better let a Cretan preacher address it. No, he said “rebuke them sharply.”
  2. The lie that the solution is simply a matter of social engineering. Critical theory rests on an inadequate soteriology in which liberation from oppression will solve our social ills. It has this in common with the rest of Marx’s ideological offspring; it’s one of the basic errors that marks Marxism as a Christian heresy. It locates evil primarily in the social system, and posits that if we fix the system, the people will be ok. We know that the problem runs much deeper than that. Evil is located in the people and instantiated in the systems we build, which means that there is no “system so perfect that no one will need to be good” (to borrow Eliot’s phrase). For us, an unjust system should be critiqued and reformed, but even a perfect system — could we build such a thing — will not solve the root problem. There is no way out but following Jesus. Jesus-followers in a less-just system will still seek (and find) ways to do justice; carnal men in a more-just system will still seek (and find) ways to weaponize the system to unjust advantage. This point doesn’t de-prioritize reforming an unjust system, but it does mean that a Christian’s priorities will be different from a critical theorist’s.
  3. The lie that our human group identities are the most important thing about us. Critical theory rests on an inadequate anthropology in which our various class memberships are given more practical importance than our common identity as created by God and redeemed into one family in Christ. The biblical answer to oppression is to emphasize creation and new creation at the expense of our other group memberships. “These are My mother and My brothers,” Jesus said, thereby subverting the power of clan membership. Paul did the same with Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. Paul exemplifies this approach again when he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother. (And set an example for us all by addressing this particular situation at his own expense).

All of the above doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from the insights of critical theorists about how oppression has played out between particular classes at particular times and places. All truth is God’s, and we should never be afraid to learn our history. I learned about the history of red-lining from a critical theorist — like they say, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. I am not saying that critical theorists have nothing to offer; whatever the flaws of their ideology, they are bringing neglected history to light. That’s a hard, good thing. We owe them a debt for doing that hard work.

At the same time, critical theory, as such, is a (post-)Christian heresy, and I don’t use that word lightly. It flatters us with a shallow appraisal of our sin and a weak prescription for redemption. As we are gleaning insights from critical theorists, we have to be sure to correct for ideological corruption as we go.


No Way Out But Jesus

6 June 2020

In my first post on the George Floyd killing, I focused on peaceful means of change after the fact. In my second, we looked at a scenario that involved intervening in the moment. Let’s talk a little more about that: What is our duty in the moment? Whatever led up to it, when a downed, restrained man, clearly no longer a threat, is being killed right in front of me, what is my duty? 

Shall I yell at the killer? Take a video with my phone? Is that it? Is it really enough to document the crime so somebody can maybe punish it after victim has already died? Or am I called to do something more effective to save his life?

If everybody involved is a civilian, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We need to remove him from the guy’s neck — now. Failure is not really an option, so the only question is how far we’ll have to go to put a stop to the situation. If yelling at him or shoving him works, then great. If it takes a knockout punch or a broken bone to prevent him from murdering the downed man…so be it. Seems pretty clear to me. Now maybe the attacker is much bigger and stronger than you. Maybe you don’t have much of a chance. Even then, isn’t a man’s life worth some effort? Don’t you wanna at least try?

But what if the attacker is wearing a badge? Historically, we virtually never permit resisting the officer, even if he’s plainly in the wrong. In the moment, the officer has an enormous amount of leeway to decide what’s appropriate. After the fact, of course, those decisions are theoretically subject to review. But honestly, review is often unlikely, and evil legal doctrines like qualified immunity are regularly used to prevent serious consequences even when the officer is found to be in the wrong. 

It’s a tough balance to strike. On one hand, we don’t want to live in a society where everybody on the street feels justified in assaulting the officer on the scene if they think he’s doing it wrong. That way lies madness. At the same time, we don’t want to live in a society where a badge confers the ability to murder someone in broad daylight, and no one will put a stop to it. In case you missed it, that’s what we have.

It is our responsibility to change what must be changed, and there is no way out of this apart from Jesus. We are past the point where we can loot Christianity for some guiding principles, secularize them, and then call them “human values” or “common sense.” The secularization process takes out something important, the the resulting mishmash of conflicting directives lacks moral authority. Again, in case you missed it, that’s what we have. How’s that working out for us? What we need instead is people at the scene who can hear the Holy Spirit and make Solomonic decisions on the fly. 

 So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) Nothing less than a real return to God will do. 

Let’s be about it.