My favorite devotional book

Several years ago now, my Mom sent me a devotional book out of the blue. I grew up reading My Utmost for His Highest, but it had been more than a decade since I’d moved on from that veretable classic of evagenlical devotion.

Over the years, I’ve found that I don’t like many devotional books. Some feel moralistic. Others feel bereft of meaningful interaction with Scripture. Many seem remote from my own life. When I started reading the book my Mom got me, I was hooked.

The One Year Walk with God is been a companion more days than not for several years now. I’ve found it to be insightful, biblical, concise, and timely. And it’s one of the reasons that I came to work at Tyndale House Publishers.

If you’re looking for a devotional book I highly recommend this one.

Senior leader departures always cause these three suprising things

leadership change

Over my twenty years of non-profit and ministry experience I have never seen such a large number of senior leaders departing from churches. The main cause is often cited as COVID-19. It’s a major contributing factor.

Senior leaders have worked incredibly hard over the last fifteen months to adapt to the biggest change in church ministry in a generation.

It’s also true that many senior leaders entered the pandemic with their tank half empty at best. The leadership philosophy that undergirded many senior pastor has proven to be inadequate to the task of leadership during a seismic cultural shift.

The net result is a large number of retirements and a large number of transitions to other kinds of work.

I’ve spent the last seven plus years studying the way that leadership transitions–both planned and unplanned–happen. The fact is that every pastor is an interim pastor.

I’ve made this study from the perspective of an individual contributor, as a line manager in between the line and the director-level, as a senior leader, and now as Head of Staff.

Over that time I’ve come to recognize that three suprising things always happen when a senior leader announces her departure. Always.

The degree or intensity of these things will vary depending on the underlying health of the organization. But they will always–to one degree or another–be present in an organization undergoing significant leadership change.

summary

Three suprising things that always happen when a senior leader departs:

  1. The sundown period begins.
  2. The organization slows down or panics.
  3. The balance of power shifts.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

how it begins

In most cases a senior leadership departure comes out of the blue. At least it does for the vast majority of stakeholders. In a church setting, the first to know (beyond the senior staff) are typically the members of the Board of Elders or Church Session. If you want some research-driven information about how to tell if an employee is looking for another jobs, read this Harvard Business Review article.

When the news of a senior leadership departute breaks–whether to the board or to the organization at large–it creates anxiety which leads to a sense of urgency. That’s because the system–that is the emotional web of relationships and power within a family, congregation, or other unit–is automatically destabilized.

You may love the departing leader or you may hate him. It doesn’t really matter. There is a degree of security in knowing what to expect. That degree of security or stability play a part in keeping an abused spouse in a marriage that’s toxic, for example. Love him or hate him you know what happens next. At least, you did.

Now you’re realizing that you have no idea what comes next. You’re not sure what to do or what to expect any more.

Framed this way, the most important thing to remember is that much of the work that takes place during periods of transition is both spiritual and emotional. Failing to pay attention to these elements of leading (as a pastor or as an elder) increases the likelihood of burnout.

Steve Cuss puts is this way, “Burnout has less to do with workload nad more to do with internal and external leadership anxiety” (Managing Leadership Anxiety, 6).

In a pastoral transition, for example, many elders find themselves bearing a level of responsibility that they have had little to no preparation for or familiarity with. So it’s imperative that these leaders take care of themselves.

The sundown period

We call it the sundown period or, in politics, the lame duck period. The point is once a senior leader states her intention to leave one natural result is that it become a great deal harder for that leader to make any changes.

That’s because their leadership “credit rating” has been downgraded. Everyone knows one thing: whatever else happens, that leader will not be around or be accountable for the results of the changes he’s making during this period. Some one else will be.

Departing leaders often find themselves thinking “I’m finally free to be totally honest now that I’m leaving.” That’s an illusion. She might feel free to be honest but it’s also true that others in leadership in the congregation will never feel freer to ignore good advice than in the sundown period.

the organization slows down or panics

Slowing down

That’s because a new phrase enters into the lexicon of the congregation, “we need to wait till we get a new pastor.” Most of the time, the folks who say this really believe what they’re saying. They don’t want to bind the will of a future leader.

The problem is that once the congregation begins thinking this way they’re reinforcing the unhealthy message that the congregation exists simply to do the will of the senior leader–an extension of his ego.

Congregations tend to slow down when they don’t have a strong sense of self-identity or a strong sense of mission.

These congregations often send the message to candidates that they want to be led or they want to respond to that pastor’s vision for the church.

Such a sentiment usually collapses once the pastor is installed. It’s then that the church

panic

The other extreme is panic. This often comes in the form of rushing to call a transitional pastor and then offering that transitional pastor the installed position.

It also takes the form of re-appropriating old church profiles or pastor profiles in order to be efficient in securing a new pastor.

The truth is that even if you called a pastor five years ago your church has changed during that period. Perhaps not a lot. But some.

It’s also true that society has changed significantly during that time. And a missional church will need to adjust its sense of purpose to account its new encounter with society.

  • If your church isn’t talking about race then you’re not missional.
  • If your church isn’t talking about sexual identity then you’re not missional.
  • If your church isn’t talking about white Christian nationalism then you’re not missional.

Just this week the church I serve had our marquee defaced. The sign we put up read, “All that matters is grace.” Someone crossed out the “g” to make it read, “All that matters is race.”

Simon & Garfunkel told us, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.”

If the church doesn’t have good news to offer in the face of the sorts of issues that drive graffitti, it doesn’t have good news.

the balance of power shifts

Transitions create power vacuums. And vacuums don’t hang around for long. They get quickly get filled. Generally with one of three kinds of people or coalitions of people:

  • Those who are loudest
  • Those who’ve been around longest
  • Those who are most likeable

Often the power shifts that take place occur in an effort–often a subconscious one–to perpetuate a comfortable and familiar dysfunction in the church or system.

While no one likes dysfunctional systems, there are always people who accrue a benefit from a dysfunctional system. And if systemic change is implement, they may very well lose a benefit or power. Human nature resists that, treating it as a loss.

This might be:

  • An elder or committee that had undue influence in the governance of the church
  • A staff member who routinely underperforms and has never been corrected
  • A bully who uses intimidation to get his way
  • A coalition of people who resist dealing with issues that they feel aren’t “spiritual”

Conclusion

Each of the three things are united by the fact that they are reactive.

We might even say these are stress responses that are “triggered” by a retirment or resignation. For many people they are barely conscious–pretty much a fight or flight response.

And the people who experience it (as I have done numerous times) very often don’t have the awareness to stop and take 10 seconds to recongize what they’re doing and how they’re responding.

That’s why it’s critical that a transitional pastor join the congregation to navigate the waters of change. Like a pilot comes aboard a merchant ship to aid the captain and master in navigating a port or harbor, the transitional pastor comes aboard to guide the congregation through the unique waters of a leadership change.

Christ Over All – Thanksgiving

These are my sermon notes for August 1, 2021. This is the first sermon in a series on the letter to the Colossians, Christ Over All.

Colossians: Christ Over All

Thanksgiving for the Colossians

Colossians 1:1-8


Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father. 3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.


Billy Joel, “Allentown” 

Well, we’re living here in Allentown

And they’re closing all the factories down

Out in Bethlehem, they’re killing time

Filling out forms, standing in line

Colosse was a little like Allentown.

The City of Colosse:

  • In central Turkey, about two hours from the coast.
  • Once large and prosperous with a thriving wool industry,
  • On a trade route between the coast and the euphrates river – remember Turkey borders both Iraq and Iran.
  • Had been eclipsed by two sister cities — Laodocea and Hieropolis.
  • Laodocia was the district capital
  • Hieropolis had a healing spring which drew in the crowds in a time before modern medicine
  • By Paul’s day, Colosse was the least significant of the cities whose churches Paul wrote.

Important to note:

  • Paul himself never visited Colosse
  • The church was founded by Epaphras around the time that Paul was in Ephesus (see – Acts 19:10)
    • Paul in Ephesus two years
    • Training elders to plant churches
    • Result = “all the residents of Asia (Turkey) heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10)

Key Issue: idolatry and superstition

The believers in Colosse lived in a world not unlike our own. 

  1. First, they were subject to financial forces and it was therefore not easy to live in a city whose fortunes had reversed.
  1. It was also a context that was highly diverse in terms of religious belief and practice. 

The Colossian Christians were being influenced by a rival religious belief that kind of married Jewish beliefs with Greek philosophy and held that the world was full of spiritual forces. 

These forces needed to be placated to avoid bad things happening. This was done through veneration, food sacrifices, ascetic practices, and honoring certain days of the week. 

Perhaps you can see the problem: the world is full of evil forces and faith in Christ is not enough to protect you from evil or to sustain you through suffering. They said you needed more. 

It was Jesus plus this practice, that food sacrifice, that observance, etc.

It’s been ten years since I’ve been in Turkey. One of my most poignant memories is seeing charms to ward off the “evil eye” all over the place.

You’d see one hanging in every window, in every stall, in every public place. You’d see them on people’s wrists or necks. This wasn’t about good luck, it was about protection from evil. And this is common to many countries.

It is, however, profoundly un-Christian to think in these sorts of ways about how the world works and how God works in the world.

The point of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is that we are now united to Him and, now, no evil can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38).

The point isn’t that once we become a Christian we are now protected from all suffering, pain, and disappointment. Hardly!

The point is that we have God’s promise that he will sustain us through the suffering and that there is a purpose and plan that is being accomplished by means of this suffering.

It’s also to say that we should put our earthly experiences into perspective. 

No matter how bad things become for us while we live, we have the hope of everlasting life on which to rely. 

And if we keep that perspective then we’ll have hope and we won’t despair or find ourselves cowering in fear.

 Jesus himself says, 

“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 2:5).

It’s the same truth that Martin Luther captures in his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”:

“the body they may kill/God’s truth abideth still/his Kingdom is forever.”


Paul begins his letter–which will later on offer some corrections–by praising the church for the areas in which it has been faithful.

So in the time remaining to us, we’ll highlight some of the key points on this introductory section of the letter.

  1. Faith and love are the overflow of hope (v.5a)

We sometimes think that being a Christian starts with faith and love and that somehow we sort of produce these things ourselves. We “decide” to believe the message of Christ and to love God.

It can seem that way experientially, if we don’t stop to think about it, but the Bible tells us that God is working in us before we believe the gospel and love God.

Often the first thing that we experience when we consider the claims of Christ is a sense of despair–how can we be reconciled to God? How can our sins be dealt with?

And that gives way to hope: a glimmer of hope that Jesus is the way, that through Jesus our sins can be forgiven and we can find real life in Jesus Christ.

That hope that we experience is actually the first sign of the new life that God gives to his children that enables them to respond to the offer of the gospel.

We call it regeneration, being born again–something that God does to us and in us and that we experience as being able to respond to the offer of the gospel and believing.

We cannot experience hope absent God’s work of grace in our hearts. 

And the hope we experience gives way to faith and to love which are the results of the operation of God’s grace in our hearts, giving us new spiritual life, moving us from darkness to light, and from death to life.

As Alistair Begg put it, 

“What kind of wonderful God is this who reaches down into the lives of people, picks them up, grants them faith, and changes them!”

  1. Hope is founded in the message of the gospel, which is the message of Christ (v.5b)

The hope that the Colossians experienced came from the message of the gospel. 

R.C. Sproul explains the gospel like this:

“God is holy and He is just, and I’m not. And at the end of my life, I’m going to stand before a just and holy God, and I’ll be judged. And I’ll be judged either on the basis of my own righteousness–or lack of it–or the righteousness of another. 

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.”

Illustration: In Olympic terms:

  • Have to swim the 100m freestyle.
  • Need to get a 1.0 min time to be spared.
  • Give you a choice: you can swim or Caleb Dressel can swim for you? His time can become your time thus sparing you.
  • Corollary: your time becomes his time and he dies.

This is the message of the gospel – the great exchange that is pictured for us in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.

The body and blood of Christ, shed for you.

  1. The message has been proclaimed to them and to the whole world (v.6a)

Paul has used the city of Ephesus as a regional hub for training and sending Christian workers into Asia/Turkey to preach the gospel and to establish and grow churches. 

Paul had a missionary strategy that targeted the major cities of the Roman world. And then from those major cities were sent missionary pastors to establish congregations in other cities. 

Paul is probably using hyperbole when he says that the whole world had received the gospel. What’s certainly true is that the early church had a presence in many/most of the major cities of the Roman world.

Notice that Paul points to the importance of the proclamation of the gospel.

We have to be a church that is all about the gospel–the work of transformation from the inside out.

  1. The proclamation of the message produces fruit, Epaphras is a fruit of the gospel (v.6b)

The preaching of the gospel produces fruit–that is change–in people’s lives. Epaphras is an example of this fruit.

We don’t know much about Epaphras. Douglas Moo notes, 

“… we can infer that he was a native of Colossae and that he was perhaps converted by Paul himself during the apostle’s ministry in Ephesus. The mention of a co-worker at this point in a Pauline epistle is unusual, and the strength of Paul’s endorsement of him is also striking.”

There’s something special about someone from Colosse becoming a follower of Christ, being trained by Paul, ministering with Paul, and then starting the church in his hometown.

It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work through Paul and in the Ephesians community that Epaphras was called and sent back to Colosse to start a church.

Should pastors stay neutral on the vaccine?

CNN reports that the founding pastor of Hillsong Church maintains that whether or not to receive a COVID vaccine is a personal choice to be made in consultation with healthcare providers. This comes in the context of a church member (who was only 30) dying from COVID-related pneumonia.

Read the article here.

I’m not entirely sure why this story is the top headline on CNN.com. I can only surmise that it’s because the editors believe that somehow not demanding congregants receive the vaccine is somehow wrong.

Should pastors be speaking with greater force on this matter? Does silence by Christian clergy harm the greater good?

I don’t have the platform or influence of someone like the pastor in question. I’m an ordinary pastor of an ordinary congregation in an ordinary suburban town in the midwest.

However, that’s immaterial.

In the end, I am deeply concerned that a/the main segment of people who are/seem to be holding down our nation’s vaccination rates are people who profess to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s concerning that these people seem to believe that they have little to no duty to care for their neighbors, a fundamental teaching of Christ.

It’s also disturbing that these self-professed Christians are acting this way on the basis of false (or, at least, questionable) information.

And, it’s disturbing that these convictions seem to–at a fundamental level–have been shaped by one man, Donald Trump.

The authority of the Christian church is ministerial and declarative. As a pastor, I am not part of a body that makes or enforces civil law. I do, however, have a duty to speak Christian truth.

And it’s my conviction that failing to take the vaccine, unless on the basis of medical advice, is to seriously harm your neighbor.

This terrible virus will not be dispatched unless we are able to get a majority of our population vaccinated.

And its shameful that the name of Christ should be attached to the militant and narcissistic attitudes that so many are evincing who reject vaccine science.