When You Want the Preacher to Move On

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

I’ve been poking around the Paul Powell Legacy Library, an online resource that contains audio, video, and writings from the aforementioned Texas Baptist preacher, who served as pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas for seventeen years. Paul was and continues to be an influential person in my life.

One of those audio files is called, “Funny Stories I Like to Tell.” The audio runs forty five minutes. That’s a lot of jokes.

Paul sets up one of these jokes by inviting the people of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, whom Paul was then serving as interim, to pray for the pulpit committee. Paul said that it is harder to get rid of a preacher than it is to find one, and that’s why it is important to call a good one, and to pray for those who are responsible for the search.

Paul then said:

A church had a pompous preacher they wanted to get rid of. They prayed that he would leave. They recommended him everywhere. But no one would call him.

Finally he received a call to be a pastor in another place. The Sunday he resigned he said, “When I came here five years ago, Jesus led me here. And now Jesus is leading me away.”

When he was finished the chairman of the deacons stood and said, “Let’s all sing, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’”

Brother Paul was known for his sense of humor, and even compiled a number of his jokes in a book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Retirement.

I think humor is such an indispensable quality to look for in a leader, not only for the capacity to make others laugh, but in the ability to laugh at your own goofs, mess ups, and mistakes. When I find a good joke, I like to hang on to it.

And to tell it.

From the Religion Section of Recycled Books

We were in Denton over the weekend and the family dropped in on Recycled Books. I’ve had this spot on my radar for a few years now. Was glad to make a visit.

This cartoon was taped to one of the end caps, and clearly they’ve painted since it went up. The joke here is a commentary on the state of church buildings, and thus the church as a whole. When you invest institutionally in building a facility, you also have to plan to maintain it. Leaders might not like it if someone asks how much it will cost to keep the lights on, paint the walls, replace the roof, or update the plumbing, but that’s wisdom. You don’t only count costs for the short term, you take the long view. That’s good household management.

As far as seminary education goes, while ministry leaders should have some knowledge of sound administration, if energy isn’t directed primarily toward knowledge of the Scriptures, wisdom from church history, sound theological method, and practical and pastoral art and skill, it’s only a matter of time before the pipes fail, the roof collapses, and the books aren’t kept. Why? Because the people who comprise God’s household—the body of Christ—will have long since withered.

First things first.

Five Good Thoughts: Pastoral Wisdom on Anxiety and Depression

Jack Bodenhamer asked me to join him for a podcast/videocast put together by the Truett Church Network, and here it is!

The five thoughts?

  1. God is good.
  2. Hardships are real.
  3. Help is available.
  4. Resources I like.
  5. Healing is possible.

The books I mentioned? Stephen Ilardi’s The Depression Cure, J. P. Moreland’s Finding Quiet, and Tom Nelson’s The Flourishing Pastor.

“People Don’t Know How to Share Their Faith”

Molly and I were on a walk one evening, and we talked about the notion or idea, commonly spoken among pastoral leaders, that people don’t know how to share their faith.

One thought: “People share their faith all the time.”

The question becomes, then, the substance of that faith. Is it faith in the God of Christianity, the God who is Trinity? Or some other deity, or some other center of authority? Is it a faith that is classically orthodox, or heterodox? Trust in the sacred, or the secular? Strong faith, or weak faith? Immature faith, or mature faith? Which faith? In whom, or what?

Faith sharing and evangelism are two distinct practices. Evangelism is the sharing of the gospel, which has both content and implications. You can be living in line with the good news, and thereby share your faith. When your actions (word, or deed) are then illumined by the core of your convictions, another layer is added. Proclamation is paired with demonstration. Witness is bolstered by evidence, the testimony of a way of life.

Ministers equip their people when they help them see and understand the various ways they share their faith, every day. And they go one step forward when they help their people understand the truths and doctrines of the Christian faith with clarity, and invite them to discover the ways convictions work themselves out in the world. Compassionate action is faith sharing. Listening is faith sharing. Offering wise counsel and advice, if offered as a Christian, is faith sharing. Practicing hospitality and visiting the sick is faith sharing. Having integrity in the workplace is faith sharing. Remaining faithful to your spouse and raising your children is faith sharing. If you are working out core convictions as a Christian in speech and action, you are sharing your faith.

When your actions are then narrated and named as being the outworking of these core convictions, witness is deepened, and furthered. After all, part of the Christian calling is to preach the gospel and to make disciples of all people. This work consists of no less than making an announcement that forgiveness of sins has been made possible and is on offer, that Jesus has been raised and now reigns. But winsomeness in witness involves much more, an invitation to a shared way of life in Christ, who now lives in those who believe.

Obscurity as a Good

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

As pastoral shepherds, there are times God places us in visible roles and on visible stages, but we must embrace these stewardships with great prayer and multiple layers of accountability. If God wants you to be more visible, it is wise and protective of your soul to let him put you there in his way and in his perfect timing.

I like to think of shepherding pastoral calling like a turtle on a fencepost. I am reminded regularly that no turtle gets to the top of a fencepost on its own. Someone has to put the turtle there. This is true for every pastoral leader. However low or high your pastoral ministry fencepost, make sure you are not trying to crawl to the visible top on your own. If God want you there, let God unmistakably put you there.

Tom Nelson, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership

Nelson writes here about pastoral ambition and the desire some have for success, notoriety, and fame. Bigger pulpits, bigger congregations, and bigger influence. He warns against this impulse. He acknowledges the ways obscurity can be good, and how God can use corners of quiet service to refine, shape, and prepare leaders for future ventures.

But notice, too, that Nelson states that a pastoral ministry fencepost, whether it be low or high, is a fencepost, a setting where God places you. No matter your assignment, you did not get there on your own. It’s a trust to be received. You are there for a purpose and a reason, and that there is work there for you to do as a steward in God’s house. There is a Word to preach and people to serve. To be entrusted with responsibility is a privilege. You’ve been chosen.

This is an important truth for pastors to remember. It recalibrates our approach to pastoral work. Seek the right post, for the right reasons, at the right time, and trust that God has work for you to do, and work to do in you, wherever and to whomever he calls you.

It is a helpful truth for congregants to remember, too. Be discerning when you call your pastor. Seek the right person, not necessarily the most credentialed, accomplished, or impressive person. Ask God to guide you, maybe even to obscure places, to find the person God has prepared to best serve your congregation.

Time Horizon

As a church-planting pastor one of the most important questions I had to consider from the very beginning was what time horizon would animate the architectural design and mission of the church we were launching. While we had the timeless horizon of eternity as our ultimate aim, the timely horizon of an enduring institution that would serve multiple generations and outlast our lives was paramount. Whether we are building a company, an organization, or a life, having a longtime horizon in view is crucially important for any pastor. The pastoral calling embraces a longtime horizon, knowing God’s view of time is vastly different from ours. The apostle Peter, hopeful that Jesus would return in his lifetime, puts it this way: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). Though we anticipate the day when God will close the curtain of time in human history, if our vocation calling is limited to something that can be accomplished merely in our lifetime, the scope of our thinking is woefully inadequate. On the other hand, we recognize the brevity of our temporal journey and the importance of stewarding time well. The psalmist not only points us to an endless eternal time horizon but also a short temporal horizon. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). With the strong tug of eternity in our hearts, we seek to embody wise lives in the here and now.

Tom Nelson, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership

I think this is important for pastors, but I think it is important for congregants, too.

The church is God’s edifice, God’s building, comprised of the people who make up the “living stones” that together yield its construction. The church is a living, organic body, with Christ as the head. The church is a family. It is sustained by God. It is empowered by God. It can be healthy. It can be unhealthy. Which is why the church needs good shepherds, wise pastors, and faithful congregational leadership to help discern the way forward.

The church has a life. That life must be passed on. Maybe we don’t do a good job of that, formally, and instead assume that others will take up the torch once we lay it down. I’ve been around senior adults who wonder aloud what will happen to the church when they fade from the scene, and I’ve been around young adults who are not sure when, or how, to enter into leadership roles within the body.

Leadership transitions either just happen, or they don’t. Or, a pastor arrives on the scene who is able to invite a new generation into the mix, so that the values, principles, and wisdom of one generation is passed on to the next. Or, things fall apart as entropy takes hold, and a new set of leaders steps in to reclaim the past and to chart the next era.

But if you have an eternal time horizon in view today, as well as a realistic sense of your own mortality, the stakes, and your stewardship of your moment, become much clearer. That’s not only important for the pastor, but for the congregation as a whole, because the work is shared work, not only among the people who comprise the church, but with and alongside the church’s foundation, Jesus Christ.

It’d be like saying, “God, I live one short little life, but the work that you’ve been doing through history is your work. You know the past, you know our moment, and you know the future in ways that I cannot grasp. You know the ways in which you are working all things to the good for those who love you. Take what I have to offer, my service, my mind, my words, my financial offerings, my presence, my witness, the abilities you have given me, and make them into something that is part of your eternal work. Make my efforts count forever, not because they are good in and of themselves, but because they have been made possible by the gift of your grace, and can somehow be made part of your great work of redemption, and all to your glory. Don’t let me waste my life on frivolous things. Guide me to invest in something that will last forever–something that is of you, and yours, for all time.”

World Changing Word Coinage

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What is the best way to make a difference in the world?

[. . . ]

I’d like to posit that creating an idea that colonizes our minds—a signpost in the memescape, if you will—is a very high leverage way of making a difference in the world. . .The kind of signposts I’m thinking about are often little more than short phrases—or even single word neologisms—that, due to what ideas they have compressed within them, reorient how you see specific spheres of experience.

These are “catchy” concepts that often combine two or more words in unexpected ways, creating a mental hook for a vague penumbra of facts and experiences. And these signposts evoke a similar sensation to when you learn a new word: once you’ve been exposed to one of these, you see it everywhere. . .

How to begin? Recognize patterns in the world and name them. Smash unexpected terms together and see if they sing. Realize when you are struggling to describe something and spend some time just sitting and figuring out how to compress that description down into a short pithy phrase.

Samuel Arbesman, “Constructing Signposts in the Memescape

There’s something to this idea, but the change you render could be for good or ill. Shifting the memescape is reckless idea, I think, adding distraction to distraction, piling sound byte upon sound byte, pasting clutter over clutter, and hoping that the new coinage will effect a mystical transformational outcome. Arbesman names “premium mediocre,” “cozy futurism,” “horsehistory,” “intuition pump,” “undiscovered public knowledge,” “Matthew effect,” and several others as examples of signposts we now “see everywhere.”

He must be reading and conversing with people quite different than those in my sphere. I have not encountered a single example he cites.

I’m more an advocate of developing discourses, but, as someone who has been attempting to communicate the Christian tradition to people for years, I know how valuable shorthand can be, as can fresh ways of expressing old ideas in memorable, pithy ways. Preachers are often meme generators. The best build a world around those memes.

Language Talks About the Culture

The truth is that languages dances ever so lightly on thought. One proof of this is how terminology’s meanings quickly bend according to thought patterns. University of California linguist George Lakoff, for example, has notoriously suggested that the Democratic Party could attract more voters by altering the labels they apply to things of political import, such as calling income taxes “membership fees” and trial lawyers “public-protection attorneys.” Lakoff’s idea has seemed less urgent since the Barack Obama phenomenon created a Democratic ascendance on its own, but the idea could have had at best a temporary impact. Terminology doesn’t shape thought, it follows it.

Consider terms such as affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words composing it mean: “affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was artful and gracious, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy. Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Welfare is similar. The contrast between the core meaning of the word and its modern political associations is instructive, in that one can easily imagine a Lakoff in the 1930s proposing exactly the word welfare as a label for government assistance. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of negative associations. Similarly, if an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those accrete to any new terms applied. This happened quickly to urgently intended terms such as male chauvinist and women’s liberation, as well as special education.

Changing the terms can play some initial role in moving opinion, rather like God getting the globe spinning under the deist philosophy. But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics. Mere terms require constant renewal as opponents quickly “see through” the artful intentions of the latest ones coined and cover up the old label with the new one, applying to it the attitudes they have always had. Only in an unimaginably totalitarian context that so limited the information available to citizens that constructive thought and imagination were near impossibilities could language drive culture in a lasting way. This is why Orwell and 1984, expected references at this point in my discussion, are not truly relevant here. In the real world, language talks about culture; it cannot create it.

John McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, p. 159-160

Here’s John McWhorter, saying something that has relevance to every church debate I’ve ever heard about whether to call the congregation’s primary gathering space the worship center or the sanctuary, or the piece of paper handed out at the door the bulletin or a worship folder. Is it evangelism or outreach? Are we Christians or followers of Jesus?

When disagree over terms, or when their is some push to change them, we assume that be changing the terms we will change the culture. But that’s not true. As McWhorter notes, changing terms might start a conversation, “But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics.”

I’ll confess that I’ve been a leader who has shifted terminology or made changes in the effort to create an institutional shift, while neglected to enter into the debate with fellow congregants about why a change in approach is needed. And in most every instance, that move has resulted in tension. Thinking I was putting a shortcut into effect, instead, needed changes could now only be enacted after taking an even longer way around.

I do think language is important, and I wonder if McWhorter is amiss that language is far more descriptive than generative. It seems to me that shifts in language can result in new ways of seeing, and new ways of action. I think the way that we pray, the words that we speak, and the terms we apply matter a great deal. I also think that the language of faith is not only a spoken form of communication, but that it must also be embodied in habits of individuals and the community.

I think the important here is that getting the words right is not enough. There must be a culture, a way of being, that accompanies the words that describe it, and the description must accurately match the reality being described in ways both concrete and abstract.

Caring for Everyone

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The object of our pastoral care is all the flock, that is, the church and every member of it. We should know every person who belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed unto them if we do not know them? A careful shepherd looks after every individual sheep. A good schoolmaster looks to every individual student, both for instruction and correction. A good physician looks after every particular patient. And good commanders look after every individual solider. Why, then, should the teachers, the pastors, the physicians, the guides of the churches of Christ not take heed unto every individual member of their charge?

Christ himself is the great and good shepherd and master of the church, who has the whole church to look after and yet takes care of every individual in it. In Luke 15, he tells us that he is like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to seek out the one who was lost; or like the woman who lights a candle, sweeps the house, and searches diligently to find the one coin that was lost, and having found it, she rejoices and calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Christ tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). The prophets were often sent to single men. Ezekiel was made a watchman over individuals who must say to the wicked, “You shall surely die (Ezek. 3:18-19). Paul taught the people publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20), which refers to his teaching particular families. The same Paul warned every man and taught every man, in all wisdom, that he might present every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Col. 1:28). Christ explained his public parables to twelve on their own (Mark 4:34). Every man must seek the law at the mouth of the priest (Mal. 2:7). As pastors, we must give an account of our watching over the souls of all who are bound to obey us (Heb. 13:17). Many more passages in Scripture assure us that it is our duty to take heed unto every person in our flock.

Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor [affiliate link], p. 48-49

Richard Baxter was writing in the 1600s. His words still hold. Pastors are to take heed unto every individual in their charge. Ministry should be personal as well as public. As Howard Hendricks would often say, “You can impress people from afar, but you can only impact them up close.”

I’ve made it a habit in ministry to keep lists of names before me, whether it be members of my youth group or families in my care, or students I’ve met attending classes on a nearby college campus, or congregational members that I’ve wanted to keep before me in prayer. As a teacher, I now keep my class rosters nearby. And I’ve made myself available for one-on-ones of the planned and the “pop-in” variety. Believe it or not, I set out about ten or so dates a semester where students can sign up for “Lunch with Brother Ben.” The majority of those dates do fill.

Baxter’s vision is active, more intentional, not only visiting pew by pew but house to house, coming to know people not only in congregation but where they dwell in the broader community. His notion of shepherding not only requires walking the distance from pulpit to church doorway, but down streets and across fields. He envisions parsons who go to the people, not wallflowers who wait for congregants to come for instruction and counsel. A good shepherd not only counts the sheep, but knows each by name. He lives where they live, sees what they see, and experiences what they experience, so that he can serve as is fitting for people and place.

This old vision for pastoral work needs to be cast yet again, for, as Baxter notes, this mode of ministry is scriptural and, therefore, does not go out of style. Our moment is replete with influencers but sparse of shepherds. We scroll past hundreds of peddlers of inspiration or advice each day, but scarcely come face to face with a person who, having come to know our name and needs, can counsel us in the way of wisdom, who can help us walk by the Spirit, who can instruct us in the Scriptures, and who can comfort us with the gospel of Christ.

God is still calling forth people to serve as shepherds. But if more such servants are to be found in our midst, that call must be answered.

Disordered, But in a Different Way

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Not long ago, it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power. But these intense desires can deform our lives if we don’t subject them to some structure and moderation through marriage, schooling, work, religion, and other binding commitments. Disordered lives are a product of rushing in recklessly, so that sex or children come too soon while responsibility comes too late if at all.    

But a lot of contemporary social science, like this important new report, has come to be quietly premised in a different understanding of disorder. Rather than seeing the drive to have children as a force to be channeled and domesticated by marriage, for instance, we have come to see both the desire for marriage and the desire for kids as endangered and in decline. And more broadly, the challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated. These are very different kinds of social problems that call for different sorts of responses. We can all perceive the shift from one toward the other in this century, but our cultural and political thinking has been slow to catch up. 

Yuval Levin, at The Dispatch, “The Changing Face of Social Disorder

Human life is dynamic and fluid, always changing, and the challenge before the sages, intellectuals, and leaders of any age is to accurately diagnose the societal ills of a given moment and to propose and activate solutions that work.

What’s wrong with American society today? What’s wrong with the West? For that matter, what’s wrong with the world?

Yuval Levin argues that our problem is not an excess of societal energy and the failure to channel it, as it may have been in the recent past, but cultural lethargy.

And strangely enough, that lethargy yields results that are both good and bad, with the positive aspects being easiest to observe, and the drawbacks most elusive.

Teen pregnancy is down and divorce is down. Out-of-wedlock births are down. Abortion rates are down. Fewer teenagers are dying in car wrecks. But that’s because teens aren’t dating. Teens are staying home more. People aren’t connecting. Fewer teenagers are obtaining a driver’s license. Marriage and fertility rates are down, too, but that’s because marriage is delayed, and having children is delayed, and sometimes, marriage and having children is discouraged.

Levin writes, “If social dysfunction is essentially a breakdown of discipline—if the core social problem is unruliness—then American life is getting better. We should want fewer people suffering the consequences of disorder, and it’s a good thing that more people’s lives answer to their own choices and preferences.”

But that can’t be it. This definition is incomplete. Levin states, “that case is ultimately unpersuasive because the greatest virtues of a social order are not functions of its ability to restrain commotion or even to empower choice but of its capacity to enable human flourishing.”

A healthy social order doesn’t just counter what ails it. A healthy social order offers reasons for hope, worthwhile aspirations, and a vision of the good life.

Levin states:

The pathologies of passivity are more fundamental challenges to flourishing because they strike deeper and earlier than the dangers of unruliness. Habits and institutions of restraint can work like sculptors of the social order—selectively chipping away at our wild, boisterous pursuit of happiness to shape it into more beautiful forms of energetic human action. But what if we fail to act on our longings to begin with? What if there is nothing to restrain, and so no raw material for the sculptor to work with? The right to pursue happiness won’t do us much good if we don’t exercise it.

Levin’s article is lengthy and worth a read. In the end, his focus is on public policy prescriptions and political leadership. He concludes that rightly understanding our maladies is only a starting point, a way to grasp our moment in order to better argue about and identify productive avenues for moving forward, ways to lift us from our malaise.

Policy won’t be enough. We’ll need a story and a cause powerful enough to inspire, challenge, and invite us to rise to our moment, to work and to build.

I think the way forward will necessarily involve the religious sphere. Faith leaders will need to step forward and offer the wisdom of their traditions in the moral, intellectual, social, and ethical dimensions of life. To offer it, they’ll need to mine it, to understand it, possess it, and embody it. As a Christian leader and minister, I certainly see the role I have to play in my family, workplace, community, and local congregation.

I have a calling to teach, equip, and inspire leaders to become active, to be workers and builders, connectors and collaborators. The local church can be a powerful catalyst for transformation and change, not only in the lives of individuals, but in the broader social fabric of a community. An entire community need not be converted for a leavening effect to be felt, for an entire neighborhood, town, or city to experience uplift and positive change, all because a small group of dedicated individuals commit their lives to God, to serving and loving all people, and praying that the kingdom would come, not only for the sake of the faithful, but for the sake of the world, all to God’s glory.

It is now becoming my prayer that God would not only bring forth more workers, more dedicated Christian leaders, but specifically more pastors and preachers, people who will teach, shepherd, equip, and send the faithful into the world within the life of local congregations. We not only need pastors and preachers who will fill the pulpits in established churches, but also those who will plant new communities, who have been given evangelistic and apostolic gifts to break new ground and to gather in new believers, and to help those they serve do a new work in our time.

The previous age may have necessitated Christian leaders who would redirect disordered energies toward marriage, family formation, and the maintaining of a healthy communal life.

But the next generation of Christian leaders may need to dedicate themselves to the work of exhortation, urging us to get moving while painting a picture of what a flourishing life before God might look like. They may need to help us move toward a land of promise while walking through a wilderness, and to learn to trust God for our daily bread.