IVP - Online Pulpit - Pastoral Care Archives

November 1, 2012

The Gifted Introvert

The church tends to favor the extrovert. From greeters to volunteers to leadership, the outwardly eager and overtly friendly are often chosen. It is easy to support natural gifts when they are plainly seen.

But what does the church do to draw out and pursue the introverted? As congregations grow and leadership changes, who is taking the time to bring out the gifts of the quiet but internally supportive and passionate introverts among us?

Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the Church and an introverted pastor, writes that God is working in the hearts of all of us and that the gifts of the introverted can bring a balance to the body:

introvertsCoverOP.jpg“My struggles to be an introverted pastor are representative of the struggles many introverts face when navigating the waters of Christian community, which can be unintentionally, or intentionally, biased toward extroversion. As a pastor who has participated in both independent and denominationally affiliated churches, it is my experience that evangelical churches can be difficult places for introverts to thrive, both for theological and cultural reasons. Just as I have had a difficult time squaring my own temperament with common roles and expressions of the pastoral ministry, so also many introverted Christians struggle with how to find balance between their own natural tendencies and evangelical perspectives on community and evangelism. A subtle but insidious message can permeate these communities; a message that says God is most pleased with extroversion.

“Fortunately, disappointment has not been my only fellow traveler on this road, but I have also been accompanied by hope: hope in the calling, healing and transformative power of God. My journey has not been guided by my own heroism or impressive displays of faithfulness, but by God’s sovereignty. The same mysterious force that seemed to prevent me from depositing my resignation has also been a constant voice calling me into church ministry, parachurch ministry and chaplaincy. God is bringing me through a process of self-acceptance, both in terms of my introvert identity and also in terms of the gifts and contributions I bring to the Christian community.

“My hope is that God will begin or continue a process of healing introverts—helping them find freedom in their identities and confidence to live their faith in ways that feel natural and life-giving, the way that God intended. I want introverts to embrace that ‘you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’ (Eph 2:19). Further, I hope that God will unlock in introverts the tremendous gifts that they have to bring to the church. Introverts have a set of qualities that contribute widely to the ministry of the church and to the building up of the body of Christ. When the church is led by introverts and extroverts who partner together, each contributing their strengths and offsetting the others’ weaknesses, it is a testimony that the Holy Spirit is orchestrating the community, that it is not being run by the cult of personality.”

Adam McHugh, Introverts in the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2009), pp. 12-14.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:40 AM

September 5, 2012

Pastoring in a Sex-Crazed Culture

By T.C. Ryan

Sexually charged advertising, Internet pornography and delivery vehicles like iPads and smart phones have created great challenges for the folks in our churches. Today over half of American adults are struggling with negative consequences due to compulsive sexual struggles, including loss of income, inattention to work and family, marital indifference and decline, and loss of physical, emotional and psychological health. Helping our people navigate their spiritual lives in a sex-crazed culture is crucial. And it’s not just adults who are in trouble. As I wrote in the preface to Ashamed No More:

The next generation is under siege. Today a nine-year-old boy will receive an email image on his own cell phone that contains images of men and women sexually abusing each other. He will not know how to process it, but will receive the message that “this is what adults do; this is what sex is.” Today an eleven-year-old girl will perform a sexual act on an older boy because she is being taught in this culture that her value exists in using her person and sexuality to service others. These are not extreme examples; they are ordinary. They are happening many times every day.

And they are happening to kids in our congregations. How do we help our people follow Christ in a sex-stimulated society?

Sternly exhorting folks to moral purity doesn’t work. Scolding, cajoling, employing fear and shaming do not work. In most cases, these tactics will only make folks hide. They will make folks lie (to you, to each other, to themselves, to God).

We ignore sexual temptation and brokenness to the distinct detriment of the spiritual vitality of our people. Compulsive sexual behaviors are afflicting at least 40 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women in our congregations. Those percentages are higher with younger people. People are divided in their focus, distracted by their thinking patterns and ashamed of their hidden behaviors. Weariness from sexual temptation and shame from sexual struggles are the primary sources of spiritual acedia—spiritual sloth—for the majority of folks in our churches. The result is a huge siphoning off of emotional and spiritual energy to follow Christ and engage ministry in healthy, open ways.

We need to change the way we think and teach about human sexuality. We must become open in addressing the issues of sexual behaviors. A few of the points I offer in chapter twelve of Ashamed No More which will help lead us to vitality in our churches are:

  • There is a profound and God-given link between our spirituality and our sexuality.
  • Compulsive behaviors are always symptoms of deeper spiritual issues.
  • Sexual sin is no greater than any other sin.
  • Isolation, shame and hiding are toxic to genuine recovery and spiritual vitality.
  • We must use all the tools God has given us, the grace and truth of Christ’s gospel, honest life with each other, the Holy Spirit as the guide and the center of our beings, and developing healthy patterns of living—including all the tools of recovery.
  • Genuine recovery—as the genuine spiritual life—has to be founded on and fueled by love of God and ourselves; if it is fueled by shame or fear, it is not genuine recovery but another form of bondage.

Most clergy struggle with the weight of ministry. The pastorate is inherently isolating, and some of us already have a predisposition to aloneness. When I was starting out, stumbling into sexual behaviors or utilizing print pornography might have afflicted less than 10 percent of us. But the Internet has changed everything. Today well over half of clergy struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors.

If you’re wrestling with these things you are not alone. Help is available. Use it. Don’t stay hidden, no matter how afraid you are.

Do we really believe the gospel? If not, we are far worse sinners than we think we are. We really are. We have trouble grasping just how holy God is and how cloudy our motivations are. We are people prone to the shadows.

But we also don’t grasp how wildly loved we are. The spiritual life is not about our righteousness and our abilities to extricate ourselves from self-destruction. It’s about the Father whose eyes are always scanning the horizon of our souls and when we turn our attention his way he gathers up his robes, running through the cosmic Middle Eastern village of Luke 15, making a fool of himself and clothing us with love. That is the gospel.

Don’t let the enemy have domain over sexuality in your church because you are keeping things secret. Sex and the spiritual life are too good for that.

RyanOP.jpgT. C. Ryan is the author of the recently released Ashamed No More: A Pastor’s Journey Through Sex Addiction. Dr. Ryan and his wife, Pam, live in the middle part of America where he is a writer and speaker. More information is available at his website tc-ryan.com and he occasionally tweets @tcryanone.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:15 AM

May 29, 2012

The Three Fires

Counseling is a time-consuming and often troubling task all pastors face. After-hours meetings and confidentiality can be tiresome, and the study of methods and programs can stretch the pastor too thin.

James Sells and Mark Yarhouse have recently published Counseling Couples in Conflict with the hope of creating a new model, one based on the roots of conflict, to provide a well-rounded approach to counseling.

First, the authors emphasize the importance of indentifying the “conflict theme”:

The conflict theme is usually easy to identify. If you are to ask either partner, “Hey, what’s the problem?” it is what you would get as a response. Commonly the conflict theme has two versions—his side of the story and her side of the story. But it is still the same story. The conflict, then, is what they are yelling about right now.

It is the fight about the bounced check, childcare, dirty laundry and why they are not stopping to ask directions. These themes can be about little aggravations; they also can involve large and significant differences or violations. The conflict theme usually rests between people—counselors must integrate “his problem” with “her problem” to form “their problem.” (pp. 30-31)

Second, Sells and Yarhouse recognize it’s unlikely that this is the first time the conflict has occurred; thus they help us understand the couple’s “history with the conflict theme”:

Pain has a memory. Usually there is more to a couple’s conflict than the actual argument topic such as schedules and arriving home on time. Spouses have a history of causing injury to one another. That repetition builds expectations and a response pattern within each partner.

In athletics, the term muscle memory refers to a set of movements that are learned then practiced over and over, like shooting a free throw in basketball. The brain habituates the body to the movements that have been rehearsed. So a basketball player can line up at the free throw line and shoot a basket with his or her eyes closed. Since the movements are memorized, one doesn’t even have to look.

Conflicts in marriage are similar. Once they have been repeated multiple times, our brains learn to recognize the cues previously experienced and react to the other person out of anticipation. In these situations, it’s like couples can “fight with their eyes closed.” (pp. 32-33)

Finally, Sells and Yarhouse recognize the “family of origin conflict tradition”: a family history that has origins beyond the couple’s. A couple’s understanding of how they have been taught to communicate and to handle conflict can go a long way to healing:

From their respective families each learned a pattern of acting, reacting and interacting with events, circumstances and people. Early in life we all learn a set of rules about how to respond to situations. Included in those instructions are implied ideas about how others are to act and how we can all best get along together.

Neither partner was privy to how their partner was instructed, mentored and graded by their respective teachers. And their curriculums were different, often drastically. We can observe the lessons learned by the way they responded to their pain and the pain of their partner. (p. 34)

James N. Sells and Mark A. Yarhouse, Counseling Couples in Conflict (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011).

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:25 AM

February 24, 2012

The Age-Old Myth, Part 2

by Emily Varner

The ways that elderly persons fit into our local congregations expose an “Age-Old Myth” many of us thoughtlessly buy into, not as much a wrong belief about aging but about what it means to be human at any age.

Christians are perhaps just as likely as unbelievers to define themselves by what they do, how much they accomplish, what their particular gifts and talents are, and other measures that, frankly, miss the mark of a biblical view of humankind. The starting point for a Christian theological anthropology, insists James Houston in A Vision for the Aging Church, is the life of the Triune God and the image of God stamped on each person. Fundamentally, then, to be human is to be in relationship. It is not our production or profession that give us meaning. Rather, the human-to-human and human-to-divine relationships in which we give and receive love make us persons of value and give us lives of meaning.

For those whose relationships seem distinctly one-sided, as for example those with advanced Alzheimer’s or dementia, this idea of being defined by those who love us is particularly important. Think, for example, about the book-turned-movie The Notebook. Each day the husband, no longer remembered by his wife, redefines her by telling their love story to her. He has become the guardian of their shared history, their collective memories, and he determines whether their legacy will be one of love or estrangement. This concept related to God’s view of each person is profound.

God has a past, present, and future with each human being. All persons, regardless of their age or ability, are beloved by God and bear God’s image. When the church stands up for this view of the human persons, it does so in marked contrast to a society where the value of a person is measured by beauty, net worth, IQ, productivity, and a host of other measures that fail to account for the reason God created human beings: for a relationship with him that, in turn, redeems our human relationships.

The biblical witness testifies to this theological vision but also presents a very down-to-earth reason why the people of God must respect and value their elders: wisdom. The Bible identifies wisdom as reverence for God and often links wisdom with experiences that can only come through length of life lived before God. Simply put, we honor our elders by acknowledging that their lives have given them a perspective the younger people in their lives need to hear. There are exceptions to this rule—most of us probably know an old fool and a young person with a wise spirit—but the Bible admonishes readers to expect that the words of those who are older and wiser will benefit the larger community.

A Christian theological anthropology dignifies each human person, and a biblical understanding of wisdom refuses to discount the many experiences only an older person can draw upon in wise counsel. When these ideas bear fruit in churches, ministry changes result that congregants and, likely, community members notice.

A third and final post will lay out some of these.

varnerOP.jpgEmily Varner worked extensively with A Vision for the Aging Church as a freelance editor and publicist for IVP Academic. Her business, AcademicPS, focuses on ministry books and academic texts from Christian publishers. She and her husband doug have a six-year old daughter and are also foster parents to a baby girl.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 12:22 PM

February 17, 2012

The Age-Old Myth, Part 1

by Emily Varner

As a small child, I was desperately afraid of elderly people. The white hair, the wrinkly skin, the change in vocal tone all seemed to me a dangerous and potentially contagious disability. I consider with sadness how my avoidance must have felt to my paternal grandmother—white-haired and arthritic from my earliest memory—or great-grandmother—bent nearly double with osteoporosis and missing an eye—neither of whom are around to accept an apology and explanation.

I blame this aversion partly on my temperament and mostly on the fact that I grew up in rather isolated military communities until I was six. My friends and I had young, fit parents and even the “older people” we knew were not yet retired. It took a change of scenery, some growing up, and simply more interaction with elderly people to lift me out of paralyzing fear at the less-than-pretty effects of aging.

But moving beyond simple fear doesn’t necessarily mean that my perspective on the elderly is healthy, much less that it is informed and (perhaps most important) biblical. The effects of sin undoubtedly reach into how a society views and treats its most aged members, and in the experience of far too many older people these days, the church often fails to challenge its surrounding culture with a new vision for both the value and potential impact of its aging members. (And if you haven’t noticed, the Baby Boom generation will very soon comprise the largest percentage of elderly persons our society has ever known.)

A new offering from IVP addresses this concern for the church to embrace its unique position in both improving the lives of seniors and seeking to learn from the lived wisdom of its elders. A Vision for the Aging Church is a partnership between an elder theologian, James Houston (one of the founders of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia), and Michael Parker, a gerontologist and public health researcher whose work has focused on increasing access to elder-care resources and encouraging community partnerships to benefit the elderly.

This book came to me at an interesting intersection of personal circumstances, not all dealing with aging per se, but changes that were very closely related. My husband’s grandfather was ailing and passed away while I read the book, my closest friend experienced a traumatic brain injury, and my in-laws and parents dealt with serious health issues that were severely impacting their lifestyles. I found its conscious approach to how the church approaches its aging and elderly members relevant to my personal life in ways it had not been even weeks before.

How a church involves older members speaks to the deep-seated theological beliefs of the people responsible for these programs. In my experience, church ministries for the elderly can be reduced to either day trips and entertainment for the active elderly or individual hospital visits to ailing congregants. My cynical side questions this as an attempt at keeping the old people happy so they will continue to give the church needed monies. But the more a church utilizes its aging members’ skills as volunteers and their accumulated wisdom in teaching and mentoring, the more it speaks to the continuing value of every person. Fostering intergenerational relationships and offering practical assistance to the elderly (not to mention the adult children who often care for them) does not come to our churches nearly as naturally as it should.

Part two explores the central theological idea that plays in the background of these issues.

varnerOP.jpgEmily Varner worked extensively with A Vision for the Aging Church as a freelance editor and publicist for IVP Academic. Her business, AcademicPS, focuses on ministry books and academic texts from Christian publishers. She and her husband doug have a six-year old daughter and are also foster parents to a baby girl.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 12:03 PM

June 10, 2011

A Golden Opportunity

By Lynne Baab

Media attention to the perils of Facebook and cell phone texting has created a wonderful opportunity for people in ministry to talk, teach and write about friendship. Friendship challenges in our time involve far more than the dangers of electronic communication, the favorite media topic.

3419OP.jpgIn the interviews I conducted for my recent book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual Age, I heard repeatedly about three friendship challenges: mobility, busyness and the challenges of the new communication technologies. Ironically, the third challenge—the new communication technologies—has arisen in part because these new ways to communicate help address the first two challenges. When we’ve moved across the state or across the world, Facebook, Skype, instant messaging and texting helps us keep in touch with friends. And when we’re super busy, some of those same technologies help stay in touch with friends. Yet those new ways to communicate create challenges of their own.

Because electronic communication is embedded in the lives of most people today, I wish Christian leaders would talk more about how to use them responsibly and with love. Here are a few recommendations:

(1) Create opportunities to discuss the love passages in the Bible, such as 1 Corinthians 13 or Colossians 3:12-17. Ask people how they feel they are showing love, compassion and kindness using the new ways to communicate. Most people have lots to say about the way they show love on Facebook or in text messages, but they are afraid to talk about it because they hear so much negative talk about new communication technologies. Let people learn from each other about the ways love can be shown online and with cell phones.

(2) Encourage people to slow down when online or when texting, to think before posting flippant comments or to pray about a friend’s needs before leaving their status update on Facebook or before closing their text message on the phone. Love matters, and love requires time.

(3) Encourage a multiplicity of ways to communicate. Recently my husband posted on Facebook that his sister had died. The next day one of his Facebook friends showed up at the door with two big candy bars in hand. She was walking her dog, so there was no expectation that she would come in and talk, but she wanted to express her support.

Online and cell phone communication are part of daily life for most people today. Rather than telling people to turn off their electronic machines, help them grow in their ability to show love using them. In addition, encourage people to mix it up, to communicate online and through phone calls, written cards, a walk across the street or across the hall for a conversation. Sometimes the best way to show love involves switching to another mode of communication.

Friendship is one of the places where we learn Christian character. All the hype about Facebook has given us a golden opportunity to deepen our teaching about how to reflect Jesus’ love in friendships.

BaabOP.jpgLynne M. Baab’s most recent book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, has received strong endorsements and reviews. Lynne is the author of numerous books, including Sabbath Keeping and Reaching Out in a Networked World. Visit her website, www.lynnebaab.com, for reviews and other information about her books. She is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister with a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Washington, currently a lecturer in pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:10 AM

February 1, 2010

"Howdy, Pardner!"

Blame it on Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, blame it on The Rifleman, Rin Tin Tin or Annie Oakley. Whatever the cause, I am a big fan of Louis L’Amour westerns. He was a great story teller who painted vivid pictures of the prairie, desert and mountains. In his books, he makes the people and the events of the Old West come alive.

You know what else I really appreciate about his stories? Time and again, the hero of his tale has a mentor. I recently finished re-reading one of L’Amour’s books where the main character is orphaned at a young age. While he shows enough spunk to stay alive in spite of many adverse circumstances, he needs someone to show him how to make the transition between boyhood and manhood. So L’Amour gives him a “Life Coach” as he does for so many of his other characters in other books. He obviously believed that success in life was taught, not caught.

As pastors and Christ followers we believe that too. We know we never outgrow the need for mentors. In every stage of life mentors are vital. Children, young adults, parents, married couples—individuals in literally every stage of life benefit from having a guide along the way. As I have been focusing on this important aspect of ministry the last few months, I have been asking myself the question, How are we ministers and the church doing?

In order to create an atmosphere in our churches that welcomes and embraces the idea of coaching and mentoring one another, we as pastors must model it first. We cannot expect our parishioners to embrace what we do not model. Pastor, do you have a life coach? Do you have a ministry mentor? Are you committed to being that for someone else? It has to start with us.

I am very encouraged to see seminaries requiring mentors for their students. Many denominations have fellowships and provide regular opportunities for their ministers to give each other mutual support and encouragement. Now let me offer a challenge to go one step further. Pastor, ask God to help you find someone that you trust and can be specifically committed to. Ask God to give you a mentor. This person will be someone you regularly meet with and are accountable to both professionally and personally.

As you pray for a person to coach you, remember there are many following behind you who could benefit from your experience. Ask God to also show you who you can help as others have helped you. Back in my college days, the Navigators called it “pouring your life into someone else.” I have always loved the picture that it evokes and the passion it inspires to help someone else along the way.

As I shape my own ministry to more closely fit my gifting and calling to be an encourager and mentor, I am discovering that it is much harder for women pastors to find a life and ministry coach of like heart. Perhaps there are other women out there who are longing for a mentor relationship and can’t find one. Can we share ideas of how to connect with other women ministers around the country?

Mentoring is not a new idea, and it is not our idea, it is God’s. It has always been his plan for those further down the road of life to guide—to be a “Pardner” to—those just starting out. Let’s all rethink and reevaluate the shape of our lives, and make sure there is room in it for mentors, and for mentoring. Our lives will then provide the model for those we minister to in our churches.

Posted by Joan Tyvoll at 10:10 AM

October 1, 2009

Deep Peace

Something that has become very precious to me as I get older in the Lord is peace. I guard and fight for peace at all costs. This peace I cherish doesn’t mean that I don’t have conflicts with people—either in the world or in the church. It doesn’t mean I don’t have upsets, trials or temptations. These things are part of living in the world. However, God wants me to have peace in the midst of the wear and tear of life. It is actually possible to experience it, but we have to work at it every day.

A key to maintaining the peace of God is to be in the Word of God. That may seem like an odd thing to say to pastors. The Bible is the main “tool” of our trade. But sometimes we are so busy going to the Word for answers to others’ needs and that we are neglecting our own need for it. We can only hope to maintain our personal peace and confidence in our walk with God if we are meeting him in his Word every day.

How many times have you counseled someone with the promise:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6, 7)

Or:

My peace I give you. My peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

Are you fighting for that peace for your own soul? I learned an important lesson about peace from a dear soul friend. She said, “I will not let anything rob me of my peace. I make deliberate choices that preserve my peace.” If you are too busy or are taking on too much or have said yes to a ministry or activity that is not God’s will for you, you will notice that your peace is gone. It might be an unconfessed sin that is stealing your peace. It might be fear.

Is the “peace that passes all understanding” characteristic of your life? If it isn’t, don’t keep rushing headlong into your day without stopping and figuring out what the enemy of your peace is. And then take care of it. Pray about it, ask a soul friend to pray about it with you. This life is too short to live a minute without God’s peace. Peace is too precious to lose for any reason.

Today I read a Celtic prayer by Fiona Macleod that blessed me, and I have been rejoicing in it all day long. Through it God reminds me that I am surrounded by his peace all the time, if I will just listen to it and let it sink in. I pass the blessing on to you:

Deep peace of the running wave to you

Deep peace of the flowing air to you

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you

Deep peace of the shining stars to you

Deep peace of the Son of peace to you

“Let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15).

Posted by Joan Tyvoll at 10:11 AM

July 1, 2009

The Tamed Heart

I think of myself as an open-minded Christian, but I recently discovered that I’m more judgmental than I’d like to admit. Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) has become the focus of a new movement—not of children’s advocacy groups or Public Broadcasting executives, but evangelicals who are campaigning to return “manhood” to the church. Their battle cry (quite literally) is to remove “wimpy” examples of Christian manhood like Mister Rogers and replace them with suitable heroes like the thirteenth-century Scottish patriot William Wallace (the subject of Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart). Of course, Mr. Rogers suffered endless barbs for being mild-mannered, but what separates this new movement from simple ridicule is that it is organized. These men actually gather at national and regional meetings to discuss the way to true “Christian manliness.”

I was quick to dismiss this group because I have always identified with Mr. Rogers’s gentle character, but after spending time with men in groups like this, I realize that they are struggling to fully integrate their lives with their faith. They strive to be accountable to Christ and each other, even in the most private aspects of their lives—no topic is out of bounds. And this pursuit of Christian manhood is yielding fruit, both in numbers and the testimony of changed lives. I am both encouraged and challenged by their desire to work out their faith.

This being said, there are some significant problems inherent in this movement. The difficulty is the underlying premise that God has created humans (or possibly only the male species) to be wild and untamed—that men should be rugged—PG-13 headed for an R rating. The New Testament gives us very different adjectives to describe a Christian (both male and female). In Galatians Paul lists the qualities that characterize a person led by the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Of this list gentleness is the most misunderstood and most abhorred by the new men’s movement.

This same word appears in the beatitudes when Jesus promises that those who are “meek” will inherit the earth—which, we may infer, is in opposition to the powerful, who will not inherit the earth. Gentleness, in its classical Greek usage, is the opposite of “rough,” “hard” or “violent.” The word is used of taming wild animals. Thus it is anything but wild. Paul tells us we are not to be wild beasts but tamed livestock, able to take on Jesus’ yoke.

But word studies alone don’t give us the full picture of discipleship. When we choose to follow Christ, we surrender everything that makes us who we are. We discover that we find ourselves only when we lose ourselves for Christ’s kingdom. We must discipline ourselves, bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5). The Spirit works with us to mold us in the image of Christ. In the letter to the Colossians, Paul uses the image of changing clothes, taking off the sinful, willful clothes we were born with and replacing them with Jesus’ clothes. The overall idea is very clear: God is breaking wild creatures and taming them for his purposes.

I agree that many Christian lives are devoid of passion and power, but the problem isn’t that they need to be wild, rather they need to be tamed by Christ and empowered by his Spirit.

Posted by Lee Cook at 9:03 AM

April 1, 2009

"Oh, Buzzard Skeet!"

I had expected disappointment and sadness when I announced my resignation, but as the parishioners processed the news and reacted in their own unique ways, my heart quaked. “Buzzard Skeet!” was as close to profanity as one gentle soul could come when expressing her dismay at the news that I was leaving. “You are breaking my heart, you know” were the words of one of my octogenarians. I had been her pastor and friend for nine years. I was breaking her heart, and it was hard to do. But it was time for me to leave.

I came to the church when they were a small group of lonely and hurting people. The church had been declining for many years, and they knew that unless God did a miracle, they would have to close their doors.

God gave me the gift of ministering to this dear church family for nine years. Those years brought healing to them as I loved them and reminded them that God had not forgotten them. The church began to grow and once again become a viable part of the life of that small rural community. I started a youth group with the five teens in the church. When I left, the youth group had grown to an average attendance of 65-70 teens every week. Scores of teens came to Christ through that ministry.

“How can you leave?” I was asked. Good question. How do we know when it’s time to move on? Many times, the motive and reason is clear: a problem of one kind or another precipitates the move. But how do you know it is time to leave a successful ministry?

Kingdom Heart

As pastors, we need to cultivate “kingdom hearts.” A pastor with a kingdom mentality knows that God’s heart is for every church to grow and to be a light to their communities. With that as our number one priority, we make decisions that are best for the church universal and the local church we have been given charge of.

A kingdom pastor asks God for his vision for a particular church. God allows pastors to tap into the heart and breath of his body, the church. A pastor asks, What is the calling of this church? And, What is its potential in this community? The answers to those questions give pastors a sense of the path the church should take.

Kingdom pastor: Do you have the calling to lead your church in that path? Do you have the gifts the church needs to carry it to its full potential?

Two Keys

As I pastored my church, God stretched me. I did more than I ever thought I could. But I also knew my limitations. I knew that the church was at a place that required different gifts than what I could give them. I made the decision to leave based on the best interests of the church.

I also made the decision based on what was best for me. That is the next key in knowing when to leave: Know yourself. What are your gifts? What are your dreams? Does your current pastorate fit those things?

We all have times of discontent. The proverbial “greener grass on the other side of the fence” pulls at all of us at times. God is, however, at the inside of your longings and dreams. He is more interested in making you all that you can be than in keeping you in your comfortable pastorate with no challenges and vision.

Don’t be afraid to let God speak to you concerning a move. Being a pastor takes great faith at any time. Being willing to set out on an unknown adventure sometimes takes more faith than staying on familiar ground.

Posted by Joan Tyvoll at 10:20 AM

January 1, 2009

Ministry or Management

Is the church primarily a community of believers striving to worship God, glorify Christ and love one another? Or is it primarily an organization that needs management? Few would argue for the second definition. Yet what would a neutral person who sat in on one of our leadership meetings (e.g., deacon board, church council, vestry, coetus or session) observe: ministry or management? This is the challenge of my new call—to help our church’s session (ruling elders) be a community of believers striving to minister in Christ’s name.

The Principal’s Office

To that end I sent out a note to all the elders expressing my desire to meet with each one individually in order to get to know them and be better partners in ministry. I heard through the grapevine that many were a bit disconcerted. They felt as if they were being called to the “principal’s office.” I reassured them it wouldn’t be painful: I don’t bite, and they weren’t in trouble. I just wanted to get to know them better.

With each elder I stated my belief that the session is a microcosm of the church. The spiritual condition of the church will reflect the spiritual condition of the session. In order for us to be spiritual leaders we must know each other; we must know our strengths and weaknesses; we must know where we excel and where we struggle; we must be able to look one another in the eye and ask, “How are you doing spiritually?” Shocking that it has to be asked—but we church leaders must be able to talk about Christ!

Church Business

In order to effectively conduct the business of the church we must effectively live as Christ calls us to live—to glorify God and to love one another. Certainly the financial and administrative business of the church is important, but all too often it becomes the main thing or even the only thing. So our church committees are filled with competent bankers, lawyers, managers, educators and, occasionally, carpenters and homemakers, but we know nothing about their spiritual “competence.”

In my experience, church leadership meetings are packed with business details while underlying spiritual pain and struggle and triumph go unattended:

  • An elder is ready to divorce her husband, and not a single person knows they were even having problems.
  • Dying of cancer, a long-time elder doesn’t have the ability to say so or to ask for prayer.
  • Another elder is always cranky and complaining, and expresses little in the way of Christian faith.

Does anyone know the spiritual condition of these people? Does anyone care?

The character of a church will reflect its spiritual leadership, for ill or for good. As we conduct the necessary business of the organization, let’s not forget to be about the real business of church—worshiping God, glorifying Christ and loving one another in word and deed.

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:48 AM

October 1, 2008

Spiritual Triage

Last November I found myself in the emergency room with my husband. He had been having nose bleeds on and off for a week. But this nose bleed was definitely “on!” There were two other people waiting for attention in the emergency room. Both were elderly and looked in much worse condition than my husband, who is fairly trim and fit and barely over fifty. A superficial look would have concluded that my husband could wait. I pressed the triage nurse a bit, indicating the escalation of his condition. She took his blood pressure. The reading was so high that she assumed it was wrong. She took it two more times. These readings confirmed it was 220 over 190 and his pulse was 120. That triage nurse went into emergency action. Drew was a heart attack or stroke waiting to happen! Understanding the degrees of his critical condition, she directed all of her energy and resources to the most immediately critical patient.

I have come to realize this is what I do. Being a pastor is like being an emergency-room triage nurse. In the emergency room, a triage nurse must quickly assess all those medical conditions presented at any given time and direct energy and resources toward those persons presenting the most critical care needs. There are several parallels that help me manage my time and my heart, both of which are easily overtaxed.

First, there are always more patients to care for than I can address at any given time. The ministry of the church is ever-growing and expanding. I am one person. I must work very hard to direct energy and resources at the most critical need determined through careful observation, prayer and godly counsel.

Second, I cannot help everyone. It takes a whole hospital to care for the needs of all the sick and dying. The triage nurse simply mobilizes the right people and resources to best do the job. Alone, I will not be able to care for the spiritual needs of all whom God brings to my church. I must equip, train and encourage those who can.

Third, some folks will not come for care—and will die. Even worse, some will come, and because the medical staff are people and not gods, there will be losses. I am human. I must constantly reiterate the confession of John in the third chapter of his Gospel account—“I am not the Christ.” In Christ’s name and by his Spirit I will be able to do far more than I could ever imagine, but I can’t do everything.

Finally, I can’t serve twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I must get time off. And this does not jeopardize my care capacity; it ensures it will be sharper and more effective. I must get rest and care for myself in order to come to the emergency room ready to give the best care possible. If the emergency room nurse has an infection, he or she only jeopardizes the health of those being served. Pastors are no different. If we try to do ministry when we are not well (emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually), we risk jeopardizing the spiritual health of others.

God has called us to spiritual triage. By the power and presence of the Spirit of God, let’s give the best care we can to those in the greatest need. And let’s inspire and equip the people of God to be partners in ministry.

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:51 AM

June 1, 2008

The Divine Conversation

My husband and I recently returned from a trip out West with twenty-five teenagers. What an adventure it was for the kids, many of whom had never traveled that far or had seen mountains before. As we drove through the Rockies and ranges in Wyoming and Utah, they fell more and more in love with the beauty and grandeur of the mountains. We are Midwesterners, and as wonderful as we think it is to see cows out on a green hillside in Wisconsin, we admit that mountains cannot be matched in beauty.

I saw my first mountains as a child. I was in awe of them and remember struggling to journal the deep emotions they evoked in me even at the age of twelve. I did not know God in a personal way at that time, but nonetheless my eyes were drawn to the great Creator God because of the witness of his mountains. Our students had the same revelation. The greatness of the mountains spoke loudly to them of God’s greatness, majesty and power.

Paul’s words from Romans 1 ran through my mind—“From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and the sky and all that God has made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Romans 1:20, NLT).

God has made sure that we are surrounded every day with his divine words. Sun, sky, clouds and earth are part of his divine vocabulary. Even in the middle of the city, if we are listening, we can hear him speaking to us. Even when we are surrounded by buildings, bridges and creations of human hands, his voice can break through.

It is God’s joy to speak to us, and it is our privilege to listen for his words. Have you ever challenged your congregation to become listeners to the divine conversation going on around them? I have. However, when I give that challenge, I am always speaking more to myself than to anyone else. I love being a pastor, but one of my greatest fears is that because of my job, I will lose my own ability to hear God. I want to guard that spiritual sense at all cost, because if I lose the ability to hear the heart and mind of God, I will also lose the ability to hear the hearts and minds of people.

I understand the reasons for losing touch with God’s voice, and I can feel those spiritual guerrillas creeping up on me the longer I am in ministry. Like any pastor, I get so busy with ministry—the “important” stuff—that to stop to listen to God seems a waste of time—even selfish. And then there is the know-it-all trap: I am the advice giver, the comforter, the encourager, the exhorter, the pray-er, the teacher. People expect words from me all the time, and my important words become a habit, even in my relationship with God.

My desire is to always be an eager seeker of the voice of God. I have found that my connection with his creation is what keeps my connection with him strong. Creation reminds me to be still and listen.

We pastors need a place to go where we can get close to those things that speak of the Creator’s eternal qualities and divine nature. Do you have such a place?

Posted by Joan Tyvoll at 10:23 AM

January 1, 2008

Wake Up and Smell the Coffin

What part of dying don’t we understand? The mainline churches are dying. I do not need to quote statistics. We all know them well, and many of us are in churches where we can see the death daily. And I am not only talking about aging, gray-hairedcongregations. I am also including congregations that are dead spiritually. These churches are going through all the motions of religion but denying its power—its power to quicken, transform, reorder and revitalize life now. The problem is we really do not believe we are dying, either physically or spiritually. Many of the long-time members of these congregations insist that the church be about them and their way of doing church. Over their dead bodies (sometimes literally) will the church be allowed to change or be relevant to anyone but them!

When I encounter such people, I try to love them and gently nudge them toward realizing what God will do long after they are gone. I try to give them the opportunity to bless the future before they die. But honestly, I want to shake them and say, “Wake up and smell the coffin! You are dying. This church is dying. Do you want to die clinging, clenched-fisted, to your church, knowing that means it will die shortly after you do? Or do you want to die with open hands, giving a future to Christ’s church?”

But it isn’t only the older members of these congregations who are dying. We are all dying. Death is certain for all of us, and it is no respecter of persons, regardless of age. All of us, whether ninety or nine years old, are only guaranteed today. We do not know what tomorrow may bring. In reality, the question isn’t, Are we dying? Rather it is, Do we acknowledge we’re all dying? Will we make our remaining days count to the glory of God and to work to build Christ’s church for the future?

I am convinced that dead churches are not the result of style of music, polity or poor facilities. At the core of every dying church is a loss of the centrality of the gospel message. The world—everyone—needs Christ. And the church’s main business is delivering the good news of Christ to whoever will listen.

We don’t really believe we are dying and that the only future of the church is Christ living through us. Wake up and smell the coffin!

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:52 AM

January 1, 2007

Unobstructed Hearts

In the middle of making the most of my high school years (dating, playing basketball, pulling practical jokes on teachers, etc.), I was regularly asked by adults what I was going to be when I grew up. The interesting thing about this is that the inquisitors already had an idea of what I should become. “Don’t you want to be a preacher like your grandfather?” or “Wouldn’t you really enjoy being a teacher like your father?” they would probe, making more of a statement than asking a question. I would stammer some response, hoping they would be satisfied. Then a friend gave me a great idea. The next time I was asked about my future, I boldly stated that I was going to be a pseudo-intellectual. Well, the people in the little rural town where I grew up were quite impressed and would ask if I had to go to school a long time to become one. I assured them that I did. But alas, the joke was on me—I graduated from seminary and was ordained into the ministry.

Since then I have found there are far too many expectations placed on pastors. We busy ourselves living up to other people’s ideals. We often are unsure of how long we will be at a particular church, and therefore we are hesitant to build deep relationships with our parishioners. Pastors are expected to be the moral example for the congregation; consequently we dare not speak of our own sins and shortcomings. We often feel that we must have answers to all deep theological questions, so we are afraid to show our theological shortcomings.

Unfortunately for pastors, it takes a great deal of energy to maintain a false image and plaster the cracks in our façade. I have done this for far too long. I have lost countless hours of sleep, and my mind has been preoccupied with the finer points of damage control instead of simply saying, “Hey, I’m stumped! I don’t know what to say or do. So Lord, would you please take my heart and the meager gifts I have and use me as your servant.”

Chipping away the façade of our hearts may be the single most important thing we can do to improve our ministry. My two disabled children have taught this important truth to me. They have no pretense or finely crafted images to maintain. They have pure hearts that are built for relationships. Though it might not be easy to communicate with them verbally, the language of love they speak is profoundly deep. Weak in flesh, they are strong in heart. Unlike many pastors, their hearts have not been encumbered with the heavy armor of a “shining knight” syndrome. Their strength is in an unobstructed heart that is available for relating to and loving people.

These beautiful children, who when they were born caused me deep grief, now are a source of inspiration and strength. They are not impressed that their daddy is a pastor and speaker. They are unmoved by my education and degrees. All that they are looking for from me is an accessible heart. And you know, this is really what my congregation wants as well. Somehow I think this is just what Paul had in mind when he said, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Posted by Gerry Koning at 10:29 AM

December 1, 2006

It Just So Happens

Much of pastoral work is ho-hum: Someone comes into your office looking for a book from the library; a church leader stops by to share an article that has touched her heart; an old saint is in the hospital, so you make a visit. ho-hum. Or is it?

In Out of the Saltshaker, Becky Pippert tells the remarkable story of a hairdresser named Meg. When Meg’s brother heard Becky speak ten years earlier, he prayed that someone like Becky would befriend Meg and lead her to Christ. Years later, it just so happened that a neighbor recommended a particular salon to Becky, and the day Becky walked in to that salon, it just so happened that Meg was the only available stylist. They developed a friendship, and Meg came to know the Lord! In the ho-hum of everyday pastoral ministry, we need to see all that “just happens” as the sovereign hand of God at work.

The story of Esther also demonstrates God’s “it just so happens” way of working in the world. Queen Vashti disobeys Persian king Ahasuerus and is banished from his presence. To replace Vashti, the king gathers beautiful young virgin—including Esther, a Jew—from throughout his realm. Esther’s cousin Mordecai instructs her not to tell anyone that she is Jewish. The eunuch in charge of the king’s harem prefers Esther over all the other women, and it just so happens that the king favors her too, making her Queen. In the meantime, Mordecai overhears a plot against the king and informs Esther, who alerts the king.

Haman, a recently promoted member of Ahasuerus’s court, insists that everyone bow before him, but Mordecai refuses. The engraged Haman plots to have Mordecai and all Jews in the kingdom killed, and the king agrees. Mordecai learns of the plot, and hoping to save his people, he asks Esther to tell the king that she is Jewish. Esther balks, for it could mean her immediate death. Mordecai declares to her that perhaps it is “for such a time as this” that she has been brought to the palace. Esther acquiesces but insists that all Jews of the kingdom fast and pray along with her. And it just so happens that when Esther approaches the king’s court, he receives her and grants her request, which is that the king and Haman come to a banquet she is preparing for the next day.

Meanwhile, still seething with rage, Haman builds a gallows on which to kill Mordecai.

That night, Ahasuerus couldn’t sleep. To pass time, he asks a servant read to him from the records of noble deeds. It just so happens the servant reads about Mordecai’s discovery of the plot against the king. Ahasuerus determines to honor this noble deed and consults Haman, who believes it is he whom the king wishes to honor. Haman describes all the honors and privileges that rightfully befits a man of his own greatness. The king thanks him for such wise advice and instructs Haman to do for Mordecai all that he has recommended.

The next day at the banquet, Haman’s plot is exposed and the king hangs Haman on the very gallows Haman had built to hang Mordecai. God’s people were spared.

So remember, the ho-hum activities of pastoral ministry might be the “it just so happens” of God’s sovereign hand at work. The next time a person just happens by, take a good look, stop to reflect, say a prayer. It just so happens God is constantly at work in ordinary people and ordinary events.

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:57 AM

May 1, 2006

Reflections of an Aging Preacher

I recently celebrated one of those birthdays that marks a completely new decade in one’s life. In 1990, I was proud of myself when I turned 40. Having previously experienced a mid-life crisis, I cruised past my fortieth birthday with hardly a whimper. Many of my friends hit a brick wall when the big “4 - 0” confronted them. Not me! It was good to be forty. No gray hair yet, but my age was enabling me to open some doors that a younger man just couldn’t quite budge through. But turning 50 in the year of the new millennium has hit me pretty hard. I didn’t think it would, because it didn’t affect my wife that way. I don’t mean that my turning 50 didn’t affect my wife. I mean it didn’t affect her when she turned 50, two years ago. (Didn’t I tell you that she’s older than me? Yes, I married an older woman; now I’m nearly her age.) Well, last year we were living in different decades. Now we’re both in our fifties. All our friends say they find it hard to believe. They say, “She looks so much younger than you.” That’s depressing!

The gray hairs are showing more now. I don’t have that many, but friends accuse me of coloring my hair. They say they can tell I do because my hair has that washed out look. That’s encouraging, thank you very much: it’s my real hair and it’s its natural color. Other telltale signs are emerging, however. My eyebrows get bushier by the week. I’m starting to feel like Groucho Marx. Once in awhile I’ll find a hair boldly growing where no hair has ever grown before! (Let’s not go there.)

I’m not quite old enough yet to write one of those books under the genre “Things I Would Do Differently” or “What I Have Learned in Life,” but I can see its headlights in the distant horizon, and it’s coming fast.

Okay, what does any of this have to do with preaching? Well, when I was a young preacher (Oh my gosh, can you hear it? I’m even beginning to sound like I’m 50. I hate listening to old preacher stories; now I’m telling them!) it was easy to identify with the culture and with the younger members of the congregation. Identifying with them was important to me; I wrote my first book about preaching and identification. I knew what young families were going through. I understood their trials and temptations. We either were in the midst of something similar ourselves, or had just recently experienced it. I knew when they heard me preach, they knew I knew where they were coming from.

I didn’t worry too much about identifying with the older members of the congregation. They treated me like their son, or for that matter, their grandson. They were like my grandparents. They forgave my many mistakes. They tolerated my attempts at trying new things and using progressive preaching methods. They would say, “He’s young. He’ll learn.” They don’t say that anymore. Now they’re probably saying, “Don’t expect him to change now. At his age, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

I guess that’s what worries me the most about preaching and growing older. Sometimes wedo get pretty set in our ways. We just assume younger people should listen to us, because we’re older and know what they need to know because we’ve been where they’re going, and if they know what’s good for them, they’ll just save themselves a lot of trouble if they’ll just bear with us and hear us out. And we assume that senior people should listen to us to because we’re all in this A.A.R.P. thing together, and after all, we are the preacher.

Instead of making those bad assumptions, maybe if we continued to try to identify with our hearers, listening to them when they speak, no matter their age, they’ll continue to listen to us, no matter our age. And maybe, if we continue to learn how to preach, no matter our age, and never assume that we’ve arrived, we’ll continue to use progressive preaching methods that will gain a hearing without merely tickling the ears of our congregations, no matter their age. And maybe, if we’ll rely on God’s Spirit like we did when we had absolutely no idea what we were doing, and we were scared to death at the mere thought of standing up to preach, we’ll be better able to usher all people—young and old—into the presence of the living God through the witness of our lives. Maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for us after all.

Posted by Craig Loscalzo at 10:48 AM