Ministry



So … long time no blog post. Let me explain briefly what has occurred in the last few months.

The week of my last blog post I discovered that I was going to transition out of my pastoral role at Elmbrook church. In December a new senior pastor arrived at Elmbrook. Those of you familiar with the church world will know that it is common for a new senior leader to restructure ministries and often reassemble the staff. That has happened at Elmbrook. The ministry that I led was integrated into the broader church, and I am one of a handful of pastors who have left staff.

It has been a difficult few months. Closing down the ministry was one of the hardest things that I have done in my vocational life. Being out of the role of pastor, at least in the official sense, has been both odd and painful. Being unemployed is stressful.
At the same time, we also see this transition as an opportunity. We have confidence that God will provide for our needs. We believe that God can work in this situation to bring us to the next chapter in a life of calling. There is always hope, so we cling to that. I will let you know what happens!
As far as the blog – I hope to get back to posting once or twice a week. I have a several drafts from the past few months. These are crazy days, looking for work takes a lot of time, but I will post when I can.
Grace and Peace,
Jim
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Our culture is obsessed with success and fearful of failure.

Christian ministry often carries added pressure for success. There is a popular notion that really spiritual people will always succeed in ministry. In other words,  good Christians – people who pray a lot, know the bible, and stay morally clean – do not fail.  That idea is not biblical. That idea does not match experience. That idea actually stifle leaders and hinders the work of God. It is poison.

I am not a fan of failure. Failure is not the goal that we should set for ourselves (I hope to have more success my life!).  Yet, I think that in our success oriented culture failure is underrated.

Here are a few ways that a Fail can be a Win:

1. If you failed, you actually tried to do something! You probably tried to do something that you believed needed to be done. You probably tried to do something unique. Failure is not the worst thing.  Failure is better than selling out, or conforming, or cowering in the face of adversity, or just talking.  Find pride in your failure.

2. If you failed, you have an opportunity to learn and grow. Failure gives you a grip on reality that is not shared by those who have not failed, or risked enough to fail. The biggest “failures” in my life, I would never want to repeat them, have provided me with a unique perspective on life. Find wisdom in your failure.

3. If you failed, you have the opportunity to know your true self. Failure provides you the opportunity to check where your identity is rooted. Failure can strips away the false self of image and performance.  In failure you are valuable and you are loved simply because you are. Find grace in your failure.

4. If you failed, you opened up the possibility for something wonderful. Failure creates a new reality, a new context for creativity. When you factor in the God of resurrection into our failure, what seems to be empty is often the beginning of something new and beautiful.  God will bring light into the darkness. Find hope in your failure.

For more honest and liberating discussion of failure and success in ministry, I encourage you to participate in the the upcoming Epic Fail Pastors Conference April 14-16.  If you can’t make the conference, you will find even a visit to the website to be refreshing.

 

In addition to living in Wisconsin, one of my favorite things about serving at Elmbrook Church is working with Scott Arbeiter.

Scott recently gave our pastoral staff a list of observations on walking with the congregation in times of transitions and conflict. I thought that there was a wealth of wisdom in his observations – and not just for pastors, but for anyone who wants to build healthy relationships.  Scott gave me permission to post this list.

Some things I have learned regarding what people in the congregation need from us:
1.) Ready access (not just begrudging acceptance)
2.) To be genuinely heard (not just listened to)
3.) To find common ground (know that we care about what they care about)
4.) To know that we understand that they are not always able to articulate their concerns well. We must “be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
5.) To know that we value them and want them to be part of the congregation
6.) To hear of our struggles to find the best path forward in the situation
7.) To understand the principles involved in our decisions
8.) To be trusted with the information discussed in private
9.) To be challenged to do the right things; even (especially)when in disagreement
10.) To hear that we were wrong and are sorry (when we are indeed wrong and sorry)
11.) To know that we hear many conflicting opinions about topics (often diametrically opposed)
12.) To know that we will decide on principle, not pressure
13.) To be well received even when we leave in disagreement
14.) The goal is not to have them feel good about us; it is to elevate truth and find unity in diversity. In doing this there should be no defensiveness; nor cowardice.
15.) Do not make false promises.
16.) Warn a divisive man once then have nothing to do with him.

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

This fall I chaperoned my daughter’s junior kindergarten class to a farm. To make sure that it was an “educational” experience, there was a lecture on animals. The speaker told the class that the animals were very busy preparing for winter.

There are three different animal responses to a change in the seasons:

Adapt – Prepare for the cold weather by making changes in their body and behavior. Rabbits take this approach.

Migrate – Leave the cold by flying to a warmer climate for the winter. Geese are best known for migrating for winter.

Hibernate – Enter a state of inactivity and metabolic depression for the winter. Bats are experts at winter hibernation.

As the presenter continued, I thought of how we humans respond to change. People, both individuals and organizations, facing change often pick one of the three responses found in the animal kingdom.

Adapt – Make the changes needed for success, or at least survival, in the new environment.

Migrate – Leave the situation and head for a more desirable environment.

Hibernate – Check out of the new reality while physically remaining in the environment.

Animals don’t really have a choice in how they respond to the change in seasons. They simply act according their species.  However, we humans are able to choose how we respond to the changes that we face in life.

What is your normal response to change?

What changes are you or your organization currently  facing?

How should you respond to those changes?


In sixth grade, I noticed that two of my classmates drew large crowds by break dancing at football games. I decided that I would get in on the action, and I bought a book on “how to break dance.”

Yeah … that did not really work. I was not a break dancer.
We often fail when we focus on what other people instead of being who we are. This happens even, maybe especially, within Christianity.

We see an example of this in John 21:20-22

Peter and Jesus had just finished a remarkable conversation clarifying their relationship and Peter’s role in the mission.
Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple John.
Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”
Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.”

Most of us can relate to Peter in this story. We have taken our focus off of Jesus and our calling, and become consumed with looking at and evaluating others. Focusing on other people’s walk with God and their calling takes a few different expressions:
We Compare Ourselves to Others
We Copy Others
We Criticize Others

All of these expressions of  looking to others do damage to our calling and relationship with God.

I suspect that when we ask Jesus, “What about that person?”
Jesus still responds as he did to Peter, “What is that person’s calling and relationship with me calling to you? I will take care of them. You are called to follow me. Stay focused on me.”

May we be people who keep our focus upon Jesus and who he calls us to be.

I love my idealized self. The me that I imagine in my head is really amazing.

I have a far more difficult time loving the self who actually exists in the real world. The real me has weaknesses and flaws.

The story of Jesus shows us that God loves us, the real us, weak and flawed.

Tom Wright helped me see this in Jesus’ appearance to Peter in John 21:9-17, in ways that are not obvious in many of our English translations.

Setting of the Story: The smell of a charcoal fire burning was in the air as Jesus cooked breakfast. Peter had smelt a charcoal fire burning earlier in the Priests Courts where he had denied Jesus three times.

Jesus: Peter, do you love me?

Peter: Yes, Lord I am your friend.

Jesus: Feed my lambs.

Jesus: Peter, do you love me.

Peter: Lord, I am your friend.

Jesus: Feed my sheep.

Jesus: Peter, are you my friend?

Peter was grieved that he could not say more, and that Jesus had to adjust the question.

Peter: Lord, you know everything. You know that I am your friend.

Jesus: Feed my sheep.

A couple of observations on this story:

First, Jesus meets Peter where he is. Surely, both men would have preferred for Peter to say that he loved Jesus. He could not do it.  Jesus accepted what Peter could give.  Likewise, Jesus graciously meets us were we are.

Second, Jesus’ forgiveness comes in the form of a commission for Peter. That pattern still holds true today. We are forgiven and we are sent. All authentic ministry is rooted in the forgiving love of God.

May we learn to accept the love of the God who has taken our denials and our imperfections and has graciously dealt with them in Jesus.

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