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One of the axioms my experienced preacher friend Eddie Sharp lives by is “My elders and their families are my first church.”  By this he means that as preaching minister, he is going to pay the most attention – ministerially, relationally, pastorally – to those who are shepherding the people of God.  By doing this he gets to know these men at a relational and personal level and he gets to know their families and those things with which each family is dealing. He by no means neglects the church at large, but priority is placed on elder families.

Further, one of the axioms I’ve heard Elders live by is “I can’t get too close to the preacher because I may have to make a hard decision about him some day.”  I can understand the need for distance relative to those that serve as ministers of the gospel, especially in times of decision.  Even so, these two axioms conflict and may leave ministers to deal with life alone.

If ministers take Eddie’s advice and make Elders their first church while elders simultaneously limit their vulnerability to befriending the preacher, the relationship between them suffers, remains one-sided and caps relational trust at the level of acquaintance.  If the dance of ministers and elders’ reverses with ministers remaining distant as elders pursue relationship, the lack of relational trust is no different.  What to do?

My lead minister friend Pat Bills recently completed his Doctor of Ministry degree through Lipscomb University.  His doctoral dissertation explored the relationship between the preaching minister and the elders of the church.  I hope one day he will put his work in book form.  Until then, I hope that at least one elder at every church will consider living out this axiom: “Make the minister and his family your first church.”

This is much easier to say than do.  Two major things get in the way of Elders paying attention to, relating to and pastoring the preaching minister.

1. If I get too close, I’ll lose perspective on my role as elder and his as minister.

As mentioned above as an axiom, this is, in actuality, avoidance of emotional pain.  Of course you may have to be part of a tough decision someday.  And in many ways this is a self-fulfilling prophecy – if none of the shepherds relates well to the minister, his time is likely limited.  So connecting and befriending the minister means giving him some of what he needs to do well as a minister.  Making yourself available, being vulnerable and ensuring a two-way relationship provides relational sustenance to the minister and to the elder.

2. Which of us should be the one(s) to shepherd the minister? Won’t this cause an imbalance in the relationships among the shepherds?

Discussing this matter with the minister is exceedingly important.  After a minister has been with the church for about a year, he should know the elder(s) with whom he best relates.  Allowing him to choose those elders with whom he will have a closer relationship and those elder(s) saying “yes” to that request means the minister will have a better opportunity to be shepherded and watched over appropriately.  Leaving this to chance or to the entire elder group ensures starving the minister of needed spiritual care.  One-on-many relationships are rarely satisfying for the one.   Where only two elders serve, this is not as important an issue as when ten serve.  Those elders not chosen to give care to the minister should be provided a sense for how things are going with the minister and that shepherding care is being offered.

If these two obstacles are overcome and connection with the minister is made, the reasons for providing spiritual care to the minister will become obvious:

1. The preaching minister carries three significant church-related responsibilities: preaching every Sunday, providing spiritual care to the church, and leading the church spiritually in collaboration with the Elders.

The prep work required to preach well is weighty.  Most minister require 15 to 20 hours to develop a well-constructed, well thought out lesson.  Add teaching and another prep for Sunday night or Wednesday and more than half his work week is used up.

Spiritual care of the church is often ad hoc, unscheduled and demanding.  Once the first church is cared for (elders and their families) comes the remainder of the congregation.  Of course, the elders must carry much of this responsibility yet the minister is called in times of crisis, death, etc.

Leading the church spiritually requires much prayer, thought and energy, even when things are going swimmingly.  When times are tough . . .  Support from wise elders during this time is especially helpful.

2. The preacher has personal family responsibilities.

As goes the minister’s family, so goes the church.  This is not always true but is true more often than not.  Checking in on the minister and confirming he is taking care of his family through time and attention will speak volumes the minister and the minister’s spouse about how much he is valued.  Following that up with opportunities to get away with family – to re-create – will send a clear message:  this church cares about you!

3. The preacher must take care of himself.

This is perhaps the most neglected part of a minister’s responsibility.  Many ministers, after years of selfless service find themselves hollow and empty inside.  Pouring themselves out for others month after month and year after year takes a toll on the soul.  By checking-in and confirming that the minister is paying attention to his own well being, once more, sends a message of care and concern.  Questions like “How are you taking care of yourself?” and “What might be getting you down these days?” or “How are you sleeping?” will tell the minister he matters and you are interested in him.  It will also encourage him to think about how he is doing caring for himself.

Consider offering the minister a month-long sabbatical at regular intervals – every 5 to 7 years.  The minister if never “off” unless he can totally unplug.  It often takes a full week to disconnect from ministerial life.  A sabbatical helps refresh the soul and helps the minister pay attention to his own needs.  This aids him in self-care.

4. The preacher and his family are a target of opportunity for Satanic attack.

Need this be elaborated?  What better prize for the enemy than the minister or one of his family members.

Most ministers are not wimps.  Most are hard-working, dedicated servants who strive with all their might to please God and serve their churches well.  And most ministers I know are also human beings – fallible, sometimes forlorn and regularly in need of spiritual care and spiritual protection from those called by God to watch over the flock.  Your ministers need your time and attention, Elders.  I pray you will give it to them. Befriend your minister.

“So, what’s church like in America?”

It’s a question we’ve heard a lot in the weeks since our return from furlough in the United States.  And it’s a hard one to answer.

Since 2003, my wife and I have been part of a mission team serving the Makua-Metto people in Mozambique, Africa.  Our context here is predominately Muslim; Protestant churches make up less than 1% of the population. The Mozambican believers asking this question typically worship with only a dozen or so people in their villages each Sunday, so hearing about hundreds of Christians gathering regularly to praise God is difficult to process.  They smile in wonder; it sounds amazing and incredible.

But, this past year as our family traveled around the U.S., what my wife and I sensed a lot of was tension and anxiety.  It is common knowledge now that Churches of Christ in America are in decline ( and this recognition has left the church with some serious questions:  Didn’t we used to be the “fastest growing church” … Why aren’t we growing like we did in the past?  How should the church interact with a culture that seems to be moving away from vestiges of a Christian heritage? Why are so many of our children leaving the churches of their youth? What do we do now? Which way do we turn?

There are a number of different ways to approach these questions. Outlining the seven steps or five changes that churches should implement could be a useful exercise, but it seems to me that what would actually be most helpful for our fellowship as a whole would be finding a story that helps us find our bearings in the present context.

And there’s a story from the history of God’s people that I believe is extremely relevant to American Churches of Christ today.

The most famous event in Elijah’s life happened in 1 Kings 18.  Elijah set up a contest on Mount Carmel, a power encounter between Yahweh and Baal to see who would send down fire to burn up a sacrifice and offer definitive prove of divine status.  Baal’s representatives begged their god to no avail, but after a simple prayer from Elijah, Yahweh sent down fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifice.  Israel immediately recognized the identity of the true God and dramatically rejected the deceiving prophets of Baal. Elijah’s first mountain top experience was unlike any other.

The previous story has appropriately received a lot of our attention, but I’d like for us to consider the next chapter of Elijah’s life and the next chapter in 1 Kings – chapter 19.

After the deaths of the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel declared her intention to kill Elijah.   Even though he had borne witness to dramatic proof of Yahweh’s supremacy, Elijah still ran for his life.  He fled to a cave on Mount Horeb (otherwise known as Mount Sinai).  In what was likely the deepest valley of his life, Elijah went straight to the Mountain of God.  Elijah (whose name means “My God is Yahweh”) ran to the place where he was certain that Yahweh had been before. And God spoke to him there, asking: “What are you doing here, My-God-is-Yahweh (Elijah)? Why are you in this cave?”

It was then that the prophet lodged his complaint: “I haven’t broken the covenant that you made with your people right here – and now I’m the only one left.”

After a series of divine displays of power, God’s presence was presented to his prophet in a whisper.  Elijah was asked again what he was doing there, and his response was to repeat his practiced speech. It was then that Yahweh gave the prophet a task (anoint a new king and a new prophet) as well as an important truth (that he is, in fact, not alone –there are seven thousand people who have not bowed their knee to Baal).

There are a host of potential messages for us here: We could reflect on God’s grace, coming in a gentle whisper and reminding Elijah about the meaning of his name.  We could consider how God consistently provided for Elijah’s needs throughout his life (food and shelter, and then later, community and colleagues in his mission). We could note the need for more than just God’s power, but also a deep necessity to encounter God’s presence (That was the real gift, the real present in this story, God’s presence.  Idols, Jezebel’s gods, on the other hand offered power without presence.  But as Mount Carmel taught us – they have neither).

What I’d like us to consider, though, is how this story could provide a vision for what it means to be the Church in our time and in our world today.

With the shift in the way Western cultures relate to Christianity and the observation that the Church seems to be losing skirmish after skirmish in the “Culture War,” Christians are increasingly nervous.  Many feel marginalized by the culture, like we’re either being given the cold shoulder or left out in the cold altogether.Maybe it’s not persecution that we are receiving, but it certainly seems like pressure.

Some advocate that the church should retreat in fear in the face of all these changes.  There is a strong pull to run back to the past, to places and times that felt more secure – like the way Elijah ran back to the mountain of God to hide out in a cave.  But I wonder… if we, also, follow the path of running back to a “safe time and place”… would God say to us something similar to what he said to Elijah?

“What are you doing here? I’m still the same Powerful God who knows you by name. Your name is Church of Christ. You are a member of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God is never in trouble.[1] You have a mission – and there are 7,000 or 70,000 or 700,000,000 who have not bowed to other gods.”

Let’s try a different metaphor.Elijah ran to a mountain; let’s imagine that instead of running to a mountain we headed for a beach.  There we find like-minded people who care about Christ and his Church and we decide to build a ship to handle the rising tide of adversity and animosity. What kind of boat will we build?[2] How should we think of the Church? What do we do?

  1. We could choose to fight and begin to build a battleship: finding our purpose in fighting the culture wars and following the agenda of some trustworthy captain.
  2. We could choose a “Flight of fancy” and spend our time and energy to build a cruise ship: focusing on building an exclusive community centered on filling our time with a variety of fun activities.
  3. We could choose to stay fixed and build something sturdy and motor-less that would stay anchored in the port: hoping that by staying in place we could ride out the changing tides.
  4. Or we could get in a sailboat or a deep sea fishing boat and go into “uncharted waters,” trusting God to keep us afloat and keep us flowing in the right direction. Shroyer reminds us that “sailboats rely primarily on the wind to propel them forward. Despite the unruly waves of the sea, we try to trust that the wind of God’s Spirit will get us where we need to go.  I mentioned this thought to a friend of mine who sighed as she said, ‘That’s probably true, but it sure feels rickety sometimes out on this boat,’ and I have to agree with her.  It probably explains why we often do so many things to try to make this journey toward God’s horizon feel more secure, but I wonder if that doesn’t keep us from having to do the very important work of remembering the promise, even if we’re a little breathless sometimes out here on the waves.”[3]

It may sound nice to run back to the past, to ride out this gathering storm in a cave, or to run to build for ourselves a cruise ship or a battle ship.  But instead, what if we followed Christ’s lead and ran into our community… ran into the world, empowered by the Task and the Truth we’d been given.

Elijah walked out of that cave with courage and determination.  My-God-is-Yahweh went out and did his job: witnessing to Yahweh, completing his God given tasks, and training Elisha (discipling the next generation of leadership).

It seems that the powerful “Mount Carmel moment” has passed for our fellowship (and for the Western Church in general!) and we have now entered into a “Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai” season.  Taking inspiration from God’s counsel to Elijah reminds us that a journey back to the past is unlikely to be our way forward.  Faithfulness in our current climate may look more like persevering in the face of despair, believing the whisper that God is present and discerning the truth (the number of the “faithful” is larger than we may think) and the task we’ve been given(to make disciples of Jesus).

Early Christians who experienced pressure/persecution were reminded of the truth that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).  It will take courage to follow where the Spirit’s wind blows, charting a good course; rightly perceiving how to be the Church in a changing world.  I think we will need to listen to our brothers and sisters from around the world who already know what it means for their faith to marginalize them within the surrounding culture.  If we have ears to hear I think we could hear them calling us to join them in faithful witness to those within the culture who are longing to know a powerful and ever-present God.

My hunch is that faithfulness in this “Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai”season will look like people possessed by a commitment to: (1) the truth that we are not and never were alone in this endeavor and (2) the task of discipling the next generation of leaders.

May the American Churches of Christ take inspiration and counsel from Elijah’s other mountaintop experience and have the courage to engage God’s world in meaningful ways.

[1]I’m borrowing this helpful phrase from James Bryan Smith.

[2]I’m adapting ideas here from Shroyer, Boundary-Breaking God, 123.

[3]Shroyer, Boundary-Breaking God, 123.

Heavy load muleMinistry comes with pain…all life comes with pain but when you minister there are certain burdens that you carry for or with others that come with the territory. It is often difficult to know when is the time to carry someone’s burden for them and when it is time to carry it with them. Paul got at this in Galatians 6:2-5 where he wrote,

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.

I think it is unrealistic to think we can fully bear the burden of another person but I think we can bear it with them rather than for them. The temptation in ministry, however, is quite strong to try to take the load fully off of people and take it on ourselves. This can come out of our own personal anxiety that tries to keep people in the congregation free from their own anxiety, depression, fear, etc. It is an attempt to alleviate the pressure and help people feel “ok”…that kind of “ok” that really isn’t “ok” but we act like it is. This is that “How are you today?” “Fine” kind of ok. For some of us ministers, it can come out of our own lack of self-confidence, or emotional maturity thinking something is wrong with us if something is wrong with them. It can be a blurred boundary and lack of self-differentiation between ourselves and those we minister to, where there feelings too easily become or at least expose our feelings.

I see this in my parenting. This morning as I dropped one of our boys off for his last day of the school year he had a look on his face that I couldn’t tell if it was sad or something else. I asked him, “Are you ok?” Followed up with “Are you sad?” After asking those two questions I realized that I was implying it is not ok to be sad…that something might be wrong with you if you are not happy and cheerful all the time. It is my own co-dependent nature to try to jump in and keep someone else from feeling something uncomfortable when God formed us to feel uncomfortable…to even necessitate uncomfortability to grow spiritually, emotionally and socially.

It is not wonder that adolescence is extending well into the young adult years and emotional maturity is lacking these days because I see it in myself and I even see it in how I parent my boys and at times in my marriage and ministry.

It is important that we build up a pain tolerance for others, especially when we minister. This doesn’t mean we act calloused. This doesn’t mean we act cool and unattached from people. This means that we recognize that times of anxiety, pain and discomfort come with the human experience and are often precursors to exponential growth in our lives. If we don’t do this, we constantly and consistently train the congregation to dump their problems on the “professionals” to fix it and we prevent them from their own work of learning to resolve matters for themselves. In short, we can perpetuate immaturity in the congregation and in our families and even ourselves by jumping/reacting too quickly to sooth the discomfort and train people to see us as the fix it people rather than for them to see that ability in themselves. When that happens get ready for a ride on the crazy train.

Here is what Edwin Friedman wrote about our pain tolerance for others,

“Raising our own threshold for the pain another is experiencing can often motivate the other to take more responsibility for his or her life. There is even the possibility that the challenge of having to deal with their pain will, in the most natural way, make their own pain threshold rise as well. By the same token, to the extent that our threshold for another’s pain is too low, perhaps because we are unable to distinguish theirs from our own, their threshold for their own pain is likely to go down as well, and with it their own motivation for maturing. This is precisely what I was referring to above when I said that many marriages break up because their counselors cannot tolerate the couple’s pain.” – Failure of Nerve, 85-86

Heavy load muleMinisters wear a lot of hats and carry a lot of burdens. Many ministers enter ministry because they enjoy helping people and making an eternal difference in the world. That is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because there is so much joy and fulfillment in ministry. It can be a curse because when you are in a position of leadership you aren’t going to make everyone happy and that is hard if you are a people pleaser, as many of us in ministry are. This can put ministers in a position that is difficult to navigate as our calling (helping and leading) can feel at odds with each other.

Often we confuse helping others with keeping them from pain or anxiety. If you are set on keeping people from pain and anxiety your leadership will suffer and your vision and direction will be lacking because breaking new ground and taking a new direction comes with anxiety. We ministers might complain that we get sabotaged at times but often we sabotage ourselves with the best intentions!

Ministry can be stressful. It can be anxiety producing, even heavy. It can feed into our own co-dependency. As we carry the burdens of so many people, who is there to help carry the burden of the minister? Who can they talk with about their own struggles, even sins, without worrying about what might happen to their job?

When you are a minister all of your personal spheres of life overlap into a single circle. Your personal, professional, and family spheres all converge on your position in the congregation. If you lose your job you can just as easily lose your friendships at the exact same time. Few other people in the congregation are put in that position and it can make it hard to minister well as well as take care of yourself and your own spiritual needs. Ministers have special needs and there are often few people available to meet them.

Who will minister to our ministers? Who is it in the congregation or out who they are safe to talk to about their own hurts and struggles? Who will shepherd them without fear of repercussions on their job and family? These are sensitive but important issues and I look forward to discussing them with you this month at Wineskins.