Mastering personal growth
PERSONAL GROWTH –
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Donald W. McCullough
Donald W. McCullough
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from the Holy Bible: New International Version, © 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
MASTERING PERSONAL GROWTH
© 1992 by Christianity Today, Inc.
Published by Multnomah Press
Sisters, Oregon 97759
© 1992 by Christianity Today, Inc.
Published by Multnomah Press
Sisters, Oregon 97759
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dunnam, Maxie E.
Mastering personal growth / Maxie D. Dunnam, Gordon MacDonald, Donald W. McCullough.
p. cm.—(Mastering ministry)
I. MacDonald, Gordon. II. McCullough, Donald W., 1949-
III. Title. IV. Series.
BV4011.6.D86 1992 92–20475
The Intentional Pastor
The Intentional Pastor
1. What Fuels Your Growth?
2. Cultivating Closeness with God
3. Friends for the One at the Top
4. How to Draw Strength from People
The Renaissance Reverend
The Renaissance Reverend
5. Working with Your Emotional Type
6. Enlarging the Mind to Expand the Ministry
7. Strengthening Character
8. Becoming Fit for Ministry
Redeeming the Time
Redeeming the Time
9. Time for Things That Matter
10. Ministry Outside the Congregation
11. When It’s Time to Get Away
12. Investing Your Life Wisely
My wife recently bought me a plant for my office. She, the horticulturist of the family, was trying to nurture the nurturing qualities of her left-brained husband. This was an act of faith on her part. The last time she gave me a plant, it was silk.
“That way you won’t have to remember to water it,” she had said dryly.
Very funny, I thought. No doubt she was remembering the previous twenty-three plants she’d presented me, only three of which survived the first month (although not the second).
She also recognized my impulsive nurturing style. Others call it the benign-neglect-then-panic school of gardening. The first few days go well as I tend my plant meticulously. But busyness sets in, and I ignore it. I notice, however, that nothing untoward happens to the plant—not the reinforcement a gardener of my ilk needs.
Soon the plant is without water a week or two, until I notice the leaves yellowing and drooping. Immediately I dump a bucket of water on my “baby,” all five inches of it. After it recovers from shock, it returns to lush green health again. I breathe a sigh of relief and begin another period of benign neglect, before panic sets in once more.
Funny thing: that’s often how I nurtured myself as a pastor. In seminary, upon hearing stories about yellowing and wilting pastors, I vowed to attend to my own personal growth. After all, if I wasn’t growing, how could I expect to last in ministry? And how could I expect my congregation to grow?
But the busyness of ministry gradually shoved Bible and theology reading off my daily to-do list. Not soon afterwards, my prayer life began to suffer.
Frankly, I was surprised at how well I could get by skipping personal disciplines a day or two … or three … or four.
Within a couple of weeks, I began withering, whereupon I desperately hungered and thirsted for righteousness. So, like a famished man, I gorged myself on a feast of devotional reading and prayer, reordered my goals and priorities, made great plans for a new, balanced ministry—whereupon a combination of my own sloth and the demands of ministry would kick in another cycle.
In talking with colleagues, I discovered I wasn’t alone. That’s only part of the struggle pastors face when it comes to personal growth. How do you find time for personal growth, especially the more demanding disciplines of concentrated prayer and theological reading? If you can get away, what should you do with your time? Is physical fitness all that important to ministry, and if so, what form can it take for a harried pastor?
To address—constructively—such concerns, we’ve brought together three men in this volume of Mastering Ministry who know well the challenges of both effective ministry and personal growth.
If we didn’t know better, we would have thought Maxie Dunnam was a southern gentleman.
He came out to the reception area to meet us Leadership editors warmly when we came to his office to talk about this book. As we walked the hallway, he stopped to greet three or four people, riveting his eyes and warm smile on each. His spacious office was punctuated with fine art—some Marc Chagall reprints hung above the couch he sat upon. He began our conversation by modestly wondering, in a lazy drawl, what he would have to offer this book.
Then he took his shoes off. And he put his feet on the glass coffee table—this was no typical southern gentlemen addicted to the formalities of southern culture.
Then he began talking about his own struggles and successes with his own personal growth—he was no landed gentry who took life as it came.
Instead, he is a man of Wesleyan intensity and joy.
We learned this had been born in him some years earlier when he had been struggling. He had been invited to attend one of E. Stanley Jones’s famous Christian ashrams—retreat centers for study and meditation.
“I remember vividly the experience at an altar at the close of the ashram,” he recalled. “Brother Stanley asked probingly, ‘Do you want to be whole?’ He said the only possibility for wholeness was the indwelling Christ. I responded longingly and with certainty, ‘Yes!’
“I yielded myself more completely than ever to Christ, inviting him to live his life in me. And I made a new commitment to ministry, a ministry in which I would allow Christ to live throughme, rather than me ministering for Christ.”
Thus the connection between the outward and inner Maxie Dunnam: he’s gracious and intense because he knows himself as not just the servant of Christ but also the dwelling place of Christ.
This joyous intensity has undergirded all of Maxie’s subsequent ministry. He has been an editor with The Upper Room and has served churches in California, Georgia, and Mississippi. Among his many books, are two volumes in The Communicator’s Commentary Series (Word), Living the Psalms: A Confidence for All Seasons (Upper Room), and workbooks on the themes of prayer and the spiritual disciplines. He currently pastors Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
It wasn’t until the end of this project that Don started to get on my nerves.
When we outlined the book, he gave us thoughtful input. When he began writing, he asked pointed and wise questions to make sure he understood our audience. He turned in his chapters on time, and his work required relatively little editing.
Then it came time for him to look over our edits of his work:
“On page three, first paragraph, opening sentence,” he began, “I think we need a comma after the word ministry.”
I examined the context and had to admit he was right.
“On page six, third paragraph, second sentence,” he continued, “I think refreshes should be singular.”
Well, of course. I knew that.
“And on page eight, last line on the page, if I’m not mistaken, shouldn’t there be a hyphen between first and class when it modifies a noun?”
Yeah, so? You want my job?
Our proofreaders had yet to scan the chapter, and those are the types of errors they were going to catch anyway. But it was disconcerting to have him inspect the chapters with such an eye to editorial detail!
Don approaches every task, in fact, with professionalism and attention to detail. Whether it’s preaching, administration, writing—even personal growth—he devotes himself to doing the most masterful job he can.
Don is currently bringing that sense of professionalism to Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, Solana Beach, California, as the church’s senior pastor. Previously he pastored in Seattle, Washington, and he has earned a doctorate in systematic theology from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He has written Waking from the American Dream and Finding Happiness in the Most Unlikely Places (both InterVarsity).
As we sat together in his cramped Manhattan office, Gordon offered us intriguing insights into the recovery movement, the nature of evangelicalism, and the psychological dimensions of modern ministry. His mind ranged wide and deep.
For instance: “The evangelicalism I grew up in was a persuasion-oriented, crusade-oriented tradition of faith that placed tremendously high emotional expectations on people. But it only allowed us to express a very narrow band of emotions: joy, certainly, but anger, never. And we had no place for the melancholic person, the person who perceives deeply and is troubled by the fallenness of creation. Some of the most creative people—writers, artists—are melancholic. But in the culture I grew up in, such a person could not flourish nor be creative. If you weren’t joyful all the time, you weren’t a real Christian.”
And this: “There’s a hunger built in us to hear God’s approval. The very first thing God said after ‘Let there be light’ is an approval statement, ‘It is good.’ We want to hear God say about us, ‘It is good,’ because all of creation hungers to hear the ‘well done’ of the Creator.
“That’s one of the reasons I believe our fathers are so important to us: they play the preliminary role of the heavenly Father when they tell us, ‘Well done.’ But many men haven’t heard ‘well done’ from their fathers, and it leaves them with an almost unfillable void. They ache to have their biological father put his hand on their shoulder and say in one way or another, ‘I’m just delighted with the man you are.’ ”
This was the same man who an hour earlier had shown a genuine pastoral interest in our waitress as she talked of weather and her job. And this was the same man who, in the midst of an unexpected eastern snowstorm, would soon insist I take his overcoat, even though he would have to do without one himself for the rest of his day.
This is Gordon MacDonald, a pastor who cares about individuals and a thinker who tries continually to grasp the significance of his life.
Gordon brings this dual passion to his work as pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in New York City. He has also pastored churches in Kansas, Illinois, and Massachusetts, and has been president of InterVarsity. He is the author of many books, including. Restoring Your Spiritual Passion and Rebuilding Your Broken World.
Each of these men has learned, sometimes through trying experiences, that his personal growth is vital to his long-term ability to minister and to minister in a way that nurtures a congregation. In Mastering Personal Growth, all three show how they’ve found time for friends and reading, for family and prayer, for ministry and retreats from ministry.
We trust you will find some insights here that will encourage you to steadily, patiently keep at this most fundamental element of a pastor’s life.
contributing editor, Leadership
Carol Stream, Illinois
contributing editor, Leadership
Carol Stream, Illinois
Nothing is nearly as powerful or more potentially beautiful than “quality of soul.”
It was a Saturday morning almost twenty-five years ago, and I had officiated in the burial of two homeless men during the past week. In both cases, I felt, their lives had been meaningless and wasted. I was overwhelmed with the sadness and emptiness of the experience.
Combined with several nights of inadequate sleep, no recent spiritual refreshment, and lots of nonstop ministry activity, their deaths left me in a state of emotional overload.
When I came to the breakfast table that morning, I had no clue I was on the brink of a crisis. Life had not yet prepared me for the fact that everyone has a breaking point. There at the table my point came, triggered by one innocent comment.
“You haven’t spent much time with the children lately,” said my wife, Gail.
She was correct. I hadn’t. She had kindly avoided noting that I hadn’t spent adequate time with her, either. And I hadn’t done any better with my heavenly Father. Add to this that work was piling up, my sermon for the next day was unprepared, and I needed to make several hospital calls.
I felt like a baseball player who just bobbled the ball and the electronic scoreboard behind him begins to flash: error! error! error!
Suddenly I was engulfed with a sense of futility, and I began to cry. I lost control and wept steadily for four hours. That had never happened before. It was one of a limited number of “breaking experiences” in my life, which—more than any of the so-called successes—have been most responsible for whatever growth toward quality of soul I can claim.
What happened that day forced me to face up to something I’d either ignored or wasn’t smart enough to realize: I had been engaging in ministry—supposedly in the name of Jesus—largely based on natural giftedness—my ability with words, my social skills, and my desire and energy to work for long periods of time.
That Saturday morning I saw the first unavoidable results of a soul that lacked quality. Priorities were askew; key relationships were being neglected; spiritual life was a joke; work was out of control. And—I mean no silliness—ministry had ceased to be fun.
When the tears dried and I had time to assess what had happened, I saw that if I was going to persevere in ministry, I was going to have to tap deeper motivations and wellsprings of strength.
Quality of soul became the first priority. That was probably the first time I became interested in what I would later call the ordering of my private world.
Other watershed experiences have come since then—some even more difficult to face—but this was the one that pressed me to ask the questions of motivation (what was driving me?) and maintenance (what would keep me going?).
That morning at the breakfast table caused me to get serious about issues of the spirit that I’d put on the shelf for too long. In the weeks that followed, I searched my inner world. It became a rebuilding effort, a reconstruction of my base for serving God in the church.
But sometimes when you begin to rebuild, you have to first clear away some rubble. Habits, motives, illusions, ambitions, and forms of pride have to be named and renounced. This activity is called repentance. I suspect it’s the most powerful exercise of the inner spirit that God has given us. It’s God’s weapon against deceit, which, in turn, is the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the Evil One.
I wish I could say the personal cleanup that stemmed from the Saturday morning catharsis occurred in a short time and never had to be re-addressed. But I’d speak as a fool. All that really happened was that I went on full alert to what might be the core problem of most men and women who have a heart to serve God.
It was that experience that initiated my own discipline of journaling, which I’ve maintained to this day. I began to discover the benefit of recording the thoughts and insights I felt God commending to my soul.
Searching the Motivation-Base
What I began to see in those earliest days of private-world activity was that I had to be ruthless in dealing with the motivation-base for following and serving Jesus Christ.
I’m not sure I’d ever given the root motivations in my life the attention they needed. My days in college and seminary, and even the first years in the pastorate ministry, had been colored with a sense of idealism, even glamour, about ministry. The pastor’s life, I thought with a mixture of naiveté and unbounded enthusiasm, would be one of changing history, building a great church, making a difference in everyone’s life, preaching with fervor to people eager to hear, and enjoying a revered position as everyone’s spiritual director and mentor. And if that’s what the pastor’s life was, then I wanted in.
But why did I want in?
Few questions ascend in importance above that one. But only a sharp dose of reality—usually painful reality—will force us to look deeply at our motivations. The story of Simon the magician in Acts 8 is instructive. When this man saw Peter and others act in the power of the Holy Spirit, he was prepared to pay good money to have that ability.
I see a little of Simon’s spirit in me. While I wouldn’t be so brash as to pay money for the giftedness that makes ministry possible, at times I’ve succumbed to the temptation of paying for greater popularity and effectiveness by jeopardizing my health, sacrificing relationships, and otherwise burning myself out. I suspect that possibility exists in each of us.
Peter instantly challenged Simon’s motivation-base: “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:21–23).
When I search my menu of motives, I find several that are not made by God. And when I’ve gotten into the private worlds of other colleagues, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone. A partial list of substandard motives might look like this:
• The need for approval. Paul talks a lot about our need for approval. He is unashamed to admit his desire for the approval of the “righteous judge.” He is definitely out to hear God’s “well done.” But I’m impressed by his note to the Corinthians telling them that their approval and even his own self-approval is of no consequence to him. Only God’s approval counts.
I compare myself with that standard and grow uneasy. Until I was 18, 1 can’t remember ever considering any other profession but ministry. But the need for a wrong kind of approval may have been a major factor.
“There is no higher calling than to preach the gospel,” my mother would say to me as a child. She would add, “Now, I’m not pressuring you to do that, of course. I’d never want you to preach unless God called you to do so.”
Despite her disclaimers, I interpreted the message as “Mother will be most proud and will love me most if I’m a preacher of the gospel.”
Add to that a story or two I heard regularly about my days as an infant—a story, for example, about a grandmother and a mother who laid hands on my newborn body and willed my life to preaching.
Another story about two planes that collided above our home when I was 2 years old, showering our backyard with debris that should have killed me but didn’t. Or a third story about my near drowning at age 3 and being rescued at the last second by someone who pulled me out of the water by my hair.
These stories, often retold, had a powerful effect upon my sense of direction. “God has protected you for a purpose,” was the message mediated to me. “Find out what that intention is, and don’t defy it.”
I want to be respectful about the notion of God’s special calling. But perhaps you can see why these experiences could become twisted into another process. Obeying God is one thing. Trying to please a mother, or wanting a father to be proud of you, is another. These motivations can get interwoven in the soul early in life. Then they get woven into the fabric of a sense of call, and it is very difficult to separate the two.
I came to see the obvious: approval from a parent or significant other can never navigate us through the often stormy waters of ministry. If we are driven by the need to hear the “well done” from human beings, even parents, we get maneuvered into something like an addiction. A certain amount of approval needed this year will, like a drug, need to be increased next year. We wind up needing more and more approval as time passes to keep up the same drive.
And since people’s approval inevitably comes and goes, increases and evaporates, motivation through approval becomes a yo-yo of emotions. It’s one of the first reasons men and women quit spiritual leadership. No one’s clapping anymore.
Want a contrast to Simon and his evil motives? It’s John the Baptist, who one day watched a formerly approving crowd leave him to follow Jesus. His reaction? “I must decrease.” Only a person free of the need for approval could talk like that.
• The validation from achievement. Most of us have grown up in a system highly influenced by the ethic of achievement. And the message seems clear: those who are successful have been clearly visited with the hand of God. The corollary is likewise clear: those who are wildly successful—more so than others—have been visited with the special hand of God.
Success is usually measured in the founding or the developing of great institutions or large followings. In evangelism, it means drawing the largest crowds. In church leadership, it means heading the largest church in the region. In other ministries, it means leading the fastest growing organization (in terms of income, staff, and influence). In the publishing world, it means producing the best sellers.
When we hear Christians praise these “winners,” many of us are tempted to hear that “my value” will be substantiated only when I am equally successful. And if I am not hearing this kind of praise, then perhaps I am not as valuable to God as I was meant to be.
Perhaps the most dramatic statement of achievement motivation was what reputedly was said to evangelist D. L. Moody (and countless others): “The world has yet to see what God can do with one man who is totally yielded to his will.”
I know many bewildered men and women who have tried their hardest to fulfill the spirit of that statement. They set out to serve God believing they are totally “yielded.” But neither they nor the world ever saw any great results. They thus live in perpetual disillusionment, wondering why their faith, their labor, their commitment was not good enough to produce the results others have gained.
I recall the words of a chapel speaker during my seminary days who confused us by saying, “Don’t aspire to high leadership unless it is thrust upon you.” At the time that didn’t make sense to me, especially since we students were constantly being told in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that the successful leader is clearly a person upon whom God’s pleasure rests.
So I, like others, fantasized about pastoring a large church. And by the time I was in my mid-thirties, I’d been “blessed” with the fulfillment of that dream. But then I knew what the chapel speaker meant: there is little joy or prolonged satisfaction in high leadership if achievement is your motivation.
I discovered in those days that leadership made physical, spiritual, and emotional demands that I’d never anticipated. And without a disciplined spirit, I simply wouldn’t have the reserves to go the distance. It’s possible that our seminary professors told us that, but if they did, a lot of us didn’t get the message. Apparently every generation has to learn the lesson the same way—the hard way.
The Bible gives us a lot of disproportionate insights. Think, for example, of all the pages devoted to the championship performances of Paul and Daniel and Moses and Esther. One evangelized his world; another served three kings with honor and bravery; a third built a nation; a fourth rescued her generation from a holocaust.
Then one reads of another, Enoch, of whom it is simply said, “(He) walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” Not much detail; no accolades; no achievements of record. But one nevertheless gets the feeling that Enoch is the equal of all the others, if not their superior.
• The longing for intimacy. Those who study temperament styles of people know that a certain percentage of the population is driven by intimacy: the desire to connect closely with people.
There are some who love to make things or draw things or throw things or think about things. But men and women in ministry are usually disinterested in things. They’re drawn to people. They want to understand them, motivate them, encourage them, and probably, change them.
Put them into a room of people, and ministry people are suddenly feeling all the pain, the possibilities, the problems, and passions that are there. And they want to connect with it all, bringing meaning or healing or modification to it. That, in good measure, is the typical pastoral temperament.
The pastoral life offers great opportunity to the person who enjoys intimacy with other human beings. Properly directed, it is one of the most powerful gifts there is. Improperly directed, it leads to manipulation, exploitation, and sexual sin.
If one has entered the ministry simply because it is a wonderful place to meet one’s need for people-connection, the results are likely to be disastrous.
I’ve heard more than a few midlife men talk about leaving their careers in the marketplace to enter ministry. They’re prepared to shelve a work history of twenty years to go to seminary and become a pastor. Why? Because most of the time they’re disillusioned making and selling widgets; they hate the depersonalization of the marketplace; they long to stop being so lonely and to get close to people. They observe pastors, who appear to spend all day talking with folks, solving problems, leading and motivating, and it looks good to them.
Scan the motive-base and you usually see that the primary caller to ministry may not be Christ but rather a need to assuage the sense of isolation and alienation that careerism has created.
Timothy could have been driven by this desire for intimacy. You get the feeling he liked to make people feel good. And that’s why Paul has to push him to preach, to confront, to prod, to stay the course: “Remember the gift that’s in you.” Without Paul’s challenges, Timothy possibly would have settled down to being an awfully nice guy.
• The power of idealism. I grew up in a highly idealistic tradition. I was immersed in triumphal language. We were going to “convert the nations” and “win the world for Christ.” My early heroes were spiritual giants (at least their biographers depicted them as giants) such as Hudson Taylor and George Mueller. And my generation of Christian leaders attached an almost mystical dimension to their calling. Paul’s words—“Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel”—rested heavily upon us. More than once I heard, “If God has given you a call and you forsake that call for anything else, you’re going to live in life-long judgment.”
When I first entered ministry as a youth pastor, I was filled with that idealism. I remember my first sermon and how Gail hugged me so tightly at the end of the evening. She was proud of me; I was proud of me. We saw only a wonderful future of doing God’s work.
Then a few months later the sky began to fall. The father of one of the young people became disaffected by how I handled his son. He wrote me a letter saying I should go into the army; it would make a man out of me. My idealism crashed that day. It was one of the first times I realized that doing God’s work, even with my best intentions, wasn’t always going to be pleasant.
A few months later, I picked up a crumpled piece of paper and read a note one teenager had written to another: “If MacDonald doesn’t leave here pretty soon, this whole program is going to die.”
I was so discouraged that I wrote my letter of resignation and quit. I spent the next year working nights, typing bills for a trucking company. All the dreams and expectations were gone. There was no idealism during those months.
What I had to learn was that ministry is hard work—a noble work but hard. And it is marked with failures and disappointments, with opposition and misunderstanding. No one had succeeded in acquainting me with Paul’s momentary crashes: “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”
There is probably no such thing as a pure motivation. Frankly, our hearts have too much evil embedded in them. And I suspect that even the motivations originating somewhere near purity are likely to be perverted as time goes by.
Many find it easy to write off high-profile Christians who have experienced stunning failures of one kind or another. There may be some exceptions, but I am convinced that almost every one of those who have built reputations and have collapsed started with the best of motivations. They really wanted to serve God. But the best of motivations are exchangeable for less-than-best.
Only the man or woman who baptizes his or her motivations every day will have any hope that things will not turn sour down the road.
I don’t know why anyone ever wanted the job of an Old Testament prophet—indeed many of those who got the job weren’t seeking it. Jeremiah is a case in point. He fights the call when it comes: “I can’t speak; I’m a child.” Later on he confesses that he’d like to run from the city and seclude himself in the countryside (I can identify with that). Jeremiah and others prompt me to think that there is some safety when you find yourself kicking against God’s call every once in a while. When you do kick, the motive-base gets a re-testing.
These sample motivations that I’ve tried to list and describe are fairly typical of the things likely to drive us in our younger years. But time and struggle are likely to force impurities to the surface. And each time that happens, we have to decide all over again if we will purify our motives before God and other people, or, as an alternative, grow increasingly cynical about why we entered ministry in the first place.
Many men and women reach their midlife and discover their motivations for ministry are inadequate. They think it’s too late to change. And so they continue on. They work their hardest to fulfill the expectations of their jobs. But that’s all they’re likely to be doing: jobs—nice jobs, helpful jobs, honorable jobs, but jobs.
By the time you reach your fifties, you may have had a number of rebuilding efforts. They usually come as a result of setbacks. Here perhaps is the one place I can safely boast (as Paul did in his weaknesses). I have known several of the classic setbacks. And, as a result, I’ve come to learn something about restorative grace and the process of rebuilding.
Are there great and noble motives? Of course. Moses became absorbed in the suffering of his people, and God’s sensitivity to suffering and bondage became his. Samuel came to understand that the people of Israel were unable to hear God’s voice through the present religious establishment. He made his voice available to God. Mary, the mother of the Lord, was clearly driven by the principle of obedience and allowed herself to be the mother of the Lamb of God.
These are the motives we can nourish in our own lives.
Motives Are Never Fixed
Is it healthy to be concerned about our motive-base? Well, Peter did it with Simon the magician; I see the prophets wrestling with it. And I see Jesus reflecting upon his motive-base every time he reiterates his sense of call from the Father.
Perhaps it’s a function of the older years that makes one more and more wary. I now realize that the best of motives and attitudes can be twisted even after we think we’ve gotten them straight.
In 1981 I went to Thailand to attend a congress of evangelical leaders. I was given the honor of delivering one of the plenary addresses. I remember thinking. Wow! Here are hundreds of Christian leaders from scores of countries, and I am one of the very, very few asked to give a talk to the whole assembly.
It started as a heady time, and I remember having to rethink my motives with regularity. The drive to achieve (hadn’t I proved myself?), to find approval (wouldn’t my mother be proud?), to connect (these people must like me), and to realize leadership goals (being a part of a world leadership was sort of an objective) were all at work. I had a lot of soul scanning and confessing to do.
Then three days into the conference, one of the most well-known leaders chartered a boat and invited about forty of the conferees for an afternoon of quiet consultation out on the Gulf of Siam. They were going to talk about the future of evangelical Christianity in the world. I was not among the forty.
Suddenly being one of the speakers at the conference meant nothing. I was devastated. Not being invited to that meeting on the boat left me feeling empty. And God taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: no matter how far you go or how high you think you’ve climbed, there will always be forty (and probably many, many more) above and beyond you.
The moment you think of the kingdom as a place to achieve, to become valuable, to connect, or to be a major player, you will quickly discover that this was never what Jesus had in mind when he called, “Follow me.”
In my book Rebuilding Your Broken World, I recount the story of Alexander Whyte, the great Scottish preacher, who was told that an American evangelist had accused a close friend of his of not being a converted man. Whyte was instantly outraged. His speech was barely restrained as he vented his fury on his friend’s accuser.
But then, when Whyte quieted down, he was told that the same evangelist had also questioned Whyte’s conversion. Instantly, Whyte fell silent. Now there was no rebuttal, just an awful quietness as he buried his face in his hands. Then he looked up at the one who had brought these reports and said, “Leave me. Leave me, my friend. I must examine my heart.”
I don’t think there’s a person in this world who remembers what I said in my speech in Thailand. It wasn’t that good anyway. But I will always value that trip. There I, like Whyte, learned an important lesson: Examine your heart. Make sure you know which motivations are in control, and don’t dare step into public until you’ve got the answer.
At the heart of ministry is the heart, a heart close to God.
After I finished seminary in the late 1950s, I organized a new church in Gulfport, Mississippi. From a church growth perspective, it was a huge success. With rapid growth, a new building, and suburban prosperity, the church was the Cinderella of our conference.
But increasingly I was miserable. I felt like an organization man, not a man of God. I wasn’t taking my directions from the Lord. In the midst of a thriving church setting, I felt far from God. For a while I thought seriously about leaving the ministry.
In retrospect, I see I was running on my own power, relying on my own resources. But I didn’t know how to do otherwise. There was no question about my commitment to Christ or my call to preach. It was a matter of power, spiritual power: the inner resources for living with a strength not my own. Seminaries at the time didn’t offer help on spiritual formation. In short, my relationship with God was hardly more than a formality.
Few things are as hollow as a relationship intended for passion that instead is marked by mere duty. When the heat of a couple’s romance and honeymoon is cooled by concerns over mortgage payments, child raising, and household chores, the relationship becomes drudgery: husband and wife don’t kiss each other at the door; they make love as if it were a mere routine; they stare past their dinner plates with nothing to talk about.
So it is in ministry. A love relationship, which is what God intends us to have with him, is necessary for a vital ministry. At the heart of ministry is the heart, a heart close to God.
Being Close Is More than a Feeling
While serving the church in Mississippi, my spiritual rebuilding began. And years later, after walking diligently on a pilgrimage of spiritual growth, I found myself with another dilemma—and an opportunity to get closer to God.
I was in California at the time, pastoring another church. I was increasingly getting invitations from across the country to lead conferences and retreats on the subject of spirituality. Then I received two invitations, each to join a parachurch ministry, one as the leader of a retreat center and the other as a staff member of a mission organization. I found myself extremely perplexed: should I remain in pastoral ministry or move into parachurch service? Since this occurred at a critical juncture in my career, I knew I was asking a most fundamental question: What should I do with the rest of my life?
To help with my decision, I took a retreat to pray and find direction. By this time I had made up my mind to accept a position with one of the two parachurch organizations. I went to the mountains simply to decide which one. The result was as dramatic as my conversion experience: I felt the Lord telling me to stay put, to remain a pastor. With as much confidence as I’ve had about anything, I refused both invitations and continued pastoring the California church.
In that period, I felt as close to God and as centered in his will as I’ve ever felt. It illustrates what it means to me to be close to God: at the core, it means having an internal sense of harmony with what God wants me to do.
Early in my spiritual journey (and to some degree now), I depended on the feeling of God’s nearness. Though feelings are wonderful and beneficial, I don’t want to rely on them. Instead of considering how I feel at the moment, I try to discern how centered I am in God’s leading.
For example, in Memphis we recently elected our first black mayor. Unfortunately people voted along racial lines, Memphis being 52 percent black. To help unify our city, I felt the white community needed to show our support for our newly elected mayor. So I persuaded the pastors of some of the largest white churches in town to pay for and sign an open letter of support in the local newspaper.
We took some heat for doing that. A few members resigned from my congregation, and the mail and calls from outside were pretty tough. That dampened my emotions. Frankly, I didn’t feel particularly close to the Lord at the time. I knew, however, I was doing what was right. That certainty assured me that I was with God even though I did not feel close to him.
Even when I don’t know God’s will, if I’m at least seeking it earnestly, that is enough. A man and woman who struggle to “get on the same page” often feel closer after they’ve worked through their difficulties. Waiting on God does the same for me.
I identify with a friend who, after being asked to consider becoming a candidate for bishop in the Methodist church, said, “I’m in the middle of that decision right now, and I’m not getting any direction, but I’m feeling close to the Lord because I’m struggling, I’m dependent. I feel in resonance with the Spirit; while I don’t have an answer, I’m where God wants me to be because I’m focused on him.”
Warning Signs of a Distance Problem
If feeling close to God is not a sure indicator of one’s closeness, neither is a feeling of distance to be equated with a poor relationship with God. So I must have some other signs that signal how I am with God. Here are a few I find helpful:
• I have no heart for ministry. This is key for me. In fact, I’m more concerned about losing my appetite for ministry than I am about burnout; loss of heart can be so spiritually deceptive.
A pastor who has lost his or her appetite functions in the system, performs well in the local church, does everything required with finesse and professional skill, succeeds at keeping the church going. But there’s no excitement. There’s no sitting on the edge of one’s seat to share something great God has done recently in one’s own life or in the congregation. Furthermore, there’s no heart for doing the hard thing and no burning concern for missions or outreach, unless the church rolls start to suffer.
The void in the pastor’s heart may not even be perceived and certainly not confessed. My church members in Mississippi thought everything was tremendous—after all, we were the fastest growing church in the local Methodist conference. Because the church was doing well, they thought I was doing well. With all the “success” surrounding me, I was tempted sometimes to ignore my inner warning signals and assume that was as good as ministry was going to get.
Although this is perhaps the largest and brightest warning light we should notice, others less ominous are worthy of our attention.
• I feel depressed about my spirituality for a significant period of time. Recently I was confronted with a major decision about the course of my ministry. Although I spent extended time daily in prayer and Scripture reading, for two months I was unable to sense any direction from God. I finally got to the point where I was simply numb, unable to progress in my thinking about the decision. I knew then that something was wrong.
• My decisions are not thought through. In this regard, my wife serves as a barometer of my relationship with God. She has an uncanny way of asking the questions that show that I’ve not given enough thought and prayer to a decision. She also shows me how I take a simple decision and complicate it, sometimes because I’m seeking to evade God’s way of doing something.
• My emotions are off base, inappropriate, I’ve discovered that the way I respond to telephone calls can be a signal. When I begin thinking. Oh no, another phone call, or start procrastinating returning calls, it’s time to stop and assess what’s going on. It’s likely that I no longer have the spiritual resources to meet the demands of my calling.
• I have a chronic problem with sleeplessness. Sometimes sleeplessness is of God. I have been awakened by God to receive some message that I haven’t received during my working day. Some of my most meaningful times of prayer and spiritual reflection have come in the early hours of the morning.
But chronic sleeplessness is often a sign that I’m not only overworked but also working on my own steam, not depending on God’s power.
One recent month was particularly hectic. I spent ten days in Russia, followed by three days at home—one of them a Sunday with full preaching responsibilities—and then two weeks in a demanding denominational meeting. Though in the weeks following I had time to recover physically, I was still waking up in the middle of the night. That signaled that busyness had affected me spiritually.
Making the Most of the Pastoral Role
Just as marriage can both enhance and detract from the romantic passion between a man and woman, so the pastoral role is both a boon and a bane to spirituality. We are wise to be alert to its possibilities.
Being a pastor hinders closeness to God in several ways:
• Busyness. Shopkeeping chores, as Eugene Peterson so aptly describes church administrative tasks, and constant interaction with people, all to keep an organization humming, take time, attention, and enormous amounts of energy. That often leaves us little concentrated time with God.
If we do attend to the spiritual disciplines in such a ministry, we often do so less because we desire closeness with God and more because we are supposed to: it’s our job, all duty and no delight. We can conduct spiritual disciplines like a factory worker punches the clock. We pursue spirituality as a military man pursues stripes on his uniform.
• The professional side to ministry. Pastors, in order to do their jobs well, need to learn certain professional skills: how to conduct meetings, how to be diplomatic in all kinds of situations, how to juggle family and ministry, how and when to take community responsibilities.
In addition, if one seeks to expand one’s ministry by serving larger and larger parishes and provide increased security for one’s family, you have to build relationships in the denomination and, most likely, attain another advanced degree.
In the process of jumping through all the hoops toward becoming a “professional,” though, we may begin losing our passion for prayer. Although no one makes a deliberate decision to eliminate prayer or to stop depending on the Holy Spirit, walking on the path of pastoral professionalism has a way of making us feel less dependent on God.
• Scheduling freedom. Pastors, more than most professionals, have the ability to set their own schedules. Except for Sunday morning worship and the monthly board meeting, our time is pretty much ours to manage.
In some church settings, if we are content to do so, a pastor can cover the required bases without working especially hard. Pastoral ministry can be the most demanding work or the most cushy work on earth, depending on what we make of it.
• Lots of affirmation. When we do our jobs well, especially when we respond with compassion to our people, they will affirm us lavishly. But the amazing thing is we often don’t have to do well for people to praise us. No matter how poorly we do, in fact, there are always some kindhearted souls in the congregation who will tell us we’re doing great.
Whether the praise is due or not, if we hear enough of it, we may assume that we’re God’s person, that all is well with us, when nothing could be further from the truth.
• Regular contact with the sacred. Whether it’s leading a Bible study or preaching a sermon, opening a meeting in prayer or closing worship with a benediction, baptizing people or serving communion, we’re constantly handling holy things. But continual absorption in spiritual things breeds a dullness toward the sacred. Unless we are humble and pay full attention to what we are saying and doing, the holy can become routine, and that can lead to a spiritual dullness that is hard to sharpen.
Fortunately these spiritual hazards are balanced by the unique opportunities ministry offers to the spiritual life.
• We are regularly confronted with our need for God. My daughter is a hospital chaplain. She became well-acquainted with an elderly woman who was a cancer patient. One day my daughter went into her room and sensed she was near death.
At a loss as to what to do, she sat beside the woman’s bed and prayed silently for her. Almost unconsciously she began to caress the woman’s hair. After a while she started singing to her, singing an old lullaby my wife and I sang to our children when putting them to bed.
In the middle of her singing, my daughter felt a presence in the room and assumed someone had come in the room behind her. She was embarrassed about her singing and hesitated to turn around, but when she did, nobody was there. Kim quickly realized she had sensed the presence of Christ.
Such life and death situations, in which human limitations are so apparent, remind us of our utter dependence on God and our need for prayer.
• Constant contact with the holy. This, as I mentioned, can be a challenge, but it is also a blessing when approached in the right attitude. For me that means humility.
Take my preaching, for instance, an opportunity to exegete God’s Word and proclaim it to others. To keep this holy event from becoming routine, I’m intentional about revealing my shortcomings and concerns from the pulpit. I have found that if publicly I’m fairly vulnerable about my shortcomings and my desires to walk more fully in God’s will, that puts demands on me to follow through.
If, for instance, I admit in the pulpit that I need to spend more time in prayer and that I have made plans on how to improve, I feel accountable to the congregation to pray more.
• Interaction with “saints.” I regularly call on several people in our church for prayer and advice; I especially value their spiritual insights and discernment.
One is an older woman with a vocation of intercession. Another is a young couple with a special freshness about their faith. In many ways I look to these people as models of spiritual maturity. In my role as pastor I am privileged to speak with such people often, and that encourages my spirituality.
I have found six things especially helpful in keeping me close to God. Granted, we are each different when it comes to spirituality, but here is what has worked for me.
• Attend to the emotional. Pastors can be hindered spiritually by their emotions and personalities. For example, when I first moved to California, I became increasingly insecure about myself. Having been raised in poverty, I felt I lacked education and sufficient exposure to the finer things of life. I felt inferior to others, and that hampered me both emotionally and spiritually.
Eventually, I sought a professional counselor and attended a therapy group, which turned things around for me. Getting my emotions straightened out really helped me spiritually: I was able, for instance, to accept God’s acceptance of me, no matter my background, and that freed me to start using the gifts I did have for his service.
• Practice spiritual disciplines. I often find it helpful to hear how others do this so that I can fine tune my approach. Here’s my procedure:
I get up at 6 a.m., put on a pot of coffee (the first discipline!), and go to my study, which is in my home. I begin with intercession. Devotional reading follows; often I use a devotional guide along with the Scriptures. Then I spend time in reflection, pondering what I’ve read, examining my life, listening to the Lord.
Naturally, sometimes this morning time is tremendously rewarding and exciting, with things popping off the page and insights coming left and right. At other times it’s dry and seemingly fruitless. But overall, it’s worked for me.
• Retreats. I schedule two personal retreats a year as “regular maintenance” for my soul, one around my birthday, and another, about six months later.
In addition, I sometimes need an unscheduled time away to break through a prolonged dry period. Short retreats of one day are usually sufficient.
• Practice the presence. When I don’t feel God’s presence, I’ve learned the importance of practicing God’s presence. For me this most often means sharing God’s presence—his love and goodness—with someone else.
Recently a woman in our church was admitted to the Mayo Clinic to await a liver transplant. I wanted to convey the presence of God to her, but I hesitated at first because at the time I wasn’t feeling God’s presence in my own life. I didn’t want to sound artificial to her.
But I decided not to wait until I was “in the mood,” and I deliberately phoned her to assure her of God’s presence in her situation. I practiced God’s presence by reaching out to someone else.
John Wesley encouraged Christians to practice “acts of mercy” partly because in many ways we act our way into Christlikeness more than we pray, study, or worship our way into Christlikeness.
• Keep stretched. After preaching and administrating a church for a few years, I face the danger of feeling I’m in control, that I can, through mere technique, bring about effectiveness and success. To counteract that, I welcome ministries that push me out of my control zone.
On Sunday nights our church holds healing services, where we partake of Communion, anoint people with oil, and pray for them. It’s something that has not been usual in my tradition, so I’m on a learning curve as to how to minister through it effectively. Besides, when praying for the sick, I can’t feel anything but dependent on God.
• Nurture relationships. John Wesley used the term conferencing to describe intentional reflection and sharing with others about what God is doing in your life. The most important person with whom I do this is my wife, but I also conference regularly with others.
Two questions I find helpful when meeting with others are: (1) When this week did you feel closest to God? and (2) When did you have a discipleship opportunity, the chance to experience growth yourself or to help others grow, but ignored it? The first question leads to a greater awareness of our experience and relationship with God, and the second sensitizes us to opportunities for growth.
Once in a while I ask my family and fellow workers what, in their view, is going well with me and what things should I be cautioned about.
Especially when I’m making decisions about God’s direction for my life, consulting others helps me accurately hear from God. With big decisions, I can easily get sidetracked by my emotions and desires.
In the throes of one major decision, I called a friend and during our conversation asked, “Do you think I’ll be happy if I do this?”
“You don’t have any right to ask that question,” he replied.
That shocked me. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw his point; the question was not happiness but rather fruitfulness and meaning and obedience. I needed to hear that.
I’m happy when the church I serve grows, when ministry expands, when what I do is “successful.” But I’ve learned to see that as secondary. What really sustains my life and ministry is God, and the closer I am to him, the more fruitful and satisfying is my work for him.
Friends for the One
at the Top
at the Top
When we consider the blessings of God—the gifts that add beauty and joy to our lives, that enable us to keep going through stretches of boredom and even suffering—friendship is very near the top.
A few years back Pepper Rogers had a terrible season as football coach at UCLA. It even upset his home life. “My dog was my only friend,” he recalls. “I told my wife that a man needs at least two friends, and she bought me another dog.”
More than a few pastors can identify too closely with this story; some have already started stockpiling Alpo.
I haven’t taken a scientific poll, but as I speak with colleagues in ministry, I’ve come to believe loneliness afflicts clergy like a cloud of locusts in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Many of us, no doubt, would agree with nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer that friendship belongs in the same class as sea serpents—something conjectured but not yet proven. Having a friend who, as the Bible says, sticks closer than a brother seems about as likely as spotting the Loch Ness Monster.
Yet when we consider the blessings of God—the gifts that add beauty and joy to our lives, that enable us to keep going through stretches of boredom and even suffering—friendship is very near the top. Perhaps Gordon Liddy can say (upon being released from prison), “I have found within myself all I need and all I ever shall need,” but the rest of us do not envy him. Who wants to be completely alone?
We use the word friend in different ways. “Dear friends in Christ,” we address the congregational letter; or “I want you to meet my friend,” we say, referring to someone we have been with only a couple of times; or “My friend is dying of cancer,” we choke up, knowing that when he dies a part of us will die too. There are different levels of friendship.
Pastors usually have plenty of people with whom they can wade around in the shallow waters of friendship; they work together on church committees, they socialize once or twice a year, they readily refer to each other as friends. But this chapter will focus on those we call good friends or best friends, those with whom we share the adventure of sailing out into the deep waters of friendship.
The Risks of Loneliness
Before exploring the dynamics of friendship, we do well to ponder the heavy toll that lack of friendship can take on us.
Loneliness is lousy. It adds one more emotional burden to the already heavy load of a shepherd, who has to look after an unruly flock of critters who seem forever dedicated to wandering away, getting caught in wire fences, and finding themselves stranded on dangerous precipices. A shepherd needs to be as emotionally fit as possible for the rigorous tasks of ministry.
Even more important, loneliness distorts reality. Sometimes we find ourselves caught between two problems: insecurity and arrogance. We are in positions where being liked by others bears significantly on our success, and thus we inevitably worry about our approval rating. To compensate for feelings of insecurity, a pastor may project an image of faultless competence, an image of self-assured control. And insecurity and arrogance coupled with loneliness are like sticks of dynamite ready to explode.
Without friends a low self-esteem gets beaten down even lower. If I have no friends, I begin to think, I must be unfriendly. If no one loves me, I must be unlovable. Loneliness and insecurity interact in a downward spiral of emotional death.
Furthermore, without friends we don’t have the necessary counterweight to arrogance. When you’re not too sure about yourself anyway, it’s tempting to grasp eagerly at every affirmation that comes your way. Before long you start believing it all; you really must be extraordinary if this many people think you’re hot stuff.
Good friends have a way of keeping our feet on the ground. They’ve seen us throw tantrums on the tennis court; they’ve seen us snap at our kids; they know and can remind us that there’s an ordinary person living under the pulpit robe.
Pastors need friends. There may be risks whenever pastors get close to people, but we were never called to a risk-free life! We were called to follow Jesus Christ. The model for our shepherding is the Great Shepherd himself. Without doubt, he had friends: Peter, James, and John in particular.
According to John’s account of their last evening together, Jesus told his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (John 15:12–17, nrsv).
Taking the Initiative
“You did not choose me,” Jesus told his friends, “but I chose you.” Jesus built relationships by taking the initiative.
Peter, Andrew, James, and John were busy with their work: mending nets, worrying about making payments on their boats, swapping stories heard in the market, arguing about the weather. Into their world Jesus went and said, “Come, follow me.”
Matthew was sitting in the tax office, spending his time between balance sheets and friends you wouldn’t take home to meet your mother. Into his world Jesus went and said, “Come, follow me.” Jesus invited others to share his life in a special way.
We see this same assertiveness in Barnabas, who had the courage to extend the right hand of fellowship to a notorious hater of Christ’s disciples named Paul. And Paul himself, while preaching in Asia Minor, spotted Timothy, a young man with potential for ministry, and invited him to join his adventure.
Some friendships, of course, seem to happen by accident. You’re at a concert, say, and in the few minutes before curtain time, you introduce yourself to the man seated next to you. He asks what you do for a living. When you tell him, he laughs. He too pastors a church, on the other side of town. Coffee and conversation after the concert begins a wonderful friendship. It sometimes happens this way.
But usually those in leadership must expect to shoulder the burden of beginning a relationship. If a friendship develops, it’s because they’ve taken the initiative to make it possible. Leaders are generally kept at a distance; those around them don’t want to be presumptuous.
I’ve noticed people assume a great deal about me because I’m a pastor: they assume that I’m always busy, that I have many friends, that I would prefer more interesting company.
“Pastor, we’ve been meaning to have you over for dinner,” they say, “but we know how busy you are.” And unless my experience is unique, the larger the church, the more readily people make these assumptions. So pastors need to enter the world of fishing boats and tax offices to begin developing friendships.
But we should be cautious: we can be too aggressive. Holding an office of authority, we can muscle our way into the lives of others. Human beings, though, are complex, mysterious, and “mystery withers at the touch of force.” Friendship, like a dance, may require someone to take the lead, but both partners must move with the music.
Making Time for Friends
The pastors I know feel pulled in too many directions. How can anyone fulfill the impossible job description of spiritual director, preacher, counselor, administrator, fund raiser, marry-er, bury-er, and raconteur at women’s association teas? There just doesn’t seem to be enough time. Something must give—and what usually gives is the pastor’s personal life.
Developing a friendship almost seems, well, selfish. But if the risks in not having friends are greater than the risks in having them, we have little choice.
For the sake of personal health and for the sake of the ministry itself, I schedule occasions for friendships to develop.
• Weekly breakfasts or lunches. For years I have been committed to having breakfast with Ken Regan every Wednesday at 6:30 A.M. We meet that early because neither of us can afford to get to our offices any later. One hour a week doesn’t seem like much, but over a period of years it adds up.
• Denominational meetings. Denominational meetings would send me into a Twilight Zone of mental aberration, making me a danger to myself and others—if it wasn’t for Woody Garvin. My mood changes the moment I see him enter the monthly Presbytery meeting. We reward ourselves for enduring the tedium of these meetings by having dinner together. Others may think we’re being clubby, exclusive, but we’ve nurtured a good friendship because of it.
And the annual trip to our General Assembly becomes a rich opportunity for spending time with Woody. By rooming together, we not only save our churches’ money, we give ourselves plenty of time to talk.
• Study leaves. Study leaves can be another opportunity for scheduling time with a friend. Last year Woody and I went to the Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School. The content of the convocation was worthwhile; the best part of the week, however, was the time we spent together, the conversations and adventures shared.
Friendship with Whom?
Finding time for deep-water friendships may be easier than finding someone compatible for friendship. Here are the groups from which I have met friends:
• Other shepherds. Blessed is the pastor who has another pastor as a good friend. When United Airlines Flight 232 crashed just short of the landing strip in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19,1989, 120 people were killed. Passenger Jerry Schemmel is involved with a support group organized to help the 184 survivors cope with the lingering emotional trauma.
Wire services quoted him as saying, “For me, talking to other survivors is probably the most valuable thing, as far as therapy. … You can talk to counselors, your wife, your family, but when you sit down in front of another person who went through the same thing you did, you know that person relates exactly to what you’re talking about.”
Other pastors know exactly what we’re going through: they’ve had troubles with the staff, known the exhilaration of Sunday morning, and written unsent letters of resignation after board meetings. We speak the common language of shared experience.
• The sheep in your flock. Voices from our past whisper that pastors shouldn’t have friends, especially close friends, within their congregations. The old advice seems wise. We certainly want to avoid the accusation of favoritism. We also know our friends in the congregation may go through problems and suddenly need a pastor with authority. It might be difficult for them to seek marriage counseling from someone they’ve just observed bickering with his wife, or to seek financial counseling from someone who trounced them in Monopoly last Friday night.
Once my family spent a week camping with another family in the church. The following Sunday the wife greeted me with a formal handshake and said, “Hello, Pastor.” We had just spent a week eating at the same picnic table, sitting around the same campfire, sharing the same mosquito repellent, but she couldn’t bring herself to say,
Hello, Don.” She wanted me to know that I was still her pastor.
I was a bit hurt, but I understood. Many parishioners want their pastor, if not on a pedestal, at least at some distance.
Unless we nurture congregational friendship, though, we will likely remain lonely. Most of us have little opportunity to cultivate relationships outside the congregation; we must draw upon this source. Still I try to adhere to two cautions.
First, I don’t hurry. There is no real friendship without trust. Before sailing out into the relational depths, I poke and probe the other’s character: Will he keep a secret? Will she graciously sift through the chaff of my depressed days? Will he know what’s appropriate when he tells stories about me? Will she provide wise counsel?
Second, I don’t flaunt it. You shouldn’t have to hide your friendships, but neither should your congregation have to deal needlessly with feelings of jealousy. So I steer clear of close friends in congregational settings; I am everyone’s pastor and official “friend” on those occasions. Though I have breakfast every week with Ken Regan, on Sunday mornings I rarely even wave to him.
• The opposite sex. I am hesitant to rule out half the human race as a source of potential friends. A man and woman can be “just friends,” I believe, to the mutual enrichment of both. I am grateful for my friendships with women; they add a dimension to my life that could not be supplied by men.
But I must nevertheless register a strong word of caution: we are sexual creatures (praise God!) and thus always vulnerable to the delights of the erotic.
While this danger does not automatically rule out male/female friendships, it does set up warning flags we dare not ignore. We ought to cultivate deep friendships with the opposite sex in the same way we would take up hang gliding or rock climbing: very carefully.
Alan Loy McGinnis, in his book, The Friendship Factor, lists ways to keep sexual feelings under control in male/female friendships: (1) Don’t trust yourself too far. (2) Select companions who have strong marriages themselves. (3) Be sensible about when and where you meet alone. (4) Talk to your mate about your friendships. (5) Draw a line for physical contact. (6) Bail out if necessary.
Friendships with the opposite sex call for a good deal of common (or perhaps uncommon) sense.
Selecting those with whom we’ll cultivate relationships may be the first step toward friendship, but before we can travel further down the road, we must risk transparency. Jesus’ statement to his disciples points us in the right direction:
“I have called you friends,” Jesus confides in them, “because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
Jesus’ self-disclosure to his disciples lifted them to the status of friends, providing us with another principle from Jesus’ ministry: If you want close friends, you must open yourself to others. The deepest friendships emerge only when the barriers have been dropped, only when the masks have been removed.
A time comes, if you want the relationship to grow, when you must risk self-disclosure. This usually happens gradually. The protective barrier we’ve erected around ourselves isn’t razed with one blast of explosive honesty; it’s taken down plank by plank.
Questions may race through our minds when we’re about to reveal a hidden part of ourselves: Will he keep this confidence? Will he reject me if he knows this about me? But eventually the wall must fall so the other person can enter our lives.
This isn’t easy for pastors. We expend much psychic energy in the creation of a public persona we wear most of the time. It doesn’t matter whether I’m shopping in a supermarket or running along the beach or browsing in a bookstore: people stop me, introduce themselves as members of my church, and want to talk.
I moan to my wife, “I have to be good all the time.” What I’m really saying, of course, is that I have to be pastor all the time. It’s as though the persona has been fastened to me with Super Glue.
But we need to take off the mask for our close friends. Self-disclosure takes time and requires patience. It always seeks the balance between revelation and concealment. Jesus didn’t tell the disciples everything on their first day together. It took two years before he even asked them who they thought he was; it took three years before he called them friends.
This is why old friends tend to be best friends. We’ve covered some distance together; we’ve been through stormy seas and endured the boredom of windless days; we’ve run aground a few times; perhaps we’ve even stayed as far away from each other as the ship would allow. But in sailing together, year after year, we’ve come to know each other well.
Twenty years ago Woody and I were in seminary. I was prodding him to learn the declensions of the Greek verbs; he was pushing me to join him in demonstrations against the war. Since then we’ve shared good times and bad, investing in each other and the relationship, and now we have a pretty fat account on which to draw.
We also have enough stories to get each other run out of most of the churches in America. But I will never tell, and neither will he. That’s why recently I didn’t think twice about calling him with a personal problem, even though it was his sermon preparation day and his secretary would need to put her life on the line to interrupt him. A relationship like this doesn’t happen overnight.
Initiating relationships and revealing ourselves will take us a long way toward deep friendship. But we’re not there yet. Jesus, in word and action, showed one more important element. “No one has greater love than this,” he said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” By the time these words were written, the disciples knew Jesus had demonstrated his friendship in the profoundest way possible: he had given his life upon a cross for them.
The deepest friendships are based on self-sacrifice. Not many of us will be in situations where we’re called upon to give the ultimate gift, but this doesn’t mean authentic friendship is only for soldiers in bunkers or those with quickness of mind and body to throw someone out of the path of an onrushing train. Opportunities for self-sacrifice often come in smaller doses.
• The sacrifice of encouragement. Helping another person maximize his or her gifts can be costly. As you encourage her to be all that she can be, you may be ensuring a place for yourself on the second team. As you encourage him to scale the heights, you may eventually find yourself at a lower level of recognition.
Perhaps watching a friend succeed should be easy—even joyous—but it can be difficult. The green-eyed monster often rears its ugly head with those closest to us. It’s one thing to watch the achievements of someone you don’t know; it’s another to have a best friend receive a call to a prestigious pulpit or have a book on the bestseller list or get elected to high office in the denomination.
But good friends learn to delight in others’ gifts. When my first book was published, Woody pushed it in his congregation and invited me to preach on its theme. When he was asked to join a seminary board of trustees, I encouraged him to do it and was proud that others recognized his leadership skills.
• The sacrifice of mercy. A relationship between two different individuals —even the best of friends—will inevitably suffer tensions and disagreements, perhaps outright anger. We can rub each other the wrong way; we can hurt each other. No friendship will survive long without the gift of mercy.
We grant mercy when we’re willing to endure the other person. Speaking of his relationship with Jack Benny, George Burns said, “Jack and I had a wonderful friendship for nearly fifty-five years. Jack never walked out on me when I sang a song, and I never walked out on him when he played the violin.” We need to plan on listening to our friends’ gravelly voices and screeching violins.
We also grant mercy when we forgive. A friend once reminded Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, of an especially cruel thing that had been done to her years before. Miss Barton seemed not to recall it.
“Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked.
“No,” Barton replied, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.”
Occasionally a relationship gets beat up and stomped in the dirt by something far worse than irritations; it can fall victim to brutal betrayals. By forgiveness we commit ourselves to keeping the friendship alive regardless of the wounds it has suffered.
• The sacrifice of time. Most of us would do almost anything short of selling our children into slavery for a little more time. There never seem to be enough minutes in the day to get through the to-do list in our Daytimers, never enough to do all God wants us to do.
Finding the time required to maintain a friendship isn’t easy. But when a friend calls, you make time for a conversation, even though Mrs. Anderson has just been in to say that “many members” are concerned about the lack of pastoral visitation and you have a funeral in two hours and you have no idea about what you’re preaching on Sunday even though it’s already Friday. You talk and listen, and in a small way, you’re laying down your life for your friend.
Being present for one another is the fundamental requirement of love, and it begins with listening. Lewis Smedes, professor at Fuller Seminary, has written, “Listening is the silent shape of caring. We listen to what the other person says to us. But we listen closest when no words are spoken. We listen for the unuttered message of feeling. We listen for pain expressed in disguised sighs. We listen for desires heard only in the language of the eyes. We listen to our own messages to learn how they were heard through the filter of the other person’s needs.” This kind of listening takes time.
Sometimes friendship will demand a significant sacrifice of time, far more than an hour telephone conversation.
When Kay Lewis called from Austin to tell me her husband was not doing well, I knew what had to be done. Alan and I first met in Scotland; he was my Ph.D. supervisor at the University of Edinburgh. But what began as a formal academic relationship soon developed into a deep friendship. Through the years we nurtured the relationship; hundreds of miles separated us, but visits and telephone calls kept the dialogue going on theology and politics and other good subjects.
Our recent conversations, though, had often been about cancer, his cancer. Kay called to tell me he probably would not live through the weekend. I knew I had to see him one more time. On Sunday my congregation was simply told, “Don needed to be with his friend.”
From the airport I went straight to the hospital. Years of pastoral experience were not much help; professional objectivity vanishes when it’s your dear friend lying there, when his wispy hair witnesses to the ravages of chemotherapy, when tubes desecrate his body, when he has barely enough strength to acknowledge your presence. It’s not easy. But there’s no place you would rather be.
The next day he rallied some, and the day after that brought a remarkable turnaround. At least we could talk. He reminded me of Christ’s victory, the hope of the resurrection. When I needed to say goodbye—for all I knew, for the rest of this life—I knelt by his bed to pray, and then I took him in my arms, and I wept.
Alan, thank God, has not died. We continue to hope that by the grace of God he will be with us, teaching and preaching and loving, for many more years. But whatever happens, I will be present for him to the best of my ability.
C. S. Lewis pointed out that friendship is the least natural of loves: “Without eros none of us would have been begotten and without Affection none of us would have been reared, but we can live and breed without Friendship. The species, biologically considered, has no need of it.”
Its very lack of necessity, though, underscores its relationship with grace. Friendship is a free gift, a witness to the goodness of God. One can live without friendship, just as one can live without laughter and music and books, but life would be much the poorer.
How to Draw
Strength from People
Strength from People
I have come to treat special friendships as something of sacramental value. Just as we believe that an extraordinary event happens when people put bread and wine together in the name of Christ, so there is an unusual occurrence when two or more commit to each another in a friendship built about Christ’s name.
Gail, my wife, was once cornered by a woman after an unhappy church business meeting. It had been one of our first exposures to a small Baptist congregation where some loved to battle about budgets, paint color, and the succession of church officers.
“Gail, what do you think of us all after this evening?”
“I’m really disappointed by the hurt I saw tonight,” she replied.
“Oh, don’t let this bother you. Gail, if you and Gordon stay here long enough, you’ll learn to be just like us.”
“No,” my wife said. “I love you all, but I never plan to be like that.”
When those words were spoken, we were barely past our mid-twenties. In that rural fellowship we were the youngest adults. Now, years later in a city church, we are the oldest people in the congregation. Then we were like a son and daughter to the people—sometimes I thought they were amused by us. Now we are like a mother and father. And sometimes I think we still amuse our congregation.
Although we’ve gotten older, the challenge of how to relate to a congregation has not. We continue to be concerned about creating community with members of our church. We know that without community we cannot grow into healthy spirituality; without community we cannot hope to hear the fullness of God’s voice; without community we cannot hope to make a difference in the world.
So, from the Kansas prairie to the streets of New York City, I’ve been asking myself, How do I cultivate community? How can I be a vital part of it and yet not be absorbed by it? How do I commit myself to it knowing that some day I’ll leave? And how do I give a community leadership while submitting to it in servanthood?
Rebuilding the Foundation
My faith tradition hasn’t done adequate homework on the theological meaning of community, this despite all the recent emphasis on small groups. We understand the community demographically; we understand it therapeutically; we understand it institutionally. We use marketing techniques, psychological models, and management structures to make our communities work. But we’ve not yet developed a theology that convinces us that community is something more than just creating successful organizations and careers.
Let me suggest that a theology of community begins with the statement of Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst.” That’s sacramental language. It says that something special, actually mysterious, happens when people commit to a relationship that identifies with and submits to Christ’s name. The statement exalts the group.
I am no longer satisfied hearing about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This wonderful message needs balance, namely that a personal relationship with Christ means also a personal relationship to Christ’s people. You accept Christ; you accept his people. The newly converted John Wesley was reminded that Christianity is not a solitary religion.
The neglect of community has resulted in an overemphasis on the leadership of solo performers: strong preachers, institutional leaders, and musicians who are viewed as oracles through whom God speaks. Preaching and organizational entrepreneurship seem synonymous with godliness.
The larger truth is that the Bible is also a book about groups, teams, communities. We must remember that God has carried on the kingdom with clusters, with groups: Moses had his Jethro, David his Jonathan, Jeremiah his Baruch, Paul his Barnabas and Silas. Even Jesus had his twelve, and especially Peter, James, and John. Assumed in the pages of Scripture is a check and balance, a consortium of gifts, a corporate witness, a sense of
“We’re doing this together.”
Knowing the Church Community
Before pastors can decide how to relate to their churches, they need to know the make-up of those churches.
When I read between the lines of the Gospels, I see Jesus constantly making decisions about how he was going to interact with others. Some wanted his time, but he made it clear they weren’t going to get it. Others felt unworthy to get anything from him, and yet, more than once, it was their homes that he visited. Jesus understood people, especially when and how he should connect with them. We’re not always so sure. And we don’t have many models to be sure.
Some time ago I began to realize that the people in my community tend to follow certain relationship patterns, and I described those patterns in Renewing Your Spiritual Passion. Although some have been disturbed by my “boxing people in,” I and others have found the categories helpful. While I don’t normally go around labeling people, I am helped by knowing what I can expect from various members of my community.
Very Resourceful People
Vrp’s are our mentors. And every time they enter our lives they bring a word of affirmation (or rebuke). They affirm our growth and effectiveness. And if we don’t have a couple of these, we’re missing something.
When I was a boy, my father was an extremely busy man as a church leader. I admired him and wish I’d known him better, but it wasn’t possible. As a compensation God seems to have given me a string of men who have treated me as a significant human being.
No one ever impacted my life more as a vrp than Vernon Grounds, the president emeritus of Denver Seminary, where I attended. He seemed to have all the personality and spiritual traits I, as a young man, wanted most to acquire. I set out to follow him and to absorb as much of his character and view of life as I could. Hardly a day goes by now that I don’t see some dimension of Vernon Grounds’ personality in me, like the way he strikes up conversations with strangers. He will walk up to someone and say, “I’ve been looking at the smile on your face, and it’s obvious to me that you’re an extremely happy person.” Vernon gives positive energy to everyone he engages. I always wanted to be like that, and to the extent that I am like that today, I learned it from him.
In a department store recently, I caught myself saying to a clerk, “You look to me like the vice-president for men’s shirts.”
That’s a vintage Vernon comment: a gesture of affection that lifts the spirit of a minimum-wage clerk who feels insignificant most of the time. It elevates the conversation so that the other person feels like a peer and a friend. It offers light humor and a sense that this is more than a conversation about shirts.
Other vrp’s in my older years included a Presbyterian pastor, a godly track coach, a Christian counselor, and through biographies and writings, a historical figure from the nineteenth-century Church of England, Charles Simeon.
Unlike friendships, vrp relationships usually end. Daniel Levinson’s book. Seasons of a Man’s Life, suggests that vrp relationships conclude with something called boom: Becoming One’s Own Man. Boom happens when the vrp releases the Very Trainable Person (vtp, which is what I was to Vernon Grounds) to his own pathway. It can be a painful process.
Usually it is the vtp who terminates the relationship because he or she becomes sure that they can make it on their own. This can be traumatic for the vrp. I have experienced that ache a few times in relationship to vtp’s of my own.
But it can work the other way. The vrp has to get on with mentoring others. I remember having to adjust to the fact that Vernon Grounds had other vtp’s in his life; he couldn’t always be available for me. In fact, I suspect that several hundred men and women in this world each thought they were as close to Grounds as I did. This man has “fathered” a lot of spiritual children, and he hasn’t stopped, although he is headed north of age 75.
The disciples were going through this to some extent when Jesus told them that he was going away. They saw nothing “expedient” (as he put it) about such a boom experience. And they had no concept of what he meant when he said, “Now you are my friends.” They were still locked into being servants who did not know what the master was doing.
Some of my own vrp relationships have turned into friendships. Others drifted into mere pleasant memories, and I thankfully carry those memories through my life.
Very Important People
Among the vip’s in my life are my wife, Gail, my closest personal friends, people with whom I share a common call to ministry, and a broader circle of significant people who may or may not share my view of faith.
Among these people is Seth, a Jewish professor of law, who lives in our New York City apartment building. He and I frequently walk together to the Roosevelt Island tramway.
We’ll banter back and forth about the latest lawyers’ joke, recent Supreme Court decisions, legal ethics, and the use of logic in argument.
Seth stretches me because he’s a thinker. I feel as if I was never taught to be a thinker, that I’m always playing catch-up ball. Friends like Seth enjoy helping me do it.
Incidentally, it helps that Seth does not share my view of God or of faith. He accepts no empty words, no phrases I’ve used for so long that I’ve forgotten their real meaning. And he’s not worried about saying something that would offend a preacher’s ears.
My agenda with Seth is simple: I like him, and I learn by tapping his mind. I just ask questions when I’m with him. One day he gave me what I consider a high compliment, coming as it did from him: “Gordon, you ask great questions.”
I enjoy having relationships with people who are quite different than me. I grew up in a system that suggested one spend time only with those who were candidates for conversion. The problem with this hit me with force one day years ago when I was conversing with my neighbor while we stood watering our lawns. I was thinking how nice it would be to know him better. But then my childhood mechanisms kicked in. I actually found myself thinking, I’d sure like to get closer to this guy, but he’s a life-long Lutheran, and there’s no way he’d ever come to my church. So there’s no point in pursuing this relationship.
I came to realize I had been groomed inadvertently to evaluate people’s worth on the basis of their potential to fit my agenda. From that day forward I’ve worked at developing relationships for nothing more than the joy of natural friendship and seeing myself as part of the broader human community. If things naturally move beyond that to issues of faith and conviction, terrific! And that has in fact happened.
My change in thinking was one reason I struck up a friendship with Mohammed, an Iraqi from Baghdad who managed a cafe in New York City. From time to time we would sip coffee together comparing our worlds: his Islamic world and my Christian one. The day the bombs started dropping in Baghdad, I stopped by the cafe and waited for him to finish his shift.
“This has got to be an awful day for you,” I said. “Your family is over there, the bombs are falling, and you probably can’t tell anyone around here what you’re going through and expect them to understand.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I can’t tell anyone that I’m from Baghdad. So I say I’m Swedish.” I made a comment about his dark eyes and his Middle Eastern complexion, and we laughed.
“Well, I know where you’re from,” I said. “And I want you to know that you’re my friend, and I’ll be praying for your family today. Let me know the first minute you hear word from them.”
On days like this, I thought, it’s not hard to have a ministry when I don’t have to be anything but a cool source of water. I’ve learned the joy of simplicity in relationships with people from all walks of life, and I’ve discovered opportunities for ministry as a serendipity.
And then there are good friends, fellow learners and “growers.” I have accumulated a personal wealth in friends across North America, with whom I intersect regularly on the phone or by fax: we share book titles, interesting articles, and insightful experiences. In this cadre are three or four special friends whose worth to me cannot be estimated.
Friendship became a high priority at midlife, when I realized career achievements were worthless in contrast to being part of a network of friends who challenge each other to grow to become more useful to the kingdom.
Contemporary Christian ministry can contain a cruel payoff if one is not careful. One day I found myself asking, “Now that I’ve spent the better part of three decades moving around the country at the invitation of congregations and in response to what I perceived to be the call of God, who will be there for me when I am dying?”
I realized that most of a pastor’s friendships are dovetailed into his or her role. Change the role and most of those friendships terminate. So who will be there, and where will they be, when you are no longer a pastor and you have another decade or two to be an old person? Who will share your aging years? Who will sit with you when you suffer loss? Who will carry your casket? Who will comfort your spouse?
Especially important to me are people I’d call “playmates” or “soulmates.” These are the people with whom I enter the presence of God through prayer and mutual accountability. We keep tabs on each other’s personal concerns so that we can pray for each other. We challenge each other in the development of our spirits.
I think of a recent encounter with a vip friend. One day I went to Philadelphia to see him. Together we toured some exciting examples of city ministry. Then we went to a restaurant and sat for four hours, talking and eating Indian food. Then we polished the day off by visiting the Picasso exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
There wasn’t a dead moment in the entire day. The two of us made some plans about things we want to do together in the future; we talked through endless lists of books; we discussed our frustrations with certain aspects of our faith tradition. We talked about how to stimulate one another to deeper growth. As I went home on Amtrak that evening, I typed page after page into my laptop computer—things I’d learned during the day. A time like that can keep me going for weeks.
A similar encounter happened in New York with another soulmate whom I’ll call my Montreal friend. Then there are our Boston friends, a couple we’ve known for years and meet every month for dinner. One businessman friend occasionally checks out of his office and travels with me to a speaking engagement. I think of a friend in television; one in the world of engineering, and one in consulting. We fly in and out of each other’s lives. Letters, cards, faxes, phone calls, and occasional visits with such people energize my soul.
I once said to my Philadelphia friend that there ought to be a place in friendships for one to challenge the other regularly with the question, “What’s God been saying to you today?” I suggested that if that sort of accountability existed in friendship, it would bring daily meditations alive. I’d be listening hard for God’s voice because I’d know someone would be checking up on me, as when Eli checked up on Samuel.
Two days later the phone rang. It was my man in Philadelphia. He didn’t greet me with, “Hi, Gordon. How are you?” He just said, “What’s God saying to you today?” Since that call we have a playful but serious tradition going: you get to ask the question first if you’ve paid for the call.
There was a time in my life when I nursed two irresponsible thoughts: I saw Gail as my best friend, and I concluded that my life was too busy for close friendships.
I don’t think I’m merely fooling with words when I say that a spouse and a best friend are likely to be two different people. I am not for a moment denigrating my intimacy with Gail. I enjoy our relationship as husband and wife, and she is a wonderful friend. But I like her to be my wife.
I want a “best friend” to challenge me about such things as the quality of my marriage, the state of my soul, the quality of my speech, the style of my financial life, and the depth of my relationships. I don’t think a spouse is in a position to do all that.
So I’ve relieved Gail of some of that responsibility and placed her back where I can really enjoy our relationship as husband and wife. And I’ve tried hard to develop several close personal friendships. That’s not been easy, because my friends are incredibly busy—traveling, making decisions, running institutions, and attending conferences. We’ve had to learn to plan far ahead for prime times when we can look into each other’s eyes and see what’s going on behind them.
In terms of my relationship with Gail, we’ve learned to share a daily prayer discipline for our children, our friends, and for the ministry activities of our congregation. Without realizing it, we have developed all sorts of private traditions. Almost every morning we watch the same news broadcast. We eat the same foods at certain points of the week. We have a couple of favorite television shows. We take walks in the city almost every day that weather permits. During the day we exchange two or three phone calls to check on how each other is doing.
It’s hard to believe that any two people can get as close as we are—especially in the past five or six years. We both know that our thirty-one years of marriage is a life investment. We don’t have to keep saying it, but we are aware that our relationship was dramatically and tragically tested a few years ago. For a short while we felt as if we stood alone in our world, and during that time we entered far more deeply into each other’s souls than most husbands and wives seem to do. Ever since it’s been soul knitted to soul.
When Gail and I came to New York, we found it easy to greatly enlarge the perimeter of our friendships. We came to understand that a lot of wonderful people are prepared to accept us just as we are. They don’t treat us as a clergyman and wife, and they don’t care whether or not we went to graduate school. The only credential for friendship here is that you delight in one another as human beings.
I grimace every time I hear someone speak about the hostility of New Yorkers. I find just the opposite. Gail and I have made more friends in New York than any place we’ve lived. When we leave the Big Apple, we will grieve over the loss of daily encounters with bus drivers, shop keepers, and doormen, mostly people of color.
One of the bus drivers used to be a sullen man. One day I told Gail I was going to get into his life one way or another. So every night when I stepped on his bus, I’d greet him with “Hello, Mr. Jessup,” or “Hi, Michael” (I’ve changed his real name here). He rarely reacted.
One night as we neared the end of the line, the bus was virtually empty. I slipped forward and said to him, “I don’t want to be nosy, but I’ve been looking at your face for the last few minutes, and you seem under great stress. I’m wondering if everything is all right? Is my perception a good one or bad?”
“Good perception,” he grunted.
“Well, I don’t know what kind of pain you’re carrying, but I want you to know that when I have friends, I pray for them. So tonight when I’m getting ready for bed, I’m going to pray for you.”
“Really?” he replied with surprise. “Thanks very much.”
From that moment we connected. He quickly thawed, and our friendship warmed. Then one night he was blindsided in an auto accident on his way home from work. I convinced one of the other drivers to give me his unlisted number and called him.
“This is your friend, Gordon, from the island,” I said when he picked up the phone. “I hear you’ve got migraines from the accident. I used to have them, so I know what you’re going through.”
“I can’t believe you’re calling me,” he exclaimed.
“This is what friends do,” I answered.
Our friendship—just one of several I have—has blossomed from that moment into the flower of banter and laughter. Recently when an embassy here in New York was bombed, he and I were talking about the pain human beings inflict upon one another.
“Do you ever get the feeling that human beings are like onions?” I philosophized. “You keep peeling back the skin and you find a different person at every level.”
“Boy, is that the truth!” he affirmed.
“Of course, there are two solid exceptions to this,” I quipped. “You and me.” We laughed, and I exited the bus. This is what I call an uncluttered friendship, and it lifts my spirits.
Another one of my friends is someone I’ll call Thomas. Last year he was mugged and left unconscious on a street corner. When he regained consciousness, he staggered to his car and, although he has no recollection of doing it, drove home.
When Thomas had been gone for some time, I spoke to some friends we have in common, “I haven’t seen Thomas in a while; is he okay?”
“Thomas got beat up,” someone said. “We’re not even sure he’s coming back. One thing’s for sure; he doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened.”
Then a week later I bumped into him. “Thomas,” I said, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t like what I see. You’re in pain, aren’t you?”
“Have you talked to anyone about what happened?”
“Okay. Look, I’m a friend. I want to know what’s happened.”
We sat down, and he recounted his story. It was a horror story to be sure. I suggested that we have breakfast at my apartment the next morning, when we could have more time together.
Gail fixed a good breakfast the next day, and then she left us alone so that he could talk further without feeling humiliated. I made him retell the incident several times just so he could flush it all from his system.
When he got through and had wept a bit, I said, “I don’t know how this is going to hit you, but as one brother to another, I’d like to pray for you. And when I pray for my friends, I often put a hand upon them. I’d like to ask God to expel all this terror and hurt from you.”
Thomas said that would be fine, and I did as I told him I would. It was a bonding moment. In the following days, I saw his smile returning. The moment came when I was able to say, “I’m looking into your eyes, Thomas, and I see the smile coming back. I just want to see more.”
Three months later Thomas invited Gail and me to his home for a family dinner. It was more than a dinner; it was a reunion. Fifty or more people were there. Thomas is from a Caribbean country; his family is East Indian. We were the only whites there. After a tremendous dinner of Indian food, Thomas stood and spoke to his family: “I want you to meet the man and woman who brought me back from the dead. Mr. Gordon, would you say some words to my family?”
I told the group about our friendship and how I continued to pray for my friend. This man is important to me. He’s the sort of friend you find in the city if you’re looking.
Very Trainable People
A few years ago I became convinced that men and women over 40 ought to take seriously the priority of “giving back.” And giving back means pouring oneself into the younger generation. Among the younger generation are the vtp’s: people who are teachable, anxious to grow, ready to follow.
The most important vtp’s in my life for years were our children, Mark and Kristy. They remain the most important. But they’ve left home now and are married. When they come home, Gail and I do our best to be whatever they need us to be: friend or parent.
But I’ve not stopped parenting. In fact, I feel as if I do more of it now than ever. Years ago I was marked by a question from Carl George: Do you want to be a builder of an institution or a builder of people? I chose the latter and have no regrets.
Two of my most recent vtp’s have master’s degrees in business from Ivy League schools. One of the two entered my world because he was dating a young woman in our congregation. She called me one day and admitted that she was falling in love.
“Would you check him out?” she asked.
A strange question, I thought. But since he’d come to church with her a few Sundays, I had a perfect excuse to call his office and ask if we could meet for lunch. We met at midtown and ate at one of my favorite lunch spots. I liked him instantly.
We talked about his work, how he’d come to know the young woman he was dating, what he thought of her faith (“She’s really into that stuff,” he said), and how worship at our church had impressed him.
“I’ve never been any place before where people seemed so alive in their religion. I don’t know what to make of it, but I’d like to become more a part of it.”
“I’ve got a proposition for you,” I said. “You come and hear me preach for a few weeks. Then let’s get together for lunch again and talk about what you’ve heard and what you’re thinking.” He agreed. I went on to suggest that all of us who come near to Jesus are either spectators, seekers, followers, or kingdom builders.
After I’d described each category, he said, “I think I’m a seeker.” I agreed.
Six weeks later we met again. He said, “I don’t know how to describe this, but the other day I prayed and told Jesus I wanted to become a Christ-follower.”
Not many weeks later he married the woman. I introduced them to another newly married couple where the husband was also a new Christ-follower. The two couples hit it off instantly.
Then the two husbands came to me and said, “We’re married to two kingdom builders, and we’re just followers. We’ve got to catch up. What can you do to help us?” That’s how I latched on to two new vtp’s.
We’ve met for breakfast; this next month we have two full days scheduled together. I’m going to walk them through the Bible and show them how it’s laid out. We’re going to review some basic spiritual disciplines and figure out a schedule for a twelve-week covenant group in the fall. I suggested that we add four or five other men to the group and that they facilitate things so I could be the mentor and nothing else. They agreed, and so we’re on.
Very Nice People
Vnp’sare usually swell folk. They attend church regularly; they fill the seats, sing the songs, give some of the money, and are kind to preachers. We build large and comfortable buildings and pave convenient parking lots for vnp’s. (Well, in other places than New York City we build parking lots.)
Frankly I’m not sure we’d need to do that if we didn’t have vnp’s. The vip’s and the vtp’s would come any place at any time, because they’re on growth tracks, and they know what the agenda is. Vnp’s are not sure.
Generally the vnp’s are takers more than givers. And you give them all your love and a lot of your attention, as did Jesus at times. They are the most immediate pool of people from which vtp’s and vip’s may come. You pray for them; you serve them; you try to be responsive to their needs because you believe—and rightly so —that out of the crowd will come those who hear a word from God and decide that it’s time to get serious about faith.
I’ve observed the 80/20 rule here: 20 percent of the people (vip’s and vtp’s) carry the momentum and 80 percent of the people (mostly vnp’s) do nothing. Under such conditions, a pastoral life begins to head toward exhaustion if the 80 percent consume your time.
You’ll not find many, if any, vnp’s in an Alcoholics Anonymous group. In an aa group people carry their own weight. In aa, everybody’s an alcoholic, and everyone else knows it; everyone’s a potential leader. But in the church people can go on indefinitely never admitting to anything, and never doing anything but coming, having fun, drawing upon resources—taking and not giving.
Nevertheless, they’re a part of the community and deserve some of our attention. Jesus rarely worried about the vnp’s. When they gathered in too large a number, he simply increased the volume of his call for repentance and righteousness, and that usually readjusted the size of the community.
People Most Likely to Cost You “Virtue”
Some are uncomfortable when I talk about the needy people of our congregations. But I feel a Christian leader is unwise if he or she doesn’t face up to this fact: in every ministry there is a group of people who are one big bundle of struggle. Every time you encounter them, you know that “virtue is going to go out of you.”
Over the years, I’ve realized that needy people come in different sizes and shapes.
• Very Broken People. Life has served up some tremendous jolts for these people: loss of job, health, or key relationships. Stress, failure, sin, betrayal, and a host of other unexpected events have simply broken their bodies or their hearts. Unfortunately, a significant number of friends disappear and become invisible when one is broken. Having no simple answers that solve the problem, they find it easy just to drop out of touch. And if someone has failed, crossed the line into sin, one’s community can disintegrate.
You come into ministry expecting to spend lots of time with the vbp’s. You’re trained to listen to them, offer resources such as pastoral counsel and advice, refer them to other sources of aid, and pray with them.
The good thing about genuine brokenness and being a vbp is that one starts listening carefully. He or she becomes hungry for what scraps of meaning you can bring to their struggle; they are anxious to hear words of hope and grace; they suck up any prayers you have to offer. And they are usually prepared to act on what is suggested.
An authentic broken person does not stay broken for long. By the grace of God, he or she heals, and when that happens, sometimes there is a resulting strength and vitality that makes the brokenness seem worthwhile. Broken people often become one’s most signal vtp’s and vip’s.
I’ve seen brokenness, and I’ve known it personally. And I’ve learned that there is incredible power in repentance and restoration. This is a great relational “neighborhood” for a pastor to be in—among the broken people. They let you know quickly that you’re important to them.
In my community I have several vbp’s. I had lunch with one the other day. I found myself in touch with almost every word as he described the inner pain and humiliation he feels as a result of his failure.
When he finished talking, I said, “I could have filled in the blanks of almost every sentence you’ve spoken. Now let me fill in the rest of the story that you haven’t even heard yet. Let’s talk about what God is saying to you and what he’s likely to say through you in a couple of years when this is behind you.”
And you watch the healing process work. It’s magnificent!
• Very Vocal People. One is tempted to say that the “vocals” are all words. The vvp’s are those who like to get attention by talking—complaining, whining, accusing; arguing, challenging, and protesting. They’re often good with words and have a facility for holding the pastor hostage to their threat of anger or criticism. One tiptoes around them in the earliest years of ministry, and that’s not good. In later years one is tempted to ignore the vocals. And that’s not good either.
I’ve tried to understand the kernel of truth the vvp is expressing. Most of the time it works.
James had a word for vvp’s when he wrote:
My dear brothers, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Again he wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has not deeds? Can such a faith save him?” Notice that in both places he addresses these vocals as brothers.
The monastics tell about a Russian monk who lived in a French monastery. He seemed to be a vvp, and he drove everyone crazy with his abrasive disposition and unruly mouth. The brothers used to fantasize about a monastery without him. One day they got their wish when the Russian left for Paris. But before long, the abbot of the monastery went to Paris, found the vvp monk, and brought him back. His was a simple explanation: without the Russian there was no impetus for the community to pray for grace and greater charity.
I remember that story each time I encounter a vvp in my community.
• Very Draining People. These are the men and women of all ages who have learned that attention can be gained by presenting people with problems. Every congregation has them.
“Drainers” often come out of homes where having problems was the only way to gain the recognition of key people. This habit is transferred to adulthood. C. S. Lewis once said something about the church being the only place that would accept these people because they’ve worn out their welcome in most other institutions in the world.
I confess that, when I’m tired and under pressure, I usually find creative ways to avoid the vdp’s. And that’s why I’ll never forget a revealing moment a few years ago when one vdp confronted me and made me face the fact that I was being unpastoral.
I was standing in our church lobby talking to one of my associates when she entered from the other side. Seeing her I called out, “Hello, Millie (not her real name), how are you?” Then without pause, I turned back to conversation with my colleague.
A few seconds later I became aware that Millie was shuffling across the lobby toward us. And when she got to where we were, she stopped and faced me. In a somewhat medicated state, she spoke haltingly. I suspect that the medication broke down her inhibitions, and she said to me what others might like to have said but lacked the nerve: “Pastor Mac, you say, ‘Hello, Millie, how are you?’ But you really don’t want to know. You turn back to your conversation and never wait for my answer.”
She was absolutely correct. And I had no recourse but to apologize and admit to a dangerous busyness for which there was no excuse. I’ve not forgotten that moment, but that does not mean that the drainers do not test my spirit.
The drainers need the attention of people they deem to be important, whose attention can give them some sense of value. So they insist on a conversation with the pastor during every church event. They may make frequent phone calls to the office or home of the pastor. Just to know that you’ve concentrated on them and their perceived need is extremely important.
“I have a thought for you,” I had to say to one vdp recently. “Have you noticed that you seem to need to talk to me at the end of every sermon? This is a period of time when Gail and I need to talk to newcomers and answer their questions. And yet you seem to feel that you have to talk to both of us in spite of my saying that this is time for us to spend with visitors. Do you think you could tell me why?”
It’s not easy for me to confront people. But on a few occasions I’ve had to invite to my office those whom I believe fall into the vdp category. And I point out the behavior. Usually I offer to have an occasional conversation, and I point out that I’m not rejecting them as a friend: “But can you imagine what I’d have to do if everyone in our church wanted to have as much time with Gail and me as you ask for?”
This technique for handling the drainers has worked for me. Then again, there are times when nothing has worked, except loving bluntness.
There are at least two dangers in classifying people as I’ve been doing here.
One is succumbing to the temptation to think people are valuable only if they’re healthy and productive. But productive to whom? Productive is a word defined by our environment and our expectations of one another. The hurting people of the pastor’s community can never be trivialized and categorized so that one’s conscience can be relieved. What I’ve learned is that I must see people in a balanced fashion: understanding, on the one hand, the agenda people are bringing to relationships, and yet, on the other hand, seeing the possibility every person has when touched by the power of God.
One also has to be aware of a second danger: boxing people into a category. I’m thinking of a woman who is a recovering alcoholic. Some years ago she was the classic vdp by my definition. She sapped tremendous amounts of energy from Gail and me (I think Gail gets the credit for sticking it out with her). But every ounce of energy was worth it. She came to herself in an unpredictable moment and went on to enter a recovery program. Today she is a responsible woman, a vip in her world, a source of light and strength to scores of people in recovery.
Where to Begin
In spite of the dangers, I find great value in classifying people, for reasons I’ve explained above. But what does one do with this analysis?
One thing is to take a look at how you spend your time. I encourage Christian leaders periodically to take their schedules and evaluate every interview they have had during the previous eight weeks. Using the several classifications, they are to assess the kind of people with whom they spend their time.
What many discover is that heavy amounts of what I call “people time”—if not the majority of people time—is spent with the vnp’s, the vbp’s, the vvp’s, and the vdp’s. What is usually troublesome is the discovery that almost no significant time is spent with the vrp’s (most of us have none), the vip’s (most of us have few, and those we have, we tend to engage only when convenient), and the vtp’s (most of us have not sought them out).
I call these latter people “my personal connection.” These are the people who bring powerful refreshment to my mind and soul. I call the others “my primary circle of possibilities.” And I’ve learned to put those in my personal connection on the calendar first. Then I permit those in my circle of possibilities to fit in afterwards.
That approach turns some people off. They suggest that Jesus would be horrified by such a notion. But the fact is he did exactly as I am doing. Those I’d number among his “possibilities” got their time with him, but not comparable to what he gave to his vrp (the Father), his vip’s (perhaps Peter, James, and John), and his vtp’s (the twelve and a few score others, including Mary, Martha, Lazarus).
When pastors have coded the people-time entries in their date books, I challenge them to build a “phantom week,” a schedule based on what they think a model week should look like in terms of people time. You’ve got 168 hours. Where do the connection people fit in (your spouse, your children, your vrp’s, vip’s, and vtp’s)? Obviously they’re not all going to fit into one week. But what would make a healthy week? It’s an interesting game, and it’s not that easy to play.
Since I’m an introvert by temperament, my circle of connections is a tighter circle than the circle Gail draws. I have to broaden my circle (sometimes I think she has to shrink hers). In the past few years, I’ve worked hard at it. I came to see that it was a serious flaw in my life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve diminished vrp time, enlarged vipVIP time, and tried to greatly enlarge vtp time. And, frankly, I’ve found some time by squeezing it from the vnp’s, vvp’s, and vdp’s. The vbp’s, genuinely broken people, I’ll always try to be available for.
No one can pretend that they are mastering personal growth if they’ve not spent time in an inventory of their relationships. In every one of the categories there’s been something to give and something to receive. And growth is the bottom line of it all.
Your Emotional Type
Your Emotional Type
From the earliest pages of Scripture, the growing person is challenged to monitor the soul, for feelings, attitudes, motives, prevailing spiritual conditions. The failure to do so regularly is an invitation to a shrinking spirituality.
Some years ago I visited with a faculty member of the prep school I attended as a teenager. At the time my son, Mark, was 13 years old, and so I wasn’t surprised when asked if he would be following in my footsteps and enrolling in the school. Sending Mark there would have meant a geographical separation of three states and seeing him only on vacations.
“No, he won’t be coming,” I responded, startling even myself with the hastiness of my answer.
“Can I ask why?” the question came back.
I heard myself say, “Frankly, I love Mark and enjoy him so much that I’m not prepared to part with him. He not only needs me as his father, but I need him. He is my only son.”
When I said those words, I suddenly felt a powerful streak of rage sweep through my entire body. It began at my toes and moved to the top of my head. I actually began to shake.
It took me several days to understand what had happened. For the first time I discovered a cluster of feelings that had been seething deep in my soul for twenty-five years. They were based on an impression (of doubtful accuracy) that my parents had not felt the same way about me when they sent me away to school.
Actually, my father and mother saw a boarding school education as one of the best things they could give me. For them it was an act of love. But I could no longer deny that, along with the great blessing I’d been given, I’d repressed the feeling that I’d been cut loose from the family, that I was no longer wanted.
It was scary to realize that this anger had been inside me that long. It made me ask, “What other feelings and misperceptions are deep within, feelings I’ve never processed and properly packed away? Are they inhibiting my growth, my ability to be a liberated person?”
I’ve read psychology books, so I know about the phenomenon of repression. But I assumed that this was the habit of unhealthy people, and I didn’t see myself as unhealthy. As a pastor, I’d helped a few people deal with repressed feelings, and I had always done it with a slight air of self-confidence, assuming I never had to worry about these sorts of things.
But in the wake of this conversation about my son leaving home, I discovered a shocking fact about myself: Anger had been smoldering silently within me for twenty-plus years. Now it had exploded like a car bomb.
That experience taught me the importance of constantly monitoring the soul for those things from the past. They lie in the inner catacombs, sending up occasional strange and undecipherable signals—feelings, attitudes, desires, and motives all positioned to surprise us in temptations, resentments, and inappropriate reactions.
Some of us try rushing through life never respecting this fact of our interior lives. We weep in strange places and do not know why. We have flashes of unpredictable indignation over small things and can’t explain it. We react to certain personality styles, show inordinate frustration in particular situations, struggle with certain doubts and fears. We deny, avoid, enslave ourselves—a score of differing and often unexplainable actions and patterns. And we are oblivious that much of this is being driven by the deeper and darker parts of self, parts we have never brought to light nor permitted Jesus to heal and order.
I remember watching the Secret Service and street maintenance people of our community weld shut the sewer lids on Massachusetts Avenue as they prepared for a visit by the President of the United States. They were taking no chances that a terrorist might pop out of one of those holes with a bomb. So the whole underground system was sealed shut.
An apt metaphor, I think, for many men and women in leadership. Seal the entrances to the inner world. That way nothing gets out. I don’t have to go deep and face the fact that beneath my public personage is an ordinary, needy, and often desperately sinful human being.
That part of our past we do not like to face. But some things about our present history we do not know well either. I believe we not only need to know what’s deep within us but also our natural preferences: the instinctive ways we think, intersect with people, make decisions, and bring structure to our worlds. We all have patterns by which we operate. We grow faster and better if we have an understanding of these patterns, as well.
My father and I had a wonderful conversation not long ago. It was a great contrast to other times when we’ve struggled to understand one another, ending up feeling alone and misunderstood. This time, though, I was able to identify something significant.
My father is driven by what he believes is the truth of each situation. His passion is for logic, consistency, evidence, and correctness. That’s not a bad list. But it often makes my father come across as a tough, blunt, sometimes unfeeling person. He says what he thinks, and he does not change his mind easily. As a boy I had interpreted these characteristics negatively and assumed that he didn’t like me and was disappointed in me.
I’m different. I’m driven by a concern for human relationships and connections. I’m concerned about how people are being affected by what’s going on. Are they excited, hurt, motivated, angered? Will these words or events unify, make people feel better, help them grow?
It’s not that I’m not concerned for truth. I just want to make sure that the other person can handle the truth without being unnecessarily devastated by it. So I’m always monitoring the environment of relationships, asking questions about timing, correct wording, and potential success or disaster.
That means that conversations between my dad and me are uneven—almost like a boxing match between a slugger and a puncher. We get on a topic, and he smashes away, wanting to win, wanting to persuade, wanting to make every point relentlessly and remorselessly. And I bob and weave, trying to make my points “surgically.”
I don’t want to offend him, be too blunt, hurt his feelings. I’m prepared to walk back to my corner having taken all of his blows, but I’m reluctant to club him to the floor. His feelings are more important to me than winning.
It wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to identify and put labels on this difference between us. Then we had that exchange, in which, in the middle of a discussion, I said to him, “Dad, the problem you and I have is this: When you go at truth, you’re an ‘engineer,’ concerned only about the precision of your facts. I’m a ‘poet.’ I love beauty and meaning. You don’t seem to consult your feelings; I may listen too much to them.”
He thought about that for a moment, made a comment like, “If you say so,” and then returned to his argument. But for me it was a moment of revelation that brought me greater peace with my father and made it easier to love him.
Some of those who study differences like these refer to them as “personality types.” When I began to discover some things about my personality type, I was astounded. All sorts of new ways emerged for me to understand myself, my wife, and my friends. But most importantly, I discovered a lot about how I relate to Jesus as Lord and what is the likely way for me to pursue a deeper spirituality.
I’m suggesting here that personal growth is greatly enhanced when we do our homework on two areas of our lives: our past personal history (the inner tour) and our present personal history (an inventory of our personality).
Getting in Touch with the Past
The pastor or Christian leader who wants to grow has to be in touch with himself or herself—first, on this issue of what baggage we are carrying from the past. In some places I might say to a group, “There are all sorts of ‘demons and dragons’ (I put these words in quotes because I do not mean them in a theological sense) slithering about in the depths of our souls.” Or using spy language, I might say that within us exist “moles and sleepers.” They have to be caught and identified, understood and named. I’m not advocating an introspection that becomes morbid and self-preoccupying, only that we need to deal with this interior stuff, or it—the ‘demons and dragons’—will deal with us.
Many are the persons in leadership who cannot handle criticism or disagreement. They have to win, always be right, or have the best idea. Some are given to angry outbursts, irrational defensiveness, brief periods of melancholy, unexplained feelings of bitterness against rivals. These are all evil behaviors that can cripple the person who has never asked, “Why? What’s behind these attitudes? What’s down there?”
It’s not enough to say, “I’m a sinner.” That’s not bad for a start, of course. But what has ignited these untoward behaviors? What’s the fuel for these sinful fires? This may sound crazy, but I’d speculate that the more dramatic and unusual a leader’s success as a personality, as a communicator, and as an organization builder, the more he or she has to explore the interior world. Sometimes unusual and passionate efforts are fueled by great personal disturbances of the past as much as they are fueled by noble motivations.
The Catholic monastics understand this. It’s one of the reasons every brother in the order must submit to spiritual direction. Even the abbot of the monastery must regularly remove himself from his position of authority and submit to the searching questions of a confessor. This he does lest he weld the sewer lids tight and forget that good and noble deeds do not always have good and noble motivations.
We in the Reformation tradition renounced the notion of confessing one’s sins to a priest and celebrated the right to confess our sins privately to the heavenly Father. In correcting one point, we missed another: the inner journey is probably best not taken alone. We are either too soft on ourselves or too hard on ourselves. A fellow traveler can give us perspective. The monks know this.
The psalmist prays, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” He goes on to pray that wicked ways will be exposed. Jeremiah calls the heart a wicked and incomprehensible thing. They are both alluding to the problem I’m raising: within each of us is a bottomless pit of mysteries. Growth means taking the hand of Jesus and walking deep into that pit and naming what is found.
It’s not enough to come to prayer confessing this specific and that. When a pattern emerges over many times of confession, it’s time to ask, “Why? What’s behind this persistent activity I have to bring to the cross so frequently?”
We’ve made the mistake of thinking that confession is merely a legal transaction between God and ourselves. I confess a sin, and God forgives it. Great, we conclude, the slate is wiped clean.
But if we deal only with the single act and show no curiosity concerning the possibility of roots beneath the act, our confession is nearly worthless. It will bring only temporary relief. The behavior will most likely return in the same form or in another. In this sort of confession, only a “branch” of behavior has been pruned, not the roots.
And if one wishes to go deeper, one will find that at the root of the “roots” one has an awful lot of evil. This irrational, destructive evil is just there, and it lies in wait to inhibit the nobility that God meant for us to express. Jeremiah was right: who can figure out the heart? I find the answer only in a relationship with Jesus and in community with the people who follow him.
Mastering personal growth means facing up to all of this, not just periodically when something wrong has happened but consistently. Repentance is a spiritual lifestyle, not an occasional event when we have done something really bad.
The good news is that a certain liberation comes when one is conscious of the inner journey:
• Increased personal energy. In the years when I used to drive my 36-horsepower Volkswagen across the Colorado plains, it was not unusual to hit stiff head winds coming off the mountains. More than once I had to shift down into third and even second gear to keep going against the wind.
I still made progress. But in the lower gear I moved at a slower speed, increased my use of gas, and put greater wear and tear on the engine.
This describes something of what happens when we’ve not done our interior homework. What earlier I called demons and dragons, moles and sleepers, can also be called head winds. And when they begin to blow furiously, we are slowed up. The result? Fatigue of the spirit.
In the last couple of years of my pastorate at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, I began to drive in second gear. In the earlier years of ministry, I had enjoyed a wonderful sense of “overdrive.” But as the institution of the church grew, I found myself giving less attention to the things I really enjoyed doing.
My pastoral role had become that of a CEO—and I was probably not a very good one. I made administrative decisions, met with staff and lay leaders, and wrestled with questions no one else in the line of responsibility felt ready to answer. It became a tremendous emotional drain.
In the earlier years I was much freer to be with the congregation in worship, and in a more spontaneous way. Now things were structured and formatted, so much so that I couldn’t use the very strengths I earlier had brought to the congregation. That I did not see this was no one’s fault but my own.
As I walked to the front of the sanctuary to greet people after the third morning worship service, I’d dream about escaping through one of the side doors. I learned to avoid eye contact with people I didn’t want to talk to.
I should have done an intensive self-exploration at that point. In fact, I should have found someone who would have walked me through the exercise and forced truth out of me, truth I wasn’t able to face alone.
More specifically, I should have asked myself. Why does this not seem fun anymore? Why do I look forward to speaking opportunities outside of New England more than my work right here? Why am I finding it harder and harder to convince the lay leadership of a right course of action ? Why do I find myself giving in to people every time they disagree with me? Why do I want to avoid tough critics?