Maybe it’s not about the calling

I’m sitting here in my study contemplating life in the ministry. First of all, I should qualify that statement: by “in the ministry,” I mean the vocational work of being employed by a church for what we call “ministry.” I know that we are all supposed to be ministers, or servants, of one another and of Christ our Lord. That’s a thought I’ll come back to later, perhaps, but let’s accept our normal vocabulary here in Baptist life. It may not be ideal, but it’s what we’ve got.
Next year will mark my twenty-fifth year in ministry service to Southern Baptist churches. In those years, I’ve mainly served churches under 200, and in fact, under 100 in attendance. I’ve been to a state Baptist college, a non-denominational seminary, and two very-Baptist, but not officially Southern Baptist, seminaries. (And at that, two that are very, very different. Probably a subject for another post.) I have done youth work, pastoral work, associate pastor work, and even a stint serving as de jure associational missionary.
Alongside that, though, I’ve also worked in a funeral home, as a pizza delivery guy, as a fast-food restaurant manager, and in logistics management. I’ve waffled back and forth between working within the church and finding my employment outside and serving in the church as a volunteer. I still struggle with that impulse, and who knows where I will land? As it sits, I’ve got a Master’s degree that qualifies me to…be a pastor. And a BA in Biblical studies and speech. Kind of typecast myself through education, though maybe the history Ph.D. will broaden my horizons.
When I struggle with whether or not I should stay a Baptist pastor, I typically reach out to some of my wiser friends for guidance and counsel. (Barring that, I ask my blogging buddies.) One of the common refrains that I’ve heard in both personal counsel and from seminary leaders is that pastors who struggle with their work should “go back to your calling and rest in that.” I’ve tried that. In the darkness of the night, in the face of angry opposition to simple, Biblical principles, in response to hatred poured out on my children for being “different,” in the face of a deep depression that covered two years and one serious lean toward suicide, let me say this plainly:
My call wasn’t enough. In fact, it was a shove closer to the precipice of despair and giving up. Which is not the same as surrender to grace of God.
So, despite my respect for those forebears and wisdom-bearers who encourage ministers to “go back to their call” when times get tough, I want to argue with that idea. Going back to my call simply put me more aware of my failure and inadequacy. After all, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called” (Another cliche that should probably disappear rapidly. Do you want your cardiologist to claim that she’s called and God will qualify her? Um, no. She needs to get qualified before she cuts.), right? So, my failure means that not only am I not keeping my hand to the plow and not looking back, I am rejecting how God has qualified me. It’s not simply that I am inadequate to the task, but all the things I need have been given to me and I still failed.
And yes, many of us think we have failed despite the tweets and books from pastors of large-numbered churches and seminary professors assuring us that small numbers don’t mean failure. Sell me that when you resign your 6-digits and assistants and tenure and sabbaticals and have to preach your heart out, then listen to complaints about your kids, then counsel someone trying to escape an abusive marriage, then have to answer to your personnel committee about why you didn’t make sure the youth minister filed his time sheet…and why attendance was down on a holiday weekend. All in the same 10-hour span you’re preaching sermons that you wrote yourself without any research helpers or student interns to look stuff up for you. We feel like failures despite your bestsellers and conferences that we can’t afford assuring us we’re not.
If “my calling” is not going to sustain me in ministry, then what will? That’s a question I have been wrestling strongly with for the last year. And here is my answer:
Maybe it’s not about my call. Or, for you, fellow pastor/minister/elder/whatever-the-cool-churches-are-calling-it-now, maybe your calling was never meant to sustain you in ministry, much less drive you in ministry. Why?
Here’s what I think: I’ve read the New Testament several times, in several translations, as well as in Greek. And while I see the narrative presence of people called to serve Christ directly, every one of them also ends up being someone we call an “apostle.” Every one. There are a dozen guys in the Gospels, then there’s one fellow in Acts. Anyone else we see in particular service, we do not see how they began to work. Unless you count Timothy, who Paul seems to have brought with him in Acts 16, but there is no “bright light” moment for him. Instead, we have in 1 Timothy the idea that one should “desire” the responsibility of being an elder and in James 3 the warning that not many should be teachers because of judgment. Reads like there is some measure of personal choice here, not just a “calling” that we have to do…or else. Now, of course, the Old Testament prophets had such a calling, but New Testament pastors and Old Testament prophets are not the same thing. For that matter, New Testament apostles and New Testament pastors are not the same thing. (Check Ephesians 4:11-13 and see if that’s what it says.)
When you think about it, some of our problems in the modern church actually stem from believing we are called just like prophets and apostles. Prophets and apostles were the bearers of God’s inerrant words (look at who wrote much of both Testaments) and spoke with an authority that pastors and teachers do not share. We help people understand God’s Word, serving the church by doing so rather than commanding the church as Peter, Paul, or James did. (Or commanding the nation, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah….) As we have allowed men and women to stand up and claim an inherent right to preach because of their “call,” we have not rightly handled examining their character or seeking the rest of Ephesians 4:11-13 and seeing if they build up the church or tear it down. We just back off and allow their “call” to override.
And when a pastor stumbles, the stress is about his “calling” and whether he is wasting it through his personal troubles or is being taken away from it by sinful people. We seem more concerned with protecting the calling than actually caring about the people involved in a situation.
I would suggest to you that the core of someone’s ministry is not based in their calling. The foundation of serving Christ’s church is salvation by grace.
Why?
First of all, salvation is the common ground for all of us. It’s a common need for all humanity, and it’s a common experience for all who are in the Church. All who are in the Church are saved by the grace of God because of the blood of Jesus. We start our ministry at this point: that we who are ministers were just as much in need of God’s grace as those we minister among. And when we are in need ourselves, we go back to this point: we contributed the need to our salvation, not the solution. God did not save me, or you, or any great preacher in history, because God needed a preacher. He saved us because He is a grace-giving, loving, merciful Father.
Second, salvation is the basis of my relationship with Jesus. That relationship is not based on what I can do for Him, but on His grace and the response of  my worship and obedience to what He commands. Which means that if “ministry” this year is full-time preaching and next year full-time burger-flipping, it is all appropriate if it is done in obedience to walking with Jesus. If God in His wisdom sees fit for life to put me in an office or a warehouse, have I failed at my calling? Perhaps, but I have not failed at my relationship with Him. So is that “calling” such a big deal?
Third, salvation reminds me that God saved the person that I am, the personality that I have. While the fruit of the Spirit should be evidenced in my growth, I have certain quirks, strengths, and weaknesses that were not removed when I became a “new creation in Christ.” That means they can be used by God in some way as I serve Him. Rather than being called to become someone or something else, I am saved to serve Him as He has made me.
This may not be persuasive, but I think we’re starting at the wrong point when we emphasize the call to ministry as if it makes us something more or other than followers of Christ. I think we need to remember, and encourage others to remember, to go back not to a moment or a process of following in a vocation but instead to that moment where we recognized that we were sinners in need of the Saviour, that the grace of God intervened in our hell-bound life and bought us with His blood.
Because that’s an undeniable reality, one that we cannot invalidate, one that we cannot have a bad day that removes us from.

An Uneven Banquet

While trying to wrestle with a friend’s question about pastoral ministry, I began thinking along the lines of this illustration. I share it here because it might be useful to you. If it’s not, then feel free to have the same old argument about everything in the comments. Here’s some words to help you with that: alcohol, Calvin, Conservative Resurgence, Great Commission Giving, Women, Trustees, Yankees, SEC (not the government agency).

I’m sitting here on a Saturday morning pondering what it is to pastor a normal-sized Southern Baptist Church. Actually, we’re on the high side of normal, but about 80% of Southern Baptist-affiliated churches run our size or smaller (based on the cool information-display thing the Caskey Center was handing out at #SBCAM18hashtagSBC18). So, I’ll claim normal status for us. All the statistics you see, all the proclamations from on high lead one to believe that churches like this are doomed. We need to either adopt the latest and greatest new craze or go back to the old ways, and that will save us. Perhaps we need to become satellite locations of the regional mega-franchise, or join a better network, or show up for another round of meetings that simply rehash what the last half-dozen meetings were about, and that will get us on the right track. Who on earth knows? For every expert opinion, there’s an expert opinion on its wrongness. For every success story of implementing New Program A, there’s a church that invested a chunk of time and money into New Program A and now has a closet full of unused material from it. (For the record: if you are looking for lost treasures of the Bible, check the average Baptist church closet. There’s got to be some real relics in there. I found a new-in-box CWT kit one time.)

All this pondering has me back to this question: where have we gone wrong? And what is the Biblical model that we’re missing? We have leadership consultants, preaching consultants, growth consultants. The aim is to make pastors better at everything.

And I think that this is part of our problem: in the bulk of our churches, pastors are trying to do everything. Some of us are trying to do everything because we’re control freaks and dictators. Some of us are trying to do everything because not enough others step up and do. Some of us are trying to do everything because we perceive that to be the expectation of the church we are accountable to (perhaps because it’s written that way in the church’s by-laws). We shouldn’t be.

If we take as an illustration the Parable of the Banquet in Matthew 22, what can we see about service in the church? Now, traditionally, we keep the focus of interpretation on the evangelistic bent of the parable, and I do not intend to argue with that. Rather, I want us to contemplate banquets. Since Jesus uses a banquet as an image of eternity, it is perhaps also a valid image for us to think about the church. Let’s take it as one:

When you contract with someone to prepare a banquet, typically you engage a team of people to do the work. Some of the team are good at decoration; some are good at table settings and arrangements; others make salads; some make drinks (SWEET TEA AND LEMONADE, YOU HEATHENS!); some make desserts; some cook main dishes and others vegetables. True, there is one person responsible for coordinating it all, but that person does not accomplish it all. He may even be hopelessly incompetent at salad preparation! (If you have me do your banquet, you’re getting the salad-in-a-bag from Sam’s Club.)

At the moment of your banquet, the success is based on every person doing well what they are good at, what they are trained to do, and what they are assigned to do. If the steak-griller insists on meddling with the salad-makers, then you’ll have burnt steaks and meddled salads, causing a problem in both areas. Where, though, do you assign your best person? Salads or steaks?

It’s a nonsense question. You assign someone gifted with steak to steaks, and the one gifted with salads to salad. Likewise with desserts, drinks (TEA AND LEMONADE!), decorations… (and training applies the same way.) If you took someone who was a genius at preparing desserts and stationed them grilling steaks because you think the most important person should be doing steaks, then you may have frustrated the whole process. Further, each person needs to be valued for what they bring–and celebrated for what they do rather than belittled for what they do not do.

The work of the local church is not unlike the banquet preparation: there is plenty of work to be done, and plenty of people to do it. But we get wrapped up in expecting folks to fill responsibilities outside of their skillset, giftings, and training. We make a specific spot, like preaching, out to be the most important possible thing to do in the church–and then we expect someone who is skilled with that to also be skilled with a dozen other tasks. Or to split his attention among those dozen other tasks which he’s really not good at! Meanwhile, we sideline someone who would be good at encouraging the fellowship of the church because she’s not a preacher, so we do not let her lead out in developing ways that we do that whole “encourage one another daily” concept.

In keeping with the illustration, we take the person who is supposed to be working the grill and insist that he grill and bump the salad person out of the way, fiddle with the desserts, and decorate the room. Meanwhile, the grill is not being used well. And then the banquet is unsuccessful because one person cannot do everything and do it all well.

But we operate our churches this way, expecting someone to be both a great teacher and great organizer, not stopping to consider that a great teacher may need someone to do the organizing–and that the church must value each one equally. Perhaps this is our drawback? We continue to structure our churches in a way that puts a single person at the head, involved in everything, whether or not his gifts, training, and personality are equal to it all. And believe they: he’s not up to the whole task.

Yes, there are definite aspects of pastoring: if a man cannot preach at all, then someone else must take up the pastorate of that church. But is there no room for the pastor of moderate preaching who organizes well and empowers others to service? Or for the pastor who preaches and teaches well, but needs others to wrestle the administrative and even long-term leadership ideas of the church?

I am not advocating giving license to sloth in the work, but in the coming years it may behoove us to rethink our approach to church leadership. I firmly believe every church needs a trained, growing-in-experience pastor who handles the Word of God rightly. But not every man who fits that bill will also be a lively, outgoing, people-person who is great with all the other aspects we’ve attached. And we need to not belittle those who handle the other parts of leading the church but instead find a way forward that celebrates and engages all the gifts God has given in His people.

 

An Uneven Banquet

While trying to wrestle with a friend’s question about pastoral ministry, I began thinking along the lines of this illustration. I share it here because it might be useful to you. If it’s not, then feel free to have the same old argument about everything in the comments. Here’s some words to help you with that: alcohol, Calvin, Conservative Resurgence, Great Commission Giving, Women, Trustees, Yankees, SEC (not the government agency).

I’m sitting here on a Saturday morning pondering what it is to pastor a normal-sized Southern Baptist Church. Actually, we’re on the high side of normal, but about 80% of Southern Baptist-affiliated churches run our size or smaller (based on the cool information-display thing the Caskey Center was handing out at #SBCAM18hashtagSBC18). So, I’ll claim normal status for us. All the statistics you see, all the proclamations from on high lead one to believe that churches like this are doomed. We need to either adopt the latest and greatest new craze or go back to the old ways, and that will save us. Perhaps we need to become satellite locations of the regional mega-franchise, or join a better network, or show up for another round of meetings that simply rehash what the last half-dozen meetings were about, and that will get us on the right track. Who on earth knows? For every expert opinion, there’s an expert opinion on its wrongness. For every success story of implementing New Program A, there’s a church that invested a chunk of time and money into New Program A and now has a closet full of unused material from it. (For the record: if you are looking for lost treasures of the Bible, check the average Baptist church closet. There’s got to be some real relics in there. I found a new-in-box CWT kit one time.)

All this pondering has me back to this question: where have we gone wrong? And what is the Biblical model that we’re missing? We have leadership consultants, preaching consultants, growth consultants. The aim is to make pastors better at everything.

And I think that this is part of our problem: in the bulk of our churches, pastors are trying to do everything. Some of us are trying to do everything because we’re control freaks and dictators. Some of us are trying to do everything because not enough others step up and do. Some of us are trying to do everything because we perceive that to be the expectation of the church we are accountable to (perhaps because it’s written that way in the church’s by-laws). We shouldn’t be.

If we take as an illustration the Parable of the Banquet in Matthew 22, what can we see about service in the church? Now, traditionally, we keep the focus of interpretation on the evangelistic bent of the parable, and I do not intend to argue with that. Rather, I want us to contemplate banquets. Since Jesus uses a banquet as an image of eternity, it is perhaps also a valid image for us to think about the church. Let’s take it as one:

When you contract with someone to prepare a banquet, typically you engage a team of people to do the work. Some of the team are good at decoration; some are good at table settings and arrangements; others make salads; some make drinks (SWEET TEA AND LEMONADE, YOU HEATHENS!); some make desserts; some cook main dishes and others vegetables. True, there is one person responsible for coordinating it all, but that person does not accomplish it all. He may even be hopelessly incompetent at salad preparation! (If you have me do your banquet, you’re getting the salad-in-a-bag from Sam’s Club.)

At the moment of your banquet, the success is based on every person doing well what they are good at, what they are trained to do, and what they are assigned to do. If the steak-griller insists on meddling with the salad-makers, then you’ll have burnt steaks and meddled salads, causing a problem in both areas. Where, though, do you assign your best person? Salads or steaks?

It’s a nonsense question. You assign someone gifted with steak to steaks, and the one gifted with salads to salad. Likewise with desserts, drinks (TEA AND LEMONADE!), decorations… (and training applies the same way.) If you took someone who was a genius at preparing desserts and stationed them grilling steaks because you think the most important person should be doing steaks, then you may have frustrated the whole process. Further, each person needs to be valued for what they bring–and celebrated for what they do rather than belittled for what they do not do.

The work of the local church is not unlike the banquet preparation: there is plenty of work to be done, and plenty of people to do it. But we get wrapped up in expecting folks to fill responsibilities outside of their skillset, giftings, and training. We make a specific spot, like preaching, out to be the most important possible thing to do in the church–and then we expect someone who is skilled with that to also be skilled with a dozen other tasks. Or to split his attention among those dozen other tasks which he’s really not good at! Meanwhile, we sideline someone who would be good at encouraging the fellowship of the church because she’s not a preacher, so we do not let her lead out in developing ways that we do that whole “encourage one another daily” concept.

In keeping with the illustration, we take the person who is supposed to be working the grill and insist that he grill and bump the salad person out of the way, fiddle with the desserts, and decorate the room. Meanwhile, the grill is not being used well. And then the banquet is unsuccessful because one person cannot do everything and do it all well.

But we operate our churches this way, expecting someone to be both a great teacher and great organizer, not stopping to consider that a great teacher may need someone to do the organizing–and that the church must value each one equally. Perhaps this is our drawback? We continue to structure our churches in a way that puts a single person at the head, involved in everything, whether or not his gifts, training, and personality are equal to it all. And believe they: he’s not up to the whole task.

Yes, there are definite aspects of pastoring: if a man cannot preach at all, then someone else must take up the pastorate of that church. But is there no room for the pastor of moderate preaching who organizes well and empowers others to service? Or for the pastor who preaches and teaches well, but needs others to wrestle the administrative and even long-term leadership ideas of the church?

I am not advocating giving license to sloth in the work, but in the coming years it may behoove us to rethink our approach to church leadership. I firmly believe every church needs a trained, growing-in-experience pastor who handles the Word of God rightly. But not every man who fits that bill will also be a lively, outgoing, people-person who is great with all the other aspects we’ve attached. And we need to not belittle those who handle the other parts of leading the church but instead find a way forward that celebrates and engages all the gifts God has given in His people.

 

The Post-Convention Hangover

Well, we all kicked around writing reflections on the SBC’s 2018 Annual Meeting (#sbc18 #sbcam18 #southernbaptistconventionalannualmeetingannodominitwothousandeighteen), but that horse has been ridden, ridden to death, revived, ridden again, and then shot. I appreciate everyone’s look back and what they found as highlights and lowlights. I do wish we could be a bit more gracious in victory, which might help us also be more gracious in defeat. I know you want to celebrate the good that happened, and I understand applauding some results, but defeating someone’s heartfelt motion is enough. You don’t have to give a near-standing ovation to your side winning (or our side winning).  Assume that your fellow messenger did exactly what you claim to have done: followed the leadership of the Spirit and the Word of God, rather than cheering as if he (or she) was a fool that needed to be beaten at the polls.

If we can move our hearts away from the “I win/you LOSE!” mindset, we might just not need task forces on loving one another. I digress.

On topic, I’d like to take a look at the Post-Convention Hangover. The SBC Annual Meeting is, after all, more than just 2 days of preaching, business, and politics. Using Bart Barber’s phrasing, a good old “family reunion.” (Sonny Tucker, ABSC Executive Director described it as an old-fashion ice-cream social, and he’s right, too…we’ve got a smattering of nuts amongst us.) We get the opportunity to see people we haven’t seen since the last convention, to engage with ministry ideas and possible partners, and to fill the trunk of the car with free stuff from NAMB, IMB, Lifeway (wait, those Spurgeon Bobbleheads weren’t free?), and so on. I took five messengers, counting myself, and we came back with 6 Lifeway shopping bags, 5 NAMB backpacks, 47 OS Hawkins books, and some 3 Circles Fidget Spinners.

Plus promo cards for church planters in six states, business cards for A/V consultants that I know we can’t afford, and four different folks promising that they could solve our evangelism problems.

And now, I’ve brought it all home. We’ve sorted through the laundry pile from the trip (the whole family goes, so we have to catch up as a team). The yard desperately needs to be mowed (or I need to borrow a goat from someone), and the oil needs to be changed in the car. With all of that sitting around, I sit here in my study with a stack of “DO THIS NEXT!” ideas from the Convention.

Without anyone to go back re-process it with, and without the benefit of planned meetings like SBCVoices gatherings or serendipitous run-ins with old professors and friends. It leads to a challenge, and one that we need to overcome: The Post Convention Hangover.

Now, most of you are good Baptists, so you’re not familiar with “hangovers.” A hangover, traditionally, is the body’s response to having its hydration and electrolyte balance thrown out-of-balance by alcohol. It also comes from various medical ailments and medicines which can have the same effect. If you do not prevent such a problem, you have to solve it the next day by restoring that balance.

So, knowing none of you are hungover from alcohol at the SBC, let’s apply the idea to how you may be feeling (if you’re like me, that is. Some of you are rational people, and I’ve got nothing for you normal folks). We’ve had an intense batch of business with immediate results, we’ve heard how great mission trips have gone, we’ve gotten overfilled on seeing fellow ministers, and been around folks that care enough about our cooperative work to deal with Dallas traffic. Then, like the easy breeze of the HOV lane coming out of Arlington fades back into I-30 East, all that has faded into the thump of daily life. A few tips may help you recover:

First, remember that friend you saw and said “We should talk more often than every June?” Call him, email her. Make contact. I remember having to wait for the weekend for the long distance rates to go down, a concept my children do not grasp. It’s not a problem: grab your cell, make a call. Send an email, write a postcard. Something. Why? Unlock a liquor hangover, what you just had was like water for the perpetually thirsty. You had community and relationships with some of God’s people that you need. Grab hold of that, make it part of your plans. Look them up, make the connection.

Second, take that stack of stuff that you think you’ll do, and throw it away. Or at least most of it. If you’re in one of the 33,000 churches that run fewer than 250 in church, you probably lack the resources to partner with every church plant everywhere. Put all the cards on the prayer wall, and then pick one and pursue it as a partnership. Don’t let what you cannot do, in the face of the needs and possibilities, hamstring you from doing something.

Third, no, you don’t need duplicates of a dozen books you’ll never read. Pick one you’ll read, distribute (as loan-outs) the rest of them into your church, and give others away to pastors and church leaders who couldn’t go. Back when I could not make the SBC, one thing I was always jealous of was the book stack I kept seeing friends post on social media. And they had doubles! Give stuff away to encourage others. (Especially CSBs. Honestly, how many free CSBs do you need? How many is Lifeway going to give out?)

Fourth, find as many as three people in your church to communicate a portion of what you are feeling guided by the Spirit of God through the Word of God to do, and ask for their help. Don’t sit on the ideas until you sort it out perfectly, but start the ball rolling by involving your congregation. That may be a challenge, but there are opportunities inherent in it.

In all, the post-convention hangover is the result of going from ideas, fellowship, relationship, and chaos back to the normalcy of life. Unlike a liquor hangover, the cure is not to avoid those items in the future, but to find ways to work them into your weekly engagement.