Who’s your pastor?

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Several years ago, I received an email from a friend that included this:

I am applying for a  ________  position. May I put you down as a minister reference? I still don’t know any ministers at  ________  who could give me one since the church is so big.

A part of my reply:

I’ll be happy to be a reference. What a perfect position for you! I’ll say lots of good things.

I hope this isn’t overstepping, but I wanted to say this also… I really hope you don’t need me for a minister reference in the future. You are so incredibly gifted and also have so many places where you could grow if a pastor were investing in you. It’s upsetting to me to know that you’re in a place where you’re not known. To me, that means you’re being under-utilized and under-challenged.

If it’s just a matter of taking initiative, I hope you’ll do what it takes to find someone at ________ who really becomes your pastor. If that’s not a possibility there, I hope you’ll find a place where it is. You have too many gifts and too much space to grow to be without a pastor.

What this is not about:

1) Church size – You can find several large churches that do a great job of connecting pastors to individuals. You can find several small churches that don’t. On the whole, it’s easier to remain anonymous at a large church. You’ll need to take more initiative and so will the church. But size isn’t the only factor here.

2) A paycheck - When I ask who your pastor is, I’m not concerned about a paycheck. That is, your pastor doesn’t have to be on staff at the church. They may be a banker or nurse. But they’re a part of your local church community and they’re your pastor.

What this is about:

1) Pastoral discernment - Who is the spiritually discerning person in your life who is able to see the forest of your life when you have your face pressed up against a tree?

Note: This isn’t just for beginners. The most spiritually mature person needs a pastor, just like Roger Federer still needs a coach.

2) Pastoral authority – That’s an ugly term in our independent society. But it’s needed. We love ourselves too much. Without giving someone else authority to suggest and prescribe things we may not like, we’ll usually choose our own way.

Who has the authority to ask you uncomfortable questions and give you uncomfortable prescriptions?

3) Soul care - A pastor cares for your soul. (S)he works with you toward healing, wholeness, and hope in places of brokenness; works with you to reestablish broken relationships; helps you sustain in times when restoration is impossible or unlikely; and guides you toward growth and wise choices.

In a time of crisis, who is the pastor that will care for your soul? In the places where you need guidance or encouragement, or even a loving rebuke, who is prepared to offer it?

4) Someone in your local congregation - You may list several pastors. They may be scattered all over the place. That’s great! But you need to have a pastor to you in your local congregation. Each local congregation is a unique little body of Christ. It’s not just a venue to sing some songs and hear a sermon. You’re going through something special together as a community. You need a pastor within that community.

You might even ask yourself, when you come to some of those most special occasions of life––a wedding, a funeral, a baptism––will the person sitting with you during those times of celebration or mourning be someone who knows you? Will the person officiating over those most personal of services be someone who knows you personally?

Who’s your pastor?

On Saturday, I attended a memorial service for David Sparks. It was packed with people who had called David their pastor. It was remarkable to see all of those people whose lives are truly different because of the ways that David invested in them––the way he encouraged people to use their gifts, to do more than they had done before, and the way that he was there for them when they had a crisis or failed or screwed up. None of that happens without serious relational investment.

Who’s investing in you like that?

I’ve been formed a lot by several people who couldn’t pick me out of a lineup (e.g. Rob Bell) or who died long before I was born (e.g. John Wesley and Augustine). These have been important teachers for me, and I appreciate them for that. But they weren’t my pastors. They haven’t known me, been there when I needed someone most, or sat across a table to say something I needed to hear––whether a word of encouragement or challenge.

I’m not where I am today without the pastors in my life:

  • David Sparks calling, texting, and meeting with me to give words of encouragement.
  • Jerry Ernst teaching me to be a Christian leader.
  • Aaron Mansfield not letting me off easy.
  • Derek Robinette encouraging constantly and rebuking when necessary.
  • Paul Brunstetter believing in me before I believed in myself.
  • Todd Nelson offering words of wisdom and companionship.
  • Mike Powers giving me space to discern calling.
  • Paul and Sylvia Cummings teaching me to pray.

That’s far from an exhaustive list. To those many pastors in my life not listed above, thank you…

A note to people who have been burned by the church

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For those who’ve experienced the wrong meaning of this…

 

I went to a restaurant a few months ago and had a bad experience. The wait was long, the food was mediocre, the service was bad.

That surely isn’t the best they can offer.

Now I may or may not give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were just having a bad night. Maybe I was just having a bad night. Even the best restaurant in America gets an occasional bad review. So maybe they deserve a second chance. Perhaps even a third. I may go back; I don’t know yet.

But even if I give up on that restaurant, I’m not giving up on restaurants. Because one restaurant failed to give me good food and good service doesn’t mean that I’ve decided none of them are worth it. Even if I have two or three or ten bad experiences (I’ve surely had at least a dozen), I’m not ready to give up on the whole restaurant thing. I think they have something of value for me—namely, a typically good meal that I didn’t have to cook or clean.

Burned by the Church

For you who have had a really bad experience in the church—or even two or three or ten—two things:

First, on behalf of all of us, I’m sorry that it happened. I hate it that some people have been burned by the church. But I also know it’s inevitable. Because everyone has off-nights.

More than that, it’s inevitable because the church gets into bigger things than a restaurant. We’re dealing with eternal matters, virtue and vice, deep relationships. We’re dealing with souls. And that means things are going to get personal at some point. And we may handle those things the wrong way. Or we may cause offense even handling things the right way at times.

The restaurant can take too long to deliver you a burnt steak and then be rude about it. But that’s about as far as they can offend you. Your offense at that can last a few days.

Because of the things we’re dealing with in the church, we can cause greater offense—the kind that still burns years and decades later. If you’re upset because of that kind of experience, hesitant to go back or adamant that you won’t, your feelings make sense.

But second, can I urge you not to give up on churches and on the Church, just because you had those bad experiences? The church is still the Body of Christ, flawed though we are. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. And to be part of that larger Body, we should be part of an actual church body—a real, visible local congregation.

Though it’s popular today, it’s a big problem to like Jesus but reject the church. As Cyprian, a North African church father, said: “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your mother.”

If you’ve been burned, or perhaps just gotten bored, or maybe even lazy, can I urge you to make 2015 the year that you re-connect to a local church? Your experience may not be perfect. Mine hasn’t been. But it’s likely to be life-changing. Without the love, forgiveness, truth and grace that I’ve received from a real, visible local congregation—First UMC in Lexington—I have no idea where I would be.

A different kind of resolution

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For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
- 1 Corinthians 2:2

What does it mean to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified?

That resolution comes from the Apostle Paul, who wrote in another letter: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”1

I’ve resolved to floss more this next year, and eat more vegetables. Good things to do. These certainly aren’t things I need to neglect for the sake of knowing Christ.

But what if my primary resolution were to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified?

What does it mean to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, participation in his sufferings?
It surely means inward transformation for a godly life.2
And it’s consistently linked with bold testimony and suffering for the gospel.3

If I’m honest, I haven’t been bold enough in my testimony to know if it would lead to suffering for the gospel. That confession troubles me. More than flossing or eating vegetables in 2015 (though I hope to do both), I want to conclude the next year without the sense that I’ve been too timid in my testimony about Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. Oh, that I would have a greater measure of that Spirit in 2015.

A few applicable links as we move into the New Year:

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  1. Philippians 3:10-11
  2. 2 Peter 1:3
  3. 2 Timothy 1:7-8