Monday, August 29, 2011

The Preacher and Words

God has decided that through the foolishness of preaching the power of His gospel would be demonstrated.  From Peter on the day of Pentecost to the present day, preaching is still changing lives.  That’s why we preach with boldness and vulnerability, because preaching matters.

I might be many things, but my calling is to preach.  But preachers have limitations.  We are compared to poets, but we usually lack their precision with language, using words with clumsy brute force as often as not.  We are sometimes called prophets, but are usually not so courageous, especially since our livelihood depends, in part, on the people we prophesy to.  We are not artists either, since we lack an artist’s originality.  The preachers’ job is not to paint new things, but to repeat old things.  We re-shuffle a deck of words already given to us, only hoping to play the right card at the right time.

I am a preacher.  That’s means I didn’t decide on my own to do what I’m doing.  I love God, but I don’t preach because I necessarily love Him more than anyone else, and certainly not because I can claim any extraordinary holiness.  I am a preacher because I’m called to be.  People talk about a calling from God that is like an inner voice, a quiet whisper, or a special peace that settles on you like morning dew.  Nice.  What gets left out most of the time is that calling seizes you like an octopus and it’s almost inescapable.

I have many experiences in life – friends, hobbies, interests, and stories that go beyond my role of preaching.  I laugh, cry, and get angry just like other people.  But God knows I experience them all as a preacher would, through a preachers filter.

I am a preacher who hates the sound of my voice – except for those days of course where I am in love with the sound of my voice, and neither is particularly good.  I live under the weight of words.  I carry words in my pocket, in my satchel, words in my heart, and words at the top of my mind.  Words, it’s always the words.  They occupy most of my thinking.  I deliver words that make some people look at me with the superstitious fear of a witch doctor, or the village medicine man who has all the answers.  I deliver words that make me look like the village idiot, a man out of time, a man that won’t move on with the world.

Words have the ability to give life or bring death.  The power of life and death are in the tongue.  All this talk of hope, heaven, and damnation at my disposal, all this absurd power to be trusted to a human being – it’s frightening to live under the weight of words.  I wish I could  live up to the greatness of words, God’s Words, and to have a soul big enough to be worthy of them.  But how can I?  I am only a preacher, frail with limitations.  Yet God has chosen the foolish and weak things of the world to confound the wise.

I don’t create the words or own them.  I gaze at them, consume them, and sometimes choke on them.  Then I repeat them.  Words are all I’ve got.  Words will have to be enough.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Mind Dump - August 28, 2011

Real good day.  Everything ran smooth from top to bottom.  It feels good to be doing church without having to struggle every step of the way, like in days past.  I was standing in the back this morning during music time just looking around and was amazaed at how many things are operational without my direct involvement.  We've come a long way.

Attendance was very strong too.  In fact, we had a new attendance record in the second service. 

A lot of new people are walking through the doors nowadays.

God is moving among our people, and He’s bringing new people to this church family.  I’m very encouraged by this.

Our church volunteers get a lot of credit for this.  They do such a great job of keeping PCC running in ship-shape and running most of our ministries and internal systems.  Without them none of this would be possible.

Ultimately, God gets all the glory.  Soli Deo gloria

The new ensemble/choir is very effective and enjoyable to watch.  I think the teen singers are really enjoying it too.  Perhaps we’ll open it up to adults soon.  I think that would be a lot of fun.

Don’t forget PCC University – Bible elective classes - which starts in a couple of weeks.

Don’t forget Financial Peace University -  Dave Ramsey’s financial coaching for debt free living – it also starts in a couple of weeks.

God showed up today and ministered to a lot of people in a variety of ways.  Some were rebuked, some encouraged, others challenged, still others were reassured.   His Word has a way of doing that.  It’s almost like someone has been reading our mail.

I really like Luke 14, especially when I came to understand the cultural context for banquets and what they meant to a first century Jew.

I am especially glad that God has pity on the downtrodden and includes marginalized people in His kingdom.  If not for this measure of grace, I would not have made it.

Luke 14 also vividly illustrates how God uses the poor to humble the proud.

The three excuses people made were not regarding sinful things.  They were the legitimate things in life:  their work, their investments, and their relationships.  Nothing wrong with any of these, but neither are they more important than our personal salvation.

The most astonishing thought to me from the parable was the fact that the house was FILLED even after those who were first invited refused to come.  In other words, God’s kingdom can go on with our without me.

Another thought is this:  God wants His House full even if it is filled with marginalized people.  Whow!

Right now I am having a piece of  land cleared that Renae and I hope to build our final home on one day.  The work started last Friday and will continue this week.  I’m very excited about this project.

I bought a new chain saw yesterday to do some tree trimming with.  In fact, I’ll be cranking it up later today and cutting down a few trees when it cools off a bit.

What a great church we have.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Why Do Churches Have so Many Strange People?

Have you ever wondered why churches have some of the strangest people you’ve ever seen?  I had a lady tell me once that she had a ministry of keeping people humble.  Another lady told me that she has trained her pet dog to stand on its back feet to worship music and that he actually worships Jesus. Then there’s the guy who thinks he’s a prophet... like the kind they had in the Old Testament!  Let’s not forget the lady who likes to come down to the front and play her tambourine to slow songs.  I’ve seen it all.  Sometimes it seem like these characters are straight out of an Adam Sandler movie.

The reason why the church has unusual people is because we are on the only place that will welcome them.  These people will not be let through the doors of a nightclub, hotel, or restaurant; their behavior is too bizarre.  Yet the church has the greatest collection of colorful personalities because, deep inside, these people know that Jesus is for everyone… including them.   

The strength of the church is not about how many perfect people we have.  It’s not about having the cream of the crop.  The church is for outcasts as well.  A church that tries to create a perfect environment by eliminating strange people is practicing selective breeding.  Sure, people can get out of line sometimes, not behave, draw attention to themselves, and create distractions.  Yea, some people in the church are just plain weird.   But guess what?  That’s ministry.

At Pace Community Church we should consider it a sign of strength that we have so many colorful and interesting people.  They are from our community, our mission field, and are the very people Jesus died for.  We must welcome the people who are most overlooked.

My word today is simple:  Embrace the people Jesus died for, all of them.  There’s no other place that will accept them like the church.  The church is not only a waiting room for the saints, but a hospital room for the sick.  Nobody else wants them.

PS – Sunday’s message is entitled “The Parable of the Great Banquet” (from Luke 14) and addresses this very subject.  Come to hear God’s concern for marginalized people and those disenfranchised.  It’s going to be an eye-opener.

Land Clearing About to Begin

Heavy equipment started arriving at my property yesterday.  I'm having about one more acre cleared.  Today the other equipment will arrive and things will be very busy out there. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Six Thoughts from a Church Attender

Below is a copy of a blog I read yesterday.  The man who wrote it is a former pastor who has left the minsitry for a season, and now he and his family simply attend church together.  He offers his perspective from the pew.  It was an eye-opener for me and gives me something to think about.  I have copied and pasted it as it was written with no edits or changes.  Ron


After several years working on staff as a church, and six more as a church planter, I’m now attending a church with my family.  This has actually been a positive and refreshing time, and it’s given me a much different perspective on things.

I don’t offer this list as a criticism…simply some observations from someone new to sitting in rows.   Here are six thoughts from a church attender.

1. It’s hard for me to think about church during the week. As a pastor, I thought about church all of the time, and I assumed people in the church did the same thing. I’m still probably more interested than the average church attender, but I can’t really tell you what series is starting this week. I’m numb to the hype, and real life is busy.

2. Singing is strange. I know that worship is more than singing, and I believe that singing is a form of worship, but it’s just strange to stand in a room full of strangers and sing songs. It might happen after the 7th inning and at a birthday party, but it’s strange when a room full of adults break out into song. I’ve looked around, and by my estimations, maybe 30% of the room is participating publicly. And most guys are just standing there.

3. I don’t know the people you’re talking about. Again, I know more about the church world than the typical church attender, but the people sitting in the pews don’t know Bill Hybles and they think Hillsong is something from Lord of the Rings. It’s awesome that you know those people, but my celebrities are on TV and not on church leadership blogs.

4. I can’t possibly remember all the information you’re throwing my way. I’m trying…I really am. But you gave me five points and three things to do. It’s really hard for me to remember the points from your sermon. Not to mention the six announcements you gave at the end of the service…I’ve forgotten those things by the time I picked up my kids.

5. I want to laugh more. I know its church, and I know you’re preaching a sermon. But I really do want to laugh a little. If you tell a funny story or say something witty, I’ll be more engaged. I’m not expecting a Vegas show when I come to church, but does it always have to be so serious?

6. I don’t like crowded rooms or parking lots. As a pastor, I loved the crowded room. As the person trying to find a seat, not so much. In fact, I would love it if the seat next to me was empty. And while I know a crowded parking lot is a sign of life, it’s hard for my kids to talk about what they learned in their class when trying to get out of a crowded parking lot. I know it’s shallow and I’m trying to get over it, but it’s where I am.

I know there are a lot of church leaders who read this blog, so I offer this list in humility, just to let you know what some of us “regular” people might be thinking.  Every church is important and every person matters.

Michael L.

First Picking

This is the first picking from my pea patch.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Mind Dump - August 21, 2011

Today was absolutely, positively, and unequivocally one of the best Sunday morning services we’ve had at PCC in a long, long, time.  I was blown away!

The energy in the house was incredible.

One thing I am absolutely certain of:  we turned a significant corner.

The teenagers formed a choir as back up singers to the band.   Visually it was great to see so many of them on stage standing on the risers.  Then for the second set they led the congregation in worship. 

Actually, Felicia (Tharp) and Jennifer Tharp (the daughters of Gene & Connie Tharp) led worship with the teenagers assisting.  They hit a home run!

The second set was acoustic.  There were only two instruments and it had a different feel, a different sound, and a different vibe.  And it totally WORKED.

Felicia was on acoustic guitar and Wade Colon was on percussion (an instrument called “Ashiko – an African drum).   It totally worked.  

I am very proud of the way things went.

Denise Yates did an exceptional job sharing with the congregation about the good things happening in our age-level ministries.  It was apparent that she put some time and thought into her presentation.    

There is more happening at PCC right now than I can possibly communicate. 

One thing I am certain of:  this church is not about me, it’s about God.  So many people have bought into our vision, have stepped up to serve, and serve faithfully.  Their God-given gifts are taking us to a whole-nutha-level.

After today, I’m totally convinced that PCC will outlive me.  Furthermore, I now know that me and Renae can take another vacation (that will take us out of a Sunday service) without me having to worry one bit.

It’s amazing what God can do if we’ll only let Him. He has gifted other people, calls them and raises them up.  Our job is to simply get out of the way.

As a leader I’m always trying to fly at the 20,000 foot level so I can gain a birds eye view on the big picture.  It’s easy to get tunnel vision or “departmental” vision and lose sight of the whole.  My job is to ensure that our church always stays focused on Jesus, the Great Commission, and the Greatest Commandment.

I really enjoyed the talk I gave today.  I was more thorough in the first service than in the second service because I ran out of time.

One of the main points I made was this:  I have made a vow to myself that PCC will NOT BE a one generational life-cycle church and then close the doors; that we will be a church that out-lives me. 

After today, I am convinced, more than ever, that this is the most likely reality for our future.

In case you didn’t know, most church plants do not make it to the five-year mark.  They simply cannot make it, and suffer an ignominious death.  Now that we are thirteen years in, I would say that we are here to stay.

The other danger, the danger for us, is that the older a church gets the more likely it is to become outdated and turn in on itself.  It’s a death spiral that is very hard to break out of because the centrifugal force is too great.  You should know that your church leaders understand this and are very deliberate about not allowing it to happen.

Can you believe the number of young people we have at PCC?  It’s amazing.

At the end of service today I called all our school-age children, teenagers, and college students forward.  Collectively we prayed for them.  It was a special moment.  It was a God-thing.

I just want to live a life of serving others.  It’s amazing how that makes my heart beat.

To that end, I have to die daily.

I’m glad school starts tomorrow.  I know all the parents are too.

Attendance today was almost 500. 

I love my church.

After church today a group of us took a canoe trip.  Had a good time.  Gave me a chance to get to know some of our people better.  Love these moments.

Last night I watched the last Rambo movie that came out in 2008.  It was pretty good.  I have to say that when he got on that 50 cal. near the end, he took care of business.  Maybe it’s the dark side of me, but those people had it coming.

ANDY STANLEY, of Northpoint Community Church preached a sermon today about Recovery.  Here is the introduction:  As a church, we have a duty to talk about culture when it intersects from Scripture.  It’s easy to look at faith through the lens of our politics, but we should look at our politics through the lens of faith.

I wish I had said that.  Hey, maybe I will.  I know, I’m shameless.

Last summer I shared a talk with all our ministry leaders entitled, “IT’S ABOUT THE WEEKEND.”  Today’s service made the point.

The staff of PCC’s family ministries are awesome people.  By that I mean both our volunteer staff and our paid staff.  If not for them our ministries would fail, kingdom advancement would not occur, souls would be lost, and lives would not be changed.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I leave you with these of VBS, today’s service, and today’s canoe trip after church…

Student Choir


Student Choir

Teens on the Front Row


Prayer Time

Called Forward

Prayer Service for Students

Today's Canoe Trip After Church


Pitch Fork & Pastors Foot


Friday, August 19, 2011

This Sunday

…. is Youth Servant Sunday with a few special elements added into the service: 

1.  A youth ensemble will be singing on stage, plus they will lead us in worship for two songs. You will be deeply moved.

2.  Denise Yates will share an update about the Family Ministries at PCC and what God is doing among our young people.

3.  We’ll hear two testimonies from teenagers:  A young man and a young woman.

4.  I will speak about 10-15 minutes

5.  We’ll close service with special prayer for all school age children, teens, and college students who will be called forward.  Santa Rosa County students return to school Monday and we want God's anointing to be upon them.  We will be praying for their safety, protection, and testimony.

You don’t want to miss this!

Faith – Same Word, Different Meanings

One of the most frustrating things for me as a pastor occurs when I realize that people are using the same Biblical words but different dictionaries. It happens more often than we realize. And when it does, it can result in true words leading people down a false path.

For instance, tolerance used to mean having patience with people who were wrong. Now it means acknowledging everyone is right. So if I take a passage like 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 or 2 Timothy 2:24-26 and plead with people to be more tolerant, they don’t hear gentleness, humility, and patience toward those who don’t yet know the truth. They hear a call to support and defend alternate lifestyles no matter how bizarre or sinful.

I’m convinced the same thing has happened to the word faith. It no longer means what it used to mean.  Worse, for most people, it conjures up an image that has nothing to do with the Biblical concept of faith.

For instance, most people today (Christians and non-Christians) define Faith as a feeling of optimism and confidence. It means believing we can still win the game even though we’re five runs down with two outs in the ninth. It means planning a three year project even though the doctors have given us two months to live.  It’s the mental gymnastics of positive thinking that rejects all thoughts of defeat.  It's the notion that is you wish hard enough it will come true.

That’s why I like using the word trust whenever possible.  It’s much closer to what Jesus and the apostles had in mind when they talked about faith.  Faith means trusting God no matter what the outcome.  It never means being magically shielded from hardship or defeat if we are optimistic enough. 

Trust is what Job had when all hell broke loose. It’s what Jesus had in the garden. It’s what the ancient prophet Habakkuk had when he penned these powerful words:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength . . . Habakkuk 3:17-19

Isn’t that the kind of faith we need in these challenging times?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Spiritual Narcissism

The names say it all:  YouTube.  MySpace.  And of course, iPod, iTunes, and iPhone.

If there is a theme to our day, it’s that it’s all about me.  The technical term is narcissism.  In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the character who, upon passing his reflection in the water, becomes so infatuated with himself that he devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection.  From this we get the term “narcissism,” the preoccupation with self.

Narcissism is the classic, “I, me, mine” mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of all concerns.

Now, as Christians, this should be incompatible to us.  We follow a Savior who said He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28); and “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).  And then He bowed in submission to the Father, “Not my will, but Yours (Luke 22:42).

Yet much of Christianity has been invaded by narcissism where the individual needs and wants of the believer become the center of attention.  Have you heard the way we talk?  I'm not being fed here,” or “I need to be ministered to” rolls off our tongues without us even blushing.  We walk out of a worship service saying, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” as if worship is about what we receive rather than what we give to God. 

And it’s killing the church, blinding our vision, hijacking our mission, and muting our voice.
We have to make our message very clear:  It’s not the church’s job to do everything for people.  It is not the church’s job to give you the life you want, much less the one that you are expected to forge out yourself through a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ.  The church cannot ensure that all goes well with you, that all your bills will be paid, that every sickness will be healed, and that your kids will always behave.  Most of your life is your own responsibility.

So why do people come to church anyway?  To get fixed, find friends, renew faith, or strengthen family.  That’s all well and good, and the church is obviously here to offer assistance in all four areas.  But the church cannot be held responsible for these four areas of life, nor should anyone expect it to be.

Let me offer an illustration to drive home the point.  The parents of a middle school student drop their child off at a middle school ministry.  The child does not change into a model Christian student.  So the parent’s immediately search for a new church with a more effective middle school ministry and drop their child off there.

What’s wrong with this picture?  What is wrong is the complete absence of any sense of obligation that spiritual growth is the responsibility of that middle school student, not to mention that spiritual leadership within the family is the responsibility of the parents!  Instead, people have a “drop-off” mentality to parenting and many churches even accommodate this.

There comes a point when personal responsibility kicks in and people have to take ownership of the quality of their lives.  Yes, the church exists to instruct and inspire, but it does not exist to do it all for you.  Yes, it ministers to families trying to raise children; it seeks to heal those who are broken; it provides the richest community available for meaningful relationships to be formed, and it offers the necessary tools to help you grow in Christ.  But the church cannot do life for you.  That’s your job.

Some would say that spiritual narcissism is most prevalent in contemporary churches where a strong evangelistic emphasis of reaching the lost is found – suggesting that such churches have abandoned orthodoxy just to put warm bodies in the pews.  Most churches, of course, are doing nothing of the sort .  Nowhere is spiritual narcissism more resisted than in evangelistic churches where they willingly set aside their own preferences for the sake of others, particularly the unchurched. 

Ultimately the Christian life is not about us; it’s about surrender, sacrifice, serving others, preferring others above yourself, and bringing honor to God.

And spiritual narcissism is antithetical to Christianity.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rabies of the Heart

Envy manifests itself when we see something desirable that belongs to another person.  It could be physical appearance, money, talent, or position.  It might be a church or a ministry.  It might even be someone else's spouse.  The other person possesses something that we want.

Envy is a vice of nearness – the closer we are to someone in terms of vocation, temperament, gifts, or position, the more fertile the soil is in which envy grows because a sense of entitlement clouds our judgement.  For instance, the athlete who runs a mile in 3:58 resents the runner who is four seconds faster, running a 3:54 mile.  A pretty woman resents the beautiful woman.  The hard working B+ student envies the straight-A student, especially the happy-go-lucky one who never seems to study.  The pastor of a plateaued church resents the pastor of a growing church.  The associate pastor envies his senior pastor.

Envy.  It’s rabies of the heart.

When you give in to envy, you not only want what the other person has and resent them for having it; you want to take it away from them!  What an envier ultimately wants is not simply what another has; what an envier wants is for the other person not to have it.  We want him to be deprived.

The envier experiences secret satisfaction when he sees the misfortune of others.  He actually finds joy in the suffering or failure of another.

Do you celebrate the success of another church?  Or would you prefer to hear about their downfall – declining attendance, a staff defection, a failed effort at outreach, or a scandal?

Do you rejoice when you see a fellow church member being promoted to a higher position of visibility and responsibility?  Or would you prefer that the skeletons in their closet be exposed?

Let’s be honest.  We like dirt.  Sometimes we’ll even participate in spreading it by being quick to share rumor and innuendo, gossip and hearsay.  Why?  Because we pathetically think that it tears them down and builds us up.

Can we call it what it is?  It is sin and people who manifest it are doing the devil’s work.

“If you harbor BITTER ENVY and SELFISH AMBITION in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, OF THE DEVIL.  For WHERE you have envy and selfish ambition, THERE you will find disorder and EVERY EVIL PRACTICE” (James 3:14-16).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Mind Dump - August 14, 2011

Solid day.

Music was good too.

Finances have remained consistent all summer, which means we’ll go into the fall without having to make up for a summer drop.  If this trend line continues we will end the year strong.

VBS starts tomorrow.

Next Sunday is Youth Servant Sunday.  Many of the teenagers will be assisting on stage with the worship band.  We will be also having special prayer for all the kids at the end of service, since they will be going back to school the next day.  They will be called forward, we’ll lay hands on them and offer prayers for their protection and spiritual growth.

Sign up for PCC University for elective Bible classes.

Sign up for Financial Peace University for financial guidance.

Both begin in September.

Today’s message (The Unforgiving Servant) was challenging.  A lot of people talked me after both services about it.  This happens every time I speak on the subject of “forgiving others” and it lets me know that virtually everyone struggles with this at some point in their lives.

Jesus’ parables and stories are riveting!

One issue I was not able to address in today’s message is the matter of forgiving others IF they do NOT ask for forgiveness.  i.e., Do I have to forgive someone if they don’t repent?  Am I obligated to forgive everyone of every sin committed against me even if the offender is unrepentant or without remorse?  This is known as Unilateral Forgiveness or One-Way Forgiveness.  There are two schools of thought in the matter: some say yes, others say no.  I will address this topic in the future.

For now, I’ll offer this insight:  You must never treat an offender as if he has not done anything wrong.  More people would get straightened out and get right with God if we quit patting them on the back after they committed an offense, and simply confronted them according to Matthew 18:15 and Luke 17:4.

Renae and celebrate 30 years tomorrow.

Our first grandbaby is due the week of Thanksgiving.

I listened to Bill Hybles give a talk this week on leadership.  One of the best I’ve heard on a long time.  He asked five questions:

1.  What is your current challenge-level at work?
2.  What is your plan for dealing with challenging people in your church?
3.  Are you naming, facing, and resolving problems that exist in your church?
4.  When was the last time you re-examined the core mission of your church?
5.  Have you had your leadership bell rung lately?

Gotta go.  Fixing to fry some mullet.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Safe People

Shortly after we started PCC, when were about three years old, a man arrived who had a strong, outgoing personality, and eagerly championed the vision of the church.  He was willing to serve, had some church experience, and understood the importance of vision.  He even tithed!

 What wasn’t to like?  I quickly began to lean on him and count him as a friend.  I needed one too – someone I could share the ups and down of church planting with.  A real brother in arms.

But as the church grew and other leaders took responsibility, decisions were made and teams were formed that did not always include his involvement.  Instead of welcoming the new vitality to our church, he became threatened and turned hostile, particularly toward me.

I vividly remember the day that things exploded.  We had recently moved into our building and several new ministries had been launched, including a ministry he led.  Everyone had the understanding that with limited space, all the ministries at PCC had to share the same rooms in the building, therefore scheduling was vital.  Yet, instead of cooperating with others he became angry anytime someone used “his” space.  We were also having to make decisions about budget allocations and where those funds would best be directed, none of which he liked.  We had to write financial policies and building use polices to guide our decisions and to ensure everyone was on the same page of understanding.  He seethed in resentment, and it showed.  These displays of anger were his way of marking his territory as the church moved into a new era.  Before long people were tiptoeing around on egg shells afraid of setting him off.  In a blazing moment of naiveté, I said, “It has nothing to do with us; he’s stressed out at work.  Let's give it time, it'll work itself out.”  It didn't.  His attitude was going south and I didn't have the savvy to see it coming.

A few months later, we made one of our first major purchases after moving into the building – a used copier.  When this man saw the copier and realized that we had made this purchase, he was not happy.  About that same time we changed our church logo, from a stock copy-and-paste one that we had used for years, to a newer customized one.  This too set him off.  To add fuel to the fire, we were still adding new people to our leadership team.  When that happened, it was game over.  He went on the warpath.

Where I was once the person he was eager to support, I now could do nothing to please him.  He began talking to anyone who would listen, spreading all kinds of innuendo.  I also tried to talk with him and reconcile, but he would not be appeased.  He would not even take my calls.  He was mad and wanted others to know he was upset.

The turmoil went on for a few more months.  Finally, when he realized that he wasn’t succeeding in getting many others to join his revolt, he left.  But not before spreading the most vicious lies about me imaginable.

About that time, I talked to another pastor.  He told me about his church and how, in their efforts to expand their leadership teams, a certain man went on a campaign of revolt and sent letters to everyone in the church accusing him all sorts of vicious things.  When I heard that, I thought to myself, is there a school out there somewhere where they train people to do this kind of thing?

Nothing hurts more than someone you thought was a friend becoming a foe and attacking your personality.  Little did I know when I entered the ministry that I could look forward to many such relational defections.

So can pastors have friends?  I mean, safe ones?

Yes, but they are few and far between.  The role that pastors have with church people often makes the relationship weird.  People have certain expectations of pastors which puts immediate pressure on the relationship from the get go.  And most of the time these expectations cannot be fulfilled, which leads to disappointment, defection, or ever worse, disloyalty.  It’s hard for pastors to have normal interaction with some people without great risk because we’re so…high voltage.

Pastors are really vulnerable here.  Many lead lonely, isolated lives.  We want community and fellowship, but it’s difficult to get.  Why?  Because the nature of our role makes things toxic.  Someone wants us to let down our hair around them and open up – but somewhere inside them is an expectation, like a time bomb waiting to go off.  All it takes is one disappointment, one failure, one letdown, and all bets are off.  Sadly, it’s often the very ones who press in close – like the guy I mentioned at the beginning – a brother in arms – who prove most likely to betray and hurt the deepest.

So what is a pastor to do?  You have to get savvy about people.  Have friends, but be careful.  And that begins by knowing what makes someone safe.

A safe person is someone who is just that – safe.  They can be trusted.  They are accepting and supportive.  They are a refuge.  And you feel safe around them.  Then there are unsafe people.  Unsafe people have agendas, expectations, take advantage, are users, betray, misunderstand, and even attack.

Jesus certainly employed this kind of discernment in His relationships.  John 2:23-25 says “…. many people believed in His Name.  But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men….”

Jesus was open to the risk of being close to people, because we know that He had close friends who He lived in community with – both men and women.  But in the passage above, we learn that He never approached relationships with recklessness.  He approached people lovingly but with a discerning spirit.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend have put together a useful list of what marks unsafe people:

1.  An unsafe person thinks they “have it all together” instead of being willing to admit their weaknesses

2.  They tend to attack, criticize, and fault-find instead of build up and encourage.

3.  They’re often legalistic and rigid.  They are more concerned with making corrections than making connections.

4.  They are abandoners, with a track record of starting relationships but never finishing them. 

5.  They’re self-righteous instead of humble.

6.  They’re unstable, instead of being consistent, going from thing to thing, place to place, person to person.

7.  They are more concerned about “I” than “we.”

8.  They resist freedom for others instead of encouraging it.

9.  They condemn more than they forgive.

10.  They gossip instead of keeping confidences.

When you see some of these marks in person’s life, be careful.  They are not safe.  Obviously, no one is perfect.  And don’t forget – we are supposed to be safe people ourselves right back at these folks.

All of us have flaws in our character.  No one is completely safe.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t take a deep look at someone’s relational makeup and track record and make some assessments about that person before you plunge headlong into a close relationship with them.

Jesus did.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Divisive People

Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned (Titus 3:10-11 NIV).

The Bible’s advice for dealing with problem people is zero tolerance.  Don't put up with it.  No ifs, and, or buts about it.  Deal with them swiftly and decisively.  Look at the verse above, it's clear: warn them once or twice, after that have nothing to do with them.  Why?  Such a person is warped and sinful, that’s why.

I know this sounds radical.  But it is what the Bible says to do.  It’s as counterintuitive to the average pastor, or Christian, as you could possibly imagine.  It doesn’t even feel Christian.  Yet, this is what the Christian Bible says to do; have nothing to do with them.  Write them off, disfellowship them, and move on.

The double standard we embrace is ironic.  We’ll teach what the Bible says about everything else – and apply it – but for some reason, this clear directive about dealing with problem people is either ignored or just so uncomfortable that we refuse to consider it for our lives or practice it in our churches.

Still, it’s what the Bible says to do.

There is something so destructive about divisive people and the effect they can have upon a church that it must be dealt with swiftly and firmly to ensure that it is never allowed to take root.  It’s obvious that such a person is out of line and rebellious against God, therefore they are not to be given any platform to spread their division and dissension in the church.  It simply cannot be tolerated.

Why?  Because it is so damaging.  So much so that is was the one thing Jesus prayed about just before His crucifixion (John 17).  Jesus prayed for unity and love among His followers because it would be the ultimate proof of authentic Christianity. 

Little wonder there is zero tolerance in the Bible toward those who would rip the church apart through dissension, disunity, and division; through the spreading of false doctrine, or overstating petty doctrines; through power plays and malicious gossip; through slander and the undeserved undermining of established leadership.

If a pastor and his trusted leadership team do not follow the Bible in this matter, they do so at great peril.  One of my biggest leadership mistakes cost PCC two years of growth and forward progress.  You have no idea how just writing those words makes my stomach knot.  Two years!

My leadership mistake was simple but profound:  I allowed a staff infection to take root that manifested itself in a spirit of division and dissension, and then I failed to confront it quickly enough.  As a result, it took hold and spread like a cancer, infecting people and teams, families and leaders in way that, in many cases, were irreparable.

It began with a single person.  The warning signs were there for me to see, but I ignored them too long hoping they would go away.  They didn’t.  And the situation didn’t get better.  It worsened.

Over a period of many, many months, one person single handedly spread more negative thoughts and vibes than any other person in the history of our church.  His style was simple:  where there had been no disappointment or disunity, he planted the seed.

“Did you think that was a good sermon?  No, the pastor mishandled the text.”

“How did you feel about that staff meeting?  We didn’t spend enough time in prayer?”

“Aren’t you excited about PCC’s growth?  No, because this church caters to people with felt needs.”

“Do you think the sky is blue today?  Well, I know Ron  says so, but you should read this book written by Dr. Super Duck.  Now he knows how to make the sky blue.”

Okay, he didn’t really say the last one, but it would have fit.

Before I knew it, I was the worst teacher, the worst pastor, a shallow leader, a poor shepherd, not very spiritual, too business, and the least accountable.  You get the picture.

What a person like this does is create discontent and dissatisfaction where it did not exist before.  (Read that previous sentence again slowly – they create discontent and dissatisfaction where it did not exist before).  That’s what makes their actions so criminal.  They are the instigator of trouble in a place where no trouble existed until they started it.  Or they take the weakest embers of such potential feelings and fan them into a flame wildly out of proportion to the reality at hand.  Sadly, he and his followers found ample kindling in our church family.

We had just moved into our building and were growing rapidly.  Assimilation and discipleship were lagging behind.  And I was tired.  Midlife kind of tired.  Church planter tired.  Taking it through 8 ½ years at a local high school tired.  Just built a building, watched it fall to the ground by Hurricane Dennis, and rebuilt it all over again kind of tired.  Just buried my father kind of tired.

So I found myself pulling back.  I was emotionally drained and relationally guarded.  As a result, my response to this staff infection was, to say the least, slow and ineffective.  I wanted to “win” people over and make them like me – which made me responsible for the ever-spreading dissent.  I should not have wasted my time with this approach because what these people were doing was SIN, and much of it was directed against me and our church.  I should have been confrontational, sooner.

My mistake was that I waited too long.  If I had been swifter, more decisive, less nice, and more Biblical, I would have saved myself, and PCC, a great deal of grief.  Furthermore, PCC would not have lost two years of forward progress.  Although I did deal with the problem when I could not ignore it any longer,  I was left battered and bleeding by the time it ended.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson.  I know now that I should have met this situation with zero tolerance at the first signs of trouble, because that’s what the situation deserved.  I should have fired the instigator immediately.  Additionally, I should not have tolerated those individuals who engaged in hallway conversations, parking lot meetings, and “sharing” in small groups as they spewed out their junk.  At the earliest signs of discontent, there should have been immediate confrontations on the basis of Matthew 18:15, instead of allowing it to get a foothold in our church.  And those unwilling to be confronted and brought to repentance should have been removed from their positions, brought under church discipline, and if necessary, shown the door.  After all, that’s what Titus 3:10-11 says to do.

Why don’t we do this?  It’s simple.  We are by nature people-pleasers and non-confrontational.  It’s like having a toothache but avoiding the pain of the dentist’s chair.  So we live with the ongoing, throbbing ache that grows in its infection until it takes over our entire body in blinding pain – when thirty minutes in the dentist’s office would have solved everything.