Friday, January 19, 2024

Go Pastor

 A week or two ago, I had a conversation about something I had been thinking about for a while, but hadn’t had much of an opportunity to articulate. It had to do with the church title “Pastor,” and how people in and out of the church think about it. 

     The person I was talking to told me about a former pastor he had known at a megachurch who the vast majority of the church only saw on “stage” at weekend services. He waited backstage until it was time for him to come out and speak. He had a security team that helped get him in and out of the building. It didn’t sound, from this person’s perspective at least, that this pastor would have visited someone who was in the hospital, or attended a funeral in their family, our counsel them. There were other pastors who filled these roles.

     Of course, those pastors weren’t the ones who were well-known, who wrote books and headlined conferences and were live-streamed to thousands each week. It got me thinking about what it means to be a pastor, and about how young pastors learn about leading a church. If every pastor you see is a gifted communicator who is hustled to and from speaking engagements by a posse to rival a rockstar’s road crew, guess what you assume being a pastor is?

     Aspiring pastors have plenty of examples of the pastor as a “celebrity,” at least in church circles. Fewer have good examples to follow of the pastor who visits the sick, comforts the grieving, celebrates marriages, and helps people mark the big events of their lives and make sense of the sorrow and struggle. 

     You see it in the titles for pastors that proliferate in churches. Senior and Associate Pastors have been around for a long time now — mostly, but not always, to differentiate between the Person Who Preaches on Sunday and the Other Pastors. There have been Youth Pastors for decades. But now there are Teaching Pastors. Executive Pastors, in charge of a church’s day-to-day operations. Lead Pastors. Campus Pastors, for multi-site churches. There’s one church I ran across in a quick Google search advertising for a “Go Pastor,” who is apparently responsible for “developing and implementing” their strategy for helping people “find and follow Jesus.” (Coincidentally, “Go, Pastor,” is also what a church says when they’re sick of  you.) There are Worship Pastors and Discipleship Pastors, Pastors of Ministries and Pastors of Recovery, even something called a NextGen Pastor at a church called, I kid you not, Cool Church. 

     I know, I know; I sound like a Grouchy Old Man™ shaking a crooked finger around and ranting about “kids today.” Please understand, I have zero problem with any of those titles. (Well, maybe “Go Pastor” is just a tad too cute?) In my faith heritage, “minister”is what we generally call paid church staff, making us all sound like UK politicians. But we have plenty of Youth Ministers, Senior Ministers, College Ministers, Executive Ministers, and Worship Ministers. We’ve generally not used “pastor” for those roles because we say that biblically, pastors are elders — but that’s a little bit of an oversimplification. Elders, in the Bible, are usually envisioned as doing many of the roles that today we offload onto our hired staff “ministers.” I don’t think we’re as opposed to the idea of pastors as much as we are to the use of the term by other Christian groups. 

     These days, I’m an elder and a minister, so I figure I actually can use the title “pastor” if I want to. Still, I tend to cringe a little inwardly if someone calls me “Pastor Patrick.” 

     Thing is, no one in the Bible invented those titles for church leaders. They came from existing cultural leadership roles that were just adapted for churches. They were doing what we do; trying to define what leadership looks like in the church.

     Elder is an English translation of a Greek word that just means “a person of advanced age.” It’s also used in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures for a word that denotes the same thing. The Old Testament is full of references to “elders” who sit in city gates where they can be located quickly to judge disputes. Elders were tribal leaders who were recognized and admired for their wisdom. 

     In Titus 1, Paul encourages Titus to appoint elders for the church “in every town” on Crete. He says that those who are so appointed are to be “blameless” — character seems to have been the main qualification, as seen largely in their family lives, interpersonal relationships, and reputation outside the church. They should also be well-acquainted with the “trustworthy message” of the gospel so that they can teach it and refute those who teach against it. 

     In 1 Timothy 3, Paul uses a different term, “overseer,” for what seems to be the same role, with the same character requirements. Again, it’s a term that Paul borrows from the culture for a supervisor. The word, episkopos (“Episcopal” comes from it), was used for centuries before Christianity for Greek city officials. Through Latin, the word came down in English as bishop, which through a couple thousand years of evolution in usage has all sorts of added connotations. In the New Testament, though, it implies a responsibility as much as an office, burden instead of privilege. The word is used for Jesus in 1 Peter 2:25, which may explain why Paul tells Timothy that whoever wants to be an overseer in the church “desires a noble task.”

     Our word “pastor” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek for “shepherd.” “Shepherd” isn’t a uniquely Christian way of referring to a leader, either. In the Ancient Near East, kings were thought of as “shepherds,” as well as priests and other religious officials. In Ezekiel 34, God says through the prophet that when the human “shepherds” of his people can’t be trusted, God himself will shepherd them. 

     Jesus, of course, referred to himself as the “Good Shepherd.” So it’s a natural enough term to apply to leaders of churches. In 1 Peter 5, Peter applies all three of these terms to the same group of people in the space of two verses, instructing the “elders” to “be shepherds (pastors) of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them (episkopos)….” He reminds these shepherds that the “Chief Shepherd” will appear one day  to reward them for their service in caring for his flock. 

     And it is his flock. Whatever terms we use for leaders in the church, whether we take them right out of the pages of the Bible or adapt them from our own culture — or a little of both — we must get over the cultural idea that leadership is about privilege and position. In the church, leadership is about service, as we looked at in last week’s post. It’s about responsibility. It’s about caring and nurturing and protecting the people God has entrusted us with. Church leaders don’t need to always be charismatic, but they must always have character. They must be counted on to do what’s right and what will help the church to flourish. 

     The church has felt the need for paid staff, and that’s not a bad thing — though paid staff shouldn’t do everything. Sometimes we feel the need to differentiate by job title specific roles that need to be filled, and that’s fine too. As long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that what church leaders do is not to enrich or promote themselves. Leadership shouldn't keep us at arm's length from people and their needs. It’s a sacred trust given by God to care for his people. It’s a “noble task,” but not one to be taken lightly. 

     Some say that there’s a major crisis brewing in the church — that fewer and fewer younger people aspire to be pastors or church leaders. If so, maybe that’s because we’re looking for people whose leadership qualifications look more like CEOs. People who can be CEOs will probably prefer to be. 

     But CEOs aren’t necessarily qualified to care for God’s people. 

     May God raise us up good shepherds, overseers, and elders. And may we recognize them when he does.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Leaders in the Kingdom

…[W]hoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

-Matthew 20:26-28 (NIV)

This has been a momentous week for football coaches. On Wednesday Nick Saban, head coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, announced his retirement after 17 fairly successful seasons. Over a 50-year career, Saban was head coach for four different college teams and the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. He has a won-loss record of 307-88-1. He won 7 National Championships (1 at Louisiana State and 6 at Alabama), 11 Southeastern Conference Championships (2 at Louisiana State and 9 at Alabama) and 1 Mid-America Conference Championship (at Toledo).

     Then the next day, arguably the only coach as successful as Saban left his own team. Bill Belichick was head coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots for 24 seasons, and won nearly 70% of his games there (266-121). He won 6 Super Bowls (and lost in 3 others). The Patriots won their division 17 times in 19 seasons, including 11 straight. He was also defensive coordinator for two other Super Bowl champs. 

     Both Saban and Belichick have had success that most coaches couldn’t even dream of. For reference, in over a century of football, my University of Tennessee Volunteers have won the same number of National championships that Saban won in his 17 years at Alabama. Tennessee's had six head coaches during Saban's tenure, with a combined record of 93-92.  

     The Chicago Bears have also had 6 coaches during Belichick’s 24 years at New England. Their combined record is 191-203. They’ve won, let's see... 0 Super Bowls in that time (they did lose one), and four division championships.  

     Both organizations will of course want someone who can approximate the success Saban and Belichick have had. But that’s easier said than done. Finding successful leaders is hard.

     In our world, we assume that certain qualities are common to good leaders, almost innate, and that other kinds of expertise can be learned. Businesses hire CEO’s  with charisma, vision, and big-picture thinking who can delegate, represent the company well, inspire confidence, and get people to do their jobs successfully. 

     In our world, character seems to be secondary when it comes to leadership. We routinely now elect government officials who we know lie, cheat, try to rig the system, and abuse and manipulate the people they’re supposed to lead. It’s mystifying to me how a nation in which freedom and democracy are values can be drawn to authoritarian figures. Some of us even seem to think that certain character flaws make a person more qualified for leadership — as long as they use those flaws to accomplish what we want them to accomplish.  

     Churches sometimes seem to select leaders based on what we’ve learned from corporations or teams. (Sometimes we even borrow the language of those organizations.) Some churches want charismatic leaders who can get folks to show up and give money. Some look for authoritarian leaders who provide certainty. But church history, maybe especially our recent history, is littered with the wreckage caused by the failure of those churches have set up as leaders, but who use the church for their own purposes. 

     The problem, of course, is that every leader shares one major flaw. They’re human.

     So maybe we shouldn’t be trying to learn about leadership from the Belichicks and Sabans, the Bezoses and Musks of the world. Character flaws in a CEO won’t necessarily sink a Fortune 500 company, or even a nation’s government. But character flaws in a church’s leaders are ticking bombs, waiting to blow up in everyone’s faces.

     Maybe, instead of looking for high-vision, high-energy leaders with plans and agendas, or totalitarian leaders who tell us what to do and condemn those who don’t fall in line, we should take seriously what Jesus said about leadership in God’s kingdom. 

     Three of the four Gospels tell us about a dispute between Jesus’ disciples that I would have left out of the story. Two of them, James and John, had a mother who aggressively looked after her sons’ interests: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom,” she asks Jesus. 

     She isn’t really interested in seating arrangements. She’s asking for offices in the executive suite for each of her boys. Because that’s leadership, isn’t it? Position. Influence. Let’s just say it — power. Fame. Prestige. Glory. She wanted her boys to get the big contracts and the speaking engagements and the book deals. 

     The other disciples hear about it, though, and they’re angry — likely because they didn’t think of it first. Because leadership, in our world, is a zero-sum game. And if you get the better place of influence, that might leave nothing for me. 

    Jesus says a couple of things in response about leadership that we need to hear.

     First: he says that greatness in God’s kingdom is found in suffering. That sounds just wrong, but that’s how upside down we have it. “Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?” Jesus asks the ambitious sons of Zebedee. Want to be a leader in your church? Suffer like Jesus did. Leadership isn’t luxury. It isn’t having respect and glory. It isn’t privilege. It isn't being a decision-maker. You’ll have to bear insults and give love in response. You’ll have to forgive. You’ll grieve. You’ll hurt. You’ll plead with God to take it away, and sometimes you’ll think he didn’t hear. We can’t lead in Jesus’ name without expecting to suffer as he did.

     Second: he says that greatness in God’s kingdom is found in service. Leadership as the world knows it is all about ruling over others. Hierarchies are clear. Powerful people tell others what to do. But in God’s kingdom, the person who considers themselves to be “first” will be first to serve. To be a slave, even. You might wonder, how could someone looking in from the outside even tell who the leaders were? And the answer is, they probably couldn’t. This isn’t winning respect by being magnanimous and generous to those everyone knows are your subordinates. It’s doing away with the whole idea that leading involves subordinates. As Jesus told his ambitious disciples at the Last Supper, “Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”    

     In God’s kingdom, there’s one Coach. One CEO. One King. There’s one leader, and he gave his life for those he leads. If you want to lead like Jesus does, don’t look for someone to give you a position. Go find someone to serve.

     He’s the only leadership model that makes sense for us.

     And here’s one thing we don’t consider enough in all the church’s fascination with leadership: If leadership in the Kingdom isn’t about someone giving you position and influence, then anyone can lead. Just go find someone to serve. You don’t have to wait for a nameplate on a door, a title, a paycheck, or a place on the stage. And, honestly, anyone who isn’t already serving the church should never presume to be a leader in it. 

     Leaders aren’t just someone we choose. We become leaders, Kingdom leaders, as we follow Jesus and love others like he has loved us. May he raise up Kingdom leaders among us.

     And may we recognize those he’s already raised up by their love and service. 

Friday, January 5, 2024

Rocking the New Year

 So Joshua called together the twelve men  he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan.  Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign  among you. In the future, when your children  ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off  before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial  to the people of Israel forever.” 

-Joshua 4:4-7 (NIV)

Growing up in Tennessee, I was surrounded by memorials. 

     Most of them were on Civil War battlefields, and the names are a vivid part of my childhood memories: Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Stones River. Almost everywhere you go around Chattanooga or Middle Tennessee, you see memorials: plaques, statues, even cannons. They’re witnesses to the past, most of them testimonies to people generations gone whose courage and sacrifice helped to draw our nation back together. As a kid, I’d climb on the cannons and shoot down imaginary enemies. A little older, I’d read the plaques and the names and sometimes wonder what they were like, which of them went home and which were buried in the Tennessee clay under my feet, which had a life after the war and which left widows and orphans and grieving parents behind. 

     The New Year is here, so it’s a good time to consider memorials. But not so much those elaborate Civil War memorials of my childhood that are so good at bearing mute witness to the past. It’s a different kind of memorial that’s on my mind today, less elaborate, almost crude, but more vital and living: A pile of stones standing on a riverbank.

     When the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they brought those stones with them. The Jordan was the last obstacle, the one thing keeping a four-decade horde of wanderers from beginning to grow into a nation. Their leader, Joshua, the successor to Moses, knew a memorial was in order. So he tasked a representative from each of the twelve tribes that made up the fledgling nation with removing a large stone from the dry riverbed that God gave them to walk across. Once across, they were to use the stones to build a memorial. Kind of like those Civil War memorials.

     But not really, because this memorial was to serve a different function. It was less a memorial to the past than a marker for the future. Joshua imagined kids playing by the riverbank, or young men hunting, or young women washing clothes. He imagined a future when Israel was secure in the land, and imagined that future generation might need a history lesson. “What’s this pile of rocks here?” they might ask. And then those who knew the story could tell it: “You might have trouble believing this, but God stopped the flow of the Jordan so we could cross! This is who we are. We’re the people of the God who held up the flow of a river for us.”

     There’s a movie coming out that you’ll never see. It’s called 100 Years, and it envisions life on earth a century from now. Once the film was completed it was placed in a bulletproof, time-locked vault set to open on Nov. 18, 2115. A thousand people from around the world, including star John Malkovich and director Robert Rodriguez, have received invitations to be passed down to their descendants.

     Sounds right to me. Whatever the future holds for us, whether 100 years or a day from now, is locked. It’s inscrutable. This time of year is filled with predictions, and it’s filled with retrospectives, but rarely do the two inform one another. We memorialize the past with markers, and look toward the future with some mixture of hope, fear, uncertainty, dread, and anticipation. But rarely do we occupy the only ground we really can, the present, and let what our past tells us inform the future we know is coming.

     So here’s what our past tells us about the coming New Year. It tells us, for one, that we will face obstacles. We have to anticipate that there will be times in the next twelve months when taking a step forward will feel like wading out into a raging river. If you think being one of God’s people means that life should be easy and comfortable and free of conflict, well, then you just don’t know your history. There will be moments in 2024 where you find your way blocked and your fears mounting. 

     But our past also reminds us, doesn’t it, that God goes with his people? Whatever you face between now and next January, you won’t face it without him. Where God’s people go, he goes with them, whether as a pillar of fire or an Ark of the Covenant or the Word made flesh. You know that’s true, because you remember what he’s already walked through with you. You will encounter no adversary, no obstacle, no snare or temptation or sickness or grief that he will not encounter with you. 

     And where he goes, the dangers recede. Where he goes, rivers dry up and armies break and run and storms still and demons submit and grieving people find joy again. This year will bring nothing that he can't handle, that he hasn’t already handled. There is no hurt so deep, fear so powerful, obstacle so big, or enemy so strong that God is not deeper, more powerful, bigger or stronger still.

     The New Year seems like uncharted territory, and of course in some ways it is. But, look, there on the riverbank. Look at all those markers, all those memorials of how God has been with his people and helped them through and over and around the obstacles they’ve encountered on the way. Word and song and prayer remind us. Jesus assures us. The experiences of our family in Christ testify that we walk into this New Year’s inevitable mix of joys and sorrows, blessing and hardship, with the presence of God and in his power.

     So grab your rock as you cross. Make it part of the testimony of God’s people, so that when your children are scared and your friends are in doubt and even your own heart is weary, you’ll look ahead with hope and joy and anticipation.

     On Sunday morning, for the first time in 2024, we’ll gather around the table and share bread and cup in memory of Jesus. But  we won’t just look back on that awful past event. It will serve for us as a marker to the future hope we have because of it. As we cross into a New Year, we share with the rest of God's people in taking that hope firmly in hand to mark our passage and point the way to our future.

     May all who need such hope this year see it. And may we tell that story well.