Because the church is a body of persons undergoing their healing in Christ, harm will still happen in the best of churches: it makes no sense to talk about sanctification or healing within the body unless there is something to be healed from.
[. . .]
But ordinary harms are not abuses, and the treatment of the sinfulness of the church-as-such as a potential trauma factory is unhelpful: the harm we experience from others do damage us and others, but it is a harm which we should understand as facets of an ordinary world suffering the pervasive conditions of sin.
And as such, it calls forth a different, ongoing culture of repair and repentance.
These are two quotations from Werntz’s first installment in a series, all addressing “Traumatic Church Discourse.” You may have heard someone describe “church hurt,” and it does exist. Werntz helpfully distinguishes between trauma, abuse, and harm, and how these terms can help us distinguish between encounters with evil that may occur within Christian fellowship. He also adds a lot of theological nuance.
I’m making my way through the series. I suspect there are ideas here that will help me clarify what is a very difficult truth: until the return of Jesus, we will sin against one another. We will cause harm. The truth about these harms should be named and confessed. Repentance should follow. Justice should be sought. And, by God’s grace, we pray healing, mending, and repair will take hold.
The church isn’t the only institutional source of harm in our world. It isn’t the only institution with resources for addressing harms. But it is an institution with biblical resources, theological convictions, and practices to identify and acknowledge harms, and then, as Werntz says, to undertake the work of repair and repentance.
I was part of a conversation recently where a person in our circle asked, “How do you make Truett better each day?” I thought it was a superb question. And I took my time before answering, listening to others as they made their offerings, wondering if I would have anything of value to add, and ordering my impressions as they emerged. I arrived on three ways I think I make my workplace better each day.
First, I pray for those I work with and alongside. I pray for the institution. I pray for needs of which I am aware. I pray for people I encounter as I walk the halls, and those who pass my window I see and wave at. As I see students, faculty, staff, and guests, I consciously will the good of everyone in prayer to God. In other words, I bless them. In doing so, I apply an insight I gleaned from Dallas Willard. I concede that I do not know how or in what way my prayers make the seminary I serve better, that the answers and the workings of God are hidden behind the veil, but I trust God works in and through the prayers of Christian people.
Second, I learn names and demonstrate a genuine interest in the lives of those I work with and alongside. I do not learn the name of every student, though I do try to match names with faces and call each individual by name when we meet. I come to know some students better than others. Coming to know faculty and staff colleagues differs, slightly, in that the overlapping spheres of my work and the work of others varies. I do make an effort, however, to be friendly and to strengthen relationships, as I am able. Passing through the COVID-19 pandemic slowed my effort to know others better, and for others to know me, in obvious ways. I’m still learning about my colleagues, and as personnel changes, there are new people to come to know.
Third, I keep the church in mind. I think beyond Truett, and even beyond Baylor, and consider people in congregations large and small and in-between. I want what we do to make a difference in Christian communities and the broader communities within which those churches live and move and have their being. I think that makes us “better” because it keeps in view who we serve: Christ and the church.
Truett Seminary “exists to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Not everyone that we educate serves a church in a leadership position after completion of a degree. But I hope that everyone who receives an education at Truett is part of a church somewhere, and I hope these individuals strengthen a local body through service, making good use of their gifts, graces, talents, and abilities. I also pray they would offer sound biblical and theological knowledge to those with whom they share fellowship so that the church might be built up.
For those outside a seminary and friendly to Christianity, you likely hope those within it would pray, care for individuals, and keep the church in view! Pray for us; Lord, have mercy.
Not everyone works in a seminary, like I do. The word “seminary” originated in the fifteen century; “from Latin seminarium ‘plant nursery, seed plot,’ figuratively, ‘breeding ground.'” The seminary is a place where the Word of God is cultivated, where a person comes who, having received the Word, is nourished so that they might mature spiritually and then proclaim the Word more faithfully. It is plausible that a student could receive the Word for the first time while in seminary, moving from a knowledge about God to a knowledge of God. Heaven forbid that we, as a seminary, would hinder the Word, though that, too, sadly, is plausible. Jesus, in the New Testament, often spoke of the Word as seed. It is my desire that the Word would go forth, find good soil, and grow, yielding thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold. We plant and water. God gives the growth.
Workplaces other than the seminary, however, can prove to be fertile ground for ministry and Christian witness, a place within which you can take actions that make the working environment “better.” Prayer, collegiality and care, and keeping in view the constituency you serve can be commitments of any Christian in any place of work. In addition to these, doing your work with excellence, so long as the work you render is moral and good, can be valuable and worthwhile, not only for the organization you serve but for the prosperity and flourishing of others.
Unwillingness to Build Relationships Across Key Constituencies
Unwise Stewardship of Leadership Capital
A Lack of Personal Humility
His exposition of each of these observations is worth reading, so visit the link.
I have a few thoughts on each of these corrective admonitions.
All five of these failings evidence of immaturity. All can be grown beyond. All five are potential pitfalls, especially for developing leaders.
Ministry leaders, like everyone else, have insecurities. The crucible of ministry service reveals what those insecurities are. The congregation is the forge for growth in holiness. It may not always be pleasant, but God often works through our relationships with those we serve to reveal the ways we have yet to stand confidently in the gospel, secure in faith. The people we serve often help us to see more clearly the way of repentance. Knowing oneself is a gift of God, but it often comes through intimacy with weakness, the very places where God’s grace can be displayed as strength.
While it is true that young leaders can mistakenly surround themselves exclusively with those of their age and stage, old leaders can commit the opposite, parallel error. Leaders need to know their congregation, from the oldest to the youngest, saying hello, learning names, shaking hands, being present, displaying curiosity, demonstrating care, and being open and vulnerable, sharing not only the gospel, but life.
I’ve seen leaders steward their “leadership capital” poorly, but knowing where and how and at what pace to lead is not easy. It’s easy to say “don’t spend it too quickly!” But the opposite error can be made, moving too slowly or doing nothing at all in order to play it safe. It’s more art than science, involving discernment, sensitivity, and skill. I don’t think anyone does this perfectly. Wisdom in this area comes from knowing that leaders gain trust in spoonfuls and lose it in buckets, so lead wisely.
The fifth is the key to lessening propensity to falling prey to the previous four. Humble leaders often become so by dealing with their insecurities in healthy ways, learning their limitations and the power of God in light of those limitations. They associate with all kinds of people. They are confident in making bold decisions, but they appreciate the weight of their decisions, are very aware of ways their decisions effect the people they lead, bear the criticism directed their way from those who disagree with them from a place of understanding and compassion, and share the credit when things go right. In fact, the most humble leaders give all the credit away to those who gave and sweat and prayed and bled and served and worked, and to God, who makes all things possible.
They know that, in the end, the objective is to glorify God. They know that in God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last, that we are called not to lord over but to serve, that we are the unworthy who have been made worthy through so great a salvation. There is only one name to proclaim in ministry leadership, there is only one whose reputation and reign ultimately matter. The ministry leader knows that their being brought in, appointed, and anointed is a sheer miracle of grace. Having received so great a salvation, they cannot neglect it. They live in light of it. They invite others to do the same.
In 2010, the US Religious Census identified 35,496 independent congregations without any formal denominational affiliation. The lead researcher, Scott Thumma, told CT there were almost certainly more than that, but it was the most precise count anyone had done to that point.
Using the same method in 2020, the US Religious Census team found 44,319 nondenominational congregations, with an estimated 21 million adherents. That makes nondenominational Christians the first or second largest group of Protestants in America, depending on how one counts. The Southern Baptists have about 7,000 more churches, but 3.4 million fewer people.
The next largest Protestant group, the United Methodists, can only claim about half the number of people as Southern Baptists, and the denomination has lost a number of congregations in an ongoing church split since the Religion Census tallied at total of 30,051 in 2020.
When I’ve seen headlines chronicling the decline of traditional and mainline Protestant denominations, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that some who have left Southern Baptist life, or Methodist life, or any one of the various other established Protestant bodies, have found spiritual community among autonomous, independent, non-affiliated, “nondenominational” local churches.
Additionally, because I have seen nondenominational church leaders and pastors who have displayed a deep passion for evangelism, a commitment to discipleship, the desire to serve, and openness toward and encouragement of the arts, creativity, and innovation, this data point doesn’t surprise me. Eventually, I thought researchers would find a way to capture what I suspected was happening on the ground. The rise of the “nones,” which the CT report also notes, has been a much discussed data point, but not the rise of the “nons,” which has been, up until now, hidden from view.
Some might think this development a good one and a sign that Christianity in America might be able to rebound from its decline, or at least that it is not dead yet. I think we’ll have to wait and see what it means. I rejoice when there are signs of vibrancy, growth, and transformation in the lives of those who take part in any Christian community. Autonomy, independence, and freedom from a denominational body brings with it certain advantages, including adaptability and flexibility within a rapidly shifting cultural environment. But there are also reasons to be wary, including the lack of accountability to a larger network of like-minded ministry partners, a less developed institutional memory regarding the doctrines and practices of a tradition, a susceptibility to celebrity, and clear divides that are broadly made and known between what is sound teaching and heretical leanings (at least among traditions with well-defined doctrinal commitments, rather than in those supporting “big tent” or doctrinally pluralistic approaches to connection).
Who knows what the future may hold? It may be that nondenominational churches create new kinds of connection, not necessarily formalized or solidified by way of organizational bloat and bureaucracy. Maybe new confessional movements will emerge. Maybe partnerships will be more informal and occasional rather than formal and ongoing. Maybe local commitments will take precedence over a global “brand” or “identity.”
Maybe this is a blip.
As institutional structures, I still think there is a place for the historic Protestant denominational churches. But God will need to renew them if they are to have a vibrant future. God can, and I hope God will. Maybe nondenominational congregations will give witness to what is possible, with God’s help. Otherwise, as John Wesley said in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” the historic Protestant denominational churches in America will only display “the form of religion without the power.” The charitable among us will pray for God to renew us all, and maybe the not-so-charitable should, too.
When it comes to trust, I think people put a lot of weight on credibility and intimacy, and we certainly factor reliability over time. A credible person not only has the credentials, they display competence. A safe person keeps a proper confidence, listens well, and allows for vulnerability. And the reliable person consistently comes through on time, under budget, and with high quality.
But self-orientation is the one we keep in the background, both in how we evaluate ourselves and in how we evaluate those we work alongside. I might rephrase the description above and instead couch self-orientation in terms of shared or common interests, rather than mine or theirs.
I think human beings do make decisions and take action based on self-interest. I think growing and mature persons are aware of the ways their own self-interest is in play. I think respectable and wise leaders are understanding of the interests of others they work with and alongside, and they are cognizant of the ways personal and organizational interests align when moving toward a goal. Furthermore, they have reached a point of maturity where the interests of the other, and others, are considered more important than one’s own self-interest. They are willing and able to put self aside to serve. That’s easier said than done.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Paul then goes on to cite the example of Jesus in the rest of the chapter, not only as one to follow, but as the theological justification for the dynamics that are in play in healthy Christian communities.
In Christian communities, trust is not only built through displays of credibility, reliability, and intimacy, but also by an orientation toward Christ and the kingdom of God and the seeking of God’s glory. If that’s a shared focus, good things happen, and we not only learn to trust one another, but to trust God’s leadership, guidance, and work within and among the community. As a result, we elevate the trustworthiness of people and we learn through experience the trustworthiness of God.
This week a couple of friends of ours were baptized at Harris Creek Baptist Church. It was something to see.
I am not part of Harris Creek, but I am part of the body of Christ, and to see over fifty people enter the waters for baptism is a reason for rejoicing. Children, teenagers, college students, parents entering the waters and then turning to baptize their children, adults in the latter half of life, the pastor baptizing, parents baptizing, grandparents baptizing, and powerful testimonies of new life in Christ. All incredible. A sight to see, for those with eyes to perceive it.
Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual reality, and an encapsulation of the gospel story. We are buried with Christ in baptism and are raised to walk in the newness of resurrection life. It is an act of obedience, following Jesus’ example, and a yielding of the self to his command.
Jesus commanded his followers to go, make disciples, and to baptize into the Trinitarian reality, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all who would enter the kingdom. The water is for a moment. Life with God is for eternity. We remember our baptism. Our life is a testimony to what it means. What story does your life tell?
God continues to call people into a life of relationship in and through Jesus. Few or many, salvation is by grace. The Christian message is, in part, a call to repent and be baptized, to turn from one spiritual reality and into another, from death into life for a lifetime and beyond.
Pastors and mature believers in the congregation need to remain sensitive to those among them who display evidence of gifts and character that might signal God’s call on their lives. Sermons and lessons dealing with the call ought to become ordinary parts of the congregation’s diet. Pastors should occasionally refer to their own story of calling as a way of both publicly reaffirming their commitment to it and inviting others to consider God’s call on their lives. If a called ministry is as vital a conviction for Baptists as it appears, then creating an environment in which people learn to listen for and obey God’s call would be a reasonable extension of our theology into our practice.
I’m finding myself much more receptive and sympathetic to Creech’s account of call and its place within the life of the church body and in the life of the Christ-follower. I’ve been reading other accounts of calling; a slew of books has been published this summer that I’ve been less agreeable toward.
All are called to follow Christ. The outworking of that calling, however, is individual and specific, and it is possible for a person within the fellowship to develop the conviction that their task is to shepherd the congregation and preach the gospel.
Creech notes that pastoral leaders can create an environment where people learn to listen for and obey God’s call. They cannot force God to call anyone. But Baptist theology and practice can lead to the cultivation of a posture toward God that is receptive to God’s calling, not only in the preaching of the Word, but also through the testimony of the saints, the pastor included.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.