The Skywalker Letters. #1

Young Jedi,

I’ve thought a lot about my first letter to you.  Before we get to any of the lessons I have learned over time, there is one thing we probably need to get squared away.  I’m pretty much at odds with a lot (maybe even most all) of the other pastors I know or read or listen to. I am definitely the minority.  Let me explain…and I’ll try my best not to be too judgmental. Lol.

Many years ago, I faced a theological, as well as a practical, crisis of sorts.  I was struggling to see the role of the modern pastor anywhere in the Bible. As a matter of fact, much of what I was seeing looked awfully different than what I was reading of the life and leadership of the New Testament church…not to mention the character of Jesus.

So I made a decision.  I rejected the corporate model of church leadership. The pastor-as-CEO has been extremely successful. I just don’t see it as particularly “pastorly”.  Or biblical. It’s totally ridiculous to me that some churches let, or even expect, their pastors to be the bosses or the authority figures or chief decision makers.

Prophets, priests, and kings played significant roles in the era before Jesus. However, the only truly anointed One in the New Covenant was Jesus. A pastor is simply a shepherd who cares for the sheep.  Maybe sometimes a little more, but certainly nothing less. What’s wrong with us that we have let…or even required…pastors become the “face” of a church and the central figure in the life of a local body of worshippers?

Now here’s where it gets dicey, fledgling warrior.  You must choose the path you will walk, or it will be chosen for you.  Let me explain.

Most every person you will have the opportunity to shepherd will have a preconception of what your “pastoral” role in their life should look like. Young and old. Seasoned and newbie. And not only their life, but the whole church as well. It’s one of those occupations where everyone has opinion of who and what you are, and how you should act…and they’ll most likely tell you.  And if you disagree, whether it’s expressed or held close to the vest, they will feel they are right and you are wrong.

Their perception of you and your role will be influenced by a lot of things: their past church experience, their family’s belief system, the immediate culture, your church’s structure and history, and maybe even their interpretation of the Bible.  

And you will need to listen with humility and serve them consistently, with love, no matter what.

Since I rejected the modern definition of the pastor, I have always earned my paycheck by living out the role that was expected of me by the church (both leaders and members), while fulfilling my calling as a shepherd of people and kingdom worker in more subversive and less culturally acceptable ways.  (This was always much easier to do as a youth pastor, rather than the Big Dog role.  Youth ministers can be stealth and ninja-like, because most people see the youth guy as a wannabe, rather than a real minister, anyway!  Just sayin’…).

We’ll get into this more in other letters, but let’s just say I have opted for a definition of pastor that was as free as possible from the modern, cultural picture of a leader and as similar to the life and character of Jesus as I would dare to be:  lead from weakness rather than strength, lift others up, serve with humility, be a peacemaker, focus on the least, live and guide with simplicity, hold people close, forgive ridiculously, extend grace with no limits, find my significance and worth in Who I know, not what I do, and define leadership by integrity and character, rather than decision-making and results.

Here’s the good news:  This has always allowed me to be a pastor who can build deep, meaningful friendships with anybody in the church, live free from the pressure of performance, validate my worth apart from numbers (budget, staff, attendance, facilities, etc…), laugh at myself and the church, ignore the spotlight, be free to be wrong, say “I don’t know”, embrace and express my doubts, change my theological mind, put my family first…like, really put them first, have the freedom to fail without fear, lead from my giftedness and not the expectations of others, preach honestly, care deeply without obsessing, enjoy every Sunday morning, and lead with no need to compare or compete.  And that’s just the tip…

It also means I pastor at the slowest growing church in Denton county…but that’s for another letter, rook.

Like I said, you choose the way you define pastor, or it will be chosen for you.

Choose wisely.

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Ugh.

frustratedI don’t write as much as I used to, but I still read dozens of blogs every week…for encouragement, as well as staying current with what’s going on in the world.  It’s part of my daily routine.

A lot of what I read has to do with trends in church ministry and organization, written by some of the biggest of the big dogs in church leadership…book authors, consultants, mega pastors, theologians, church growth “experts”, academics.

Anymore, most days I’m growing a little weary of some of the stuff I’m reading.  

Specifically, I’m really getting tired of hearing about what’s wrong with the church I serve.  I’m tired of reading about what needs to get fixed. I’m tired of being told about the five reasons we’re not growing and the seven steps to breaking the 250 barrier and the nine characteristics of successful church leaders.

Unfortunately, these teachings (and so many others like them) assume some things I don’t necessarily believe to be universally true.

They write as if getting bigger is the goal.  I know of no Kingdom-centered person who denies the priority of spreading the message of hope in Jesus to as many people as possible.  I share a common understanding and commitment to introducing Jesus to the nations. However, I just don’t believe following that mandate and growing large churches means the same thing.

They write as if getting bigger is better.  No model of church size, style, organization, or practice is perfect, or even preferable.  Some people are drawn to crowds. Some people are repelled by them. Both of those groups should be affirmed and encouraged.  Sadly, in our modern church world, only one of those groups is treated with dignity and respect. The other is consistently devalued.  Sometimes blatantly.  Sometimes with subtlety.  Sometimes with a condescending “pat on the head”…

They write as if growth can be reduced to a formula.  My master’s degree is in church growth.  I studied under some of the premier teachers of this school of thought and practice.  I was taught the practices of successful, growing churches could be imitated and that, in time, our growth would be also.  Today, this teaching has been re-packaged  and sold at dozens of yearly church leadership conferences around the country (plus cool bands) for a tidy $2k a pop… or marketed online to small church leaders for a mere $249.  Sheesh.  What kind of small church has that kind of dough laying around?  We’ve got toilets to unplug and signs to fix.  I haven’t believed what I was taught about church growth in graduate school for decades.  Don’t tell anybody.

They write as if everybody would want to be part of a megachurch.  The truth is, everybody doesn’t want to be part of a megachurch.  I am part of a church family full of people who prefer to worship, study, and serve in a smaller environment.  Their reasons for being drawn to smaller are as diverse as those who are drawn to large crowds. And their reasons can be just as godly, just as purposeful (or missional, if you’re hip), just as healthy, and just as valid, as reasons that draw others to something big.  Both have equal value. Both are needed. I’m just growing weary of the self-promoting of big, at the expense of the continual disrespecting of smaller, just because big has a larger platform.

They write as if they know my church family.  Even though these writers and promoters and conference creators are really, really smart, they are unfamiliar with the flow and character of my church family.  They don’t know what makes us tick. They don’t fully understand why many tried the megachurch and found it lacking.  It seems like they don’t understand how this can feel like “home” to many.  They make unfounded assumptions that there is something inherently flawed in a smaller church and, therefore, something flawed with somebody who would choose smaller over bigger.  It’s reflected in the way they write and speak. Although I don’t think it reflects their true heart and motive, I’m still offended by their judgment. I feel like I want to take some of them behind the woodshed…

They write as if my leadership giftedness and philosophy of ministry is deficient.  If I would just follow their “best practices”.  If only I would let them identify my leadership weaknesses.  If only I would ruthlessly evaluate my ministry strategy and organizational structure and adopt their recommendations…I, too, could become a large church…or maybe even a megachurch…pastor.  Well, they are making some assumptions about me, about my experience, about my education and preparation for ministry, about my theology, and about my character that are untrue and unfair. I am not deficient.  My worth as a pastor has never been nor will it ever be connected to expansion.

I could probably go on, but I’ll stop.  These are not sour grapes. This is not the rant of a pastor who fell short and is deflecting.  It’s simply my reality. I served for years in the megachurch world. I know it well. I’ve served in the smaller church world for years.  I know it well, also. Both can be unhealthy. Both can be effective. Both can connect with people the other can’t.

It’s time both got equally affirmed.  

There.  I think I feel better now.

Strength

BodybuildingAs I read about the lives and impact of great men and women throughout the ages, especially great leaders, one of the characteristics they share is the ability to stay focused on the goal…to strip away the things that keep them from achieving their dreams (and the vision of the organization they lead) and forge ahead with single mindedness.

The Apostle Paul apparently lived this kind of life.

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

I’ll let you in on one of my struggles: I have always been told that great leaders, in order to achieve great outcomes, must make difficult decisions where relationships… sometimes significant relationships…are the casualties.

This is obvious in the corporate world. CEO’s are hired for their ability to make strong and swift assessments and are rewarded for their resolve and determination to be decisive when it comes to the success of the organization.

A company that exceeds expectations and rises above the riff raff of mediocrity almost always points to leadership that has had to come in and make the “tough decisions”.

In my experience, that means people are often hurt, relationships are severed, dreams can be squashed, and friendships are sent packing…all for the good of the corporation.

Don’t judge me.  Yet, anyway.

I understand the need. Baseball coaches have to cut players that are not good enough and replace them with better ones if they want to win. Businesses must get rid of poor producers and raise up more successful sales people if they want to turn a profit. Bosses need to be bosses…and employees need to know that their jobs are never safe, just because their superiors are “nice people”.  I get it.  I really do.

But what’s supposed to happen in the church? What are we to do when the workers are late or sloppy or ineffective or careless or thoughtless or inconsiderate or unconcerned?

What are we to do when the product we present is second-rate, simply because people aren’t stepping up to help? What if the ministry we perform is substandard or even harmful to the mission? What if there is disagreement with the direction of the organization or a challenge to the leadership position?

What if, in our effort to fix the problem, people get hurt and relationships get torn and friendships get shattered? What if, in spite of our best effort, decisions result in people moving on…empty, disillusioned, angry, or hurt?

Apparently, a strong leader says there is always acceptable collateral damage, as long as the greater good has been served.  

Yeesh.  I’m definitely not feeling particularly strong these days.  I guess I’ll go to the gym tomorrow.

Oops!…I did it again.

Emoji - what was I thinkingThings happen.

I didn’t plan for it.  Honest.  I thought it was part of my past. But here I am doing youth ministry again.  

I’m going to be 64 in a few months.  *smh*

A couple of months ago, I did my first overnight conference with 5th and 6th graders. High school kids are back at my house. Eating my food. Throwing foam footballs and (this time around), playing with my granddaughter’s toys that reside on the living room. I just got back from our spring break mission trip to Houston. Driving a van. Sleeping on an air mattress. Taking crap from high school snarks. I’m adding kid’s performances and games to my calendar, figuring out summer camp and conference schedules, and practicing new songs on my dusty guitar that I haven’t played in years.

…and trying not to forget my daily heart medicine and regular exercise on new metal knees.

I have no idea how this season of my life is going to play out.  Absolutely no clue.  I suppose it would be great if God decided to mic-drop the perfect new youth minister for our kids.  Boom.  I just know I don’t have any time to be out there looking.  And it’s taken all of four months for me to get deeply connected and super protective of this group under my care.

So for now, I’m back to life as it used to be for many years here in Texas: Preaching, leading a church family, and doing youth ministry.  I guess it’s not like I don’t have the resume’…  

Oh.  It’s definitely time to write again.  For me.  Let the therapy begin.

These thoughts really are connected.

ConnectAbout thirteen years ago, I was part of a group of guys who met to create a space for younger (and older) youth ministers to come together, be encouraged, be mentored, face their struggles, and be held accountable to the lives of service, leadership, and example to which they were dedicated.

We travelled to the mountains of Colorado for a week of rest, contemplation, confrontation, relationship-building, study of the Word, counseling, and refining.  The years I co-led this experience were some of the most memorable and meaningful in my life.  I genuinely looked forward to each fall, knowing I would reconnect with old friends and meet many new ones…and be able to pass on wisdom in life and ministry that others (and experience) had taught me.

A few years back, the organization I was partnering with started to have a shift in leadership.  Younger guys began replacing the older ones in positions of influence.  There was a subtle (at the time), but noticeable culture shift in the priorities and structure of the whole organization.  Two years ago, after all those years of investing my time and my heart in this thing I had helped create, I was simply not invited back.  No email.  No phone call.  No Rolex watch for years of service.  I found out by accident.  I assume it’s doing well without me.

If you see the sadness in my face and melancholy in my voice, it’s not because of this shameless act of age discrimination and shunning (this is a joke, people).  I was over it a long time ago.  No, the doom and gloom in my life right now, is more related to the loss of innocence and wonderful memories of my life as a fan of the San Diego Chargers and what’s become of them.  Because of political in-fighting, greed, the machinery of the NFL, and a myriad of other contributing factors, my beloved home team is imploding.

With the threat, and now probably reality, of relocating to Los Angeles, this personal little piece of mindless, entertaining diversion… namely, my lifelong support of the San Diego Chargers… is being shredded.  Opposition fans now outnumber the locals at home games.  Ownership has undermined the team’s ability to put a championship team on the field for years.  Financially hostile transplants to SD refuse to support ballots to build a new stadium.  Being embarrassed by the Oakland Raiduhs yesterday is nearly the final nail in my emotional coffin.

For a guy who has championed change at every intersection, I just want a little stability.  Something from my past to hang on to.  Is that too much to ask?

Our church family is at a crossroads.  Those who God used to build it are aging.  We have been the providers.  The backbone and steadiness that formed the foundation is as strong as ever, but the time is coming for the mantle of leadership, financial support, heart and “ownership” to spread to others.

North Point has meant so much to so many over the years.  Home to the wanderer.  Friend to the rejected.  A place of refuge for those torn apart by the toxic structure of modern church machinery.  A breath of fresh air for those suffocating under the weight of legalism, heavy-handed leadership, doubt, or guilt.

We have never, ever, been the church for most.  We probably never will be.  But for those who have, and will continue to call North Point “home”, the future must remain a reality.  The baton must be passed.  New voices must be heard.  New strategies must be formed.  New people must partner with those of us who are older, to create a new and sustainable leadership in the years to come.

To be honest, I have mostly embraced my aging process.  I am not afraid of growing older and the senior discounts are pretty cool.  I know I cannot keep doing what I do forever.  I am comfortable knowing I am not irreplaceable.  Far from it!  A true test of our effectiveness as leaders, parents, teachers, ministers, counselors, coaches, civic leaders, and the rest, has always been to leave behind a stronger, healthier, bolder legacy.  This must be true of North Point as well.

It’s time to step up, youngsters.

This road I travel…#6

This Road 2I spent many years of my adult life functioning in circles that assumed if your church was small, there was something wrong with it.  I was also led to believe if your church was large and growing in numbers (people, buildings, and budget), it was healthy and receiving God’s blessing.

These two assumptions were simply givens.  And you know what they say about assumptions…

I grew up in a small church, but moved on to the world of big churches in my early twenties.  I became enamored and enthused by growing churches and the dynamic leadership teams that managed the forward movement.

I attended leadership conferences and hung on the words of church growth experts.  Big names and big churches and big strategies and big organizations convinced me of what I needed to do and be, if I dared to embrace the role of leader in the body of Christ.

I even began my personal ascent (such a horrible concept) to significance and recognition in that arena.  I was pursued by much larger churches.  I was encouraged to enlarge my territory and expand my influence. I spoke at conferences.  I was asked to write for publication.  I taught in Bible college.  I lead worship at large outreach events.  I played an Ovation Custom Balladeer, for crying out loud.  With pearl inlay…

But I don’t think my soul was ever at peace in that role.  It was certainly what I did.  But I never wore it well. And in my heart of hearts, this square peg in a round hole was constantly looking for the square hole.

And then North Point happened.  The square hole found me nearly twenty years ago.  1500 miles away from what I had always called home.  The story still amazes me.

My old world would probably pat North Point on the head.  “Hang in there, little camper.  Maybe someday you’ll grow up and become the church God designed for you to be.”   I never would have said that, but there is no doubt we all thought that about small churches.

So wrong.  So very wrong.

There’s a new book out called “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus”, by Chris Smith and John Pattison.  Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

In the beginning, the church ate together, traveled together and shared in all facets of life. Centered as they were on Jesus, these seemingly mundane activities took on their own significance in the mission of God. In “Slow Church”, [the authors] invite us to leave franchise faith behind and enter into the ecology, economy and ethics of the kingdom of God, where people know each other well and love one another as Christ loved the church.

It’s the book I should have written twenty years ago.  I speaks well of my change.

I read a post today that inspired me.  If you are part of the North Point family, read it.  Really.  Read it.  It will inspire you and affirm why you are part of this familyby somebody who has never met even one of us.  If you are not, read it at your own risk.  Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite

I can’t help thinking though, that our Christianity in America is losing something, little by little; that as large, modern churches become the rule in our spiritual landscape, we’re sacrificing the unique, special, artisan expression of Jesus that can only be found in the small and the personal.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shopping at a big box store and picking-up a nationally-known pizza on the way home, but I’ve always believed in “shopping local”, and in supporting the little guy. It’s about retaining something intangible; something elemental; something worth holding onto.

Wow.  The beauty of such finely crafted words touches deep.

I’m no expert

No ExpertA couple of weeks ago, I wrapped up two weeks of teaching at Lakeview Bible College and Seminary in Chennai, India.  I was invited to come as a guest professor to teach on church ministry and leadership.

Usually, those kind of gigs are reserved for the experts.

Clearly, I’m no expert.

The church world is full of successful ministry models.  The seeker-sensitive model.  The purpose-driven model.  The pastor-centric model.  The missional model.  The small-group church model.  The multi-site model.  The family-church model.  The we’re-gonna-get-big-at-any-cost model.

And there are tons of successful big-dog, pastor-leader-teacher experts out there.

Then there’s me.  And the North Point model.

Yeah.  That model.

I’m still working on a name for it.

So far, the best one I can come up with is the “we-don’t-know-what-we’re-doing-but-we’re-having-fun-doing-it” model.

When the Farraclan came to Texas 19 years ago, I came to do youth ministry.  I had a lot of experience in church leadership and church growth and church politics, but the one thing I really knewthe one thing I was comfortable withthe one thing that made sense to me as a Kingdom worker was youth ministry.

So when my best friends asked me to step up and assume the head pastor-leader role in our church family a few years ago, I politely declined the request.  “Are you guys crazy?  This is a sure-fire recipe for disaster!”  

My theology and my methods and my personality and my rule-bending and my frustration with church politics were always easily camouflaged in youth ministry.  As long as kids were coming and learning about the love of Jesus and submitting to Kingdom principles and practice, everybody was happy.  And nobody asked questions.

But moving to the lead-dog role was going to expose me for what I really was.  A youth minister.  To the core.

So when my friends would not back down, I made a fateful proposition.  I said since the only thing I really knew was youth ministry, then they needed to be willing to have our whole church family function like a large youth group.  That’s what I was willing to offer.  I was not willing to start doing things differently.

I believed in my heart that if something of substance worked in youth ministry, then it would work with a whole church full of adults.  And it would be good.  There were no models to learn from.  There were no books to read on the topic.  There were no conferences to attend.  Nobody I knew of had done what we were going to do.  This was going to be totally uncharted territory.

Here has been my conviction:  Kids hang out with each other.  Kids pursue fun.  Kids are open to change.  Kids are willing to be taught and challenged.  Kids are interested in changing the world.  Kids are moved by compassion.  Kids laugh and joke and play.  Kids freely accept others and are not quick to judge.  Kids are not wowed by programs and structures and rules and guidelines.  Kids are honest and speak their minds.  Kids embrace wonder and see doubt and questions as friends.  Friendship means everything to kids.  Faith is instinctive.

And then kids turn into adults.

So what is our model of ministry at North Point?

I don’t really have a clue.  But teaching adults to act like kids again has been a good place to start.