Thursday, July 23, 2009

A 21st century church system failure

So at the end of May I was on vacation with my family in Seattle. We had a rental mini-van and it had a gift from God just to me: Sirius satellite radio. Jazz, 24/7. No talk. No commercials. No breaking for NPR news. It was pure grace. For 2 weeks I didn’t hear the news. I had no idea what was going on in the outside world and I liked it. Why? Because the world is too much with us and its fun to get away and escape.

When I got home I had some catching up to do. So I went to the usual places to find out what was going on in the world. I don’t take the local city paper or any other paper. One of my former colleagues used to cut out the articles for me so I could stay current. She was like my own private clipping service. But I don’t have that anymore.

I trust one network to give me a synopsis of the news; one website to keep me current on what’s happening in the greater culture; and one or two magazines to give me an update on everything professional.

There simply isn’t time to process all the information that’s out there. I want the gist and if I’m interested, I can go find out more. So I rely on a few select outlets to be a kind of clipping service for me.

It occurs to me that one of the serious systems failure we have in the church is that I, the preacher, have become a kind of religious clipping service for my flock. They come for an hour a week and expect me to download the gist of what they need to be christians for the week.

But following Jesus doesn’t work that way at all. You can’t rely on others to give you the gist. You have to relate to him personally. He didn’t say, “get the gist from the preacher and follow me,” he said, “Deny yourself daily, take up your cross and follow me.” In other words, you can’t do discipleship from a church clipping service. You have to live it, breathe it, work it, struggle with it, deny yourself and pick up your cross yourself. No short cuts.

The systems failure comes about in that I think we who do church professionally play too easily into people’s desire to do faith easily and then move on to the next thing. Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Pastors Head and Home are Scary Places to Be

Wow, hard to believe that it’s been so long since I blogged. I have pages of notes of things I’d like to share with you but time and space have been in short supply. I wouldn’t even be sitting down now, grabbing a few minutes between appointments, but this one sort of wrote itself in my head and I had no choice but to crack open the lap top and write.

Luther once wrote: “Every preacher should exhibit two things. First, a blameless life by which he can defy the world and no one have cause to slander the teaching, and second, irreproachable teaching, that he may mislead none that follow him.”

In my experience in growing up in a pastor’s home and now being one myself, it’s that first one, the “blameless life by which he can defy the world” that is the kicker. It’s easier to preach pure doctrine than it is to live it. It’s easier to preach about how we shouldn’t be so busy than it is to actual not be so busy you lose your way.

So there is this coffee shop in town I go to sometimes when I need a place to work besides the office. Somewhere where I can think clearly and without interruption. What you need to know is that this particular coffee shop is frequented by an alarming number of pastors from all over town. I guess we all have a need to be outside the office sometimes. I was happily working away, thinking great thoughts, minding my own business when the conversation three tables over intruded upon my inner peace and purpose.

Two guys, late forties, casual dress. Topic: their fall sermon series. Gosh, turns out one guy is going to do something similar to what we’re doing. Darn! After the pleasantries it’s on to the hard stuff. Oh no, its an accountability meeting. Two pastors meeting together and asking about the hard stuff in their life and telling each other the truth.

“Are offerings still bad?” “Yup.” “What are you doing about it?” “No more college fund for the kids.” “Stopped making retirement contributions to my IRA.” “Pulling in the belt everywhere.” “Church can’t afford me.”

“How’s the wife?” “Still struggling with depression?” “Is she seeing anyone?” “How are you coping?” “I’m cooking and cleaning and trying to help out.”

“How’s your health?” “Cholesterol is 216.” “Mine’s 260.” “What are you doing about it?” “I don’t have time to exercise.”

I know I should have left sooner just to be polite and give them some privacy, it’s just that I got sucked in. I got sucked in because their struggles sound so much like my life it’s scary. Why should I be surprised? Surveys continue to show that clergy rates of heart attack, divorce, suicide, depression, alcoholism and bankruptcy are all among the highest of any profession. Right up there with policemen. A former bishop told me he knew that 2/3rds of the pastors in our denominational district are on depression meds.

Why is that the best job in the world, getting to tell people about Jesus, has such a shocking level of sick practitioners? I think it must have something to do with the expectations we place on ourselves and which other people have of us as well.

Like the fire department, we’re to be on call 24/7. When people need us they expect us to be there for them.
There is no room for error in our preaching/teaching or our private lives and if we start to get into trouble somehow, there isn’t anyone we can go to for help. We can’t risk telling people about our own personal struggles for fear they will lose respect for us and no longer submit to our teaching.
We have all the risk of small businessmen but almost none of the rewards.
People expect us to put the church first and our own lives and families second and if we don’t, there is frequently trouble.
People perceive that we work only one day a week and have no real idea about the myriad things that are expected of us, including, when necessary, cleaning the church.
If we’re involved in giving direction we’re controlling. If we aren’t involved in giving direction we’re either aloof or a bad leader or not doing our job.
If we talk about how wonderful things are at church we’re egotistical and if we don’t talk about what’s happening at church people think nothing is happening at church and lose interest.
People are angry that they don’t feel the presence of God during worship but when they do they are also likely to blame the pastor for what the Spirit of God does to them or say the didn’t want “that much religion.”
You get the point.

How do you fix this? Well, the answer may very well be that you have to do church differently. Many of the expectations we have of pastors these days come about because of the old European parish system and are not biblical at all. And just as the world has changed considerably in the last 500 years, the model of how we do ministry also needs to change.

But change is scary and in a world of constant change people want something familiar, someone they can count on, someone to come and comfort them when they need it. So it is an extraordinary church that can break free from the past and forge a new model.

I leave this topic now, unresolved, because as yet, I myself am not certain how to fix it. I only know that the model of ministry we use has to change because the world has changed and because we need to figure out a way to make being a pastor a sustainable life so that the pastor can, by his life, “defy the world.” Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ