Sunday, October 24, 2010

Managing Perceptions in Ministry is Impossible

What do you do when what you see isn’t seen by everyone?

Example: From where I sit on the bridge of the ship, things are going incredibly well at Zion Lutheran Church and the Lord is doing great things in our midst.

A quick rundown of the stuff that to me, is obvious:
a). We’re seeing a lot of visitors to our events and services and those visitors are coming back again and again.
b).Wednesday nights have just surpassed Sunday mornings for kids, youth, and adult class attendance. We are really blessed and thankful.
c). There is so much enthusiasm and excitement as you walk the halls at Zion.
d). We’re serving more people than ever before at Wednesday night dinners. Like nearly 33% more than last year.
e). Adult classes are well attended
f). There is a real heart for doing mission developing in our members.
g). 20 kids are now coming from the DTA for Bible lessons and tutoring. And they are so full of joy to be here.
h). More classes and kids mean more volunteers and those needs are being met.

I think these are things we ought to celebrate and praise God for in a big way. It’s the Lord that is at work and we need to acknowledge what he’s doing.

But the recent days have revealed a battle of perceptions of sorts. I’m told there are “some people” who see things differently. Namely, a.) The staff is somehow underemployed, and, b.) Our church is obviously dying, having no money and no volunteers. Wow. Now that’s a pretty big gap in perceptions. But it’s easy to see how a person can see that.

For instance, if you attend church sporadically, never go downstairs to where the classes are, never go to Wednesday night church, never converse with anyone who has seen the good things, and haven’t attended any of the outreach or celebration events we’ve done this year, then yes, I can see how you’d come to the conclusions you’ve come to. So I invite you, personally, “come and see.” Jesus is on the move and we’re doing our best to keep up with him. We have had a rough 18 months-2 years financially. But things are stabilizing, praise God. Over these difficult months something wondrous has happened: we’ve changed from a church where five families gave 20% of the budget to a church of many smaller givers who are all invested in our mission. It’s glorious to see how God has even transformed us through these months of “suffering” to be ready for what he wants to do next.

I have to admit that it’s hard for me, personally, to hear misperceptions about our staff, whom I work with every day and love as colleagues and fellow sojourners for the Gospel. My tendency is take it personally. After all, the staff report to me, if they aren’t doing their jobs, I must be a terrible boss and must have made bad choices in hiring them. But I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here. I think rather that we are dealing with the simple fact that as we grow, as we reach out to our neighborhood and world, our staff does more and more and their roles change. They may not be in the office when you drop by. They might be out picking up supplies, meeting with volunteers, or even working from the quiet of home. Or maybe they’re resting because they were ministering until late in the night. I know they’re doing great work or we wouldn’t be seeing the kinds of things happening that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

Someone suggested I publish a list of all the things the staff and I do, and maybe when we do them. Get the information to the folks and stop the misperceptions. In this case, though, this most obvious of solutions is fraught with spiritual peril. I know too many pastors and church workers who feel the need to justify their jobs every day by telling people how busy they are. Instead of telling people “how’” they are, they “report out” about what they’re doing. This usually causes the other person to go away impressed. I think it leads to spiritual pride, however, on the part of the one reporting out. I also believe it’s wrong to make people justify their jobs when we are experiencing such blessings from God right now.

Nearly 50% of pastors in our country are in one of the stages of burnout. These are national, pan-denominational statistics. Stress is a major cause of this burnout. The chief stressor in a pastor or church worker’s life, according to studies, is a failure to manage the perceived expectations of others in the church. In other words, it is the opinion of many church workers that people in the church expect 24 hour service, 110% commitment, 110% quality, and they don’t want to pay much for it (after all, you’re called by God, you’ll get your reward). Frequently, I’m convinced that just about everybody thinks they could do our job better than we can. And we welcome them to try.

Church work is hard work. You compromise your family and personal boundaries frequently for the sake of the mission. And mission is risky. It requires sacrifice. At the end of the day, it’s a real blessing to know there are people who didn’t pursue a big job with a great salary in order to serve the Lord by tending and growing his flock.

I give thanks to God for all the great things he’s doing at Zion, for all the great people he’s gathered here, for the many volunteers that make ministry possible, and for the great staff he’s called to equip us for mission. It’s time to praise him for all our blessings and re-commit ourselves to following him. Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mission is Risky

Previously I’ve taken the church to task for a lack of faith that has led to a lack of mission. In other words, if we don’t believe what our sacred Scriptures say about God and what he can do, why would we be bold in proclaiming him? Our issue, I speculated, is a failure to “believe.”

But our reasons for not being the kind of people Jesus called us to be in the world are bigger than that. This week I realized something else. Our failure to “believe” has also resulted in a really terrible thing: a failure to love. Before we do mission to the world we really have to learn to love the world the way that Jesus, our Master, loves the world. Not loving the world for what it can give us or do for us and not loving it in a licentious way, but rather, loving it from the perspective of God. Seeing the world as God’s fallen creation in need of the redemption that our Master has accomplished for it by his death on the cross and resurrection. Seeing it as a wayward child, a prodigal, that needs to be reconciled with it’s Creator Father.

Our lack of love is accentuated by a great fear. We, in the church, I posit, are afraid of just about everything and our fear keeps us from doing the mission we were called to. And so we sit on our hands and wait for people to come to us instead of going out onto the highways and byways and compelling them to come in. John tells us in his first letter (4:18), “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Our failure to love God and our neighbor and the world that our God created have resulted in fear which keeps us from engaging the very people Jesus calls us to engage.

To sum up, mission is risky and we don’t love enough to take the risks we have to in order to reach out to a world that desperately needs to hear the Good News. Think about it. Jesus says, “Go.” That’s risky. Safer to stay at home. He says, “Into all the world and make disciples of every nation.” That’s risky, too. They might say, “no.” They might laugh at us, hurt us, even kill us. Jesus told us to baptize them into the name of God and to teach them to obey everything he’s commanded us. Talk about risky. Have you heard about all the liability issues schools have? Educating people isn’t safe. It’s risky.

So here’s my week which serves as an excellent illustration of what I’m trying to explain:

We want local community groups to use our building. One such group had a huge event at our facility recently and hundreds if not a thousand people came through our doors and saw our Jesus stuff. But at least one of them had a bad experience at the event and, because it was in our building, held me and the church responsible. She was really upset and my attempts to calm her down and point her in the direction of the responsible community group leaders completely failed. Zion and Jesus got a black eye because we were trying to be generous with what God has provided us. Some would look at this and say, “See, better that our building be our building for our use only.” But I don’t think so. Without risk there can be no mission.

After said large event, which lasted for days, the parking lot was a mess. I walked out one evening, when it was all over, and was just, well, er, shocked. There were empty water bottles, half eaten fast food meals in and out of bags, and other assorted rubbish strewn all over. Got most of it picked up, but hey, just a reminder, mission is messy. And let’s face it, a lot of our traditional “church people” don’t want to pick up the mess or even take the risk of the mess because it just means more work. So why take the chance? Because mission is risky.
Got a call a while ago from a woman who wanted someone to go driving with her and help her get her license. Since we had no previous association with her, I felt it was important that we meet her and make sure she was, well, “safe,” as a person before we asked for help from the congregation to drive with her. And wouldn’t you know it, the insurance company told our volunteer driver it was too risky to go driving with this woman and the driver told the woman it was too risky. Then we got the hate letter of all hate letters from the woman who called us “cowards.” And she is right. Without risk there can be no mission. Without risk there can be no love.
Recently I went door to door in the neighborhood around our church. One of the things I wanted to do was to give our neighbors an invitation to make our building and grounds their own. Use our playground. Use our parking lot. Use this or that. I figured our Board would want me to talk to the insurance company before I was so magnanimous. So I did. What a mistake. Turns out merely having neighbors is a risk, let alone inviting them to use your stuff. Turns out there isn’t enough money in the world, let alone the undercapitalized church, to buy enough coverage to be generous with what God has given us to use and give away in his name. So I bought the neighbors gift cards to a local restaurant instead. I suppose if they choke or get food poisoning it will be my fault. Mission is risky. And lawyers and insurance companies can provide a lot of excuses to stay home with the door locked and not do it.

The end result? The conclusion? Mission is risky. Love is risky. Following Jesus is risky. I think there are times when you just have to stare down your fear and choose to live by faith. Choose to believe. So far, our Master hasn’t ever let us down. It’s time to get up off our pews and get out there. Risk or not, our future is in the command of our Master, “Go!”

The original 12 apprentices of Jesus did worry about the risks involved in following him. They tried to anticipate what the costs would be. He told them to “Go. Preach. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.” (Mt 10:7-10 paraphrase). Mission is risky. But our Master can manage the risk. We just need to be obedient. Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ