Monday, September 28, 2015

The Pope and the Presence of God

Last week, there were lots of angry Protestants in Washington--but mostly because of the traffic!

For the first time since his installation to the office, Pope Francis paid a visit to the United States, starting with our nation's capital.  Over 11,000 people gathered for his first public address at the White House, and his subsequent visits and speeches to the Council of Catholic Bishops, a joint session of Congress, and the United Nations were met with great fanfare.

Reaction to his visit has been as varied as the multiplicity of worldviews that exist in our nation.  Catholics and non-Catholics alike celebrated his positive influence on the Church of Rome and the world.  And on the other end of that spectrum, fundamentalists and prophecy-addicts who had apparently also broken a shoelace sometime in the week took every opportunity to promulgate their message that the end is near.  Some praised him for his environmental advocacy; others for his defense of the unborn.  But no matter how one feels about the pope, its obvious that Francis is a rock star!

Overall, I appreciated the pope's visit.  And as I've watched his behavior since assuming the papal office, I've been pleased to see a man who refuses opulence, cares for the poor, and is a true person of the people.  That's never a bad thing, and those dispositions were clearly and consistently seen during his time on American soil.

I also realize these are strange things for someone in my position to be saying.  After all, I'm Protestant for a reason.  I don't believe our differences are minor, nor do I believe that all that transpired in 16th Century Europe was just a big misunderstanding.  And if my Catholic friends are intellectually honest, they have to admit that their church says the same thing.  Just google the Council of Trent and see what the Catholic church has been saying about us for hundreds of years--statements that have never been recanted, even by Vatican II.  Trust me, its not very nice.

Moreover, I'm not just a Protestant.  I'm a Baptist.  If Protestant theology can exist on a spectrum, then my doctrinal ancestors could rightly be described as existing on the fringe of that continuum.  But we're OK with that.  After all, this global movement called Christianity started as a perceived fringe movement of Judaism by the man I worship as God.  Come to think of it, God seems to prefer doing His work from the fringes.  So I'm happy to carry that torch as long as my heart continues to beat.

So why would a guy like me express appreciation for someone like Pope Francis?  How could I possibly speak with admiration about a man whose church still officially pronounces me anathema?

Principally, I'm appreciative of the Pope's visit because it has reminded our entire nation that, no matter how hard we try to suppress our innate desires for something bigger than us, we can't help but long for the presence of God.

For many decades now, many among the cultural elite have insisted that an increasing secularism was and is the inevitable destiny of modernity.  Even Boston University's Peter Berger admits that to attend a state university in America today is to enter an environment dominated by a secularism that has been imported from Europe.  The decline of religion in America, we are told, is the inevitable conclusion to a path long-ago marked out for us--a path that ends with the realization that we don't need God.

But if last week didn't reveal anything else with clarity, it revealed that our society--even if subconsciously--is still acutely aware of our need for Divine presence.  Such is precisely why 11,000 people were willing to be packed like sardines on the south lawn of the White House, and why so many of my neighbors had to leave their homes an hour earlier just to get to work on time last week. When they see Pope Francis, they sense the presence of God, and they long to be in close proximity to that presence.  And even non-Catholics need to admit that when a religious leader keeps the President waiting so he can spend quality time with a kid along the parade route, there is something in those actions that is very much like Jesus.  People want to be around that.

Additionally, Catholic teaching insists that the Pope is nothing less than the priest of priests, and the vicar of Christ on earth.  If you believe that--if you believe in the possibility of that--wouldn't you want to get close to him too?  If proximity truly presents the possibility of having grace dispensed, its no small wonder so many people long to be around this man.

The Pope's visit demonstrated experientially, and with abundant clarity, that in spite of increasing secularism people are still desperately seeking the presence of God.  And if I may be so bold, I'd like to suggest that this is where my doctrinal ancestors' "wild, wild west" theology can be of help.

First, the reason we seem so desperate for God's presence is because--whether we are conscious of it or not--we are separated from Him.  Deep down, we know this, which is why entire populations of people go bonkers when a prominent religious leader comes to town.  Perhaps he or she can "close that gap" for us.   But at the end of the day, no matter how much another person seems to emulate Jesus, they just aren't Jesus!  And when we discover that like us, they put their pants on every morning one leg at a time, the desperate longing for a presence that is infinitely larger than us only increases.

And this is where we need those voices from the fringe--voices which insist that ultimately, there is no more human priesthood--no "go-between" from whom you can merely catch enough Divine droppings to somehow find your way into the presence of your Creator.  And that is good news!

Its good news because through the death and resurrection of Jesus, such mediatorial sacraments are no longer needed.  If you long for the presence of God, you can have it, and you can have it right here, right now!  Earthly priests just get in the way.  You don't need me, or any other religious leader of any kind.  You need only to be in close proximity to Jesus.  And here is even better news:  He is already right there--as close as the tips of your fingers!  And because through his death on the cross He has already paid the penalty for the sin that separates you from your Creator, turning to Him alone results in your experiencing the true presence of God.  Pretty radical, huh?

I'm thankful that the visit of a Roman Pontiff has reminded us of our need for God's presence.  But I'm more thankful for a Gospel that offers His presence to anyone who truly wants it.  Without Jesus, Pope Francis is just as cut off from God as you or me.  With Jesus, you can be as close to God as you perceive the Pope to be--perhaps even closer!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Four Steps Toward Budgeting on Purpose During Tight Financial Times

For most churches in North America, its that time on the calendar when budget discussions begin for the next year.  For the past several years, those have been difficult conversations in many churches, and from a purely financial point of view, things may actually be getting worse.  George Bullard wrote just a few days ago about how downward trends in giving coupled with "ballooned" budget numbers may mean this is the year that many congregations feel most acutely the "market correction" that they have needed to pay attention to for years.  

Nearly seven years after a near economic collapse, our nation continues to limp toward what has proven to be, at best, an anemic economic recovery.  Its truly scary out there, and over the past five years,  I've had a front row seat to the effect of these realities on our churches and those who are part of those churches. Over the past several months, I've had many conversations with pastors who are seeing fresh batches of red ink, and wondering how to move forward.

The mistake that many churches make in reaction to this reality is to react too much.  I've seen elder boards, finance committees, and pastors hit the panic button when their church started hemorrhaging financially. In the economy of the "new normal," everybody is feeling the pinch, and trying to determine how to do more with less.

There is a positive side to this. For years, many churches relied on fat incomes. Now that streams of income have grown fewer and more anemic, churches are learning to truly depend on the Lord. At the same time, I've seen quite a few knee jerk reactions to a drop in giving. Though these reactions, for the most part, are motivated by a noble desire to "save the church," an over-reactionary approach to what the corporate world calls "austerity measures" can result in a demoralized staff, a culture of panic, ministries with no resources to operate, and a church adrift in "survival mode."

With all this in view, I'm going to suggest a different approach. In the past year alone I've heard from several pastors who have had their salaries drastically and suddenly cut because of panicking financial administrators. I've seen ministries and mission efforts stopped in their tracks because the "bean-counters" reacted in fear, and I've seen churches unintentionally publicize desperation to the communities they are called to give hope to. .

In other words, when you react to bad economic times by simply saying "cut, cut, cut," here is what you are saying to your church, and your community: "We are going to try and keep doing everything we have done before. We just aren't going to do it as well."

To be sure, no organization can continue spending more than it takes in (I'm waiting for the government to learn this lesson--perhaps in vain!) But there is a right way and a wrong way to cut spending. "Austerity measures" without a clear purpose don't communicate that you are responsible. They communicate that you are cheap!

So, how do you "cut with a purpose?"

1. Get ahead of the tsunami! Have good, sharp people on your financial team that can project income/giving trends in a way that allows you to prepare in advance. If you know a storm is coming, you can prepare for it in a way that minimizes the damage. Giving a pastor or staff member 60 days notice that they will have to absorb a huge cut in salary demoralizes staff in a way that can sometimes render them impotent to continue leading. A sudden freeze in spending not only damages effective ministries, but sends shock-waves of panic throughout an organization. People will honestly wonder if their paychecks are the next thing to get frozen!

On the other hand, if projections indicate that austerity measures might be necessary, communicate the reasons clearly, and communicate the plan as soon as possible. Get ahead of the problem, plan for it before it arrives, and give the people who work for the organization time to plan for it as well!

2. Re-visit your Vision and Mission. This is why I prefer the term "retrenchment" to "austerity." "Austerity" simply communicates that an organization is reducing its spending. "Retrenchment" communicates that an organization is facing tight financial times with its purpose and mission clearly in view.

The first question to ask in tight financial times is not "what do we cut," but instead, "What are we supposed to be doing?" The mission of God's church does not change simply because there isn't as much dough in the offering plate as their used to be. Though cuts must sometimes be made, making those cuts without first reassessing what the organization is called to do can unintentionally sabotage that mission. Every organization can cut spending, but no organization should cut things that will be to the detriment of the mission.

3. Jettison tangential emphases and the expenses needed to maintain them.During more affluent times, churches will often say "yes" to a program or ministry that might not be central to its purpose, but will fund it anyway because, well, the money is there.

In leaner times, when a church reassesses expenses in light of its mission and vision, the first things to go should be those things that weigh down the organization rather than help it to accomplish its goals. Most or all of these ministries may be good. But the church as a whole is ALWAYS more important than any of its parts. Don't de-fund a ministry central to the operation of the church and expect it to continue. Instead, defund ministries not central to the operation of the church, bury them with dignity, and move on!

4. Staff according to the new reality rather than merely reducing staff for the old reality. Too many churches and organizations, when seeking to cut spending in personnel, simply ask "who gets to stay, and who has to go." Both of these are the wrong first questions! Instead, construct a "new normal" in light of the overall purpose of the church, and ask how that "new normal" needs to be staffed. Yes, this may still mean that someone loses their job. But the question of whether someone keeps their job should never be answered only in light of the church's financial situation. Once tangential emphases have been eliminated and the next strategic steps of the church are clear, staffing decisions should be made in light of what it will take for the church to move forward. In one sense, you might call this "zero-based staffing."

Just because you can "afford" to keep someone doesn't mean you should. Conversely, tight financial times, in and of themselves, do not justify demoralizing a solid, faithful, and successful leader.

Austerity measures have become the norm in many churches and organizations. But cutting spending doesn't mean you have to be cheap. Tighten your belt with a purpose!

Monday, September 14, 2015

"But You're Supposed to be my Pastor!" Pastoral Authority for the Good of the Church

The man sat in my office, his lip quivering from a mixture of fear, guilt, sorrow and hopelessness.  Tears streamed down his face as he finally mustered the courage to look at me and confess actions he never thought he'd be capable of.

Pastor Joel, I cheated on my wife.

I can share this account, and everything that comes after, and still keep confidentiality because, sadly, this scenario has happened many times in my 20-plus years of ministry.  What is even more sad is the typical scenario that follows.

We pray together, cry together, and I ensure him of God's love for him and desire to see him restored, and my love for him and commitment to walk with him through what comes next.  After about an hour of hearing his story--including all the feelings and events that led to his sin, we begin to talk about where to go from here.  My counsel in this situation is fairly uniform:

You have to tell your wife, and you both need to have that conversation in the context of supportive professional crisis counselors who can help you.  Our church can help arrange that meeting, and I will be there also.  God forgives you, but you will still need to face the consequences that come with the fact that you have broken your marriage covenant.  In doing so, your wife now has the option of deciding whether she wants to help repair what has been broken, or exercise her Biblical right to leave you.  This is her decision, and it is her right to know the truth from you so she can make it.  Regardless of what happens, God loves you, we love you, and want to see you restored, and if your wife agrees, your marriage restored.

With full confession to his pastor complete and the beginnings of a plan in the works, the man leaves my office, thankful for the prayer and support he has received.  Then, usually a day or so later, I get a phone call:

Pastor, I don't think this plan is going to work because [fill in the blank with whatever excuse you want.  Every single one I've ever heard in the last 20 years has been lame].  Plus, as the head of my home, I don't feel my wife is ready to hear this yet.  But can you and I continue to meet? Because I know I still need counseling.

Again, my counsel in response to such nonsense has also been historically uniform.

For one thing, no male who is not man enough to confess this kind of sin to his wife is qualified to be "head" of anything.  If you want your headship back, you have to first reclaim your manhood, which was severely marred when you broke your marriage covenant.  We have offered to help you, and give you and your wife the support you will both need to get through this.  When you last left my office, you and I had an agreement, which you are also now trying to break, so no, I will not see you for counseling, as you have not yet followed my initial counsel.  When you decide you are ready to do the right thing by your wife, as I have instructed, I am ready to give you all the help you need.  But until then, you and I have nothing further to discuss.

And then comes the big one.......

But, but, you are supposed to be my PASTOR!

The Scriptural term "pastor" is adapted from the agrarian function of a shepherd--someone who watches over and cares for his flock, protects them from harm, guides them on the right path, and always acts in their best interests.  In the New Testament, this term (poimen, best translated "shepherd"), is coupled with two other terms:  episcopos (best translated "overseer") and presbeuteros (best translated "elder")  And in order to get an accurate and fully-orbed view of the duties of a pastor, all three terms, and their relationship to each other, must be well-understood.  When linked together in a Scripturally accurate way, the picture that emerges is of a man who possesses the spiritual "age" (elder) to discern spiritual matters accurately among the people God has called him to lead, the spiritual strength (pastor) to serve them in a way that understands their best spiritual interests, and the spiritual authority (overseer) to guide them in truth.

Yet somehow in the modern age, the pastoral office has been reduced to that of a family chaplain who simply pats people on the head and recites spiritual platitudes to make them feel better.  In my own denomination, the job description for many pastors as spelled out by most churches includes the phrase, "he shall watch over and care for the flock."  Ask any average church member what that means, and they will tell you it means he needs to be present in hospitals and nursing homes.  Somewhere along the way, we've lost sight of the Biblical role of pastoral authority.

The shepherds of the first century didn't just carry a staff.  They also carried a rod.  And some of the most difficult people to pastor are those who are offended when the rod is employed.  But if your pastor is going to stand in front of Jesus and give account for doing what is always in your best interest, then blessing your idols, excusing your sin, and refusing to hold you accountable in the local church context will result in THAT day being a very, very bad day for him.

Those who sit in our churches week after week need to remember that a good pastor wants good for his people, and the path to good doesn't always "feel" good.  Conversely, Pastors who truly have a heart for their people will occasionally break out the rod of correction when there is clear evidence that its needed.  Shepherd-like compassion mixed with Elder-like discernment will sometimes result in Overseer-like authority being exercised, because we'd rather see our people temporarily uncomfortable than permanently harmed--or worse yet--eternally damned.

Which is why phone calls like I've referenced above usually end in this way:  Yes, I am your Pastor and I take that role seriously.  I love you, and I want good for you, which is why I will not stand by while you seek to control a situation to your own short-term benefit.  When you are willing to follow my counsel, I will invest as much time in you as is necessary to get you where God wants you.  Until then, know I'm praying for you--that God would break you as I can't so that you will come back to Him where you belong.

Sometimes its hard, gut-wrenching work, but those I've counseled have one thing right: I'm supposed to be their pastor.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

"Great Man Theory" and the Myth of Christian Heroism

Its been a bad summer for an awful lot of evangelical leaders.

First, there were revelations about Josh Duggar that resulted in his removal from his leadership role at the Family Research Council.  Just a few weeks later, Duggar was caught up in yet another scandal, but he was far from alone.  As promised, Hackers released a "data dump" from the website Ashley Madison, exposing millions of people who had either attempted or committed adultery using the site's services.  My friend Ed Stetzer--who does not subscribe to sensationalism when it comes to numerical data--estimated that as many as 400 church leaders would be resigning due to their exposure as Ashley Madison account holders.

One of those accounts was tied to an old email address used by R.C. Sproul Jr, who confessed his sin and was suspended from his position with Ligonier Ministries.  Fellow Presbyterian Pastor Tullian Tchjividian also confessed an affair (not related to the Ashley Madison revelations) to the elders of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and was summarily defrocked by the Presbyterian Church of America.

And then came two weeks ago, when an old video surfaced on the web that implicates former North Greenville University President James Epting in an apparent extra-marital affair.  Several months ago, it was announced by school officials that Epting would be retiring due to "health concerns," and Epting was subsequently celebrated for his long tenure and great accomplishments at the school.  Now, it appears that trustees attempted to cover up what really took place, and the result is the tearing of new wounds for the University, the Epting family, and the body of Christ.

NGU is my alma mater, and for four years I also served on their faculty.  So that last one hit close to home.  I continue to hurt deeply for the Epting family, and all in that campus community who will no doubt be affected by these events.

It would seem that too many Christian leaders fell from high pedestals this past summer.  Perhaps part of the reason is that we place them on pedestals in the first place.  I've spoken about Celebrity Pastors and Christian leaders in the past, and pointed to the masses as the primary reason this "great man" culture continues to persist.  But let's face it; we've been trapped in celebrity culture for a long time, and the practice goes all the way back to Israel's desire to be like other nations and seek stability through King Saul.   After thousands of years,  how on earth do we change now?  Let ms suggest four ways:

1. Get a new hermeneutic!  From the turn of the 20th century until around 1930, American business culture subscribed to what has become known as "Great Man Theory."  In order for a company to be a success, it was believed that a "great man" with inherently extraordinary skills in leadership and management was needed, and all would be well.  Over the ensuing decades, this theory evolved greatly in academic circles, and churches began to co-opt and "baptize" this theory for employment in congregations across the nation.  Many Pastoral Search Teams today can still be quoted as searching for 'God's man.'  And schools of thought such as John Maxwell's Leadership Institute threw gasoline on the fire of this approach.

To be sure, leadership is an invaluable asset to the church, as well as to every other domain of society.  But contrary to the popular phrase, its not "all about leadership."  Unfortunately, our approach to the Bible's teaching on leadership often enables this approach.

From the cradle, evangelicals have too often taught their children that the stories in the Bible are about "good guys vs. bad guys." Abraham is the father of a nation who, with his strong faith, was willing to filet his only son.  David is the strong King of Israel who slaughtered Goliath.  Solomon was the wise King who arbitrated a scenario between two mothers that would have otherwise been impossible in a pre-DNA testing age.  Elijah is the great man of God who called down fire from heaven.  Peter was the courageous preacher at Pentecost.

In other words, we too often teach the Bible as if it were full of stories about heroes--"Great men", when in reality it is a story of sin and grace.  We forget that Abraham was, at heart, a liar, David an adulterer, Solomon a pervert, and Peter an indecisive hot-head.  We forget that their moments of great strength were so because of God's empowerment which overcame their depravity.

Perhaps its this approach to the Biblical narrative that causes shock when popular men act like, well, fallen men.  To be sure, when their is disqualifying sin, leaders must be held accountable.  But perhaps, if we took a fresh look at how we wrongly few so many Biblical characters, perhaps we'd have a better view of the characters who lead us today.  Leaders who aren't placed on man-made pedestals are far less likely to fall.

2. One word: "accountability."  Nothing ends a conversation any more abruptly than the phrase "God told me......"  TV preachers for years have answered critics, not with honest and transparent explanations, but by invoking "touch not mine anointed."  Truth is, everyone needs human accountability, and the presumption of a "Moses complex" also presumes that God only speaks to one man and no other leaders in the church.  This sets a dangerous precedent where the abuse of sex, money or power is much more likely.  Because, again, there really aren't any "great men."  There are only sinful men called by God's grace, and those men--ALL of us--need accountability.  By the way, if you read the previous as a strong advocacy for the plurality of elders, you read me correctly!

3. Stop Depending on "Great Men" and Start Depending on a Great God!  From beginning to end, the Bible only has one hero--one grand protagonist who is presented as even now reconciling the world back to Himself.  The careful reader of Scripture will find that the Biblical writers--under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit no less--took great pains to be brutally honest about the sinful behavior of the so-called "great men."  In fact, they took care to malign the reputation of every single Biblical character--except one!

At the end of the day, this means there is only ONE who cannot be replaced.  After 40 years of faithful ministry and leadership in the wilderness, Moses decided in a moment of narcissistic rage to turn the people's attention from God to him.  That moment of compromising the holiness of God cost him his trip into the Promised Land.  Yet upon his death and burial in Joshua 1, the plot doesn't skip a beat.  Things moved forward because the Israelites ultimate dependency wasn't on Moses, but God.

When leaders fall because of the abuse of sex, money, or power, we should weep over their sin, while simultaneously being thankful for all they have accomplished by God's grace.  It was Jesus who empowered them for service, Jesus who will renew and restore them if they repent, and Jesus who will move His Kingdom forward with, or without them.

4. Leaders, get over yourselves!  As I said, the Kingdom moves forward with or without those of us who lead.  God doesn't need Joel Rainey!  Its a humbling recognition to be sure, but its also one of the most freeing realizations.  If you are a Christian leader, this realization will curb the undue pressure we all sometimes put on ourselves.  Apart from our responsibility to live quiet and Godly lives, and make wise decisions in the power of the Holy Spirit, the forward movement of God's Kingdom doesn't ultimately depend on us--precisely because we are not "great men."  We are sinful men who have been redeemed, called, and equipped to serve His church.  Christian leaders help themselves best when they get over themselves.

Human history has only witnessed one truly great man, and that man isn't interested in sharing His glory with anyone else.  May the church learn a valuable lesson from the past few months.  None of us wears a cape, and only One wears a crown!