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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

An Uncharacteristic, Personal Update

Dear Reader,

As you may or may not have noticed, this is not a blog where I talk about me very often, if at all. Today, however, I wanted to break that convention in order to let you in on some significant life changes in the near future. Long story short, in January I’m beginning PhD studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I’d like to take today’s post to tell you about how I’ve been led to this decision.

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Years ago, when my faith was first truly coming into its own, it did so under the influence of two men who taught me to love Jesus. Those two men were Lyle Dorsett and Jerry Root—both were C.S. Lewis scholars, both were committed to the Church and the Academy, and both exhibited a pastoral faith that had been deeply enriched by their respective PhD studies. It was a model that appealed to me.

When I graduated from Wheaton with a degree in Ancient Languages (Greek and Latin), and my wife with hers in Art, we were well situated to be highly educated but unemployable. I knew that further education would be necessary for me to advance in a career. One option I considered was Classics (further Greek studies), potentially at Oxford. Another option was a program in Patristic Studies (early Church history) at Notre Dame. Neither seemed quite right.

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In the meantime, worshipping one Sunday at Church, our minister put out a call for volunteers to preach at a local retirement home. I felt like I ought to give it a go, prayed it through with my wife, and before I knew it I was preaching to a group of 80 year old women. To my astonishment, I found that I loved it. Once a month I wrote a fifteen minute sermon and delivered it, and I was energized after each visit. I was so energized that, while walking with my wife and discussing further education, we came to the conclusion that seminary was the best option for us. Our provisional plan was that I would pursue a seminary degree, then move on to complete a PhD immediately following. We began to look at schools.

The events that brought us to Regent College in Vancouver, BC, are outside the scope of this post—but suffice it to say that we went in a very brief time from being unable to identify Vancouver on a map to deciding to emigrate there. Regent especially appealed to us because of the sense we had that Regent offered a kind of “liberal arts” version of the seminary experience (they even advertized themselves as the “un-seminary” at that time). Because of this, it felt like an ideal place to pursue an MDiv on the way to a PhD.

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The next four years involved an enormous amount of discernment as to the nature of my call, and in the process I experienced a curious vacillation. One month I would be encouraged in pursuing pastoral ministry, but it would be accompanied by some measure of discouragement about pursuing a PhD. Another month I would be actively encouraged in PhD studies but discouraged in pastoral ministry. As part of my MDiv requirements I was placed in a small group where we mutually discerned our calls and attempted to speak truth to one another. At the close of that group, after more than a year together, that group firmly and clearly affirmed my call to both pastoral ministry and the academy.

However, at graduation my PhD prospects were not clear at all. I had received a fairly devastating criticism in one of my last classes, and that criticism cast real doubt on the topic for study that I was then considering. In the meantime, I had been preaching on a monthly basis at a local Vietnamese church and greatly enjoying their fellowship and company. Once again, the cycle of discouragement and encouragement was in full swing, and when they asked me that summer to serve as their pastor, with no clear PhD prospects on the horizon, I said yes. I made it clear, however, that I didn’t know how long I would be able to stay with them. I ended up serving as their pastor for five years.

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We at Pho at a restaurant called Pho Tau Bay nearly every Sunday for all five years. It was amazing.

At the end of my service with them, I transitioned to a Chinese church, and I’ve been ministering to them for the past three years. Over the past eight years I have continue to nurse, in prayer, the call to a PhD. I’ve had a lingering sense that it was something I am still supposed to do, but I could imagine no way to accomplish it—whether logistically or financially. And so when I prayed about it I would always offer it to the Lord as a thing He could give me or take; the refrain of my prayers at this time was simply this, “Lord, give me no desires you don’t intend to fulfill Yourself.” I didn’t want to desire the PhD if God didn’t want me to have it. Occasionally I would discuss this sense of call with my Church members, and one time a smirking member told me that maybe the PhD God wanted me to get was my, “Preach Here, Dummy.” I laughed heartily at the joke, but also took it to heart. Maybe that door was closed.

In fact, I was very near to giving up on the dream altogether when, in December, I learned of a new program at St. Andrews. It would focus on Analytical and Exegetical Theology—that is, on philosophy and Bible—and everything about the program felt right up my alley. The subject was right, the instructors managing the program are some of the best in the world, and I had wanted a UK degree in part because they are shorter (three years) and focus chiefly on writing. For the first time in a long time I became excited about the possibility of further studies. I consulted with my wife and some key friends, and each counseled me to apply.

Over a two-week holiday in January I completed the application. Several professors with whom I had kept in touch encouraged me unreservedly (and wrote recommendations). My mentors in faith, Jerry and Lyle, were equally encouraging. And so with confidence I clicked submit and began to wait. I would wait a lot longer than I expected.

January passed, then February without news. This was not terribly surprising, but in March I was notified that I had been wait-listed. I still felt that this was manageable, but some uncertainty began to settle in. In many ways I felt that if this program didn’t work out, the PhD was not going to be a thing for me, and I was even then resigning myself to this possibility. In April I attended the Wheaton Theology Conference and, unsolicited, a large number of people (more than ten over a four day period) affirmed not only my writing but specifically encouraged me to pursue a PhD. When I shared that I had applied for a program, they expressed their excitement. I came back to Vancouver encouraged, but still waiting with bated breath. In May I spent a monthly retreat day at a Benedictine Monastery. While praying on a park bench for some encouragement from the Lord a couple walked up to the lookout. They began speaking in English accents, and I, wonderingly, asked the Lord, “Would you speak to me, Lord, through an accent?” Feeling uncertain, I continued my prayer, “You’ll have to give me more than that.” Moments later, another group walked up to the lookout, unrelated to the first—and would you know it, they also had English accents? Now my eyes and ears were open, but I’m not sure I was convinced. Ten or so minutes later one of the monks came to the bench and sat next to me. He was smoking a pipe and listening to music. On top of his pipe’s bowl was a curious metal contraption, and I interrupted him to ask what it was. Being hard of hearing, and misunderstanding me, he said, quite loudly, describing the pipe itself, “IT’S ENGLISH.” In my heart I said to God, “I will only be able to tell this story, Lord, if you send me to Scotland.”

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It was late June when I finally heard from the school—I was admitted to the program but without any offer of funding. One of the key prayers throughout the intervening months had been that if God wanted me to pursue this program, He would need to provide the funding. No funding, and I wouldn’t go. Acceptance from the school was then not enough to confirm my sense of call. My wife and I began to pray. She secured the word “miracle” on the wall of our home as a reminder of our prayers. And in two weeks’ time two things happened—first, the school offered me a 50% tuition scholarship, and second, I contacted a friend who offered significant support toward the program. In two weeks we had gone from no resources to more than 60% of the total cost of the program—living expenses and tuition. We felt that God had clearly showed us His intention to provide the rest, and so in faith we have agreed to go, and in prayer we are continuing to await the remainder of His provision. I have formally resigned from my church work, and in January we will sell many of our things and my family of five will change countries and spend the next three years at St. Andrews in Scotland. While we are there I will be writing about the Trinity, and Family Systems Theory, and the Incarnation, and Suffering. It promises to be an exciting set of years.

One friend asked me, “Did you choose Scotland, or did Scotland choose you?” The answer is “Yes.” But the overarching sense is that, indeed, Scotland has chosen us, and I can say that because the process of being led to this course of study has been of a piece with all of the previous ones. By God’s guidance I have applied to only one University (Wheaton), and only one Seminary (Regent), and now only one PhD Program (St. Andrews). He has been the one arranging my education, not me, and I am more than content to continue to submit to His guidance in these matters.

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Illinois forest preserves are pretty nice places.

When my wife and I were walking that Illinois forest preserve all those years ago and discussing seminary and doctoral studies, we certainly did not anticipate eight years of intervening pastoral ministry. And yet these years have been good. We have been enriched by our time in Vancouver, and we have made lifelong friends in the two churches in which I’ve served. I’ve been able to develop as a writer, and my pastoral call is a confirmed and entrenched reality. I remain called to serve the Church, and moreover I love the Church! I have wanted to stress to my members the fact that transitioning to PhD studies is in no way a departure from the Church. Rather, this is the completion and augmentation of my call. What career I pursue at the close of the next three years is yet to be seen, but we can await it with anticipation and not fear, because the One who is ordering our steps has ordered those events as well. We have only to keep our eyes open, and to obey when the time is right.

Thanks for Reading!

P. Jeremy Rios

A Developing Call—Some Thoughts On Why I Write

When I began this blog, six years ago next week, it was in response to a call from the Lord. He had instructed me to write, and so in obedience I began to write. I began blogging here at Mustard Seed Faith, then working on a book, then another book, then another blog, and so forth and so on. Any discipline pursued over time will change you, and over these past years writing has become such an integral part of my life that I have trouble now imagining life without it.

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My call to write has remained unchanged these past years, but my focus has begun to shift. The lodestone that has guided this shift has been my pastoral call, and, more specifically, my people. It is impossible to ignore today the increased prominence given to the life we live online. I first joined Facebook as a ministry tool, in order to keep abreast of what was going on in my people’s lives. Their likes, dislikes, and comments gave me a snapshot of what was going on socially, politically, ideologically, and theologically. And in the midst of observing their information, a new burden began to grow in me. The burden was about bad information.

Let’s face it—there’s a whole lot of bad information out there, and it’s not just bad, but often deceptive and dangerous. A byproduct of our media obsessions is that very often it is the loudest voice that wins, or the funniest, or the most vulgar. These factors highlight the shocking lack of serious thought, critical inquiry, and Christian witness in the public sphere. I quickly began to realize that, if no good information were being injected into the feeds of my people, the bad information would certainly win the day. Psalm 12:8 observes that “The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men,” and Psalm 11:3 asks the question, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” There is so much bad information strutting about, unopposed and unchecked, eroding the foundations of what is often a regrettably naïve Christian faith. Where are the righteous voices? Where are the people championing the complexities of Christian orthodoxy? Where are the men and women of faith who are standing up to speak the truth in a measured, ordinary way? I am challenged by that old dictum—that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

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Image from Imgur (http://imgur.com/YO1RIOZ.jpg)

Recently I’ve been reading a biography of German pastor Martin Niemöller, who although a retired U-boat captain and fiercely patriotic, and although he initially supported Hitler and the National Socialists, and although tacitly participating in Germany’s pervasive anti-Semitism, nevertheless came to change his mind. As a pastor he began to recognize the dissonance between the vision of Christianity presented by Nazi Germany and the one represented in the historic Christian faith. Taking stock of the two, Niemöller began to question what was going on in Germany. Bristling at State interference in matters of doctrine and practice in the Church, he helped to organize with other pastors a resistance to National Socialism, and an attempt to call the conscience of Christian Germany to rethink its racism and nationalism. In this way Niemöller was instrumental in founding the Confessing Church, and for his efforts was confined to prison for eight years, many of those at Dachau. At the end of that time Niemöller was uniquely poised to address not only the wrongs done in Germany, but to seek a new way forward. He played a key role in the composition of a document called the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. The following words are from that document:

Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.

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Niemöller is also famous for that poem that begins, “First they came for the Trade Unionists, and I said nothing…”

We fought, Niemöller confessed—but not hard enough, not loudly enough, not joyfully enough, not courageously enough. I am convicted by Niemöller’s example. He is a pastor, like me, called, like me, to voice genuine Christianity in the midst of chaos, distraction, and falsehood. He speaks the truth in a prophetic way and pays a great cost for it. He is a spiritual hero for an age of deception and informational chaos. I am coming to pray, as I write, that I will have spoken faithfully, loudly, and boldly, and will not have to apologize later for not having spoken enough.

This, then, is the altered shape of my call to write—at least as I write here and offer comment online. I feel a burden to be a voice for orthodox, rational, traditional Christianity in the public sphere. To do this I keep a public profile, so that almost every post, comment, and interaction is visible for all to see. My motives are not combative (I enjoy a good debate, but not controversy), and nor are they particularly apologetic—in fact, in almost every case I am writing not to non-believers, but to the Church. Throughout, my underlying attitude is deeply pastoral. I read popular content online and consider how it might affect my people. I write about and address issues of public concern because I am motivated chiefly by compassion for my people who may have access only to inferior interpretations of events. I grieve the situation of modern information, and feel compelled to attempt to do my small part to stand for the truth in the midst of chaos. I pray that, when I look back at my life later, I will be able to stand with a measure of the integrity of my fellow pastor Martin Niemöller. May God grant that it so be.

The Problem with “Leadership Training”

Perhaps the most ambiguous line in my job description is the one that instructs me to “train leaders.” The phrase itself fills me with uncertainty. What is being asked of me here? What does ‘leadership’ mean? What is it that the people who wrote this really desire? How am I going to go about this? Over the past years as I have sought to execute my job and as I have considered the culture of ‘leadership training’ in the church, the more I have come to feel that these two simple words, “train leaders,” are representative of a methodological (and theological) red herring.

What, after all, is being asked of me when I am asked to “train leaders?” The task itself presupposes not only that I sufficiently know what it means to be a leader, but that I also am possessed of such self-awareness and proficiency that I might effectively impart this knowledge to others. In other words, it presupposes that I am an ‘expert leader’ and that I can teach others to lead. But this is by no means a guarantee. My experience of leadership is inextricably linked to my call. Because I am called to be a pastor, I am therefore invariably called to lead people (and, as a corollary, to not lead would be an abdication of my call). In other words, I am not a leader because I have been trained to be a leader or am an expert at leadership; I am a leader because I have been called to be a leader. The idea of ‘training leaders’ seems to imply that I can somehow transmit my call and my task to others. And the task of ‘training leaders,’ seen this way, is impossible. After all, discovering your call is quite a different matter from the modern idea of ‘training people to be leaders.’

And furthermore, what does ‘leadership’ even mean? When we pause and think about it, we discover that ‘leadership’ is itself a highly ambiguous idea. Now, many people might claim that leadership is that set of personality traits and innate skills that, when developed, earmark certain persons for positions of authority. But wait a moment—who determines which qualities and skills belong on this list of leadership traits? How do we even arrive at such an abstract list of qualities?

Actually, I think we come at that list from three sources—but all three are unreliable guides. First of all, we can examine a personal experience of being ‘led;’ that is, we can extrapolate from the experience of being a follower to try and determine what makes a leader. The problem is that this doesn’t account for the occasions of leadership—what if it is leadership of a school project? Wouldn’t that be different than leadership in a military campaign, or leading a museum tour? Our experiences of being led are too occasional to develop a comprehensive theory of leadership. A second way to develop criteria for leadership would be to extrapolate from our experiences of being ‘in charge.’ Assuming that you’ve ‘worn the pants’ on occasion, what can you derive from that experience which can teach you about what it means to be a leader? But what if you were in charge because you were voted into a position that no one else wanted? What if you were in charge because you spoke the loudest? What if you were in charge because you’re a bully? The experience of being ‘in charge’ can, at best, net us only a limited understanding of leadership. Third and finally, we can develop criteria of leadership through the study of the lives of other great leaders and attempt to pattern ourselves after them. This sounds the most promising to begin with, but quickly we shall realize that we are neither as intelligent, bold, nor as brave as those other leaders, and neither do we live in similar circumstances to them. While it may be a useful study, it is also unlikely to reward us with genuine leaders. The problem of ambiguity, in the end, is that leadership is not a monolithic, abstract entity or idea which can be universally applied. Because of this I would suggest that few people have any real concept of what constitutes leadership or what composes the leader’s personality.

This problem of defining leadership goes even deeper, because once you have collected this list of qualities and characteristics which are relevant to ‘leadership’—a list that is, by now, quite vast—how do you reduce this vague, occasional list of personal qualities into a program which trains novices into leaders? The problem, then, is not merely one of defining leadership, but with the logistics of developing a programmatic training scheme to guide people effectively into these preconceived characteristics.

There is another question to ask as well: what is the practical goal of the well-intentioned people who wrote my job description? After all, when they wrote that clause about leadership training they had something specific in mind—that is, they want me to identify and train certain people to fulfill certain roles within the church. But let us be clear about this: the real goal was not to develop a culture of leaders, but to raise up a corps of volunteers. I am not actually being asked to teach people to lead according to an abstract standard of leadership qualities, I am being asked to get others to do the work of the church. And in the end, ‘leadership training’ is often a code word—maybe even advertizing lingo—for marshalling helpers. Because of this, it is also just a little dishonest.

Faced with the problem of leadership, and yet saddled with the onerous task of ‘training’ leaders, I turned to a number of books on the subject of leadership. After all, I must figure out how to accomplish this task. Where better to look than books on leadership? Sadly, few such books have been particularly helpful. But one such book that I recently read helped to crystallize my concerns with the Christian culture of leadership. That book was J. Oswald Sanders’s Spiritual Leadership. It had come highly recommended to me by pastors, youth leaders, and members of the church. It was being used to train leaders, as a guide for small groups, and for private study. Heeding the strong recommendation of my peers, I procured a copy. However, upon completing the book, I found it to be representative of everything that I find wrong with the culture of ‘leadership training.’ A brief assessment of its contents will strengthen my point.

Sanders’s book is a chapter by chapter summary of qualities and characteristics of leadership, drawing form both biblical and secular sources, and quoting liberally and frequently the words of great, historic leaders. The book is not really an argument about leadership, but rather a description of what Sanders considers to be the essential qualities of ‘spiritual’ leadership. But while his book is interesting enough as a documentation of these qualities (perhaps as a kind of encyclopedia of leadership traits), his catena of quotations amounts to a book that is more inspirational than useful.

In the end, Sanders’s book is deeply flawed for two significant reasons. First, the book gives too much information. Not that it is too long (it is only 150 pages), but each chapter is a list of characteristic after characteristic that the leader ought to have. As a result, I suspect that it is almost impossible for a person to remember and learn all these characteristics. In one chapter, “Qualities Essential to Leadership I,” Sanders briefly describes no less than six characteristics (Discipline, Vision, Wisdom, Decision, Courage, and Humility). One could easily pen a book on each characteristic, but Sanders merely touches on each one. The problem is not in the fact that Sanders has written a survey of these characteristics (undoubtedly it is true that ‘spiritual’ leaders possess each of these), the problem is that a leader who is leading is never thinking of these characteristics while leading. Leadership, in short, is unconscious of itself in the moment of leadership. If you’re busy thinking about all of these characteristics in the moment when you ought to be leading, then chances are you’re not leading. And this is but one chapter’s worth—the book goes on an on with these lists and quotations.

Another flaw is that Sanders’s book contains no steps for how to attain these characteristics. The reader is left with an uncomfortable situation: leadership has been described, but no direction has been given to reach it. Now, in the same way that I might describe Chicago for you in all its majesty—Lake Shore Drive, the John Hancock Building, Soldier Field—if I don’t include a road map, my description will be nothing more that nice words. We are left to ask as readers: What must I go through to become such a person? Sanders leaves us without an answer.

But my intention is not to slam Sanders. He is, I am suggesting, symptomatic of the whole problem of leadership training today. And perhaps I would summarize the whole problem by saying that, when we think of ‘training’ people to be leaders, we are thinking of leadership in abstraction. We have examined qualities we believe are characteristic of people who are leaders, then removed those qualities in order to create a kind of syllabus for leadership. Then, when we are looking to appoint people to positions, we examine those persons for specific sets of traits which we believe are necessary to leadership. If they have those traits, we appoint them to positions accordingly. If they lack those traits, we don’t appoint them. To ‘train’ leaders, then, presupposes that one can equip people with these qualities and characteristics at will, and that with the appropriate modifications in place a person will finally, objectively, be ‘fit’ to be a leader.

But leadership never happens in abstraction, always in a context. Leadership, in other words, is always occasional because a leader is always a leader of a particular situation, of a particular group of people, in a particular group of circumstances, and at a particular time. Remove Napoleon Bonaparte from 19th century France, and he might just be a nobody trudging an office job in the city. But place him in front of an army of French Nationalists, and he becomes a powerhouse. Remove Martin Luther from 16th century Germany and he might be no more than an irritable and cranky religious nut. But place him in a German monastery at the height of the abuse of Indulgences, and Luther becomes a spiritual giant. The leadership of individuals cannot be removed from their situations, because leadership is what happens when people with certain qualities find those qualities evoked and put into place by the situations they face. A particular occasion is what it takes to evoke the quality. And when it comes to Christian leadership in particular, the occasion to lead is always prompted by a call.

This process of abstraction poses a further problem, because when leadership is an abstraction it can become an expertise. As we refine our idea of the ideal leader, we begin to look for only a certain kind of person. In the process we may overlook many people who don’t outwardly reveal our standard of leaders, but inwardly only await the right occasion. Furthermore, in thinking of leadership as an abstract expertise, another tragic thing happens: many people conclude that they are unfit for leadership because they are not experts. They look at the criteria of this lengthy job description and remove themselves from consideration. Their sentiment is justifiable, but the effect is devastating, because leaders are never experts, they are only obedient amateurs.

This, in the end, explains why Sanders’s book is useful in describing components of historic leadership but next to useless in creating leaders, because the most important characteristic of leadership is a sustained, plodding, careful, and self-examined obedience. The leader is not a person who possesses abstract qualities, but a person who is obeying God out in front of other people, who through his personal obedience guides others into their own deeper obedience to God. Leadership is not about learning a set of characteristics, memorizing and training yourself to follow them, but about learning to be obedient in any and every situation in your life. And, unlike a list of 200 characteristics of what it means to be a leader, obedience is a thing you can successfully keep in your mind. It is simple, and therefore possible.

To attempt the alternative—that is, to prepare someone to be a leader by attempting to build in that person a preconceived set of personality traits (what most leadership training amounts to)—would be an exercise in casuistry. I cannot train people to be prepared in every contingency by teaching them all the contingencies. Instead, to truly raise people to the potential of leadership (in a given situation), my primary job is to train people to be obedient followers of Jesus. The question is not, “Will you be a leader?” The question is, “Will you be obedient when Jesus calls you?”

How can I do this best? The first and most important thing is that I must strive to be an obedient follower of Jesus myself. I am leading by being obedient out in front of others. And from that God-ordained position, through my example and through my teaching, I must drive people to depend more and more on Jesus—to learn his voice, to know his commands, to obey him. This, in short, is discipleship. And discipleship has little to do with the modern cult of leadership, for it has no expertise and no abstraction, but is summarized by the proximity of a soul to Jesus Christ the risen Lord. No other criteria matters.

What did obedience look like in Takashi Nagai’s life?

There are other helps in the training of souls for this divine obedience, but one of my favorites is the reading of Christian biographies. But here we must avoid a trap: we are not reading to discern the qualities of leadership so we can apply them to our lives. We are not reading to abstract these saints’ lives into a set of qualities of leadership, but rather to discover what particular form Christian obedience took in their lives. We must not ask, “What made Martin Luther a leader?” We must ask, “How was Martin Luther obedient?” We must not ask, “What made Augustine great?” We must ask, “How was Augustine obedient?” We must not ask, “How can I have a mission like William Carey?” We must ask, “How was William Carey obedient?” This guiding question answers the problem of occasion; we will never be truly like them in our circumstances, but we might approach them in our obedience. In the end, it is only when we have taken stock of that obedience that we might be better prepared and encouraged to be obedient when God’s call comes to us.

Leadership Training will always remain an elusive goal as long as leadership is viewed in abstraction and considered an expertise. Instead, it is only when we come to recognize our need for deep, consistent obedience to the call of God that leaders will spring up from our midst—not, perhaps, the people we expect, or the people earmarked for greatness by the standards of the world, but the obedient people. Then we will take note, gazing at their service, “that these men had been with Jesus.” Only when I have done that will I have fulfilled both my job description and my call.

Pray for your Pastor

We should seriously consider dressing like this for Church.

Paul closes his letter to the Church in Ephesus with some advice regarding spiritual warfare—advice which pertains not to special periods of spiritual attack in the life of a Christian, but to each and every moment of life as a follower of Jesus here on earth. Borrowing, no doubt, from the image of the Roman soldier who is guarding Paul, he offers believers a set of armor of their own—belt, shoes, breastplate, helmet, shield and sword. And then he gives them a command: to pray, always.

But Paul’s closing word to the Ephesians is a prayer request. He says (Ephesians 6:19-20), “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given to me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”

“Pray also for me.” If we keep Paul’s overarching image of warfare as God’s people, then these prayers are in keeping with this warfare. Think of it this way: in every army there are officers, commanders, and generals, and when Paul asks that we pray for him, he is asking that we pray for those in command above us in the faith.

Paul, of course, is dead, but the principle he taught remains true. And what that means for us, as a lesson for today, is that you must pray for your pastor, that prayer for your pastor is a critical aspect of Spiritual Warfare. And of course, I don’t mean just your pastor alone, but also to pray for every ministry leader above you.

The Pastor's fall affects many others.

Why do you need to pray for your pastor? Because in spiritual warfare your pastor is the most likely to be attacked, the biggest spiritual target. And the truth of the matter is that when the Pastor falls it hurts everyone in the Church. When you fail, O Ordinary Believer, it may hurt a few people—but consider the tragic ripples when a pastor falls. Remember Ted Haggard. Remember Jim Bakker. Remember the pastor you knew in your hometown who fell, spectacularly, from grace. The pastor is the biggest target because if the devil can get at him he can hurt a host of people. Then, where there was once faith, doubt can grow. Where there was once security, fear can set in. Where there was once comfort, there is now insecurity.

This, I believe, is a reason why James says (James 3:1) that “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” To step into a position of leadership in the church is to invite the attack of the enemy and the scrutiny of the flock. Whether you like it or not, you are now not just a Christian but also a special example; one that will either bless or tarnish God’s reputation in the world.

Therefore, if you are going to be an active participant in the warfare of the Church, if you want your church to survive and thrive against the schemes of her enemy, then you’ve absolutely got to pray for your pastor.

What should you pray for? There are five requests to make on your pastor’s behalf. These are (in no particular order):

1. Pray for purity.

A pastor is just as susceptible to sin as everyone else in the Church, no matter how holy he appears on a Sunday morning. He wrestles with a rebellious thought life, the flesh he inhabits, and pretty much every sin you can imagine (not usually all at once!). Pastors need purity so that they can effectively lead their flocks. Furthermore, don’t wait for your pastor to fall into sin to begin praying for his purity—instead, pray proactively for your pastor’s purity right now.

2. Pray for Encouragement.

The biggest struggle I face as a pastor is discouragement. Everyone else sees one picture of the church—the outside image—but I see the innermost depths of my church. I know everything that we could be, all the ways we fall short, and it is worth mentioning that in general the work to which a pastor is called is itself an overwhelming task. After all, we are charged with saving the world through the preaching of the gospel. And who is sufficient to complete such a task? The very nature of the work makes it so that it is far easier to see failures than successes, and Satan, the accuser, uses this disparity to create discouragement. I’m struck by the fact that when Paul writes his request for prayer he himself was in prison, and I expect that from within his grim prison view he was tempted toward discouragement. It’s a good bet your pastor needs some encouragement, too.

3. Pray for Boldness.

In every age of the Church there is a continual danger that ministers will preach a comfortable gospel rather than a true one. That we will, not heeding the warning of 2 Timothy 4:3, preach what the itching ears of our congregations desire to hear, rather than the words that God Himself would have us preach. And so we need the prayers of our people so that we will, in every circumstance, regardless of opposition or opinion, of popularity or political correctness, of attendance or success, be emboldened to preach boldly, as fools for Christ, what God asks us to preach. To pray for boldness is to pray that your pastor will serve God rather than anyone or anything else.

4. Pray for Wisdom.

Your pastor has a host of difficult decisions to make—about the direction and the future of your church, about the goals of your fellowship, about what to teach and preach, about who to encourage and who to discipline, about how to counsel this person and rebuke that one. And therefore your pastor desperately needs wisdom in matters of judgment, of discipline, of encouragement, and of teaching.

5. Pray for him to be Filled with the Spirit.

It is a simple thing to say, but we often forget it: if I minister by my own power, I will grow weak, but if by God’s power—by the power of the Spirit—then we will be strong (note especially the shift from singular to plural there). Your minister burns out when he ministers by his own power; he is renewed when he ministers by the Spirit’s power. Furthermore, if I am filled with the Spirit, then I will work harder to get you filled and everyone else in the Church as well. Your minister’s filling is an important path toward the filling of your whole church.

If you have never prayed for your pastor, take a moment and pray for him now along these lines. Better yet, take a moment and send him a note to tell him you’ve prayed for him. Write these five requests out and add them to your daily or weekly prayers. I’m certain your pastor needs it. I most certainly do.