Category Archives: Ministry
Now if you haven’t read the serious and seriously good post my Bible College buddy Murray Campbell wrote, please do so now.
But as in College days, I couldn’t let him have the last word. So here’s my take on the first 8 years. My list of 8 things I learnt:
1. There are only six deadly sins
That’s right. It’s NOT ok to be proud, lustful, angry, slothful, envious or greedy. But gluttony? It’s almost a requirement of being a pastor to over-eat. Hey if you’re in an ethnic church, your congregation members are even kind enough to make sure of it!
2. You really do have to watch West Wing
It’s taken me 8 years, but finally I’m watching The West Wing. Please accept me as a part of the legit ministers club. Please?
3. No matter how hard you try, you will get better at using your cursor than remembering your Greek paradigms
Yes there are exceptions. There are a handful of ministers who will actually finish their M.A.s, even do an M.Th or PhD (sorry, D.Mins don’t count). They have cool Greek surnames or are named after Roman emperors. But for the rest of us, just because you got full marks in Greek exams at Bible College doesn’t mean you don’t immediately gravitate towards the auto-parse cursor on Accordance (or if you’re less cool, Logos).
Get used to the phrase, ‘You had me at luo’.
4. Your congregation really is that shallow
You see, they don’t care if you’ve had a bad haircut, wear an ugly shirt, put on weight, get a tattoo, grow some facial hair… NOT!
5. Leadership isn’t the only thing that’s ‘caught not taught’
When people recognise leaders you’ve trained because they go around giving nipple cripples, dacking others and randomly calling out ‘stacks on!’, you know your training has had unintended consequences.
6. Phillip Jensen was wrong about toilet humour
I can’t remember if the Dean said it or not (so apologies if he didn’t), but it’s not true that toilet humour is the lowest form of humour in preaching.
Nothing is as awesome in a sermon as a well-timed poo joke. Nothing.
7. Being a graduate of Moore College means you either get away with murder or are universally hated
I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, ‘Where did you train? Oh, Moore College?’, and then… end of conversation.
At this point, you either get automatic permission to lead, preach and do Gangnam Style from the pulpit, or you get chased out with whips.
8. The secret to successful church planting is Chinese food
You can forget Ed Stetzer, Acts 29, Redeemer City to City, New Frontiers, or Geneva Push. The only church planting strategy you need is to find where good Chinese food is and put a church there. It’s the secret strategy to the rapid growth of Asian churches for over four decades.
A Bible-talk (on my understanding) essentially conveys the idea that the speaker wants to talk about the Bible. in other words, the term suggests that it’s a lecture about the Bible. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s quite legitimate to talk about the background, language and meaning of the Bible. The question is: is it enough? Is this what is meant by “preaching” in Scripture? I don’t think it is.
The difference between a sermon and a Bible-talk or lecture is that a sermon is meant to be a sharp arrow that is aimed at the heart. Paul says to the Thessalonians that the gospel he preached came “not in words only but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Incidentally, the conviction that Paul refers to is not simply conviction in the hearers; it’s conviction in the preacher as well. A preacher must be absolutely convinced of the truth of what he is saying. Unless the preacher is convicted he is not going to convict anyone else. This means that preaching must be aimed at the heart whereas the terms “lecture” or “Bible-talk” suggest that their main aim is to impart information.
(The Rt. Rev. David Jones, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Quoted from the Spring 2012 edition of AP Magazine. For the full interview http://www.totalweb.com.au/AP/2012/AP8.12/AP8.12.pdf)
Thirty-to forty-minute sermons don’t work with Gen-Xers. Doing a service which does not incorporate video and contemporary music for the most part does not work with Gen-X. […] Some of the fascinating churches I have visited that are trying to reach Gen-X and are doing so well may have a thirty-minute sermon, which is broken into three segments during the course of the service. You have a ten-minute introduction to the topic, then you have an eight-minute video on that topic. Then the preacher comes back and preaches another ten minutes. Then you have a drama sketch for five to eight minutes, and the service is closed with ten minutes of preaching. That fits their communication style. It fits their attention span. It fits their style of thinking — the “mosaic” style of thinking. (George Barna)
George Barna wrote this a generation ago, but his words still have application to the modern church context. Preachers today are under enormous pressure to make preaching more savvy, more visual, more multisensory, or perhaps just get rid of preaching altogether in favour of multimedia presentations. What are we to make of this?
In my previous post I began a three-part series trying to answer the question: ‘why privilege preaching?’. In this next post, I want to tentatively suggest that preaching as a medium best corresponds with God’s primary medium in revealing himself to humanity.
Marshall MacLuhan famously said that ‘The medium is the message’. In other words, how we communicate effects what we communicate. For example, the evening news on TV – which is primarily driven by 30 second to 2 minute news segments mostly consisting of fragmented video footage, strung together by brief commentary, then broken up by commercials and ending with a heart-warming story about puppies being rescued from Chinese restaurants (joke) – communicates something about the news in addition to communicating the news. It’s saying something about the nature of life and the relative importance of world events – i.e. life is rather fragmented; news = sound bites; and puppies are as important as massacres in Syria. The medium is the message.
When you begin asking why God chose a particular medium of communication in revealing himself to humanity, it may have implications for the medium of communication we privilege to deliver his revelation.
In short, God chose words. More specifically God chose to speak his words. Even the words that he caused to be written in Scripture are, to a large extent, intended to be read aloud, re-preached, re-told, and re-verbalised, especially in the public assembly (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1). I don’t think it’s just a matter of God choosing the lowest common denominator in a predominantly pre-visual and pre-literate age (though that is true to a certain extent). I think it has to do with the nature of spoken communication.
Compare the spoken word with visual communication – e.g. radio vs. TV; a phone call vs. a text message. The spoken (and heard) word is more intimate than purely visual forms of communication. That’s why radio is called a ‘warmer’ medium than TV. The spoken word is also more relational. The further one gets from face-to-face verbal communication the ‘colder’ communication becomes, since so much of communication is meta-communication such as intonation (i.e. how we say it). Visual images and the written word have to find ways to “code in” that meta-communication in a way that the spoken word doesn’t (just think about how much more likely an email is misunderstood than a spoken word!). And lastly, spoken words have an immediacy about them that images and written words don’t. Images especially need higher levels of interpretation that are circumscribed by one’s culture. It’s not that spoken words don’t need interpretation, it’s just that since language and culture have a symbiotic relationship, once a word is spoken (or for that matter, written) in a particular language, the interpretation is more ‘embedded’ in its actual usage. That’s why if you’re wanting to warn people, you’re more likely to use spoken words than simply show a picture or a sign. (A red sign in our culture means danger because that’s how we interpret the colour red, but for a Chinese person, red symbolises prosperity.)
So isn’t it interesting that when God wants to relate to people – variously to befriend them, bless them, expose their sin, judge them or give them hope – he uses words? He speaks. He preaches. He declares it so we can hear it and heed it. And note how the declarative speech-acts (such as prophecy and preaching) carry with them a certain authority. They are uniquely suitable mediums for God to communicate his words since when God speaks there’s a certain non-negotiability about it. He doesn’t leave his words open to uncertainty and leave postmodern audiences to interpret them however their personal or cultural biases might take them.
Isaiah 55:10–11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
In other words, there’s a reason why God speaks his revelation, tells his revelation, preaches his revelation, even sings (?) his revelation. The reason is the message – the gospel (by this I mean the gospel in the fullest and widest sense: i.e. God’s message of Christ’s Lordship and salvation in the whole of Scripture). In fact, the word ‘gospel’ itself reflects this since the gospel is news. News needs to be declared, announced, proclaimed and preached. When you preach the gospel (medium) you are saying something about the message – i.e. that it’s personal and relational, and yet urgent and authoritative. Thus on the flip-side it’s worth asking the question: if we decide not to preach the gospel but privilege other forms of communicating it: visualise it, enact it, multimedia it, Q&A it, does something get lost? (I’m not saying here that there aren’t many different and helpful ways to communicate the gospel; there certainly are. I’m just asking the question of ‘what do we lose?’.) Does the gospel message itself privilege the spoken medium over others?
So coming back to my initial point about preaching: I believe that because God himself privileges a particular medium of communication to deliver his gospel message, this, in some measure, constrains us also to privilege spoken and declarative communication – i.e. preaching. Multimedia may be helpful supplements to our teaching and preaching, but I think were the church to downgrade the privileging of preaching, we would lose not only a Biblical medium, but perhaps a whole lot of the message along with it.
An interesting opinion piece in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, ‘University Lectures Are A Legacy of Our Pre-Digital Past’, got me thinking about preaching. Is preaching as a medium of communication also a legacy of the pre-digital past? This one-person monologue, delivered in countless churches week-by-week – isn’t it also something we should reconsider given the proliferation of the type of instant, multi-sensory digital means of communication that we are consuming every other day of the week? If university lectures need re-examination, then surely so does preaching, right?
I guess a broader question is: of all the different kinds of valid means of reading and teaching the Word of God (e.g. public reading of Scripture, personal encouragement, one-on-one Bibles study, small groups, video and net-based ministries), why privilege preaching?
In the next series of posts, I thought I’d rehash a seminar I delivered at a preaching conference last year and get the conversation going (so please comment away).
In this first post, I’d like to begin with definitions. What do we mean by Biblical preaching?
Here are a number of definitions I came across:
- Sociological: ‘A public formal monologue to the congregation.’
- Peter Adam: ‘The explanation and application of the Word in the assembled congregation of Christ.’
- John Stott: ‘To open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.’
- Phillip Jensen: ‘Preaching the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.’
Not ever content with just going with what someone else said, I feebly attempted my own amalgam of the above and came up with this as a definition of Biblical preaching:
Biblical preaching is declaring God’s Word to people by faithfully expounding the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ.
With my definition I’m trying to capture three elements:
1. I want to define BIBLICAL preaching. Preaching as a means of communication is pretty universal. Parents can preach to their kids; sales-people can preach to their prospective buyers; other religious leaders can preach to their congregants; motivational speakers are preachers too. But I want to attempt to capture what Biblical preaching is. It is, first of all then, tied to faithful exposition of the Scriptural text.
2. I want to capture the VERTICAL dimension of Biblical preaching. God is actually speaking his Word through the preacher. There is therefore a power that must be at work for hearers to change. I guess this vertical dimension is what old-school preachers (like Martyn Lloyd-Jones) would call ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’. John Calvin wrote:
It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it.
3. I want to capture the HORIZONTAL dimension of Biblical preaching as well. The preacher is preaching to God’s people in order to edify them. As he expounds Scripture and applies it, he is simultaneously exhorting his hearers (Peter Adam). Both the vertical and horizontal dimensions are key. Without the vertical, preaching is powerless. Without the horizontal, preaching won’t grow the church and bring about conversions.
Put simply I believe that Biblical preaching is PROPHETIC TEACHING. By this I am referring to prophecy in the broadest terms. (Note: I do believe in the continuation of the gift of New Testament prophecy as a smaller subset of this, but that’s for another post on another day perhaps). Here I simply mean prophecy in the ‘men spoke from God’ sense of the term (2 Peter 1:21). This is the vertical dimension in operation.
But preaching is also teaching because of that horizontal dimension. Therefore preaching is anchored in study, preparation, understanding and analysis of both the world of Scripture and the world of the hearers (John Stott).
Now the mix of prophecy and teaching can vary from preacher to preacher or even from sermon to sermon. It’s unimportant to distinguish which bits of a sermon correspond to which. However, I believe that Biblical preaching must have both elements. In other words, it is not just a spontaneous prophetic message; nor is it just a prepared lecture or seminar or workshop. It is God speaking to his gathered people through a prophetic teacher who expounds and applies the Bible. Nothing less than that will fulfil God’s mighty purposes for this ministry for the glory of Christ.
(Another note: different church traditions seem to privilege one over the other. Charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to emphasise the prophetic element of preaching and will tend towards spontaneity and less systematic exposition of the Biblical text, while Reformed Evangelical traditions tend to emphasise the teaching element of preaching and will sometimes be indistinguishable from a lecture. Which does your church tradition lean towards?)
So why privilege preaching? Well, I’m not quite at a full answer just yet. Next post I’ll be proposing that preaching as a mode of communication best reflects God’s own primary speech-act. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques, so fire away!
The longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I find that not everything nor everyone is as it seems. Call it naivety or inexperience, but my view of people in earlier times tended to be far more black-and-white. Now I find that layers of complexity tend to lie beneath almost every person that I meet and minister to.
However, if I had to put into categories, these five kinds of people below are the ones I find most challenging to minister to. They can be vastly different to one another, and yet simultaneously, a person can fall into more than one category. What’s common to each of them is the fact that all of them are more than they appear to be. In each case, there’s the person you meet and perhaps even come to know, but there’s something more that lies beneath the surface. And in each one of these cases, what lies beneath the surface tends not to want to be addressed or ministered to or challenged.
Ok, it’s getting a bit too conceptual so here are the five types of people I’m thinking of:
1. Religious but unregenerate
There are loads of these in every church: those who appear to be Christian, have been baptised/confirmed, receive the sacraments, confess the right creeds, are church members, active in church, and yet beneath it all, they’re simply not born again. The difficulty with this group is that they will deny that they are unregenerate. In fact, when put under pressure, they will gladly give the right answers and cite their Christian resumes to demonstrate that they are ‘really Christian’ but show little or no evidence in changed hearts, behaviour or lifestyle.
2. Converted but undiscipled
By this I don’t mean the newly converted who need to be followed-up on but those who have been Christians for years, perhaps decades, but have never really ‘grown up’ in the faith. And almost always, they’re still immature because they weren’t properly discipled when they were first converted or first understood the gospel. These Christians may have drifted from church to church, with prolonged periods of absences between churches. They will be semi-regular in their attendance and you will see some latent desire to be godly, but because they’ve never known anything but spiritual immaturity, in all sorts of ways, the Word of God will more often than not be choked out by the worries in their lives. Their thinking, feeling and doing have never been properly shaped by Christian discipleship, the church community and healthy modelling. And it’s more difficult because these spiritual babies are really hard to motivate and encourage years down the track to form discipleship relationships, because by now, they are busy parents with young or school aged kids, and spiritual immaturity and laxity in church involvement have become hard habits to break.
3. Hurting but hiding
These Christians know the church too well to be honest with their pain. Theirs is the ‘stained glass masquerade’, often because they’ve tried to be vulnerable and have been shot down with judgement or moralism in the past. They’ve become resigned to the fact that no one will understand, no one will still accept them if their secrets were shared, and in fact, they’re the only ones struggling the way they are. It’s very difficult to identify who they are, let alone gain their trust in order to minister to them, because they’ve become so adept at hiding.
4. Keen but conniving
These are seemingly mature and zealous Christians, probably in leadership, whom you only find out later have been at it with their own agenda in mind. Because they’re keen and want to serve (and often have leadership gifts), they are sought after and placed in positions of responsibility. Only later do the pastor or elders find that that they are anything but servant-like. They’re proud, unteachable, don’t submit to loving authority, have their own agenda, gather their own followers, are great at talking behind people’s backs, and basically undermine the unity of the church when the decisions made or directions taken don’t suit them. What’s difficult about this group of people is that you often don’t know until it’s too late.
5. Busy but barren
Finally there are those who are busy serving in many ways, sometimes in leadership, but have been in a spiritual desert for years. They are the reliable and dependable people you keep turning to, and you turn to them because they rarely say ‘no’. But all the while, they’ve been serving out of duty without any delight, and their spiritual journey is like a car without fuel rolling down the hill towards a brick wall. A spiritual car-wreck is on its way but no one – not they, nor those who ask them to serve – is willing to pay the price of pulling them out of ministry and ask the hard questions. Usually these people will give out subtle ‘cries for help’ or send signals that things aren’t well, but their busyness and yours keeps them going ‘for just a little bit longer’ until the ministry they are serving in is in a better place and they can take a break. By then, it’s too late.
So there they are, and here we are. If you’re reading this and you fall into one (or more) of these categories, please know that nothing would please your pastor more than for you to allow him to minister to you, beneath the surface. This hasn’t been written out of frustration or to shame you. It’s just one pastor sharing to others about his desire to minister better to people like you, but being honest about what prevents it from being done as well as he would like.
But if you’re reading this and you’re a pastor or a church leader, I guess like me, you know how it feels to want to love and serve these people but feel helpless along the way. My encouragement would be to (and I need some of this encouragement too): pray more for them, persevere in ministering the gospel to them in the context of relationship, recruit and train others to look out for people like them and help you in your ministry towards them, and trust that the gospel can reach down deep enough to transform them.
When I was doing a ministry apprenticeship, my trainer advised me to get a filing cabinet organised in terms of books of the Bible and topics that are relevant to preaching. Whenever I came across an article or an idea that would vaguely serve as an illustration, I would then file it in the relevant section. In time, I would have a heap of potential sermon illustrations just waiting in folders for me to appropriate when the time came.
It was a great idea, and I certainly filled many folders worth of clippings and articles and ideas. However I must admit that over the years I haven’t gone back into those files very often. I now have a big filing cabinet that I very rarely use.
Fast forward 15 years and now I collect my illustrations in a different way: a much simpler and technologically-aided way. I use Evernote, which is just a superb app for so many things. But for sermon illustrations, whether it’s an article, a blog, a video, a picture, a site… whatever, I simply clip it and store it in my Evernote account, which is automatically synced to my desktop and devices. The clipping function is an add-on that I downloaded to go directly on to my browser (I use Chrome). Whenever I come across something, I simply click the icon and it clips the page I’m on and stores it into my Evernote folder titled ‘Illustrations’. I then tag it with the relevant words to enable searching when the time comes.
So that’s me. I wonder, what do you use to collect sermon illustrations?
A friend of mine studying Christian counselling is working on an assignment that is asking them to come up with an integrative approach to psychology and counselling in light of this quote by John Macarthur Jr:
‘Any counsellor who desires to honour God and be effective must see the goal of his efforts as leading a person to the sufficiency of Christ. The view that man is capable of solving his own problems, or that people can help one another by ‘therapy’ or other means, denies the doctrine of human depravity and man’s need for God. It places the Spirit’s transforming power with impotent human wisdom’. John Macarthur Jr., “Our Sufficiency in Christ” (1991).
Late last night I spent about 15 mins typing out an ‘off the cuff’ way in which I might approach it. Since I’ve been trying to teach my youth leaders how to think theologically, and because I think there’s no greater discipline for anyone in Christian leadership than to be able to think theologically about any and every topic, I thought I’d post up my rambling response. The content isn’t very important (and may have lots of problems with it). However, it’s the method and the way of going about it that I would like for those who are seeking to think theologically to be able to apply. Here goes:
The integration part is what I struggle with as I have no idea how to tackle that side of things. I also can’t think of many readings/papers off the top of my head that would help. But this would be the direction I’d be thinking (very tentatively):
1. Explore the doctrine of human depravity. What is meant by ‘total depravity’ in the Reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) understanding? Total depravity means that humanity is thoroughly corrupted by the fall in every faculty and completely unable to help himself. That includes psychological, emotional, physical, mental fallenness as well. It doesn’t mean we’re as bad as we could be, but it does imply helplessness, particularly in relation to living the kind of life that God created us to live. This impacts: firstly, the client seeking help; secondly, the counsellor giving help; and, thirdly, the discipline of psychology (apart from Christ), which, being a product of human understanding, will never be sufficient in itself to truly help.
2. Explore the sufficiency of Christ in terms of ‘salvation’ in the fullest sense. Salvation is not just saving our souls. It is the total and eschatological renewal of our entire fallen humanity. Christ is the first fruits of that new creation and by his death and resurrection has secured for human beings the only access we have to that renewal and restoration. This is ultimately an eschatological reality. But because Christ has risen, the future is brought into the present by the gift of his Spirit, so that united to him, we begin to experience this renewal from the inside out. That certainly includes renewal of our minds and emotions.
3. Explore the doctrine of ‘common grace’. That is, there is still wisdom ‘in the world’ apart from Christ that is wisdom precisely because it reflects some of God’s residual and orderly goodness as discerned in the world, even in spite of the fall. So though human wisdom cannot save and bring ultimate renewal (for only Christ can), it can be used as a basis for some limited and temporary relief of human ailments (just take medicine for example). Total depravity does not mean that God leaves himself completely without witness in the world, nor does it mean that everything is as corrupt as it could be. By God’s grace, he still allows his image bearers to do good by seeking and implementing worldly wisdom in order to hold back the full effects of the fall. Secular psychology and other medical professions fall into that category.
4. Explore the tension that this creates for the counsellor (and this may be where the integration lies). On the one hand, your hope will need to be in the power of Christ to renew and regenerate sinful people. Only Christ can bring ultimate healing and restoration. But even for born again believers, that’s something which is only going to be completed in the new creation. In the meantime, counsellors need to apply God’s ‘common grace’ in all its forms as it is available to them, in order to help people ‘cope’ and receive limited forms of healing and help, in the prayer and hope that God would ultimately enter into their lives and work from within. A Christian counsellor will recognise the impotence sin renders their discipline in the ultimate sense, and yet understand that God has given them a task to do until Christ returns to do as much limited good as possible. A Christian counsellor knows that he or she cannot heal and restore in the way that only Christ by his Spirit can, and will always be praying that the person can experience a hope and healing that psychology and counselling alone will never bring. However, (especially) for the person who has the Spirit, counselling techniques and wisdom from the realm of psychology can definitely be used by God (and by his Spirit) to unlock areas that would otherwise remain locked within a broken person’s psyche. A Christian counsellor will always see his or her job as helpful but not necessary, as God can and does heal brokenness completely without psychology with a good dose of Spirit-led renewal and grace.
What other theological categories or avenues of thought would you add to this?
It’s odd for me to post something even remotely political, as I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of political stuff is rather shallow and reliant on the reporters in the media. It’s also odd because in spite of the title of this post, I’m actually going to write about what not to do in light of the shallow understanding I have of ex-PM Rudd’s leadership style.
However after reading David Marr’s essay from 2010 this morning, a few lessons about leadership popped into my head in view of Mr. Rudd’s track record while he was PM. So what follows are reflections that apply to me as a pastor and a leader since I know how prone I am to make each one of his mistakes:
- Stick to the big picture and learn to delegate. Time and again we hear of Rudd’s obsession with the minutiae. He was a details man who couldn’t let his ministers and those whom he worked with just get on with the job they were given. Good leadership knows that balance between attention for details and letting others just run with the ball. Good leadership also knows to distinguish the wood from the trees and is able to rally people with the big picture in mind.
- Don’t just woo the crowd, empower your team. It seems that Rudd was (and is) great with the people but not so great with his own party. A Christian leader with any sort of exposure can spend all of his time increasing his public visibility whilst neglecting the training and gathering and empowering of his own leadership team. The more publicly popular a ministry, the more it can hide the ‘rot’ that lies in its own structure. We must not settle for that sort of duplicitous shallowness that can come with popularity.
- Don’t be a jerk in the way you treat people, especially those who serve under you. So many great leaders (such as the late Steve Jobs) were quite frankly colossal jerks when it came to how they treated people. So again, while the public image is great, the private person behind closed doors can be a foul-mouthed jerk who people don’t like to be with. And while pastors and Christian leaders should, in theory, be great people to serve with and be around, the truth of the matter is that we’re tempted to be jerks as well. How tragic for us to forget simple humility and what it means to regard others as better than ourselves.
- Don’t forget to rest. Mr. Rudd is known for his extraordinary ability to operate with very little sleep. However, a lack of sleep can push a person to be a bigger jerk (see point 3 above and Marr’s essay) simply because they are too tired to function. Pastors and leaders need rest. When we aren’t well-rested, our godliness dips and temptation to sin in many ways rises.
- Don’t be a lonely leader. Yes leadership can be lonely, especially the higher one goes. This certainly was the case for Mr. Rudd. However, his lonely style of leadership ended up isolating him from those who were best positioned to help him. Pastors and Christian leaders can do this as well. Yet unlike Mr. Rudd, we have little excuse for this to happen since we spend so much time teaching others about the importance of Christian community and accountability. Christian leaders need to find mentors, regardless of how high they are in leadership.
Have you ever found it difficult to discern the truth of a matter, especially when it’s a biblical or theological issue that tends to polarise people? Well I frequently find that to be the case.
Here are some quick thoughts on what sort of things get get in the way of me actually properly weighing up and discerning the truth of a matter. These are some of the common roadblocks to discernment that I suffer from:
- Assume that everyone else is biased except you.
- Don’t actually read the arguments of an opposing view but only as they are represented by those with whom you agree.
- Take the opposing view to its most extreme and unhelpful logical conclusion and dismiss it on the basis of that.
- Find caricatured examples of people who hold the opposing view and reject that.
- Take on the weakest arguments and knock down those ones while ignoring the significant (and often more recent) contributions to the debate.
- Get your information from the blogosphere and assume that if it’s blogged about or in Wikipedia, it must be true.
And in light of the last point, maybe you should stop reading this.
One of my pastor friends in ministry was recently notified that his contract as pastor with his church would not be renewed. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the church and their decision-making process and so I don’t want to comment on that, nor do I want to defend either him or his church in this post.
I do, however, want to examine the pros and cons of the contractual nature of many independent churches’ call for their pastors. I know my Anglican and Presbyterian friends don’t have to really deal with this issue, as their pastors basically have tenure. However at my own church that I’ve been serving at for the past 7 years, pastoral staff are called with terms of either 3 or 5 years. It hasn’t been an issue for me and I’ve been quite happy having my term renewed every 3-5 years. Even though I don’t have tenure, my church has never given me any doubt that they would keep me as long as I’m willing to serve there (provided moral or doctrinal failure doesn’t disqualify me).
So here’s an attempt at a working list of pros and cons to contract / limited term callings for pastors:
- It’s an automatic mechanism that ensures pastors get reviewed by the leadership in terms of suitability and performance. Many times pastors with tenure get too comfortable and just keep the ministry on ‘cruise-control’ because there isn’t a likelihood in their lifetime of losing their “keep”.
- It’s a safety net to rid a church of pastors who may have more serious doctrinal and personal problems in an easy way. Denominations with tenure tend to cement in bad teaching or doctrinal compromises that don’t disqualify one from the ministry (because definitions and doctrinal statements can always be flexed and re-interpreted). Within a generation liberalism and real heresy creeps in and then it’s nearly impossible to change the course of that church. Many denominations then have to put up with a diversity of parishes within its region/diocese – i.e. some high church, some broad church, some liberal, some charismatic, some conservative.
- It’s a way for congregational-model churches to make sure the balance of power still lies with the laity rather than the clergy. Without tenure, the clergy are very aware that they are there to serve the congregations and must empower the congregations to make the right choices. Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s a good system when we know that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
- It gives the pastor a chance to re-examine his calling to that particular ministry every few years without leaving the congregation with the uncertainty that he will just up and leave with 3 months notice. Contracts cut both ways. The pastor is forced to re-think whether God wants him to stay in his particular church after a contractual term expires. It’s always a good thing for pastors to think about getting radical rather than comfortable, and this may be a good mechanism for reflection.
- The ‘automatic mechanism for review’ doesn’t work very well in actuality. Most church boards will rely on the automatic mechanism to relieve the pastor of his duties rather than actually face the pastor and do a brotherly and detailed review. It becomes a ‘cop-out’ way of terminating a pastor’s call without actually ‘speaking the truth in love’. Furthermore, by the time his contract has expired, usually the level of dissatisfaction in a church board has already risen to boiling point because an issue that should have been resolved earlier has been left to simmer. It’s easy just to think: ‘Let’s all save ourselves the trouble and save him face by just not renewing his contract in a year or two’s time.’ This isn’t how a church should operate.
- The contract renewal can be used as blackmail and control. I know of pastors who have essentially been asked to ‘tow the line’ on a non-doctrinal or Biblical issue or else his contract will not be up for renewal. That’s pretty despicable but yes, it does happen!
- In actual fact the congregational nature of the church gets eroded though the system is supposed to protect it. The reason is because most churches with contract terms put the renewal of contracts in the hands of the board, rather than the congregation. In other words, if the board decides the pastor shouldn’t be up for renewal, the congregations can’t really do anything about it short of sacking the board by a big majority vote. So even though the congregations have to vote to approve a pastor’s renewal of contract, the actual motion to renew lies in the hands of a few, not the many. Ironically what is supposed to protect congregational power actually undermines it.
- The pastor can be encouraged to be a people-pleaser every time his contract is up for renewal. In an ideal world pastors don’t have to ever bow to the pressure of people. In reality the longer a pastor has been in ministry, the less likely he is able to find secular work and the more likely he has a family to support. Furthermore the older he becomes, he is also less likely to have other churches knocking on his door offering him a job. This can create a situation whereby the pastor will decide to compromise rather than fight in order to retain his job. So churches have to really ask the question: do you want a pastor who is potentially going to be a people-pleaser every time renewal comes around?
Given that there are pros and cons, what may be the solution for independent churches who don’t have to lean one way or another on the issue of tenure?
One solution is this: offer tenure to the most senior pastoral leadership but not all pastoral workers. In other words, lead pastors and associate pastors can have tenure, while fresh-out-of-college graduates and others can be on a contract basis with a view to becoming an associate with tenure at a later date. This creates a balance whereby the ones who are required to really lead and guide the church can have security in doing so, even at the expense of popularity. Jonathan Edwards’ example shows us that some difficult decisions that are vastly unpopular were in fact the right ones. It’s a pity for a pastor to be easily ‘sacked’ over any decision that can be unpopular in the here-and-now.
However if any pastor is given tenure, then the process leading to his appointment must be given due care. It can’t be easy to ‘hire’ a pastor just on the decisions of a few. It should be a process that involves the whole leadership and the whole congregation, with lots of time for examination and prayer. The flip side is also true. If a pastor is found to be unsatisfactory on grounds other than doctrine or personal morality, then it should be equally ‘difficult’ to get rid of him. Again, the mechanisms must be in place to be able to take these issues to the congregation for careful examination and prayer.
What about accountability then? In order to safeguard accountability (and with it, doctrine and practices), the church should have in place a good policy of periodic review of each pastor’s personal life and performance. This means that he is given a brotherly examination by the board and other lay (and staff) leaders whether there is a ‘problem’ or not, and this must happen periodically (at least annually). In this way, he knows if he is under-performing in some way when measured against the (written) expectations of his calling when he was called. It also means that neither the congregation or the pastor can use the contract as a ‘cop-out’ so that no contentious issues have to be really dealt with because the contract is coming to an end soon anyway.
As I said, I haven’t worked all of this out. I would be interested in your thoughts and opinions on this matter. As you can tell, I have assumed that there is no particular Biblical mandate for either tenure nor contract when it comes to the appointment and calling of full-time church-funded workers of the gospel (thus you might have noticed the utter absence of Bible-references in this post). You might think differently on that and if so, I’m happy to consider your arguments as well.