Temporary Pastors and the Life of the Church

This coming Sunday will be, for the foreseeable future, my final Sunday in full-time pastoral ministry. This has been a bittersweet transition—while I am excited about what comes next, my call to pastoral ministry remains unchanged; I love my people and have enjoyed the privilege of ministering to them. Three and a half years was entirely too short a time with them. And yet both I, and they, must move on. This is in many ways the very nature of pastoral ministry.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the very words I preached to them on the Sunday when I was installed at my present church. That day, reading the story in Acts 20 of Paul’s tearful parting and farewell from the elders of the Ephesian church, I pointed my members to four features critical to all pastoral ministry. Looking back, I spoke perhaps better than I knew. Allow me to review them with you today.

1. All Pastors are Temporary. This seems an obvious point, but it is one we are apt to overlook. Paul was pastor at Ephesus for three years. My predecessor at the church where I serve was present for sixteen years, his predecessor was there for twenty years, and I’ve served now for three and a half years. Nestled within each of these terms of service lies an important fact—each one was temporary.

crumbling-church-3

Let’s be explicit. At some point a pastor will leave a church, whether he is called to another church, decides to retire from full time ministry, leaves under ignominy, or dies in service. And it’s not only the pastor, but you also, as an individual member of a given congregation, who may be called to other cities, other churches, other ministries. Indeed, it is you also who will one day inevitably die. Ministry at every local church is unavoidably temporary.

Despite the obvious self-evidence of this point, rarely do we live this way. Most often we operate as if our models for ministry are based on permanence. We presume that our pastors will and should remain forever. We assume that, like custom cabinets, once the minister has been “installed” he will be a permanent feature of the building. From this perspective, pastors go on to build ministries that are so dependent upon their particular gifts and personalities that the ministry cannot continue without them. Churches are complicit in these schemes, and are content to allow the pastor to do most of the work of faith for them. In the end, this kind of ministry treats the pastor as someone who provides an essential service to the congregation. I do the work, and you show up to benefit from the work. I am the spiritual chef, you show up to eat. The Church is a service—like a restaurant or a shop—where you come to purchase your spirituality with a tithe. But this is clearly not how faith works, and that leads to the second lesson.

crutches

Job Description: Become obsolete.

2. All Church Ministry is Shared. Again, let’s be explicit—a pastor can never do the work of faith for you. The best he can do is equip you to do your own work. And because the pastor’s role is fundamentally and essentially temporary, we must acknowledge that all church ministry ought to be shared. Ministry is not something I do and something you receive. It is not something for which I am an expert and you are a plebeian observer. No, ministry is something I do as an example in order to lead you into your own maturity in ministry. The proper image for the pastor is not that he stands above you in power to dominate your faith, but that together you stand side-by-side in a common mission. As a pastor I am a specially designated and set-apart servant of the mission that Christ intends to accomplish in a particular place and time. What this means is that while the pastor gives you an advantage—as a crutch gives you an advantage when you’ve broken your leg—the goal of the pastor—like the goal of the crutch—is to one day step aside so that you can walk on your own.

Paul, in Acts 20, clearly sees his ministry as one that is shared with the Ephesian elders. There is a real partnership at work between them. And in the event that you are tempted to claim that Paul’s words are for the elders only, I want to remind you that even the office of ‘elder’ is temporary. Everything in the church, with the exception of our Lord, is temporary, and therefore the charge that Paul gives is in some sense the special task of the whole fellowship. Not that everyone should be in charge, but everyone in Christ should have the same goals, the same concerns, and the same dire need for serious integrity. And that from the very top to the very bottom, each of us is concerned with attending to Christ—we all serve each other in bringing our common attention to Christ Jesus. This leads to the third lesson.

3. Ministry Must Be Anchored on Christ Alone. Ministers will change over time. Where you live will change over time. All church buildings will one day dissolve into dust. Everything in the church is temporary except our Lord and master, Jesus. Because He is the only certain constant, we must ensure that we have truly and completely focused our efforts on attending to Christ. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Your pastors will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your home will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your nation may change, your family may change, your job, your calling, your situation in life, your health, your finances—all these will change, but Jesus Christ is always the same.

wagon-wheel

We’re all connected to the hub.

Because I am temporary, but Jesus is eternal, my primary job has been to help my people look at Jesus. I do not stand in the place of Jesus. I am not to be the ultimate focus of their attention. My job is to stand side-by-side with my people, pointing at our common master, and working to remove obstacles and offer such a compelling vision of King Jesus that when I fade away their attention remains fixed on Him. In this process—because ministry is fundamentally temporary, and because it is designed to be shared—Christ in turn serves as the fixed point of reference for leaders and elders. Only Christ ensures that pastor after pastor is performing the same mission. Only Christ and His purposes can unify a diverse and changing group of elders. Only Christ creates the conditions whereby the eternal continuity of the Church is maintained.

This leads to our fourth and final lesson:

4. The Standard for Evaluating Ministry is Integrity. All of this—that ministry is temporary, shared, and Christocentric—in turn helps us to see why Paul spends so much time speaking about his personal integrity in his Acts 20 speech to the Ephesian elders. Have your ministers and elders embodied integrity with respect to the ministry of the Gospel, to the Kingdom of God? Have we as ministers served Christ with humility? Have we suffered for the sake of the gospel—not necessarily in being beaten, stoned, or chased out of town, but have we stood for the truth of Christ even when it hurt? Have we declared to you the fullness of the gospel, both in public and in private? Have we been good stewards of our finances? Have we defrauded you in any way, shape, or form? Have we been an example in caring for and helping the weak and powerless among you? Have we, ultimately, pointed you toward Jesus?

fractured-foundation

A fracture in integrity damages everyone.

The integrity of a church’s ministers serves, in turn, the integrity of the fellowship. Paul in verses 28-32 describes the challenges to come—troubles from both without, and within. There will be those from outside the fellowship who come and seek to overturn the good we do. They will approach as wolves, seeking to defraud and take advantage of the Church. Our integrity—our focus on Christ—preserves us and protects us from those dangers. Others from within the church will see in twisting their theology means by which they can gain advantage for themselves—whether advantages of popularity, advantages of finance, advantages of being well thought of. Our integrity—our commitment to the Kingdom of Christ—will give us the clarity to expose and reject those false distortions. And heed my words, Christian brothers and sisters, no faith is perfectly stable until it is secure in eternity—that is, no faith is perfected until you are dead. And while you live your faith will be challenged by wolves and charlatans, and your focus must be so clearly on Christ and on his purposes, and your ministers and elders must have so instilled in you a conviction of their integrity, that you are able to navigate those challenges. Integrity is the standard by which we evaluate ministry.

For the past three and a half years I have been called to serve at Burnaby Alliance Church. There, to the best of my ability, I have been tasked to help my people to love Jesus more. I have been called, to the best of my ability, to show them Jesus in my life so that they can, through following Jesus on their own, show Him to the other people in their lives. I have been called to love them—however imperfectly—with the love of Christ so that they can love others. I am called to be so faithful that I never stand between them and faith in Christ. I am called to point so effectively at Jesus that when I depart they will still be focused on Christ Jesus, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And by the grace of God I have been enabled to discharge, I hope, just such a ministry.

If you would benefit well from your temporary pastor, then there are two things you must do. First, you must examine your own hearts and your own motives. Ask yourself: Am I using my pastors well, and appropriately? That individual is an asset to your faith, but not a replacement for it. Have you taken advantage of church for the benefit of your life with Christ? Have you thought of church as a service performed for you, or of church as a place where you journey along with others seeking Christ? Are you here to get a vision of Jesus, or are you here to feel good about yourself?

Second, the pastor is a powerful lever who can facilitate great change, both personally and institutionally. And because he is positioned to leverage everyone in the community to some degree, that also makes of him a target. If the devil can take your pastor out, he can hurt the whole community; but if together we overcome the devil, we can all be strengthened. Because of this reality, your pastor truly needs your prayers. He needs prayer for his own integrity. His wholeness will be challenged by sin and temptation. He needs your prayers for his sustenance. He needs your prayers for his rest. He needs your prayers for his family—for his life as a husband and father, for his children’s lives as individuals who also need to learn to follow Jesus. Through all of these, your pastor needs your prayers to be filled God’s Spirit in power and service.

Few careers come with the challenges, burdens, and eternal consequences of full-time pastoral ministry. If you have read this today and are a minister, may you be encouraged to prioritize your own integrity, your own temporality. If you have read this today and are a member of a congregation, may you be encouraged to benefit rightly from the gifts offered by your pastor. And may you commit to upholding him in dedicated prayer!

Noteless Preaching and the Preacher’s Task

The following lengthy passage, taken from Charles Merrill Smith’s “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious,” offers a piercingly satirical vision for the life of an ambitious minister.

Bishop CoverNotes on Noteless Preaching:

Let us now turn our attention to some do’s and don’ts of preaching, little practical suggestions—each by itself a small thing perhaps—but put together adding up to great things for you so far as preferment in your calling is concerned.

At the top of the list of those items which you should do is this: Always preach without manuscript or notes of any kind.

Young clergymen seldom grasp the value of perfecting themselves in the “noteless” style of sermon delivery. Most of us have weak memories and feel horribly insecure without the comforting presence of a manuscript on the podium in front of us. Not one person in a thousand feels naturally inclined to this style of delivery. It is this very scarcity of noteless preachers which works to the advantage of the man who is one.

When you preach without notes, the focus of attention for the congregation is not your sermon but your performance. Since most of your listeners are paralyzed and inarticulate in front of an audience with everything they intend to say written down and before them, they are vastly amazed that anyone can stand up and talk for twenty minutes or so without visible aids to the memory, no matter what he says.

This situation obviates the need for undue concern over the content of your sermon since hardly anyone will be more than casually interested in what you say, thus lightening your preparatory labors and granting you many extra hours every week to do with what you please—hours which your less gifted brethren of the cloth will spend sweating over the manufacture of a manuscript for Sunday morning.

You may have observed already that the possession of a noteless preacher is a genuine status symbol for a church, the ecclesiastical equivalent of a chinchilla coat or recognition by the headwaiter at Le Pavillon. These confer status because they are rare, and rare status symbols cost quite a bit of money. This law operates just as surely in the ecclesiastical world as in the secular world, and a noteless preacher always commands a higher salary than even the most profound of his brethren who encumber themselves with manuscripts.

Those fortunate few congregations blessed with a noteless preacher become inordinately proud of him, and brag about him much as they brag about breaking 80 at golf or being invited to the Governor’s for tea. They never comment that their preacher is learned or witty or forceful or devout or thought-provoking or inspiring. They always say, “You know, he preaches without a single note.”

Also, the noteless style endears you to the extremely pious members of your flock who tend to be suspicious of written sermons on the grounds that excessive advance preparation allows insufficient opportunities for the workings of divine inspiration. The extemporaneous homily seems to them to come from the heart instead of the head, and is thus a sure sign and seal that their preacher is “spiritual.”

~ Charles Merrill Smith, “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious” 38-39.

As a preacher who has personally made the transition from sermons in full manuscript to preaching with only minimal notes, I read the above passage with no small amount of mirth. There is something strikingly true about the tacit change a listening congregation undergoes when a preacher preaches without notes. People’s faces are more engaged (largely because you are looking at them and making eye contact), they respond with greater emotional resonance to the things you say, and one receives more positive general feedback (of the “I enjoyed your sermon” variety). Regrettably, this transition has made me suspicious of my own congregation. Suspicious, because I know for a fact that my shift into “noteless” preaching has not resulted in an improvement in sermon quality. Quite the opposite, I am confident that the overall quality has in fact decreased.

When I first began writing sermons, now almost thirteen years ago, the writing process was labored. I would brainstorm, reflect, and write out the sermon word for word. A sermon, let us be clear, is not simply a matter of “just speaking to people.” A sermon is a carefully reflected piece of rhetoric, born of devotion, study, prayer, and intentional construction. The preacher who neglects any of these elements has no right to stand before the Church and instruct, because his casual attitude toward the sermon disqualifies him from service. For my part, those first sermons were tinted by some real awkwardness—I hadn’t yet learned how to write for my own voice. There is a real difference between writing to be read, and writing to be spoken, and I think most people only learn this when they try to read what they’ve written out loud. It can be shocking to the reader! In time, I learned and became adept at writing so that the written word matched my spoken voice in cadence.

On average, 1000 written words equates to about ten minutes of spoken sermon, therefore an average 30 minute sermon would then be composed of no less than 3000 words. This means that the preacher, in preparation, is each week researching and producing a 3000+ word presentation for public consumption on Sunday morning. This fact elevates the sheer difficulty of memorization, because only the most exceptional of minds would be able to memorize such a treatise each week. Further, if you as a minister are committed to manuscripting and then memorizing, your sermon each week, the time commitment for such a process will drain you from all the other tasks asked of the professional minister. There simply isn’t time to keep it all up.

Sweating ProfuselyFor five years of full-time ministry, I manuscripted and read my sermons each week. I did not memorize, because I was aware of my own limitations in that area. Additionally, I knew that while the written word was well-crafted and honored all the nuance and depths which the Scriptures called for, whenever I strayed from the manuscript the product was diminished. Speaking on my own meant speaking with less poetry, less craft, less depths, and less overall insight. A manuscripted sermon for me ensured that the depths of teaching were secured.

However, I recognized that there was an element of fear involved in this as well. One of the reasons I didn’t want to stand in front of the congregation and preach without notes is because I had come to trust in the manuscript as a buffer of safety between me and the congregation. I’m not sure if this fear was warranted or not, or if my thoughts were justified or not. At the same time, I began to feel that I had stalled in my development as a preacher. The next option to attempt was to change my style to a noteless—or at least minimally noted—format. This was met by fear, but I also felt that it was something I needed to attempt. Thus, the choice to preach without notes was for me an act of trusting God.

Not having to manuscript and “rehearse” a sermon each week has released an enormous amount of time into my schedule. Consequently, Charles Merrill Smith’s words about the time saved for a noteless preacher struck close to home. I spend less time preparing a sermon, and need less time to practice it. I still study and outline heavily, but there are significant portions of what is said each week that is not prepared. This leads to a number of uncomfortable questions. Am I trusting in God’s Spirit for those utterances, or am I relying too heavily on my own natural gifts at public speaking? Am I lazy in preparation, or am I simply utilizing those assets God has given me in effective ways? There are not clear answers to these questions, however I am confident of two things: first, that the quality of my sermons has diminished, and second, people like my sermons more.

This is where Smith’s criticism comes home most clearly to the congregation, because he identifies neatly the brute fact that noteless preaching draws the attention of the congregation away from the content of the sermon to the virtuosity of the preacher; it can make of congregants spectators at an event rather than hearers of the word, and shifts the heart from evaluating the Word to reflecting on how I felt at the time. Now, every effective sermon ought to touch hearts as well as minds, but something in the noteless sermon weights the experience for the congregation on the “heart” side of the matter and minimizes the mind. This is a dangerous propensity.

Slain in the Spirit

Look Ma, no notes!

To the congregant, then, I say this: the sermon is a moment of weekly instruction, not performance; it is a prepared event of teaching and proclaiming that requires your attentive listening, and is not a passive reception which you either “feel” or don’t. At your weekly church service, you are not, and have never been, a spectator.

To the preacher, however, I want to say something else—or, rather, five somethings else.

1.Let people be people. We must acknowledge that people will be people. They are emotional beings who respond in emotional ways to the things we do in our public service. We ought not to chastise them for responding in accordance with their humanity to a public worship service. However, by means of our own faithful self-offering, we must seek to instruct them well, calling them to deeper reflection and insight into the Word. The sermon is never anti-emotion, but is best when it harmonizes heart and mind.

2. Stand in service to the Word, not the congregation’s desires. The appeal of different styles of preaching is that some appear to connect more readily with the congregation. The preacher must guard his own heart against the allure of adjusting style for the sake of congregational happiness. This doesn’t mean that we preach in a way that is intentionally obtuse, or that we make the sermon difficult on purpose—quite the opposite, it is a critical part of the preacher’s task to know his people and speak to them where they are. But he must also be aware that the people are not always the best judges of what they need or want. People like comfortable things, and the Gospel is a profoundly uncomfortable thing. The wise preacher will unwaveringly apply the discomfort of the Gospel but seek to do this through means that the congregation will be able to hear. In this, the preacher’s loyalty is always to the Word, first, and only to the congregation’s needs as they are met by that Word.

3. Style is an asset, and not a surrogate, to the Main Thing. The Main Thing in a sermon is the preaching of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ. Each and every style for each and every preacher is simply an asset to this main thing. When style becomes the surrogate, then our convictions and our content are made to serve our style, rather than our style serving our convictions. My experience is that this happens most often with story-based preachers, whose sermons are flush with humorous and memorable anecdotes and examples. The problem is that, very often, the listener remembers the funny story but not the Scriptural text which gave outline to the story. Thus, style has become the Main Thing instead of the Main Thing being the Main Thing. In the end, there is no such thing as a right “style” to preaching, there are only preachers who have sanctified themselves through dedication to the proclamation of the Word and who are causing their personalities to serve their message.

4. No Preacher can serve as a model for any other. This is a curious area of deception, that young ministers idolize certain preachers and model their ministries after those people. Just recently I had a gentleman ask me which preachers I listen to in order to learn my style, and my answer was, “No-one.” The truth is that nobody can teach you to be an effective preacher, because the primary quality of a great preacher is that the individual knows himself and is confident in who he is. I once had a conversation about preaching with a dear friend and former roommate (who, incidentally, is someone I actually think will one day be a bishop!). He observed that, when we think of it, all the so-called “great” preachers of our time—Tim Keller, John MacArthur, Erwin Lutzer, David Jeremiah, Alistair Begg—the one thing they each have in common (in all their diverse theology!) is that they are strong personalities. This was an eye-opening realization. Great preachers are not great because of their style, they are great because they are themselves. Therefore there is no model who can serve to guide you as a preacher, because none of those people can teach you to be you. The best you can do in the pulpit is to be truly yourself, and proclaim the Gospel as yourself.

5. Notes or no notes, choose the communication style that fits your maturity and capability. There is no sacred style of preaching. There is no single communication style. There is only a preacher with a given maturity, and a given set of capabilities, striving to serve God with the best that God has given him at this time. Consider the Word before you. Examine it carefully. Consider your people. What style of sermon will best communicate the conviction of your study to the people under your care? If you are a lazy individual, then you must consider whether preaching without notes is an extension of laziness. If you are careful individual, you must consider whether preaching with a manuscript is an extension of fear. Whatever style you choose, ensure that the choice is serving the message, and not the other way round.

Concerning Christians Wounded by the Church

Just last week I wrote about Christians who reject the church, and while I wrote I purposefully chose to make no mention of those circumstances when Christians have been so wounded by the Church that they feel they have to leave. My intentional omission was, and remains, grounded in the conviction that the prideful rejection of the Church—the refusal to submit—is an attitude which warrants a ruthless manner of redress. I did not wish to mitigate my argument against the prideful even by mention of the wounded because there is no room for such an attitude among people who claim to follow Christ.

And yet the prideful are not necessarily the only ones who walk away from the gathered community, because there are also many who explain their own withdrawal from regular Christian fellowship on the grounds of wounds received within the Church. I was vividly reminded of this while I sat with an old friend this past week. Several years had elapsed since we’d seen one another, and while we caught up he shared with me that due to a series of extreme and difficult circumstances, married to a consequent wounding by the Church, he had ceased to attend fellowship for a time. So, what should be said to Christians who have been wounded by the Church?

Tantrum

Courtesy of Flikr. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

But let’s imagine now that you have self-examined and pride is not at the root of your experience of wounding. What now? There are a few things to consider. First, have I been wounded because the Church is composed of imperfect people, or because this particular congregation is systematically broken? This distinction is terribly important. All people are broken, and while the Church is an agent of healing for brokenness, it remains composed of people on the way towards new life. If the Church is doing its job of evangelism, then it is continually bringing in new broken people who augment its overall brokenness with their own individual eccentricities. Have I been wounded, then, because the people around me are still undergoing a transformation under grace? Am I wounded because the people around me are not equipped to deal with my particular brokenness, and I am simply impatient with their rate of growth in care? However painful the wounding might be, it is the wounding of humanity and of family. To escape this kind of wounding will require retreat from all human contact. What is more, if you were to find a Church which could guarantee no wounding in this capacity, your own personal brokenness would disqualify you from membership. We must remember that grace in community is not a one-way street, for in the same manner that you wish for a kind of grace from the people of God (to meet your wounds), you must yourself extend grace to the gathered people of God (who are broken as well).

But the above condition assumes that the gathered community is striving to live faithfully the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. What about those communities where there is a system of brokenness? For example, when leadership ensconces itself in protective policies, ensuring that power is preserved at all costs, or when churches cover brokenness to save face, wounding the people of God to save the “institution” (and forgetting that the institution has no life apart from the people that constitute it), or when gross ineptitude on the part of leadership is never addressed by the laity, or when gross ineptitude on the part of laity is never addressed by the leadership. I submit to you that in these circumstances of systemic brokenness such Churches are in the process of violating their very purpose. All Churches will wound, of course—sometimes intentionally in accord with the mission, sometimes unintentionally because of our broken humanity. But these Churches wound in order to self-preserve; they fleece and eat their own sheep in violation of the Lord’s command to feed and care for the sheep. They have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worship at the altar of their own image, rather than the image of the Lord who gave his life for the Church. This is a Church that is in the process of becoming not-a-Church, a branch which is severing itself from the lifegiving vine. Its doom, if there is no repentance and change, is certain.

cowcatcher1

Sometimes people use tools to ensure the locomotive keeps running.

But there remains a further difficulty. What of those situations where wolves masquerade as sheep within the people of God, whether as leadership or laity? What do we make of the wounds brought about by faithless, manipulative, deceptive people walking among faithful and earnest Christians? Sadly, this is a reality that is promised in Scripture—in other words, we knew this could happen. So our response as members wounded by wolves hangs on the Church’s response to the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. If the false leadership/membership is not addressed, then it points to a systematic issue—the Church is now protecting its own image by refusing to deal properly with the deception, and is in the process of violating its mission. (This, I should note, is often reflected in the bitter and ongoing situation with sexual abuse in the Church.) However, if the Church does seek to address the problem, however falteringly, then it is part and parcel of the way the kingdom operates in this broken world.

What does all this mean for the wounded Christian? In the first place, it means that if your wounds fall under the first category—those wounds which are an unfortunate but unchanging part of the brokenness of the world—then you have little ground for leaving the Church. You might need a break, depending on the nature of your wound (I think here of grief in particular). But you should remember that your wound is as much a vital part of the life of the Church as anything else—it is the vivid reminder of our need to love and care for the body in community. But in the second place, if you discern that you are part of a deeply broken Church, a Church on its way to becoming not-a-Church, then you still have further discernment to make, and two options from which to choose. 1) Am I called to stay in this broken fellowship, although wounded, and strive through faithfulness to effect Christlike change? This is a difficult, self-denying decision, and it must be particularly shielded against the influence of pride. Pride would claim, “I am the one to change this church, and I’ll do it if it kills me.” Humility is a necessary component for all such engagement, and if you are called to this, you are called to suffer for the sake of change. The second option is this: 2) Has Jesus given me permission to remove myself from this fellowship and to engage with a new one? Again, the decision to leave must be discerned through prayer. The question, put another way, might be this, “Lord, are my wounds calling me to fellowship with a different group of your followers?” Once again, pride lurks in the background—the pride of imagining yourself better or more enlightened than the people you have left behind. So, whether you stay or leave, you are called to stay or leave in humility of heart.

Hospital Bed Child

Photo by Cecil Beaton.

A few concluding thoughts. First, the astute reader will note that throughout this I have made no room for a solitary Christian. It is assumed that, having faith in Christ, you will commit to finding a place to live out your life in fellowship. Second, you will also note the repeated and emphasized role of discernment in this process. Life in the Church requires a great deal of self-examination, searching out pride and the motives of our hearts. Third and finally, we should mark the persistent role of humility throughout this process—humility of leaders and laity alike, of wounded and broken people, of all within the Church. After the presence of Christ, humility is the most important characteristic of any functioning Church, and the certain ground of any solution to wounds within the Church.