The Skywalker Letters #7

Jedi Warrior,

Thirty-five years ago, I was taught a lesson that would shape my thinking and inform nearly every leadership decision I would make going forward in my life as a pastor, a husband, a dad, and a friend.

Back then, when I served as a youth minister in a large church, our senior pastor of over thirty years, died suddenly.  It was a stunning, unexpected loss.  

Shortly after his death, I received a phone call from a really big dog preacher from a really big dog church.  He called to ask me if I would be interested in leaving where I was and joining his staff as their youth minister.  His pitch? A fat salary…more resources…superior facilities…advanced systems…deeper pockets…a larger audience…more prestige…and greater influence.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Apparently, me.

Honestly, I was pretty offended by his approach.  He clearly didn’t know me and what, if anything, would catch my eye or grab my heart.  Money… resources…facilities…systems…meh. But there was one part of the offer that created a pause.

Influence.

He asked me if I was interested in widening my influence.  He challenged me with the thrill of reaching a larger audience and seeing my ministry breadth expand.  His appeal reminded me of the Bible passage used to appeal to our sense of leadership duty: expansion.

Jabez called out to the God of Israel, “If only you would greatly bless me and expand my territory! May your hand be with me! Keep me from harm so I might not endure pain!”  And God gave him what he asked for.

1 Chronicles 4:10

(Btw…I have a few problems with some of the interpretations of this passage in the Prayer of Jabez book that was popular back in the early 2000’s.  Anybody surprised?)

But while my sense of obedience and commitment to Kingdom work was being tantalized by the aroma of a godly responsibility to pursue bigger and better and more, Wanda (my personal, tangible voice of God) spoke wisdom and sensibility to the situation:

“Why do you need more influence?  Why not be faithful to the people God has already put into our lives?”

And with that, a personal theology of ministry was cemented in our lives.

I used to believe that influence was determined by breadth.  I no longer believe that. Although influence can be realized on a grander scale in some cases, I prefer to evaluate my influence by a different measuring stick.  I’ll take depth over breadth every time. Increasing the number of people I influence no longer holds an appeal to me. Deepening the quality of my influence does.

After all these years, I know myself pretty well.  I am neither wired nor gifted to communicate to masses.  I just connect better to people I know. I want to see people’s eyes when I talk and I want to know their stories, if I am going to speak truth to their hearts.  

Maybe God really does call some people to have an ever-widening circle of influence.  Mega-large church buildings get filled. Jesus books get sold by the truck load. New spiritual conferences pop up like weeds and people flock to them to hear the best, brightest, and most successful.  Maybe that’s the kind of influence Jesus died on the cross for. Maybe not. I’m not smart enough to figure that one out.

But thankfully, young skywalker, this one nugget of significant truth seeped into my heart years ago because Wanda had enough confidence…and enough sense… to challenge the dominant church leadership message of our day and speak the words I needed to hear:  

We don’t need more influence.  We need better influence.

Be faithful, Noob. Be faithful.

Back-row Yoda

The Skywalker Letters #6

Jedi Noobie,

I’ve been at this pastoring thing for 47 years.  Warning young skywalkers of impending dangers…ledges, landmines, wolves dressed as lambs, or just the never-ending speed bumps that pop up when they are least expected…could easily be a full-time job.  

I will sign up for the part-time version.  It’s the best I’ve got right now. So listen carefully.

There is something potentially intoxicating about being “the guy”.  Being the one who is up in front, speaking words of godly wisdom, inspiring people with your unique interpretation of the holy writ, holding their attention with entertaining stories, watching them nod in agreement, and seeing their heads bob with laughter at your snappy sarcasm or well-timed comedic lines. 

I see the danger.  After all these years, I can still get sucker punched once in a while with the spiritual aphrodisiac of the sacred stage.  Yeesh.

That’s why I am so grateful for the painful lessons I was not spared from, by a loving God who rescued me from myself and my self centeredness time and time again in my youthful journey to be useful in my service of the great King. 

Young men (and now women) begin their ascent to spiritual stardom with a certain naivete and humble innocence.  We are led to believe that being the speaker (preacher, pastor, evangelist, prophet, teacher, leader), up front and proclaiming God’s word with power and authority is THE ultimate calling.

And the bigger the audience…the wider the influence…the more important the crowd…well, the greater the significance of that calling will be.  There were two huge lessons I learned from being duped by that wild goose chase:

In my 20’s and 30’s, I was asked to speak and lead at numerous large church-related events…conferences, camps, retreats, and the like.  Some were national events. I even had the opportunities to speak internationally. I was an “up and comer”. I was a youth minister at a church of some notoriety.  I had a lot of the trappings of spiritual leadership success. I knew a lot of the right people. I suppose I even had something to say that was worth hearing. I was definitely on the fast track to the spotlight and the path to bigger and better.

But then it happened.  I didn’t see it right away.  Probably because the stage lights can have kind of a blinding effect, if you’re not careful.  I enjoyed dancing in the whirlwind of perceived importance and the special treatment that is afforded to the talking heads and stage stars…so much so that it took a while for me to recognize (and even longer to admit) I was not being invited BACK to speak and lead at most of these events.

I was often a “one hit wonder”.  Others who were newer, flashier, and frankly better than me, were invited to do the things I did.  I even went to a conference and listened to another guy lead the same session I led a year earlier…with my material!  Talk about feeling defeated…

But it was during those early ministry years I finally outgrew my spiritual diapers.  I began to see the stage and the crowds and the notoriety with different eyes.  It was then I came to understand the goal was not to be a bigger voice to a bigger crowd.  As a matter of fact, I really came to believe the church world’s infatuation with celebrity speakers and singers was unhealthy and damaging to real kingdom work. That’s for another post sometime…

And it took coming face to face with my own inadequacies to realize it.

I am truly not any good at speaking to large groups.  There. I said it. I get nervous and fumble over my words. The spotlight truly scares me. But my sweet spot is speaking to people I know and people I walk through the fire with.  When I’m speaking, I need eye contact. I need heart contact. I need context. I treasure listening to the stories of people who listen to me.  My words are personal because our friendships are personal.

I cannot relate to preachers or teachers who speak to a 1000 or 10,000.  I cannot relate to speaking to people with generic stories, generic struggles, generic sin.  I have spoken to crowds like that and my message inevitably falls flat and hallow. I end up speaking to the back wall.

I wouldn’t invite me back either.

But put me with my people, my friends, and I thrive.  My sorry jokes and sarcasm receive the moans of folks who know me and trust me.  My mistakes are patiently overlooked by circles of people who share broken bread and broken lives with me.  The words of Jesus are spoken again to real pain and real fear.

And I can speak personally and confidently of the hope those words of Jesus can bring.

Skywalker, don’t be deceived by the stage and the adulation of the crowd.  Learn to be content with who you are and how God has wired you. That is the better way.

The second lesson will be on the way soon,

Back-row Yoda

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.

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.