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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Remembering

mlkThere’s a part of my story that very few people know.

In early April, 1963, I was a twelve year old boy living in a wealthy, all-white, bedroom community, about an hour’s drive outside New York City, just inside the Connecticut border.

For about eight months of my first forty years, I lived in New England.  My father and his brother, a pilot for the now-defunct Eastern Airlines, made a decision to go into business together.  So we sold most everything we had, loaded a few belongings into the family Dodge pickup truck, left San Diego, and “took our talents to Ridgefield, Connecticut.”

We lived with my aunt and uncle on their spacious spread in a forested neighborhood, populated by pilots, doctors, and lawyers who commuted to The City for their jobs.  My neighbors were white, my friends were white, my school was white, my entire Little League was white.  And mostly wealthy.

It was a far cry from the fully integrated community, south of San Diego, I had moved from.  But I was twelve…and I adapted to the segregated lifestyle.  As a family, though, we didn’t adapt too well to the frigid cold of the northeastern winter, nor the “coldness” of the New England suburban personality.  We moved home to SoCal at the conclusion of my seventh-grade school year.  We couldn’t even complete one full year!

In 1963, I was completely insulated from what was going on in the world at large.  I was especially unaware of the drama of our nation’s civil rights movement that was unfolding on the national (and international) stage.  I’m sure my parents did, but it was immaterial to our lives.

My little twelve year old world revolved mostly around sports.  Black athletes were just black athletes to me.  I admired their performance, but I was clueless to their journey.  I had heard of Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, but I knew nothing of their significance.  My father pointed out the epic battles of Wilt Chamberlin and Bill Russell, but I wasn’t much of a basketball fan, so I didn’t pay much attention.  The cultural backdrop of the lives of Willie Mays, Althea Gibson, and Jim Brown were anecdotal, at best.

From history books and the early days of television, I knew of Sammie Davis Jr. and Booker T. Washington and Louis Armstrong, but for an insulated twelve year old, they were more caricatures than real people.  And I knew nothing of Dr. Martin Luther King.

But that has all changed.  And so have I.

There is much written and said and memorialized today about the life of MLK.  My words can do no justice to the impact of this man’s life on the world.  I hope you will spend at least a few minutes today reading or watching some of the tributes.  Your life will be richer.  My life as a follower of Christ and a minister of the Gospel has been both inspired and shaped by his words and actions.

If you can make the time to read his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, your life will be richer, your understanding of history deepened, your values challenged, and hopefully, your compassion for the oppressed inspired.

May his call for action in April of 1963 be as clear and bold today, as it was then.

You can read it here: Letter from Birmingham Jail

Welcome to my world

brainIt’s really no secret to those who know me that I never had any aspirations to be THE pastor of a church.  My road to the position I hold at North Point was not the one I chose.  In many ways, it chose me.  I know whenever I speak critically of the position or the role of the pastor, I run the risk of coming across ungrateful or even disappointed in where the path has led.  Not true.

I get to serve alongside some of the most amazing people.  We partner together in genuine kingdom work.  It has been a privilege to teach my understanding of God’s Word to my friends in this church family.  My shortcomings are accepted.  My mistakes are forgiven.  The freedom to be who and what God has gifted me to be, even when I am up in front or carrying out some of the more traditional expectations, is an honor very few in my position are ever afforded.

Thankfulness falls so short…

But that doesn’t mean I rest easy with what I do.  Some of the actions I perform as a regular part of my weekly routine are things that desperately need to be called into question…both Biblically and practically.  Here’s one I will circle back to.  Again.

Why do we continue to make the preaching of a sermon the most important part of our weekly time together as a whole church family…when we have known for decades that monologue teaching is really one of the least effective forms of communication?  Do you even remember the point of last week’s sermon?  Yikes.

Why do we continue to lift up the position of the pastor as the single most important role in the church, when Jesus clearly modeled (and the NT writers clearly taught) the need for a holy man to lead the people was now obsolete?

I know that preaching (and the preacher) have been the sacred cow of the church for hundreds of years…and I am calling into question the role of countless preachers-pastors-evangelists-teachers-orators-and theologians throughout history.  I know this is one step away from heresy to suggest that maybe, just maybe, something is amiss in the plan.  I get it.

But what I see in history, and especially in the modern church, is not the picture I see painted in the Bible.  I know Jesus spoke to big crowds on occasion.  I know the Apostles did likewise.  But the concept of crowds coming to sit at the feet of a particular man, to hear his spin, er… personal  interpretation, on the Bible once a week, just doesn’t cut it for me.

And I’m guilty of doing it!

The body of Christ is full of voices that need to be heard.  Our own church family has stories that need to be told, answers to prayer that would inspire others, praise that needs to be articulated, and communion that needs to be shared.  I think we have a room full of personal insights into Scripture, and life, that would blow us away.  But we are falling short of making a way for this to happen.

I think we could do better.  A lot better.

Pastors shouldn’t blog

blogging 1I don’t really believe that.  But I came close to adopting it as policy.

During my writing sabbatical, I began to struggle with the reality that most of what I was writing about…or wanted to write about…was stuff I was seeing in the lives of people I love and share life with.

This was really nothing new.  For years, I have written about people I know and the stories of their personal journeys.  It has always been pretty easy for me to hide their identities and change the details enough to protect them, while still passing on critique, life lessons, or a challenge to address what’s wrong.

But that had gotten increasingly more difficult.

Honestly, it’s easy for someone to criticize the actions or attitudes of another, when you don’t really know who they are.  When they are at an arm’s distance.  When they are on the other side of a computer monitor.  When they sit in an ivory tower or underneath a freeway overpass.

When they have no names, they aren’t real people.

It can be even more complicated for pastors.  I follow a number of high-profile christian types who constantly come out with both barrels loaded, criticizing and judging all “types” of people who claim to follow Jesus.  They find fault with church leadership and rail against different theologies.  They condemn certain behaviors, while praising those they see as superior. They write boldly to the anonymous, generalized “other”

And they do it from pulpits with moats of separation.  They do it from insulated board rooms and the protective confines of inner circles.

But I can’t hide like that.  I walk with people who sin just like I do.  I share meals and laughter and shortcomings with people I call friends.  I see the failures of people whose names I know and paths I share and messes I wade into.  I see myself in them.  As a pastor, I can’t play dumb to what I see.  I can’t ignore what is wrong and needs to be fixed.  I can’t turn a blind eye.  I’m a card-carrying people helper.

But a blog or a post from the safety of my recliner and the protection of a screen is not the place to do it.  And that’s where I have found myself the past year…fighting the urge to call out the unhealthy and damaging behaviors of the people I love from this unfiltered internet stage.  So I experienced a sort of paralysis.

And I think it was a good thing.

So I am now ready to move forward and write again.  Most sin is common to all.  The only difference is degree.  I’ll continue to work hard to protect the identities of my friends, while confronting those things that damage us, separate us, and undercut the grace of God.

But it sure would be a lot easier to live insulated from real friendship and calloused to the effect of my words on others.

On second thought, pastors really shouldn’t blog.

Maybe you’ve seen this

Stomach acheI hate posting this.

I really do.

But I have a good reason.

This is a tape of an episode of Inside Edition that has been making the rounds on Facebook over the past month or so.  I actually saw it when it first appeared on television a few years ago.  You can watch it here, if you want.  It’s getting a lot of play and it’s stirred up a lot of fan fur.  And it’s not pretty.

It’s a fairly condemning expose of the lifestyles and ministries of some big-time pastor-televangelists.  I probably shouldn’t care, but this is my fraternitythe fraternity of people who draw a salary from the generosity of people who drop money in an offering box every week.

And if you know me, it’s generally a fraternity I try really hard to keep from admitting I’m a part of.

The fraternity of paid pastors no longer enjoys favored status in our culture.  The club has pretty much taken it on the chin ever since their shenanigans started to go viral back in the 70’s.  This video is just another in the long line of Cousin Eddie stuff that, even though we all know it exists, needs to stay in the closet.

I wish people these days didn’t have to sift through this stuff to experience the love of God.  I wish celebrity pastors and out-of-control church leaders and the over-focus on money and edifices and pastoral authority and theological snobbery and slick production were not the filters people had to use to interpret the incarnation.

Truth?  It’s part of our landscape and it won’t be going away.

So dig in.  Be faithful.  Act normal.  Live simply.  Give generously.  Expect nothing in return.  Extend mercy.  Bring hope.  Point only to Jesus.

It will all work out fine.  I’ve read the end of the book.

If you haven’t seen it yetand you have a bottle of antacids nearbyhere’s the video:

Glad to be me. Most days.

paparazzimonday mornings are usually a time to catch up on current events…what’s going on in culture, both pop and church.  i quick-read various news sources, check out about 25-30 of my most trusted bloggers, and open a handful of social commentaries that are emailed directly to me.

most of the time, i enjoy staying informed.  i love seeing how culture is shaped…new trends…and how lifestyle shifts from day to day.  i know there are people who are uncomfortable with change.  they long for “the good old days”, when life was simpler and less cluttered by technology, media and the moral ambiguity of our post-modern world.

me?  not so much.   maybe it’s just because of the way i’m wired or because of a lifetime of hanging around teenagers (always the frontline of cultural shift), but no matter the reason,  i suppose i’ve always been more comfortable with change than most.

so reading about it is one of the ways i stay aware…and emotionally prepared for the inevitable realities we will all have to live through.  but it doesn’t mean i have to like all of it.

this morning, i read about things a number of big-name, high-profile pastor types did over the past few weeks to make headlines.  if those things are true, as reported…i’m disgusted.  if they are only partially true…i’m just deeply saddened.  either way, i find it hard to believe (based on the trustworthiness of those who are reporting, imo) they are completely innocent and victims of slander.

it makes me feel three things:

first, i’m grateful my life and the church i call my family flies below the radar.  i rest knowing that my opinion is not coveted by the masses…my interpretation of the bible only means something to the people who know me…my “sound bites” are not being recorded…and the paparazzi is not following me around to capture my mundane life for the world to judge.  whew.

second, i so wish the church was not judged by the antics of celebrity, mega-church guys (some, not all).  with great fame and power, comes great responsibility.  my heart aches when those in the spotlight don’t use their platform wisely.   (and for the record, being at the bottom of the church food chain is no excuse to live irresponsibly.  size and integrity are mutually exclusive.)

third, judging others is risky business.  yesterday, while i was sermonizing, i said something that took 24 hours to sink into me.  personally.

the great news of the gospel is,  though i am deeply flawed and full of sin and self-centeredness and definitely more than i am ever willing to admit to myself or others…i am still more loved, more forgiven, more accepted than i can fully comprehend.  and those two realities exist in my life every day.  

the “good” me and the “bad” me coexist simultaneously.  and that’s what makes grace such an amazing thing.

so easy to receive.  so difficult to give.

I just can’t get rid of this burr under my saddle…

Burra burr is a small seed which has stiff bristles or hooks around it.  once a burr has grabbed on to something, it does not want to let go.  when a burr gets under a horses saddle, it annoys the animal causing it to be testy  and angry, as the burr digs into its flesh causing discomfort.  this same reaction occurs in me.

last week, there was a pretty disgusting video floating around showing a pastor going wacky on his church family during a sermon.  if you haven’t seen it, you can check it out here.  to me, its just another example of a pastor believing it’s his church and his flock and his position and his his calling and his reputation.

his words and his tone and his assumptions are sickening.  i don’t understand why the people just sat there and let him spew.  i guess because they believe he is god’s man for them.  he’s their shepherd.  he’s their leader.

it’s bad.  it’s toxic.  it’s abusive.  it’s totally ridiculous.  but i don’t fault the pastor completely.  he’s just pushing the envelope on what this position has been allowed to become.  what i see today is simply the 21st century version of what happened when the church and rome got in bed together back in the 3rd century.  power corrupts.

and following jesus has never been about power.

fast forward to this morning.  i just finished reading a short post about leadership.  here’s a snippet:

“Pessimists can’t lead when the focus stays on what can’t be done”.

My experience:  things don’t get done in many churches because of all the reasons they can’t be done or because of all the reasons things won’t work.

That church, my friend, has a pessimistic leader.

Don’t get me wrong.  Don’t be stupid.  Don’t do stupid things.

But if all you ever hear from your leader is why things won’t work, or why things can’t happen… maybe you need to start looking for a new leader.

Because this much is true:  nothing WILL happen when you have a leader like that.

Pessimists CAN’T lead.

Don’t keep them in charge.

i don’t disagree with the premise.  strong, healthy organizations generally have strong, decisive, optimistic leaders.  i get it.  but i also see something else.

throughout history, the role of pastor-minister-shepherd-reverend-elder-bishop-priest-rector-whatever turned into a power position.  power in the church.  power in politics.  power in the community.  the reverend was to be revered.  and it’s only gotten worse as history drags on.

and somewhere along the line, during my lifetime, we began substituting the word “leader” for the word “shepherd”.    we started  to refer to the church as an organization in need of strong leadership.  if the church was going to do anything (i.e., grow, expand, build, hire, influence, impact, innovate, etc…), it needed a leader to pave the way.

and we needed to keep hiring and firing until we got it…get it.. right.

and not just any kind of leader.  we wanted…no, needed…a strong man.  a decisive man.  a gifted man.  a man with vision and influence and personality and charisma.  a man who could motivate and inspire and encourage and persuade.  a man people would respect and follow.  a man who would lead us to new heights and to be everything we could never be on our own.

wow.  i just inspired…me.

don’t get me wrong.  i admire great leaders.  i’m a big fan of vince lombardi and general patton and a few of our presidents and my first boss at the boy’s club of national city.  i guess i just have this continued problem with a man being the singular “leader” of a church.

i don’t see it in the bible.  i don’t see it in the heart of jesus.  i don’t see it in the history of the first century church.

but i see it…and hear it…loud and clear these days.  and unfortunately, we often get more…or less…than what we are asking for.

and i can’t help but think we are somehow missing the point of why jesus died on the cross.