Where does the time go?

I know a lot of people who wonder what a pastor does. We have a running joke at my church that I only work for 30 minutes a week! (which is how long my sermons usually last…okay, more like 35-40) It’s true, I do know some pastors whose golf game is too polished for their own good, and some who spend too much time on Facebook. (pointing the finger at myself there!)

 

But if you wonder what your pastor does, chances are that’s because he’s not allowed to share with you what he is doing. Hear me out.

 

When you ask what he did today, how in the world can he answer that he sat and talked with a couple you know at church who is in the throes of infertility, whose hearts are broken but who can’t share that even with close friends? How does he he tell you that he had to spend time alone praying for a friend who confessed sexual infidelity, praying that he will listen to the Spirit and come clean to his wife? How can you tell them that you sat and agonized over how to confront someone in love about their sin that you know about? Or that you thought and prayed and talked all morning about how to help the congregation see that a person’s sin is always forgivable?

 

How can you tell them that you spent 5 hours pouring over an email communication to the church so that it balanced speaking truth with not being a gossip? How do you justify chasing a Hebrew verb through the whole Old Testament to verify a nuance in the text, only to see at the end that you were wrong and it is not so nuanced after all?

 

How do you share with them that you spent the afternoon talking with a friend on the phone who everyone loves to listen to teach in Sunday School but admits to you that they aren’t sure Christ is more than a myth?  How can you share that someone reached out to you to say that they are secretly gay, and that they need someone to talk to because “the Church” (capital C) has too many pat answers and not enough real concern and care?

 

How can you share that you had to spend the day in prayer for your family who is struggling, and that you think it might be a spiritual attack of some sort because you’re trying to serve Christ? How can you share that you spent the day finding out about the effects of huffing bath salts on a person’s brain and how to get them help because someone in your congregation is doing it? How do you say that you prayed with a family whose teenage son is abusing drugs and harming himself? That you visited a congregant with a mental disorder in a treatment facility?

 

Heck, for that matter how can you say that you spent a few hours evangelizing to people within your congregation, who say all the right things but in reality don’t know Christ? 

 

I share a bunch of these not because I have experienced them all (I haven’t), but because I have a lot of friends in ministry and this is not out of the realm of a typical pastoral month.  I am grateful that it’s not a typical week!

 

What he can tell you about is the victories, the good stuff, and where people are rejoicing and celebrating. Sometimes that comes off like the world is rainbows and lollipops, but in reality there is plenty of that in ministry as well and he can share that because it is allowable. When someone trusts Christ he can share that. When a person overcomes addiction he might not be able to though, because that person doesn’t want it publicly known that they had addiction to begin with.

 

Here’s the bottom line: if you wonder what your pastor does, that’s a lot of it. And most of that he can’t share with you, because it would break confidentiality and harm the people he is trying to help. It would break relationships and bring destruction upon his ministry and harm to the kingdom of God. 

 

What’s more, if he is called to be a shepherd it is what he is meant to do.  Crazy as it sounds, even in the hard times he is driven to help people see God and live for Him, to experience grace and mercy and righteousness.  It’s hard work, and much of it is confidential work, so pray for your pastor. Realize that he’s not just sitting at home all week watching I Love Lucy reruns, but that a lot of his life is off limits not because you’re not worthy of it but because he just can’t share. And be grateful for his ministry.

 

To be explicit, I am not writing this to my church family as a passive-aggressive way of asking them to have sympathy on me or to pat me on the back, but for the readers of ABF who don’t really know what a pastor does in their congregation.

 

So how about you? What do you think your pastor does in a typical month? Do you think it’s a hard job or a fun one?

Use Your Shout Outs!

I love the TV game show “Cash Cab.” In this show Ben Bailey asks people trivia questions while taking them to their destination in his cab, and part of the game is that they have two “shout outs” that they can use to ask for help.  One is a phone call that they can make to anyone they know, and the other is a chance to pull over in New York City and ask a helpful stranger for the answer they need.  So many times people forget to use their shout outs! Even though the host reminds them, they forget and for some it costs them the game.

 

How often do we think that we have to be the solution to the problems around us? And even more, how often do we shoulder burdens that are way too heavy for us to carry because we think that we have to be able to help everyone solve their problems.

 

Maybe you’ve not struggled with this as much as I have, but I know that it runs wild in the pastoral community. Most pastors don’t go into ministry because they feel a deep longing to be underpaid and overworked; if that was their aim, they would enlist in the military or work in retail! (both of which I have done, FWIW) Most pastors aren’t egomaniacs looking to wield power over people or mama’s boys who want everyone to like them.  No, most pastors go into vocational ministry because they love Christ and love people and want to help people know and love Christ like they do.  They’ve seen the transforming power of God in their own life and want to share with others the grace they’ve received.

 

The problem that many pastors run into, and that many loving Christians who aren’t pastors share, is that in our desire to love one another and help people see Christ we try to offer answers that we don’t have and help that we don’t have the ability to give!  And when we do that, I always get a flashback to the only Tom Cruise movie that is worth watching:

 

 

I can just picture God looking at us and saying, “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash!”  I see this all the time, and have run across it in my own life rather pointedly. 

 

  • I have students and church friends who have friends struggling with self-harm, and come to me asking for advice on how to help their friend stop.
  • I know people whose family is making poor decisions and have been asked how to help them change.
  • I’ve been asked how to open the door for someone to change and not be angry with God anymore.
  • I’ve seen people struggle with personal past issues that spill over into current relationships and have both personally desired to help them have healing and had others ask me how to help them get back on track.
  • Recently someone laid their finances out for me and asked me how to overcome their family swindling them out of their retirement and their income.
  • I had a friend come and complain about their church and how broken the church is, and in frustration ask how to start a better one.

 

This past year, God has really, really shown me the folly of thinking that as a shepherd, friend, pastor, professor, etc. that I can fill all of these needs in someone’s life.  That’s a lesson He tells us all in 1 Corinthians 12!

 

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4–7, ESV)

 

God never said that He gave one person all of the manifestations of the Spirit, but that He has given each one a manifestation or gifting to serve the body of Christ.  And that means that we can only do that which we are called and equipped and able to do.  To do more is working out of our area and is terrible not only on them but on us as well! In 1 Cor 12 Paul goes on to talk about the church using an analogy to our bodies, with different organs serving different functions.  Lungs don’t digest well; think about the last time you inhaled a drink of water or a bite of food and how that worked out for you!

 

Likewise, in the body of Christ when we try to do that for which we are ill-equipped it harms us and the body. 

 

Let me put a fine point on this.  Lately especially I have seen people trying to carry burdens for others that they just can’t carry.  I have done it myself, so I am not pointing the finger! Instead of carrying that burden or trying to be someone’s Savior, love them, support them, and give them a strong nudge to get the help they need from a part of the body that can help them. 

 

  • I told my friend with financial distress to go talk to our Crown teacher at church and a CFP that I know.  They know finances and can help!
  • For many of us, a good and helpful start is to encourage our friends to go talk to their pastor about their spiritual, emotional, and relational struggles. They at least have SOME training in helping in these areas, so encourage others to get help!
  • Pastors need to recognize their limits as well, and not try to be counselors or psychologists.  I have learned the hard way that it is far better to encourage someone to seek out better help than to try to muddle through with my limited abilities. And I thank God for the men and women who are professionals in the field of behavioral health who can offer assistance I can’t!

 

So do yourself and your friends and family a favor and use the “shout outs” that God has placed in your life! Be a good help, but don’t try to be everything.

 

How about you? Have you had to use a “shout out” recently? How has that gone?

Exciting News!

It has been a whirlwind new year for me so far.  I had a great time teaching a 3-week Gospels intensive over the winter term at ACU, and got to preach as the Angel Gabriel on Christmas Eve which was a ton of fun.  We’ve made a transition in our worship service format at church which has been fantastic on our community, and I got to go to kenpo for the first time in 6 months last week!

In November, our worship pastor took a sabbatical to rest and recharge, to enjoy some family time and refocus his ministry on seeking Christ and seeking to lead people to Him.  We didn’t have a delineated sabbatical policy as a church for our pastoral staff, so our elders made one.  In a nutshell, every 5th year we give our pastors 2 extra weeks of paid leave that must be taken all at once and should be used for the purpose of spiritual renewal.

Since then (late October) I have been praying about a sabbatical, because this is my 5th year serving as the senior pastor of our church.  2012 will be a sabbatical year for me, and I have been praying and seeking God on how best to take my sabbatical this year.  I wanted it to be significant, and while 2 weeks alone in the woods with my Bible might be awesome I just sensed that would not really do what I wanted to do.  I wanted to really grow in Christ in ways that I normally couldn’t, knowing that meant getting away from my normal routine.

Here is where God stepped in.  Over the past several months I have built a friendship with the father of two of my previous students from ACU who is also a pastor in town, who pastors a very large congregation and whose heart for shepherding and for preaching lines up with mine.  He asked Laura and me to have dinner with him and his wonderful wife, and at dinner he asked us to join him next month on a pretty crazy trip.

He asked us to join him for 15 days in Israel! Surprised smile

I have never been to Israel, but having heard from many of the life-changing time that it is for pastors and professors I really want to go.  This will be an awesome time of spiritual growth and professional development, and will benefit me in the pulpit, the classroom, and as a shepherd.  Rather than try to explain it all to you myself, I asked Mark to explain why this makes a PERFECT sabbatical and why it is an important trip to take.

I am so excited to go and sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee like the disciples did, to stand next to the wall that Nehemiah rebuilt, and to go back through the Gospels like I did over the past 3 weeks and see and touch and smell and taste what it was like in Jesus’ world.  I know it won’t be relaxing like a vacation and plan to wring every bit out of every moment that I can, but it’s invigorating just to think about the amazing opportunity to even go!

Pastor Mark has been incredibly gracious to offer us to come along with him not only for the big tour he is leading, but to spend a few days before and after with him there to see some stuff that a big group just can’t.  He’s also being very generous to help us go and to provide room in his personal schedule for us, and has been generous financially too.  He has been to Israel 10 times and is using the very best guides to really avoid the tourist traps and instead experience Israel in a life-changing way.

So if you would, please pray for us as we plan this trip. Just like with our trip to Rwanda in 2010, this one is on short notice.  Just like our opportunity there, we have 5 weeks until we leave. Just like Rwanda, I believe that God has orchestrated the events leading up to allow us to go, and that He has it all in His hands.  And just like our trip to Rwanda, we have no idea how we are going to make the trip work financially.  I know that finances are not a major concern to God, and that He has all the money He needs to do everything that He wants to do.  I also know that, looking at our finances, it makes no sense to me how He is going to make this trip a reality. 

The total costs for this trip, all things considered, will be around $7000. I believe that God wants us to go on this trip and that it will be a blessing on my own spiritual growth and on my ministry for the next decade or more, and we are stepping out in faith to go.  If you would, please, I have three requests of you that would make a world of difference to me:

  1. We cherish your prayers!  We need God’s guidance as we try to figure out all of the logistics.  Pray for how we will take care of the kids, for our home, for our church and my classroom at ACU as I am not there to shepherd. Pray for us to be transformed by God during this trip in seeing Him and His Word in a new way and to be able to bring that home with me and impact others in a greater way in my preaching and teaching ministry. Please pray for God’s hand to provide financially for us to be able to go, as that part is still a big source of anxiety.  I know that God hears His people in these regards.
  2. Please share this post with your friends and your church!
  3. If you feel led to help us in some way, we would absolutely love that! Whether that is feeding our pets or house-sitting for us, loving our kids while we are away, or providing financially for the trip we would be very grateful.  Please, I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to give or help; I know that times are tough for many and that life is busy.  That said, if you’d like to help with going financially or some other way that would be an answer to prayer.

We are really excited to share this news with everyone and looking forward to seeing God at work in this trip.

Thanks so much, and may God bless your 2012!

Good or Great?

It’s an interesting week in my life, as God has taught me a major lesson in priorities and selfishness.  I feel like I can relate to Archippus, who was reminded by Paul the Apostle:

Say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” (Colossians 4:17)

Allow me to back up.  If you know me, you know that I am a gun nut.  I just dig firearms.  I love to shoot and love to hunt.  Some guys like cars, some are into computers, some play lots of sports. (I do all of that to various degrees, too…)  But for me, shooting is it.  I am good at it, I enjoy it, and it is stress-relieving.  It’s not any more expensive than golf and there is less beer involved. Smile

So a couple of months ago a friend encouraged me to send in an audition email to the producers of Top Shot.  I am a big fan of the show, so I went ahead and sent their producers a casting email just for fun.  I got a call from their producers!  After a 20-minute phone interview they asked me to make a casting video for them; this is what we made. (hat tip to Lowman Photography for the amazing video)

After the video was submitted, Laura and I started really praying in earnest about it.  It wasn’t a slam dunk that I would be cast, of course, but there was a real chance that I could be chosen I think.  (I have friends who have worked in the industry and they liked my chances)  The hitch: the production schedule.  Filming for the show is August 3rd-September 15th, during which time the cast is sequestered.  They go live in Southern California and have no contact with friends and family for 6 weeks. 

That was a pretty steep price to pay.  I was asking my wife to let me have 6 weeks of no contact with her; same with my kids.  I was asking my church to allow me to basically take a sabbatical of 6 weeks and our two other pastors to pick up the slack.  I was asking both schools I teach at part time (ACU and Phoenix Seminary) to let me take about 4 weeks at the beginning of the fall semester off or maybe replace me for a semester.

So I did what I always do when things are not clear: I started praying, and started talking to my mentors.  I talked to the man who led me to Christ, Keith, who is a wonderful mentor and friend.  His advice was that this is a great, national opportunity to preach the gospel but if Laura wasn’t fully on board I should let it go.  I talked to several other people about it too.  We decided just to let the process take its course and hey, if they said no then fine.

After awhile of not hearing, I finally sent a follow-up email to the producers asking if I had been eliminated to just put the idea to rest.  I didn’t want it hanging around if I were out of the running!  He emailed me back and said that I was still “in the running,” and that was when I really had to make a decision.  That email, telling me I was still in, didn’t fill me with excitement or joy; instead I felt a sinking feeling because I still had to decide if I could ask everyone to go out of their way for me.

But more than anything the advice of the man I call my “hunting mentor,” Norm, rang in my ears.  Norm reminded me that I have a very unique calling and opportunity.  He reminded me that I get the unique privilege to be a shepherd and to serve people with the message of Christ.  And that got me thinking about underlying motives.  It got me thinking about why I wanted to be a contestant on Top Shot.  It’s because it is a cool show and the contestants get to participate in some awesome marksmanship contests. 

So, at the core of it, I was asking everyone around me to sacrifice a bunch so that I could go play with guns for six weeks.  Now, how much does that sound like what Jesus says?

“And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?’” (Luke 9:23–25)

 
Yeah, not much.  Sounds pretty selfish to me.
 
So Laura and I prayed.  And Wednesday I sent the producers an email asking them to take me out of consideration.  They were disappointed, but understood.  Someone else will take my place for sure!
 
I don’t post this to toot my own horn, but just to let you, dear readers, in on my thought process.  As Paul tells us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. ” (1 Corinthians 6:12) It would be “lawful” for me to go, but even if profitable for me it wouldn’t be for my wife, my kids, and my church. (okay, if I won the $100,000 grand prize it would be…but there are no guarantees there for sure) 
 
So God reminded me that I needed to focus on the great rather than the good and the fun.  That I needed to die to self a little and think of those around me.  After a few early days this week of self-focus about this, He has reminded me again to put others ahead of my pleasure and seek the kingdom of God. 
 
How about you?  How is God leading you to put aside ambition and self-interest in His cause?  How is God changing your priorities and habits to be more like Him?

A Big Decision…

The mind of man plans his way,
But the LORD directs his steps
. (Proverbs 16:9)

There are times in life when we are at a fork in the road, when the decisions we make determine the course of our life.  At many points our character determines which set of choices are available to us (many would call this compatibilism); at crucial times our choices determine what our character will be. (some call that concurrence; more in a post another time) 

Imagine it like this: a young man finds a wallet on the street filled with cash and with a person’s ID.  He has a major choice to make at this point, one that will set a lot of character traits within him.  He can find the owner of the wallet and return their money, which will set him on a path of caring for others and self-sacrifice in the name of what is right.  Alternately he can keep the cash and throw the wallet away, becoming more self-focused and caring less for the needs of others.  Who he becomes in the future is determined by how he handles the choice he has before him.

We are all confronted by these kinds of choices at points in our life.  At crucial moments they determine our path; at the same time we rest as Christians in the knowledge of Proverbs 16:9 that God directs our steps as we plan our way and that we do not make decisions all on our own.  If we will listen to His voice and will ask for His view, He will direct us where He wants us.

I had such a moment yesterday.  The head of the Bible department at the school I teach at told me yesterday that he is officially beginning the process of hiring a full-time faculty member.  He asked me for a résumé  and to consider the job, because he was sure I would do an excellent job and would be a good fit.  From the time I left the Navy to attend seminary I have walked the path of wanting to be in an academic setting.  I love teaching, love the classroom, and love helping eager students grasp the Word of God.  It’s been a desire of mine for the last decade, the majority of my adult life.

And yesterday I asked him to remove my name from consideration for the position.

Am I a fool?  Maybe I am, but my desire and my calling are maybe not the same.  God has made me to be a shepherd, not an academic.  I love the classroom but dislike the administrative side of professoring. (is that a word?)  I am not one for committee meetings or writing assessment reports or planning classroom assignments.  I love to help people see God in their life and apply His word to their unique situation, to have freedom from the past and intimacy with their Creator.  I don’t love grading, though I do it as a necessary “evil.” (it’s not evil, but it is not my favorite task either…)

More than that, I see God at work in our church in major ways, both big and small.  I could not take a full-time professorship and stay the pastor of our church simply for time constraints, if not for focus and responsibility.  If I resigned my pastorate I would have to leave the church out of respect for the new pastor, and my church is my family.  I guess that’s the shepherd in me, that I love my church.  I love preaching, love praying with people, and even love the messiness of life that comes from pastoring a small(er) congregation.  I love being there for the weddings, the birth of their children, the hospital stays and the new jobs and the tough times too.  We’ve been where we are for almost 4 years, and I feel like in God’s eyes we are just getting started there.  I can’t remotely fathom leaving our church, so I told my boss no thanks. (fear not, I am staying on as an adjunct!)

That’s been harder for me emotionally than I thought it would be.  Laying a career in academia on the altar has not been easy, though I know it is absolutely, 100% what God wants and where I will be blessed by Him and joyful.  Still, it was hard to turn away from the path I had thought I would walk in life; maybe it wasn’t as hard as declining my commission in the Navy, but hard nonetheless.  I am joyful, but maybe a bit melancholy at realizing the death of my dream of being an egghead professor.

God, in these moments, makes us who we will be and confirms in us who He calls us to be if we will listen.  He has confirmed to me that I am a shepherd and I will stay a pastor; I get joy in the classroom, but it’s because I get to help students understand and live for God there.  So in reality that is pastoring as well.  This decision has confirmed that within my heart.

How about you?  What have been the hard decisions in your life, and how have they molded you into the person you’ve become?  Were they difficult to make because you weren’t sure or for some other reason?