The dangerous work of ministry

The way I was going about doing the work of God was destroying the work of God in me.  -Anonymous Pastor

I love pastors. Really. Yes, I know that in our current moment it is more hip to be cynical of religious institutions and to reject the notion of religious authority. I get it. And I admit that there have been people and events and trends that perhaps give some justification to this cynicism. At the same time, I know too many pastors.

Many people only know a succession of ministers who serve their church as pastors over the years–they come and then they go. Some linger longer than others, but eventually they move on. There’s a tradition in presbyterian pastoral ministry of virtually renouncing all contact with members of a prior congregation once a pastor leaves. In some ways it makes sense, but it also means that few parishioners retain any contact with ministers who aren’t their pastor.

It’s easy to misunderstand people we don’t really know and whose lives we really don’t get. Of course, it gets complicated when we’re talking about pastors–especially, your pastor. It would be weird to ask her, “So…what’s it really like serving us?”

What seems a weird question for an individual to pose is actually a very appropriate question for a session and personnel committee to ask. Here’s the bottom line: the work of ministry is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it is so easy to use “god” to run from God. We can easily employ busyness in god-work and god-talk as a substitute for an on-going transformative relationship with God in Christ.

Ministers need the support of their congregations to really flourish in their work, and the session has to be an ally and advocate in creating a culture of appropriate clergy care.


Ironically, churches sometimes believe that they’ll “get more for their money” if they drive their pastors harder. Preach more sundays. Do more visits. Be available in the office during business hours. Attend meetings on week nights, do funerals and weddings on saturday, and get to the church building at 6am Sunday morning to lead an exciting and life-changing encounter with the living God at 8:30 and 11:00.

None of these is a bad thing. In fact, one or two weeks as above is probably okay. What’s not okay, however, is expecting the above schedule to be the normal routine. It’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. In the end, both the church and the pastor will pay a steep price.

You cannot have mission without discipleship

Over the fifteen years since the publication of Darryl Guder’s landmark book The Missional Church, North American Christianity has become enamored of the word “missional.” This is no bad thing, but Mike Breen observes in this post that the future of missional may not be quite as bright as we hope. Could it be that in the next several years “missional” will sound in our ears much the same as “seeker sensitive” does today? Perhaps.

That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.

Breen points out something that congregations often overlook: mission and discipleship are interdependent. Discipleship that fails to participate in the mission of God in some practical way isn’t really discipleship. Mission that isn’t rooted and sustained in Christ-centered community isn’t really mission at all.





The real problem in today’s church is that we’re not at all sure how to root our lives in the presence of God and in Christian community. Skye Jethani notes:

Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.

As we engage in mission, it is critical that our minds and hearts be connected God through a life of vital piety. 

It’s often assumed that evangelicals do not have the theological resources necessary to provide a foundation for missional discipleship. In the Reformed tradition, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin’s central critique of the monasticism of his time was not it’s practices, but that it was limited to a select few (see Boulton, Life with God 2011). Calvin saw the church as company of believers united around Word and sacrament and whose lives were marked by the intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines used by monastic communities. The difference–Calvin’s Christians were “monks” in the world and it was not a peculiar calling, but one that is universal to all believers–the democratization of the monastic spiritual disciplines.

In order to be missional in an authentic and sustainable way, we need to recapture Calvin’s sense of our being monastics in the world–people practicing the presence of God in the midst of our secular callings. Only then can we successfully integrate mission into life without simply burdening ourselves with another project for God.

Five books you should read this summer

Our schedules often loosen during the summer. We get to travel, spend time at the beach or the mountains, or just take a slow week of “stay-cation.” Because of this summer is a wonderful time to invest in yourself. 


In view of that, here are five books that I think it would be worth your while to read this summer:



Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ.

This book is a complete guide to becoming an increasingly faithful follower of Jesus. It contains all the resources you need to understand and practice the disciplines of the Christian life and to place them in their context as tools rather than as ends in themselves.





Michael Hyatt, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

This is a book about communication. The immediate context is building a tribe as a writer or blogger, but the principles carryover to influence leadership and career. Great read.





Tim Keller,
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Keller excels in communicating the simplicity that is beyond complexity. He’s also adept at holding things in tension that are often envisioned a disparate. In this book he explains how churches can engage in ministry in their context that is centered upon the message of Jesus.



Alistair McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.

McGrath, like Lewis, is a product both of Ulster and of Oxford. He writes with affection that avoids hagiography and with more than the usual sense of Lewis’s Irish roots–a reality often overlooked by other biographers.





Jon Acuff, Quitter: Closing the Gap Between your Day Job and your Dream Job.

Jon provides the reader with a roadmap that takes her from her current reality into her dream reality. Thoroughly realistic, the book argues that our current reality provides the platform and the security necessary to allow us to practice and hone our craft before launching.


The surprising benefits of dumping Facebook

Each year I choose a discipline to add to my life during the season leading up to Easter, known as Lent. For the last several years I have intentionally chosen to dump Facebook–that is, to not log onto the site and interact with people through it. Caveat: I continue to automatically post blog posts to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. I also periodically check to make sure that I am not missing any important messages. This year, I’ve done a pretty good job of steering clear of the vacuum of Facebook and I’ve experienced at least five benefits that have surprised me.


Each year as I enter Lent I wonder whether it’s really worth giving up Facebook. It seems like there’s very little cost to being on the site. In fact, as the number of people you know who are “on Facebook” increases it can almost seem like there’s more of a cost to giving it up!

All things considered, I’ve made some surprising discoveries about Facebook which have proven beneficial.

  1. Facebook will give you as much time I as you give it…and more. I have about 900 friends on Facebook, which means that once I jump down that rabbit hole I can spend an hour just skimming status updates. 
  2. Facebook can be depressing. People often use Facebook to share their good news–engagements, new jobs, closing a big deal, a hot vacation, or a new car. Get one of these types of status updates in a day: great. Get a couple hundred and you start to think: what the heck is wrong with me? Aggregating stories of others’ affluence, professional competence, or other pieces of good news can actually be depressing. Why? At least in part because you don’t have access to the crap that lies beneath the surface in everyone’s life.
  3. Facebook needs to be managed. Just as in real time, there are people on Facebook who are just plain enervating. Their incessant banter about this topic or that gets on your nerves and drains you of energy. You have options: either “unfriend” them or “hide” their comments. You’ll thank yourself later.
  4. Facebook clutters your mental space and makes concentration harder. Honestly, I have used Facebook in different ways over the years (I’ve been “on Facebook” since 2005). While I was on sabbatical, I used it to connect with friends and to try to replace the community I had lost in stepping back from work relationships and student and faculty friendships. Prior to that, Facebook served two purposes: 1) it was an escape, and it was 2) a resource-gathering tool. Mostly, I’d work on some task I didn’t like (administration) and then as a reward spend some time “recovering” by going to Facebook. Often when there, given that I’m a learner, I’d discover some article, book, story that intrigued me. I’d explore it then or at a later time. This added mental stimulation often meant that I carried unfinished and unrecorded tasks through the day and, frankly, clogged up my mental bandwidth to do more important tasks. This gets back to the management element, it’s important to streamline and limit the information you take in from the internet. Too much information can be as paralyzing as too little.

Once Lent is over, I will return to Facebook with the proviso of placing boundaries on my usage. It’s likely, however, that on Shrove Tuesday 2014 I’ll be putting a status update on my Facebook account saying: “back in Easter!”

How our American way wars against the Christian way

I’ve been thinking about what it means to follow Jesus in twenty-first century American culture. The more I think about it, the more I’m forced to the conclusion that there’s a lot about our American way of life that wars against the Christian way of life.

Perhaps it’s peculiar that I used the phrase “Christian way of life.” Being a Christian means being converted–a conversion that begins inside us and works its way out into the texture of our life–our way of life.

Somehow we’ve reached the conclusion that the Gospel can reach into our hearts and change how we relate to God and to a lesser extent we agree that the Gospel can change what and how we think. We’ve got a long way to go in terms of allowing the Gospel to really saturate and alter the ways in which we choose to live. Our way of life is more influenced by the American story than by the Gospel story:

“If you live in North America, you are a prime candidate for a slow death by overstimulation. Your environment is busy depleting you with noise, distractions, and the compulsion to always be in a hurry. If I had set out to destroy my identity as a beloved child of God, I couldn’t have done better than by living in America at the start of the twenty-first century. The greatest threats I’ve encountered are not the arguments of skeptics or the lure of drink, drugs, or sex. The greatest threats are the constant busyness and frantic hurry that demand my allegiance. Author Robert Benson says, ‘We take our place in the race and watch our lives disappear in the daily grind.’ We are rarely grounded in the present moment (where God is to be encountered) because we’re always rushing out beyond it or replaying in our minds our disappointing past. Shame and sadness over our dark past drives us to strive for a brighter future, which generally winds up being busier rather than better.”

Fil Anderson, Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers

In order to be effective outposts of the Kingdom, churches need to spend energy helping to guide followers of Christ into a more kingdom-centered, missional ways of life. We don’t need more bedraggled followers of Jesus who limp through life exhausted and overspent. We need joyful disciples who are committed to keeping important things central to their life and who eliminate distractions ruthlessly.

Exploring the what and the how of such a way of life is at the heart of my sabbatical and I hope to write more as my leave progresses.

Why I have a spiritual director

Yesterday I had my first appointment for spiritual direction. I’m something of a novice to this ancient practice. And, as an evangelical, came to it with some degree of suspicion. This was lessened after a conversation with a local PCA pastor who (echoing what I’ve heard from a number of ministers over the years) told me that having a spiritual director and a therapist aren’t optional for effective, long-term pastoral work.

As I entered my sabbatical last month, I stumbled on about spiritual direction: Roger Owens, Abba, give me a word: the path of spiritual direction (Paraclete Press, 2012). I don’t know Roger, but some of you may since he’s a graduate of Duke University (M.Div., Ph.D.) and co-pastors a United Methodist Church in Durham.

It’s a great introduction to spiritual direction in the form of a first person retelling of how Roger came to the point of seeking out a director and entering into the path of direction.


A quote from the book captures nicely at least one of the reasons that I have decided that this sort of intentional relationship is critical for me right now–for too long I’ve had the tendency to be a lone-ranger Christian. Sure, I can tell you the right answers about the church and the need for Christian community, but there are precious few people in my life with whom I get to talk about my life with God. It’s easy for pastors to embody the culture’s notion of the sovereign and autonomous self.

“If you’ve decided to enter into spiritual direction, this lesson in letting go [in order to receive direction] has already begun. You are letting go of our culture’s story of the self that says we are fundamentally self-determinative individuals. We have the right to, ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ and we should grasp those rights and teach them to our children, and elect politicians [ahem] who will protect them, and clear away every obstacle that might stand in our way, even if that obstacle is God.”


“When you enter into spiritual direction you are saying, in essence, I’m going to let someone else in. I’m going to loosen my grip on self-determination because I desire to live a God-determined life. You might not even know what it means to live a God-determined life when you start….But you can name the desire nonetheless.”

In the end, above all else, I wish to live a God-determined life.

Sabbatical – The first 48 hours

You may have noticed that things are a little slow here this week. Here’s why. Yesterday I started a six month sabbatical leave granted by InterVarsity after having completed seven years of service.


I’m 48 hours into the sabbatical and enjoying it so far. The month prior to leaving was crammed full of administrative work–annual reviews, fundraising, reports, handing off job responsibilities for my campus work and my management responsibilities. I even threw in guest preaching at a church in Virginia. I know, crazy right? It was quite stressful, especially since traffic here really took off with my post “Why I won’t be going to Chick-fil-A today”–it got about 2,000 page views (no celebrities or established bloggers linked to the post, just friends sharing with friends–thanks all!). That’s not news for a superstar blogger, but for a small fish like me it’s pretty great.

I guess I’m pretty used to humming along because all of a sudden, sabbatical started and I kept the pace up for these last two days:

-Cleaned the refrigerator
-Cleaned out the basement
-Made two loaves of bread
-Did our grocery shopping
-Ran a bunch of errands

One of the things I need to experience during this sabbatical is a slowing down into a more intentional, balanced, restorative, and sustainable rhythm of life.

Pray for me!