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.
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.

Thoughts on Depression Among Pastors

I talked to a friend a few days ago, and our conversation turned toward his pastor.  His pastor is a mess, and not your typical everyone’s a sinner mess, but a dangerous mess.  I immediately thought of Andrew Stocklein, the California pastor who took his life a few weeks ago.

Two years ago, I struggled through a bout of situational depression.  I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I wasn’t excited about anything.  I remember feeling like everyone would be better off if I just left.  There were some other mitigating factors to this season of my life, but after several visits to the therapist, his diagnosis was situational depression.

Situational depression, as it was explained to me, is not like chronic depression.  Chronic depression can last for years, even decades.  Situational depression is sometimes diagnosed as a case of the blues, or a sad season in life.  Situational depression is just as dangerous as the more familiar chronic depression, and if left untreated can cause just as much damage.  Situational depression is not just a case of the blues.  A case of the blues resolves itself within hours or days, or maybe a week.  Situational depression brings on the same symptoms as chronic depression.

I think many pastors suffer from situational depression.  What did I do?

  1. I sought help–I did not want to talk to anyone.  My wife made me see a Biblical counselor.  If you are suffering from either type of depression, you need to seek help.  There are gifted Biblical counselors who will help.  Many of them will give you a discount for their services because they are former pastors.  My counselor was a former pastor and he has a heart for helping other pastors.
  2. I remembered that church is just church–In the course of my counseling, one of the brought up was me tying my self worth to church growth.  He told me, “Tony, it’s just church.”  What does that mean?  Here’s what I came up with:  God knows who will and who will not be saved.  He even knows how His children will be saved.  God knows who’s church will grow and who’s church will decline.  My obedience or disobedience will not doom someone to hell, or send my church to its demise.  It’s just church and when my life is over, the most important legacy I will leave behind are the relationships I’ve invested in, not the church I’ve served in.  My counselor meant for me not to take church so seriously.
  3. It’s all about relationships–This goes with point number 2.  The most important relationship is with God, and then with my family.  100 years from now, no one is going to care that I was the pastor of First Baptist Rich Hill, but some great great grandchild, during his baptism, will be thankful for his heritage of faith.  He probably won’t know my name, but just the thought of investing in future generations of my family puts an extra bounce in my step.
  4. I bought into Financial Peace University–Did you know the number one cause of divorce in America is financial troubles?  There are so many pastors who have made poor financial decisions, and those decisions lead to worry, anxiety, and situational depression.  Pastor, if you are under mountains of debt, go to Dave Ramsey’s website and get Financial Peace University.  It will make a world of difference.
  5. I stopped weighing my deeds–We tend to life with a scales mentality.  We measure our good works verses our bad works, and if we’ve done enough good for the day, then we proclaim the day good.  I looked at my day, some the good works I had done, and I said it was good, and there was morning and evening on the 28th of May.  There are no scales in heaven.  There is no system of weights and measure.  There’s only grace, God’s abundant grace, poured out on us every day.  Our Heaven;y Father is our biggest fan.  He doesn’t hold a set of scales in His hand waiting for your bad works to outweigh your good works so He can zap you.  I’ll write a full post on this in the future.

I’m still processing how God led me though that very dark time in my life.  I don’t want to go back there ever again.  It was scary.  I may write a part 2 to this post, but for now, if you are struggling with any kind of depression, anxiety, stress, or nervousness that’s beyond the scope of everyday life, please reach out to someone.

Cancer… Just Another Bump in the Road

by CJ Adkins

It’s the thought in the back of every cancer survivor’s mind.

What if it comes back?

None of us who have come through life threatening battles with cancer want to even think about going down that road again, but sometimes it happens.  It appears it has happened to me – again.

As most of my friends know, I was diagnosed in December 2004 with Stage 4, “Incurable but hopefully manageable” Colon Cancer. After having surgery to remove 3 1/2 feet of my intestines, I went on a 6 month course of Chemotherapy to kill the tumors that were throughout my liver. A Radio Frequency Ablation burned out the last three and I had the joy of going into remission.

Five months later a routine followup CT scan revealed the cancer had returned in the liver and it was another 6 months of chemo for me. Since the end of that regimen I have remained in remission for nearly 12 years – having periodic scans along the way to keep an eye out for possible recurrence.

I have enjoyed relative good health until the last 8 months or so, when I experienced a 1-2-3-4 punch beginning just before last Christmas. Acute renal failure landed me in the hospital for treatment of that ailment in late December.  While there, I tested positive for the Flu (even though I had taken my yearly Flu shot).  On the heels of recovery from the Flu, I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive skin cancer known as Merkle Cell Carcinoma on my forehead.  Surgery at the James Cancer Center at the Ohio State University removed the tumor but tests revealed it had metastasized to one of the lymph nodes in my neck. So – 30 radiation treatments were prescribed, and I finished up on those in July.  In the midst of all of that, I was found to have a partial tear in the retina of my right eye!

Needless to say, it’s been a tough few months.  Nothing terrible, but just bumps in the road that we encounter if we hang around this planet long enough.

Beginning to bounce back from the complications caused by the radiation treatments, I have been looking forward to ramping up my ministry activities.  Plans were in the works for a short term mission trip back to the Philippines and Linda and I have been looking forward to doing some things on our bucket lists. Then, Tuesday, after some routine tests at the local VA Medical Center showed some possible abnormality in my liver, a new CT scan was ordered.

The results indicated “multiple lesions throughout the liver, with characteristics consistent with metastatic Colon Cancer”.

So, to use the technical theological term, “Here we go again!”

Through the Veterans Choice Program, I am being referred back to the Ashland Bellefonte Cancer Center – the place that brought me through this disease twice before.  I’m sure there will be more tests before any course of treatment will be discussed.  So, we have taken a deep breath, shared the information with my church family, and face the future with total dependence on our Heavenly Father.

I write this today, not seeking attention or to ask for pity. This is one of those things that happens to us in this broken world.  I do ask, however, for your prayers.  I am blessed to have a multitude of Christian friends in the U.S. and Canada, and many more who are spread around the world in Europe, Asia and Africa. These are people who know how to get in touch with God.  We often make intercession for one another, and this is one of those times.

Healing is not what I am seeking, as much as I am asking for the measure of Grace that only God can provide, to get us through these “bumps in the road” of life that we are bound to encounter. I ask you to pray for Linda, also as we walk down this road together again.  Healing is naturally what I desire, but I know that my ultimate healing will take place when I one day enter the presence of the Lord.  I don’t know what the immediate future holds for me, but I know the One who holds the future, and I’m sure He is going to use this new adventure for my good and for His Glory.

From the Blog “For What it’s Worth.” Originally posted here and used by permission from the author.
CJ Adkins is the Pastor of Westmoreland Baptist Church in Huntington, WV and is a Past President of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists. Married 47 years to Linda and the father of 2 sons, he most enjoys bragging on the brilliance and extreme giftedness of his of 5 spectacularly talented grandsons, Quint, Will, Canon, Asher and Nathan. He also likes to hack around on the golf course and the keyboard when he has the time.
(He’s also the father of Jay Adkins, one of the members of the SBCVoices team here. I’m proud of him even though he likes my kids better than he likes me as evidenced that he names his grandsons above but not me and Ben.) 😉

Encouragement for Churches?

Statistical data among churches is on an up-swing.  Yes, you read that sentence correctly.  There are many key statistics that should encourage beleaguered churches and pastors.

The focus of this post is a summary of Dr. Thom Rainer’s podcast interview with Tony Morgan, head of The Unstuck Church Group.  You can find The Unstuck Group here, and you can listen to Dr. Rainer’s interview here:  NINE KEY STATISTICAL INSIGHTS FROM CHURCHES IN 2018.

Without giving away the entire podcast, here are 10 encouraging statistics for pastors and churches:

  1. CP giving:  William Thornton has documented here that CP revenues will be up for the fiscal year.  It’s encouraging to see churches giving more towards our cooperative efforts.  State CP revenues are down and local associations are struggling, but that could be just a sign of the times.
  2. Increase in worship attendance:  The Unstuck Church Group reports–in data compiled for the past twelve months–and increase in worship attendance among survey respondents.  This makes sense; if the millennial generation is beginning to come back to church, there should be a corresponding statistical bump in worship attendance.  I wonder if there was a statistical bump when the boomer generation began returning to church?
  3. Increase in participation:  The Unstuck group also reports an increase in church life participation.  Do you remember the saying, “20 percent of church members do 80 percent of the work?”  In 20 years that saying might be revised to say, “50 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.”  That statistic is very encouraging.  I’ve noticed in my church a decrease in the amount of pew sitters.  When we add a member, that member typically finds a place of service.
  4. Increase in part time staff:  There was an increase in the number of churches reporting part time ministers.  This may not feel like an encouraging statistic for many pastors, but it means that more churches are understanding the need to leverage the community involvement of part time staff for the purposes of Kingdom growth.  When I was hired, I asked my deacons, “What’s the number one priority you think I should have?”  All my deacons said, “We want you out in the community.”  They’ve allowed me to substitute teach, and participate in various community activities.  That’s meant that I have less time to visit members in their homes, but the trade off has been worthwhile.  Every church should encourage their pastor and staff to be involved in the community.  If that means less personal attention for the sake of building relationship for Kingdom growth, then that’s a sacrifice every church member should be willing to make.  I hope the increase in part time staff does not mean that more pastors are being paid a part time salary, but have full time demands.
  5. Giving is up:  Is this statistic a surprise?  It makes sense from a statistical standpoint.  If the millennial generation returns to church, and our earnings increase, then giving per-capita should increase.  Couple the giving per capita increase with the increase in part time staff, and you have more money for ministry.  This statistic may also reflect the current economic conditions in our country.
  6. More multi-site churches:  The multi-site church movement is only going to gain momentum.  Churches can do multi-site with a smart phone and high speed internet connection.  This may also mean more money for ministry and may be a reason why state CP and local association revenues are down.  Some churches are just creating their own associations and networks.
  7. Fewer plateaued or declining churches:  I don’t know the exact location of this statistic, but sometime in the past year I heard the statistic that somewhere between 66% of churches are now plateaued.  That’s down from the 85% statistic we hear.  This is probably enhanced by the recent focus on church planting and the deaths of many declining churches.
  8. Another 80 percent rule–Surveys indicate that 80 percent of non-Christians will come to church if invited by a friend.  That should encourage all of us, especially pastors, to engage with non-Christians and invite them to church.
  9. SBC Harmony–This one is for the SBC pastors.  We should be encouraged at the relative harmony that was shown at the annual meeting in Dallas.  The expected disunity did not materialize and all suspected controversial votes passed with an overwhelming majority.
  10. Jesus is Lord–I want to encourage my fellow pastors today with the profound phrase:  Jesus is Lord.

Those are my encouragements for today.  If I have erred in any of the statistical data, please share your corrections and insights, and I encourage you to go listen to Dr. Rainer’s podcast.