Pastors: Finding the Balance

The toughest assignment I’ve received in a while came not from an editor or a denominational exec but from a pastor’s wife.

In an e-mail this week, Sheri referred to our recent blog titled “A Pastor’s Heart: Like a Mother, A Shepherd, the Savior.” She left this comment at the end:

“My husband is a young pastor with a shepherd’s heart. But it would seem the churches we’ve ministered in do not appreciate that.”

“In our experience, the churches have been rebellious, stubborn, prideful and have refused to deal with sin. The pastors have not been supported (due to congregational models of church governance) by the denomination.”

She continued, “We switched denominations to an elder-type model and have found the same problems. I know that there are ‘good’ churches out there; but in our short 10 years of ministry/married life together, we have only served in one and even that one had struggles. The sheep do not want to be shepherded.”

She asks, “What does one do when dealing with ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing?’ What about when they are in leadership (elders of the church)? How does one blend the authority with the gentle heart of a shepherd? I would really love to hear wise perspective on these issues.”

I promised Sheri I would lay this before the Lord, which I have done. After responding to her last question–on finding the balance between strong firm leadership and gracious shepherding–I’d like to lay this before our readers. Give us your insights. Sheri will be reading this, and if I’m any judge, a lot of other pastors and spouses will also.

The first question that loomed large in my mind was: Who in Scripture is our role model for this? You will not be surprised at the answer.

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This Week’s Anti-Boredom Crusade

All my life, I’ve had a low threshold for boredom. I don’t like being bored (which explains why I don’t do a lot of things) and I don’t like boring people–if I know it and can help it! And that explains a lot of my preaching, I suppose.

The Lord has wonderfully blessed my life with such variety that it prevents me from being stuck in a rut. My days are never the same and endlessly full of joy.

Take this week, for instance….

Sunday, I took a friend to church with me. He’s a new believer, even though he’s only a few years younger than me. I’m more or less introducing him to various churches. We talk about what to expect before we get there, I whisper to him a few times in the service (“That’s the visitor’s attendance slip; fill it out if you want to, but you don’t have to”), and I introduce him to people. When the pastor baptized last Sunday, I leaned over and remarked that “this is how we baptize, although every pastor does it pretty much his own way.”

We stood in the parking lot after church and talked about the sermon. The pastor had spoken on having a heart for God. My friend said it had really spoken to him. I said, “You know you can come back here any time you wish. You don’t need me with you.” He laughed. “Joe, going to church with you is like attending a baseball game with George Steinbrenner. You know everyone.”

I’ve smiled at that ever since.

Two days later, Steinbrenner made the front pages of the nation’s papers. A heart attack took him at the age of 80. People were falling all over themselves to praise him. Which is all right, of course. There’s little to be gained from saying that in addition to all those great things he did, Steinbrenner was brutal on those who worked for him.

One fellow said Steinbrenner fired him one night. “The secretary called me later and told me I was not fired, to come to work the next day. I came in at 9 o’clock instead of 8. George saw me and said, ‘This office starts work at 8 o’clock. Come in late again and you’re fired.'” Johnny One-note. It seems the only way he knew to motivate people was to threaten to terminate them. That’s sad, if you ask me.

That was Sunday. Then, on Monday….

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Wake-Up Call to God’s People (I Peter 4:17)

For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

There is a misunderstanding loose in the congregations of many of our churches. Too many of the Lord’s people have gotten the idea that since our sins are forgiven and forgotten (Hebrews 10:17), since there is “therefore now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1), and since we have the Lord’s word that nothing can take us from the Savior’s hands (John 10:28-29), we are not accountable for anything.

Bad wrong. There is a judgment awaiting the children of God, too.

And I say to you that every careless (“idle” KJV) word that men shall speak, they shall render account for in the day of judgment. (Matthew 12:36)

For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Romans 14:10)

The promise of Scripture is not that believers will not face a judgment, only that they will not be condemned.

There is a comeuppance awaiting a lot of us. That’s what I Peter 4:17 is saying. (Among other things.)

I’m thinking of three people who have a rude awakening coming when they meet this Great Appointment that has been red-lettered in on God’s calendar:

Ruffin, the honcho who has torn up more churches than my friend Freddie Arnold ever started. Throwing his weight around, insisting on getting his way (otherwise, he’s taking his money somewhere else!), and running off preachers, Ruffin is not going to like what he hears when he comes face to face with Sheer Righteousness.

Loisetta, the sister who brutalized half the membership of her church with her antics. Sometimes it was slander against good people when she had found she could not control them. At other times she organized opposition to the pastor for introducing some new program. If it was good enough for her grandparents, it was sacred and should not be tampered with. Loisetta is about to meet up with the True Owner of the Church.

Fishence, who found ways to get rich from his church affiliation. He wormed his way onto the membership of boards and agencies, then insisted the executives throw business to his company if they wanted to keep their jobs. He asked contractors for donations to his church which he then diverted for his own use. Fishence is about to have his own books audited by the Great Accountant.

Just because you’re saved–if you are–you do not receive a pass-judgment-and-go-on-to-Park-Place free card.

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The Surprise Element (I Peter 4:4,12)

I can’t think of surprises without hearing Gomer Pyle’s voice in my head: “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!”

“In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you.” (I Peter 4:4)

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” (I Peter 4:12)

Buddy Mathis, a friend of years back, sent me “The Word,” a Bible in 26 translations which his company has published. (Mathis Publishers, Inc., POB 6685, Gulfport, MS 39506 I recommend this as the most unusual gift for a pastor!)

So, let’s read this “surprising” business and see how other translations put it regarding I Peter 4:4.

–Most translations make it, “Do not think it strange.” The root of the Greek word translated there is “xenos,” stranger or alien. So, this sounds right.

–The Phillips New Testament has it: “Indeed your former companions may think it very queer that you will no longer join with them….”

–Moffatt puts it: “It astonishes pagans that you will not plunge with them….”

And regarding I Peter 4:12, we find:

–The New English Bible: “Do not be bewildered….”

–Phillips: “I beg you not to be unduly alarmed….”

–TCNT: “Do not be astonished….”

The point of this, then, becomes: “Once you start following Jesus, your old friends will be stunned at the change. They might even become hostile toward you, for whatever reason. But don’t you be surprised and caught unaware by all of that, or by the real persecution that may be headed your way. Expect it. After all, you’re following a Lord who was crucified for nothing but serving God, loving people and speaking Truth.”

Let’s camp out on these two verses for a few minutes. They have much to say about those of us who are serious in our discipleship.

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What Drew Brees Knows: Adversity Can Be a Blessing

The hottest book in town these days is not about vampires or witchcraft in an English boarding school. It’s a testimony of a Christian man who has the full attention of the football world at the moment.

The title of Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ just-off-the-press book is “Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the hidden power of adversity.” (His co-author is well-known Christian author and speaker Chris Fabry.)

All this morning, Drew Brees signed books at the local Barnes & Noble store. When someone asked me Friday if I intended to join the crowd for an autograph, I laughed at the idea.

This morning’s Times-Picayune says people started lining up last night at 4 pm to be first in line this morning at 9. The man has achieved rock star status, it would seem.

The title “Coming Back Stronger” carries a dual meaning. Primarily it refers to his near-career-ending surgery after the 2005 football season and his comeback to win the Super Bowl on February 7 of this year. But almost as strongly, it refers to the city of New Orleans which has come back (and is still returning) from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Odd that in the same week we have books hitting the stands from Coach Sean Payton (“Home Team”) and from Brees, his star quarterback.

If Payton’s book made us laugh and want to stand up and cheer, Brees’ book touches our hearts and strengthens our faith. Oddly, Brees’ book has more of the inside football dope on what plays were run and how they are called than the coach’s book does. But mostly, Brees writes about his love for the Lord and how God uses adversity in our lives to make us stronger and better and more effective.

Drew Brees is one of those natural athletes who even from childhood was the first one chosen for any team he played on–softball, baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer. As a senior in high school, he led his team to the first state championship in their history. At Purdue University, he took the team to the Rose Bowl. In the pros, he was the Super Bowl MVP and star quarterback of the champion New Orleans Saints. A winner.

It’s all come easily for him, right? Ha. Not even close. The story of Drew Brees is one of adversity after adversity. Setbacks, disappointments, betrayals. And each time, getting back up and getting into the game and learning from what just happened.

Here is a short list.

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Motivation Lessons from a Football Coach

Pastors are motivators. In order to become more effective in the art, we do well to study the techniques of leaders in other professions who do it well. That’s what leads me to mention a book I read this week.

Two days ago, I put on Facebook a note suggesting pastors could learn a lot from Coach Sean Payton’s new book, “Home Team,” his account of the 2009 championship year of the New Orleans Saints. I added a footnote that one might want to beware of the cussing.

Among the comments generated by that was one from a pastor who thought I was elevating a “book with profanity” above the Bible. Jesus was motivator enough for him.

In no way am I putting this book (or any other) above the Bible or suggesting that pastors imitate Coach Payton. The tactics he used to keep his team of multi-millionaire athletes excited about and dedicated to winning football games were his own and probably would not work in the ministry.

Still, he can teach the average pastor a great deal about motivating groups of human beings. That’s why I suggest that buying his book would be a good investment of a few dollars and reading it a worthwhile investment of a few hours. (I read it Monday night and Tuesday morning of this week. It’s a fast read.) One of my sons reminds me that the library carries books and it’s not necessary to actually purchase a book.

First, some of the things Payton did for his team, then a few comments about his techniques….

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Lord, Make Me An Instrument of Thy Peace

This July 4th weekend, I’m burdened for America. We are so divided by every issue.

At no time since I’ve been on earth–and I arrived in the Spring of 1940–was this country more divided than the decade of the 1960s. Americans were trying to figure out what to do in Vietnam, racial marches and sit-ins took over the front pages of big-city newspapers, two prominent leaders were assassinated (Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy), Communism was on the march internationally, and no one could agree on anything.

On October 22, 1968, during the presidential campaign, Richard Nixon and his entourage traveled through the little town of Deshler, Ohio. Sign-bearing crowds lined the streets. In the mob, 13-year-old Vickie Lynn Cole was holding a sign which made her famous, if only for a few days.

“Bring Us Together,” her sign read.

After he was elected, Nixon mentioned the message of that sign, adopted it as his administration’s theme, and invited Vickie and her family to the inauguration. (Thereafter, she faded into obscurity. Wikipedia says she’s now a school principal in Ohio. When interviewed, she said she had dropped the sign she originally held, then picked one up off the ground. She had no idea what the sign said and tossed it away after the rally. So much for Vickie Lynn’s politics!)

I’ll leave you to decide how well Mr. Nixon did in bringing the country together.

My point here is that division is the order of our day in this country. We are torn asunder by every issue you can name—from immigration to drilling for oil to the Gulf disaster to what to do about the economy. We are divided over the national debt, bailouts for companies that get in trouble, and healthcare. We are splintered over the role of the Constitution and the Supreme Court, over the role of religion in American life and whether to have a Day of Prayer.

We are at odds over a hundred major matters and 10,000 little issues.

It would be funny if it were not so sad. After 8 years of the Bush administration, one year into the Obama White House, all a lot of people can suggest is: Vote Republican. I want to respond, “Hey, friend, they don’t have the answer either! Remember–we have just spent 8 years there!”

Neither group has a clue. Our nation is lost. “Dear God, come find us.”

The Prophet Jeremiah said of his day and perfectly described our own as well: “It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.”(Jer.10:23).

I posted a note on Facebook Friday night that is drawing a fair amount of comment. It begins: “Excuse the French.”

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What It Feels Like Being Seventy

No one is more surprised than I am to find I’m now 70 years old. I reached that lofty plateau last March 28 and am still getting adjusted to the thought. Not sure if I will ever quite adjust to the fact that the old fellow staring back at me from the mirror is myself.

People often take pictures of me when I’m preaching or drawing, but it’s a rare photograph I want to look at twice. They just don’t look like me!

I’m still the 15-year-old I was in 1955 when life began to get more interesting. (That’s when I discovered girls and cars and adult work on the farm!)

Age 70. That’s 7 years more than Martin Luther lived. It’s 39 more than David Brainerd was given and 13 more than Jonathan Edwards.

You’d think I would have accomplished more than I have, given all that extra time. To my everlasting shame, I haven’t.

Looking back a few years, I know now that I fully expected some things to be true at this age than are the case.

–I would have thought I’d feel more like an adult than I do, and less like a teen. No one told me how septuagenarians are supposed to feel, but I’m betting it’s not like this.

–That I would be able to look back on 7 decades, including 48 years in the ministry, with a greater sense of accomplishment than I do.

–If you had asked me years ago, I would have told you that by now I should fully expect to have under control all my appetites, my strange sense of humor, my delight in a new car or new clothes, and my preference for a good novel over a book on Christian theology. But I don’t, not nearly enough.

–To have more inner peace. Mostly, I do have peace. But sometimes when I wake up in the small hours of the morning, the anxieties are raging for no reason that I can think of. Everything inside me says, “It shouldn’t be this way.”

I would have expected to be an adult by now. To be mature, settled, satisfied, and Christlike. Instead, I’m not even close…

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