Friday, February 26, 2016

Shepherds, Part 5

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms. 
-1 Peter 4:10, (NIV)

My college roommate's father, David May, is a member of a small church in Minnesota. His church doesn't have a minister – or a preacher, or a pastor, or whatever appellation for clergy you can think of. They don't have anyone on staff to do “church work” like preaching, evangelizing, hospital visitation, and so on. It doesn't seem like this is a temporary condition from which they're hoping and praying to be soon delivered, either: They don't seem to be looking for anyone, or trying to find funding for the position. They seem to have chosen, at least for the foreseeable future, to get along without “a minister.”
     I’m not exactly objective about this, but I was surprised. “How are they surviving?” I asked myself. “How are they getting by without someone to write bulletin articles or preach on Sundays or answer the office phone?” Believe me, I'm as astonished as you are, but...
     Well, they seem to be doing just fine, thank you.
     I guess that's because when I say they don't have a minister, I mean that they don't have someone who they pay to be The Minister. It turns out that they actually have a whole bunch of ministers, a whole church full of them, in fact. Mr. May wrote an article in The Christian Chronicle  several years ago about this very thing. “People step up and do what is necessary when the responsibility is theirs,” he wrote. “When there is a located preacher the temptation in our busy world is to hope the preacher will get it done.” He goes on:

“[Without a minister], if someone is going to give a devotional talk on Sunday morning, it will be a member. If anyone is to sit with a woman while her husband has surgery, it will be a member. If a visitor is to be invited to lunch and offered an ear and a prayer, it will come from a member. If we are going to reach out to the community around us, the leadership will come from the members.” 

     To be fair, Mr. May doesn’t say that churches who have ministers should get rid of them. I do think, as non-objective as I am about the matter, that a paid minister who loves the Lord and the church and works hard can be a blessing. Paul seemed to think so, too. I do wonder, though, whether the whole idea of a professional clergy as we know it today might just be pretty far from the biblical understanding of who the church is and what it is we're supposed to be doing.
     In the Bible, God's grace isn't all about forgiveness of sins. That's part of it, of course, but God gives us much more than just mercy for when we mess up. The Bible speaks of God's grace in terms of the abilities he gives to people, as well. As recipients of God's grace we have received not only pardon for our sins, but also abilities and opportunities to share God's love and blessings with the people around us. Some can preach, and Peter reminds the church he writes to that they should do so with words God gives them. Some can provide service and assistance, and he tells them that they should do it with the strength God blesses them with. And some have business acumen, or skill in trades, or culinary skill, or medical knowledge, or IT expertise. These are all expressions of God's grace given in the form of talent, interest, education, and so on. And the health of the church  requires that every part does what it's there to do.
     That's the very thing, of course, that the professionalization of ministry can prevent. The minister, or whatever you call him in your tradition, can too easily become the paid ministerial proxy for the rest of the congregation. He does the ministry; the rest of the church just shows up to pay for it. Sometimes church members like it that way. Sometimes, truth be told, so do the professional ministers. 
     If there’s a leadership crisis in the church, then don’t the current leaders in the church have to bear some of the responsibility? Don’t professional ministers like me have to answer for thinking that our agendas, our perspectives, and our emphases are the only ones that should drive the church? Don’t we have to answer for deifying our education and experience, promoting the God-denying philosophy that the church runs on our expertise and hard work? Don’t we have to answer for dismissing the ideas of lay leaders like elders and deacons and Sunday School teachers and VBS organizers as uninformed?
     Church leaders, we have to recapture the awe and expectation that the marvelously multi-faceted grace of God is supposed to generate. God’s grace, and the gifts that come with it, isn’t doled out in seminary. It isn’t passed down from some denominational office, and it doesn’t suddenly descend from the heavens in the form of a dove after 10 years of experience. 
     Neither are the myriad forms of God’s grace given only to those who are like us: who have the same shade of skin, or speak English like it’s their first language, or have attained a particular income level, or agree with me on all my pet doctrines. God’s grace has always been poured out in unusual ways on unexpected people. 
     It isn’t our job as church leaders to create new leaders. It’s our job to recognize them: to see a new generation of leaders being chosen by God, and to encourage them and guide them and lead them until they can take their positions. 
     If there’s a leadership crisis in the church, then just maybe we aren’t doing our jobs.
     So who is God raising up in your church? If you say “No one,” then you’re mistaken. You’re just not seeing it. Adjust your expectations, sharpen your vision. In whose life do you see the unmistakable marks of the varied grace of God? Who do you see faithfully using their gifts of grace to serve the church? 

     Those are the new generation of leaders God is raising up. Encourage them. Provide them resources. Help them. And then get out of the way and watch God turn them loose.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Shepherds, Part 4

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
-1 Peter 5:1-4 (NIV)

I didn’t become a Pastor until about two years ago. I’ve been a minister, though, a lot longer than that.
     That’s because in Churches of Christ, the paid staff person who preaches on Sundays, or prays with hospital patients, or leads youth activities, or what have you, isn’t called Pastor. At least, not by virtue of their position in the church. Pastor, in our churches, is another word for the word we usually use: elder. And it’s these elders, or pastors, who are the leaders in our churches. There are always at least two of them, if there are any. They work closely with any ministers and church staff. But they are the “top level”, so to speak, of leadership in Churches of Christ.
     Folks from other Christian groups would refer to the elders in our churches as lay leaders. That means they don’t necessarily have formal education or ordination. They lead by acclamation, rather than by appointment to a position. They tend to be older, long-time members of the church they serve, long-time Christians, who by virtue of walking with the Lord over the years know something about spiritual leadership. They are chosen, usually, on the basis of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, texts that describe the character needed for such leaders. 
     There’s no question that I’m biased, but I like the leadership structure of Churches of Christ. When we need leaders, our first impulse isn’t necessarily to hire someone from outside. It’s to find someone from inside who has the character necessary to “shepherd the flock.”  
      There’s pretty clearly a leadership crisis in the church. Most churches don’t have a lot of people who aspire to leadership. People are busy with their jobs, their families, their friends, their hobbies, and they just don’t see themselves in leadership positions in their churches. We move often too, and so sometimes we aren’t in one place long enough to grow into a place of leadership.
     I think, though, in a lot of cases the explanation for this crisis comes down to the way we see the church. 
     When we need to acquire something in our world, we go shopping. That seems so obvious as to not require comment, but keep in mind that many of us are only 4 or 5 generations removed (at most) from people who largely produced what they needed themselves. The idea of shopping — for food, clothes, whatever — has not always been the norm.
     But we go shopping. We look for price, selection, shopping experience, parking, store location: we have all sorts of criteria running through our minds. And ultimately, we do business with the producers that check the right boxes in our heads. What we never do is think about who opens the store, orders the inventory, pays the bills, or organizes the stockroom. We’re not supposed to know about that. We’re shoppers.
     So let me get to where I’m going. We tend to see church in the same way. Most of us shop for a church. When we’re moving to a new place, or visiting, or when our current church doesn’t meet our needs in some way, we go shopping. We all do it. Shopping is what we know. And churches reinforce this mindset by marketing themselves to us.   
     To see ourselves in a leadership role in a church requires a perspective shift. It requires that we give up the role of consumer and start thinking about how to manage the store. Leadership in the church calls us to stop looking at the church primarily with a view toward the spiritual experience that it provides us, and instead with a view toward how we can best serve the people who make it up.
     Which brings us back to the metaphor of shepherds. Shepherds care for sheep. They watch out for them. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep makes shepherding sound difficult, strenuous, nerve-wracking. It’s the kind of job that gets you dirty and covered with wool and the stuff that comes out of sheep, that exhausts you, that requires you to fight and serve.     
     A shepherd can build himself a throne out in the middle of the pasture if he wants to, the better to rule the sheep, but the sheep won’t pay any attention. Sheep won’t be ruled, but they can be led. So in the church, leadership is about minding the way you walk, knowing that others are following you. We don’t drive God’s people. We don’t manipulate them or batter them or command them. We walk as Jesus wants us to walk, knowing that if the church trusts us they’ll follow. 
   To aspire to leadership in a church — and the church desperately needs people who will aspire to leadership — is to recognize that the church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the Chief Shepherd, and the glory of leading in his church doesn't come from recognition or affirmation or comfort or honor or security. It doesn’t come from getting our way. It doesn’t come from being catered to. It’s a glory that will never fade away that we’re working for, and it will be given by the One to whom the church really does belong when he returns.
     So, wherever you are, start thinking about managing the store. Begin to see the church not so much as the place to get you spiritual tank filled, but as a place where you can serve the Lord by serving his people. Start thinking about where you can lead now, and what you need to develop as a leader. Talk to the pastors or elders at your church, and ask them to mentor you and help you to grow into leadership.  

     The leadership crisis in the church won’t be solved by ordaining more ministers or enrolling more seminary students. It will be solved only when people who have been saved by the Chief Shepherd decide to give themselves to save others. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Shepherds, Part 3

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full  respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert…He must also have a good reputation with outsiders,  so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
-1 Timothy 3:2-7 (NIV)

If character is competence for a church leader, then those who aspire to be church leaders should be developing character. Education is good, Bible knowledge is important, but the essential qualifications for those who want to lead in the kingdom of God all revolve around character formed by the Holy Spirit.
     I know some folks think that no one should aspire to being a shepherd, elder, or pastor, that to want that position is self-aggrandizement. Paul didn’t seem to think that way. What happens to the church if the only ones leading her are the reluctant, the resistant, and the renumerated? Nothing good, that’s for sure. 
     I think there’s a leadership crisis in the church, and it seems to come from a couple of directions. On the one hand, there isn’t a surplus of people in most churches who aspire to leadership. I don’t have statistics for that, except for the demonstrable decline of ordained leaders (pastors, ministers, priests, and so forth) in most denominations. But the sense I get is that there is a corresponding decline of people who want to be lay leaders — non-ordained leaders like elders, deacons, and so forth — in most churches. Simply put, many believers, perhaps most, aspire to leadership in corporations, in politics, in civic and social organizations, but don’t see themselves as one day taking on leadership responsibilities in their churches. 
     To some degree, maybe this is the inevitable result of an ultra-mobile, ultra-transient society in which people come and go from most churches with regularity. Maybe the outcome of changing churches every few years is that we don’t have the time to invest ourselves in the life of the church, get to know and love the people there, be shaped by influential leaders in that church, be and then grow into our own places of leadership. Surely this has an impact, but I think there’s more to it than that.
     Ultimately, to be an elder or shepherd or overseer, to lead a ministry, to teach a class, requires a commitment. In marketplace terms, it requires that we sort of give up the role of consumer and take on the role of producer. And we like the role of consumer. We like to be shoppers, because we’re free to evaluate the religious goods and services on display, to compare them with other churches, and to decide if maybe we want to shop somewhere else. That’s a comfortable role for most of us, one we’re used to living in. We like that producers have to compete for our loyalty. That places us in a position of strength. 
     What’s harder is to go from shopping to managing the store. Leadership in the church calls us to commit to a local community of faith, to bring our best to the place where we are, to sacrifice ourselves in service to those who we would lead. It’s hard, and it’s thankless, and sometimes it’s not even very satisfying personally. It demands that we stop looking at the church primarily with a view toward the spiritual experience that it provides us, and instead with a view toward how we can best serve the people who make it up. In some ways, it’s analogous to the shift that happens in most of us when we become parents for the first time: the focus is off ourselves, and on this child that needs us. (Maybe that’s why Paul sometimes thought of himself as a “father” to the churches he served.)
     But the blame for this leadership crisis in the church can also be placed on its current generation of leaders.
     Church leaders, by and large, tend to be a conservative group. We want to stick with what we know until we’re sure something better has come along. So we stick with the same schedule we’ve had for decades, even if that schedule isn’t working for most of the church anymore. We keep the same style and form of worship, the same songs, the same order, even when a change might serve us better. Conservatism among church leaders can be a good thing — except when it isn’t. And it’s tricky sometimes to know the difference.
     Here’s how conservatism, though, can contribute to a leadership crisis. For one thing, the people church leaders usually want to appoint to leadership positions are the people who they think best exemplify their own conservative spirit. Who shows up at the worship services? Who teaches the classes? Who serves in the existing ministries? In short, who are the people who will best ensure that we keep doing the same things in the same ways for another generation? 
     That might sound right. But it serves to eliminate those who have the character that the Bible wants in church leaders, but who for whatever reason haven’t been well-served by the status quo. It denies dissenting voices a place of leadership, when those dissenting voices are important to hear.
     Again: for church leaders, character is competence. 
     That’s why, for instance, that I don't think the text that says an elder should be “faithful to his wife,” eliminates an unmarried man from consideration. Or that the statement about children eliminates someone who has no children. Those aren’t requirements of status. In the church, competence comes not from status, but from character. The kind of person who leads in the church should be the kind who is faithful to his wife, if he has one, or who would be faithful to his wife, if he had one. This view keeps us from excluding as leaders people of character who, by accident or intention, have never started families.

     To address the crisis of leadership that exists in the church as a whole, we have to start addressing the failings from both directions: failure of the church in developing an aspiration to lead, and failure of current leaders to create a culture in which character is intentionally developed and people are encouraged and supported in growing into leadership roles.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Shepherds, Part 2

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full  respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert…He must also have a good reputation with outsiders,  so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
-1 Timothy 3:2-7 (NIV)

If you were looking to fill a job opening, would you rather have competence, or character? 
     Ideally, you want both, of course. It might also depend upon how specialized the competence required is. (If I have a brain tumor, I want a neurosurgeon who knows his stuff. How good a guy he is might not enter my mind.) But when Paul wants to talk about the work of a shepherd/elder/overseer*, he doesn't formulate a job description. Management experience isn't really on his mind. He doesn't get into degrees and education. The ability to think strategically, or outside of the box, or in any of the other trendy ways that interviewers want candidates to be able to think doesn't make his list. He doesn’t even say much about what the job entails. Instead, he focuses on the character of the people he wants for the job.
     “Above reproach,” he begins, making sure no one takes too lightly the standards to which church leaders should be held. A church leader should be faithful to one spouse and have earned the respect of his children. Self-control, gentleness, and temperance should keep a church leader even-keeled and cool-headed, and he should never impose his will through violence or intimidation, or find himself compromised by too much to drink. 
     Paul goes on to say that a church leader should share possessions with those in need, instead of obsessing about how to get more. He should be able to teach. Shouldn’t be a new believer. His reputation must even extend to those outside the church, so that he is a credible witness to the gospel.   
     We're not used to thinking like this, even in church. Too often, the people to whom we look for leadership are those with strong personalities, who have a vision for the church and are charismatic enough to convince a substantial number of people to follow their vision. Too often we hire shepherds, bringing in people from outside who have degrees and experience and competence in building big, busy churches. We hire folks who know how to preach, or at least present, and who can do so with the requisite degree of hipness. 
      We look for leadership to the educated, talented, personable, and persuasive, people who any corporation in the world would groom for upper management, and we hope that those folks will keep it together enough spiritually. We entrust leadership sometimes to too few, and too often to the spiritually and emotionally immature, and they're left unaccountable. And then we're shocked when disaster happens and people who aren't ready to care for the church instead use it and take advantage of it and sacrifice it on the altar of their own ideas and ambitions.
     Now, listen, I don’t have anything against churches bringing in smart, talented men and women with education and expertise. People like that can do a lot of good in a church, especially if along with their education and expertise, their intelligence and competence, they have a love for the Lord and his people and a dependence on the Holy Spirit. Oh, and you know what else those smart, talented, educated experts need?
     They need shepherds. They need overseers, elders, who care for the church. 
   Church leadership, you see, isn’t outcome-based work. It can't be measured on an earnings report, or summed up on a spreadsheet, or assessed by attendance numbers. It isn’t primarily about setting vision, or managing people, or facilitating numeric growth. The job description is to watch out for the flock, to guard it against influences that would undermine it spiritually, and to help it to be strong and united and growing in the Lord. The people who should do that job should be full of the Holy Spirit, people of faith and character who follow Jesus in loving the church sacrificially. 
     I’m close to a church leader, an elder, who regularly prays by name for every family and every person in the church. He just goes page by page through the directory, lifting people up to God. He’s done this for going on two decades, at least. People don’t know. The person who disagrees with him or criticizes him or tells him off for some offense has no idea that her name might very well have been on his lips the day before. But he considers this work indispensable to his calling as a leader in the church.
    I’m thinking of another church leader, a former elder at the church I’m a part of. More precisely, I’m thinking of his funeral, when our building was crammed full of people who had come from far away to celebrate the ways that his life had touched theirs. He served for, I guess, four decades, at least. He was in some ways pretty old-school. Some would have considered him far too traditional, not in-touch enough with the trends to be a good leader. But try and tell that to the hundreds of people who walked by his casket that morning in our church building, and touched his shoulder, and shed tears, and silently thanked the Lord that they knew a shepherd like him.
     Next to those examples, I think that much of what passes for church leadership is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Character, for a church leader, is competence.

*In Titus 1:5-9, Paul uses the same language to describe the ideal elder that he uses in 1 Timothy 3 to describe the ideal overseer. In Acts 20:17-28, the terms elder, overseer, and shepherd are used interchangeably of the same group of people.