The Microscope

microscopeCOVID-19 has revealed much about the human character. It’s also revealed, in my opinion, the things that we suck at as Americans: grief, slowing down, and giving up control.

I have been a pastor for more than fifteen years. During that time, I experienced, presided over, and took part in many funerals. As if all those experiences weren’t enough, losing both of my parents revealed to me just how awkward we can be around death and grief.

I honestly think that one of the reasons why we suck at grief is the fact that we also suck at slowing down. In reality, this trifecta of underachieving is completely connected. We suck at grief because we can’t (or won’t) slow down and we won’t slow down because we can’t give up control.

It seems like a vicious cycle.

Once upon a time, people would take time to grieve. There were days set aside to grieve your loved ones. That’s not to say that grief can be contained to a few hours or days, but at least there was time carved out to grieve.

As we journey through COVID-19 and all of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual repercussions that it is taking on our world, how many of us have taken time to grieve? I mean, really grieve. Have you cried over the things that you’ve lost? It doesn’t matter how great or how small they are, grief is grief and the size of the thing being grieved should have no bearing on the level to which we grieve for it.

I don’t think it’s only that we haven’t grieved, I think it’s that we’ve actually run from grief. We’ve filled our heads with Tiger King or streamed another new show on Netflix. We’ve started new projects that we’ve put off for years. We’ve watched YouTube to finally hone that hidden talent that we’ve known we’ve had but never had the time to invest in it.

I’m not saying that some of those things aren’t good. Sometimes we need to be distracted, but distractions that take us away from the important things in life, even grief, can simply prolong what’s coming.

We don’t slow down well either.

So many people are sharing on social media how much they’ve valued this time of slowing down. Some of us weren’t running at frenetic paces before this all began, so slowing down wasn’t something we needed to be forced to do. In reality, God created an automatic weekly slowdown to help our rhythm when he created the Sabbath, but when’s the last time that you really enjoyed or experienced a Sabbath? I’m not talking about just laying in the hammock and doing nothing, but a real soul-quenching Sabbath that energized you and gave you peace?

Ironically, I think that one group of people who has experienced the antithesis of slowing down during all this is pastors. As I watch my social media feeds scroll past, I see some of them running at unsustainable paces, trying desperately to justify their existence and fill the airwaves with enough content to give a PhD student a headache.

We don’t slow down because speeding up somehow makes us feel like we’re still in control.

I’ve got news for you, you were never really in control to begin with. The illusion of control is not really control, it just makes us think that we’re in control.

There are some areas of our country where “going with the flow” seems to fit them well. There are others where “going with the flow” would be hard if they were strapped to an inner tube rushing towards a waterfall (which this has kind of felt like more days than not).

This time has acted as a microscope of sorts, revealing to us all the hidden things that we were either aware of or not, but that were there waiting to be exposed.

Here’s the good news: this isn’t ending anytime soon. Well, that’s kind of good news. But as states begin to roll out plans for their phased reopenings, I don’t expect that any level of “normalcy” will be reached in the days or weeks ahead.

In other words, we’ve got time to work on these things. Grieve. Slow down. Relinquish control. As they say, practice makes perfect, and I think we’ve got some time to do just that.

What’s Gonna Happen?

What’s Gonna Happen?

COVID-19 has thrown our world into a storm of uncertainty. The economy is in disarray as businesses have shut down, people have been laid off or furloughed, and the thought of reigniting it by slowly opening things up causes anxiety and anger.

I think we can safely say that the majority of the world has been touched in some way, shape, or form by COVID-19. It’s disrupted our lives and its effects will move far beyond the moment when stay at home orders are lifted and people can begin to cautiously emerge from their homes like groundhogs tentatively looking for their shadows. The world is not just untouched during this time, as we move ahead on the other side of the virus, the world will not be the same.

Nowhere has this felt the case more to me than within the church. As a pastor of a barely half a year old church plant, risk is something that I am well aware of, but moving to the other side of this will be an exercise in self-reflection that will only be achieved as we ask ourselves hard questions to which we give honest answers.

Here are five important questions that I think the Church needs to ask herself in this time:

1) Will we embrace change? 

Whether the church likes it or not, this time of separation has forced us all to embrace change on some level or another. I have said for years that the church is one of two organizations in the world that struggles to embrace change (the other is the educational system, who has stepped out during this time). Even when we think we’re good with change, we can generally open up our stable to reveal a host of sacred cows we’ve been hiding.

Change for change sake is never a good idea, but change for the sake of contextualizing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is essential. We see it within the New Testament as Jesus met people where they were as did Paul and so many others within the Book of Acts. It’s an essential part of communication to speak a language that those to whom you are speaking can understand.

The medium may change, but the message stays the same. Will the church embrace change in order to more effectively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

2) Will we compromise or coalesce?

Changing does not mean compromising, and I believe that many within the Church don’t always get that right. Adapting does not mean conforming to the culture. Attractional ministry can easily lead us down a road where we compromise our values and shift our moral compass simply to appease people we are trying to reach.

I’m not one to harp on certain issues that have the potential to divide, but simply avoiding them is not the right approach either. Will we compromise who we are and who God has called us in order that we can become more “relevant”?

3) Will we focus inward or outward?

One of the reasons that I became a church planter is because, since I became a pastor sixteen years ago and even before that, I had grown frustrated with the inward focus of the local church. The Great Commission has not changed since Jesus spoke it. We are still called to GO and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them what Jesus commanded.

I believe that the local church can often get caught up in the last part and forget the first part: GO. While spiritual formation and discipleship is essential within the local faith community, I believe that we have created an unsustainable model that looks more like a spiritual daycare than a training ground for disciples of Jesus. If our people still look the same as they did five years ago, that inward focus isn’t accomplishing what we thought it would.

Outward focus allows us to put into practice the spiritual practices and ideals that we claim to be learning. It allows us to put hands and feet to ideas and concepts. It also allows us to constantly be changed by seeing those whom God has a heart for, those who have not yet begun to follow Jesus Christ,

If the church is to survive, we need to get back to the essentials of evangelism and discipleship rather than transactional and attractional ministry.

4) Will we build community or clubs?

Community is essential. I’ve told more than one person in the past few months that when I write a book, the theme will most likely be community. My own personal experience with community has shaped and formed me. I would not be where I am had I not been surrounded by a loving, caring, and giving community to help walk with me through some dark periods of my life.

I am well aware that there is an entropy of sorts that happens within churches, even the most progressive and creative churches. That entropy moves us from a place of intentionality of openness to a place of unintentional cliquishness (if that’s even a word). We seek to be welcoming and eventually can become so comfortable with who we have that we simply build a social club.

If the church is simply a social club, there is nothing there that can’t be replaced with a thousand other clubs or organizations. We need to be something much more than just a club, we need to be a community that seeks to change the world one person at a time.

5) Will we become extinct?

The church in America has been declining for decades. Denying that is not just foolish, it’s ignorant. Instead of lamenting that the United States is no longer a “Christian” nation, we need to get down to brass tacks and begin the hard work of evangelism and discipleship once again. If we are simply building local churches around our preaching, music, and programs, there will inevitably come along someone else who can do those things better than we can. We will continue to swap members until Jesus returns and I fear the rebuke may be equivalent to the one talent servant in Jesus’ parable.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18 were, “…and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church will not fail because the true church isn’t a building, a program, or a person. The Church is a movement of people, disciples, seeking to be kingdom-minded and be part of God’s kingdom expansion in this world. Building the kingdom does not mean adding some beautiful aesthetics to pretty it up, it means literally building and expanding it beyond what it is today.

Will the church become extinct?

I think these questions and many more are essential questions for every disciple of Christ to ask themselves during this time and beyond? The thing about hard questions is that they demand hard answers. While some may see my criticism as harsh, the more complacent we become, the harsher the criticism for us to move out of that complacency to a place of effectiveness.

May God give us the courage and boldness to ask the hard questions of who we are in the church. May we seek his kingdom first and deny ourselves the desire to build a kingdom of our own making. May we elementarily return to our original commission and seek to go and make disciples rather than simply making consumers of programs whose sustaining power is only as effective as the latest trend.

Essential Worship – A Book Review

essential-worshipThere may be nothing more contentious within the church than the worship ministries. What music should be played? Is it too loud? Who should lead? How close (or far) are we to God’s plan for corporate worship? The questions go on and on and it seems that there are all kinds of answers from every possible direction.

“Essential Worship” by Greg Scheer is a helpful handbook for leaders. Whether those leaders be pastors, worship leaders, worship directors, worship pastors, or whoever, Scheer has done a thorough job of putting together a handbook that can be used by these leaders to help them in leading their ministries.

This book is divided into five parts: Principles, Past, Practice: Music in Worship, Practice: The Arts in Worship, and People.

In the Principles section, Scheer starts with the primary and most important topic: what is worship” He leads the reader through other principles such as what is Biblical worship, who is the audience, and what does worship do. He moves into the Past section and invites the reader to look at the past as well as various methods and modes of worship that have been used throughout the history of the church.

Parts three and four are a helpful foray into the practice of worship within the church. Scheer does a very good job of remaining balanced by offering thoughts and suggestions from both past as well as current repertoires and methods. While it seems that his experience may be in traditional forms of worship, it does not seem to bias his viewpoint.

Part five is about the various people involved in worship leadership within the church: pastors, leaders, musicians, and the like. Scheer offers some beneficial advice here on how to move through potential conflict.

There are nuggets of information scattered throughout this book. It’s not necessarily a book meant to be read front to back but can instead be used as a resource. After all, it is called a handbook. Scheer’s experience, wisdom, and thorough research into this book is apparent and it will serve church worship leaders well.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Grace

I’m two weeks into my sabbatical and I feel like so much has happened in that short amount of time. Some of my days have felt like two or three days combined into one. I’ve had some great conversations, some great experiences, some great rest.

My wife and I spent nearly four years in a place not too long after we got married. My wife had married an engineer and then I was called to be a pastor. It was a big shift for both of us. That call involved a move far away from our family and all that was familiar to us. I was green and inexperienced in the new world in which I found myself. I made mistakes, I spoke too quickly, I offended, I probably thought that I knew way more than I really did.

When things ended in that place, there was hurt, there was anger, there was confusion, there was uncertainty. We didn’t know for sure where we would end up, but God did. He opened the door for us to a new place. We left behind many great friends and I felt like I was leaving a bit of my heart there as well. We had made an investment and to leave it all behind was hard for me to do.

This past week, I spent some time with some of the people who were part of our experience there in that place. I’m not even sure what words to use to best describe the meaningfulness of that time. Healing. Growing. Learning. Moving on. Grace.

Grace.

It’s a word that came up in our conversations and a word that I continue to go back to. If we are truly growing in our faith journey and in our spiritual depth, grace should be something that naturally pours from us. We shouldn’t tout that we have grown up in the church and been Christians for 40 years and then fail to exhibit grace. We shouldn’t expect grace to be given to us and then refuse to extend it to others. Grace has been given to us and to whom much has been given, much is expected.

Grace.

I feel like I experienced an immersion of grace over the last week. As conversations took place and we shared, I felt that grace and I was so grateful for it.

I still have many weeks to go as I move through this sabbatical. It’s always hard to come hard out of the gates, it can easily set your expectations high for what else is to come. But I don’t think I should worry. Much of what I have experienced over the last week was not planned, at least by me, but I know that God orchestrated it, he made it happen, he gave me the privilege of experiencing it.

This is going to be a fun ride!

One Week To Go

I stepped off of the platform yesterday morning after preaching a sermon on Mother’s Day, a particularly hard day for me since losing my mom five years ago. A friend had said to me earlier, “How do you always get stuck preaching Mother’s Day?” I smiled at him and actually thought about the privilege that I would have to share a little bit more of a glimpse of my mom to whoever happened to be inhabiting the chairs and listening.

As my body dropped into my chair, I was exhausted. It wasn’t just the weight of this day that I was feeling, it was actually the weight of the past five years. I had recounted January 31, 2011, the day my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but less than two years after that, my dad died. I was involved in a very difficult process with a church after that and a large group of us launched out on our own.

As life continued to pass me by, I was fortunate to hear about the potential of a reprieve coming my way. In my particular denomination, there is a practice of giving pastors a three month sabbatical every seven years. I was secretly hoping and praying that an exception might be made for me despite some of the technicalities that may cause people to scratch their heads. I was ordained in another denomination twelve years ago this month. I’ve been in my current position (in some shape or form) for the past eight and a half years but did not transfer my ordination fully until a few years ago.

Imagine my excitement when I found out that I would be granted a full sabbatical this year! I could hardly contain that excitement, but I was pacing myself to the time when it finally began.

Now, I sit a week away from that sabbatical, and I feel like I’m sputtering to the finish line. It’s been a rough five years and I could recount the many things that made it that way. Like the Israelites, I seem to find the most meandering route to my destination, a route that hardly seems to be the easiest either. And despite those around me asking me for the countdown until the beginning of my sabbatical, I hadn’t really been keeping track of the days myself…….until the last few weeks.

Sitting in that chair after preaching an emotionally draining sermon on Mother’s Day, I lifted up a silent prayer of thanksgiving for what was to come. I need a break.

Despite popular belief, a sabbatical isn’t an extended vacation. I’ve got lots of plans for that time period. In fact, I wrote up a five page report to present to our Human Resources committee to explain just what would happen during this time. While rest is a big part of what I hope to experience during the time, I also expect to do a lot of learning.

I’ll be spending some time at a sister church just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. We’ve gotten to know some of their staff well and have been intrigued at what God has been doing in their church. Spending a few days with them will be energizing, encouraging, and enlightening.

I will also be attending some training for becoming a Strengths Finders coach. Strengths Finders is an assessment that has been a huge part of my life over the last fifteen years. It has helped me to understand myself, my wife, and those around me. It’s helped me to extend grace when my instinct is to not do so. It’s helped me as I’ve discipled others and tried to point them in a direction towards things that will energize and invigorate them. I am hoping that the training will further enhance my ability to coach others towards using their God-given gifts to serve.

I’ll spend some time with a cherished mentor who has been an encouragement to me over the last few years. There are other various trips that I will take all culminating with a family cross country trip at the end as my family and I make our way to California and back, staying with friends, in hotels, in tents, and various other places along the way.

This will be an adventure and I can’t wait to see what God shows me over the course of this adventure. I plan to do my best at writing out my thoughts and insights along the way. It will help me to stay connected without really staying connected.

Just one week to go, and although these last seven days leading up to this time may seem to crawl along, when the time comes, I’ll drink it in and enjoy the moments set before me.

I’m looking forward to sharing and hope that you’ll stick around to read what insights God might give me along the way.

The Emotionally Healthy Leader – A Book Review

emotionally healthy leaderPeter Scazzero and his church, New Life Fellowship, have emerged in the past decade as models of how to navigate through the world of church, leadership, and spirituality in an emotionally healthy manner. Scazzero started with “The Emotionally Healthy Church” back in 2003 and followed up with “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” in 2006. In the midst of his sharing about his own experience, in 2010, his wife wrote “I Quit,” the story of how she had drawn the line when she could no longer put up with the emotional unhealthy ways of her husband’s approach to life and ministry.

Now Scazzero has written “The Emotionally Healthy Leader.” In this book, Scazzero shares his experience of understanding and embracing limitations (your shadow), of finding ways to lessen stress and tension, and of moving towards allowing yourself to experience better emotional health. Early on in “The Emotionally Healthy Leader, “ Peter Scazzero writes about a time in his life where he, “always seemed to have too much to do and too little time to do it,” a place that many of us have probably come to in our own lives. Scazzero shares not only out of his successes but, more importantly, out of his failures.

Scazzero shares examples of emotionally healthy and unhealthy leaders both through biblical examples as well as examples that he has encountered along the way. According to Scazzero, unhealthy leaders are those who have low self-awareness, who prioritize ministry over marriage/singleness, who do more activity for God than their relationship with God can sustain, and who lack a work/Sabbath rhythm. These four characteristics frame the rest of the book as Scazzero asks the reader to answer questions about facing their shadow, leading out of their marriage/singleness, slowing down for loving union with God, and practicing Sabbath delight.

It’s important and essential for leaders to practice emotionally healthy leadership by allowing themselves to be transformed in order that they can help in the spiritual transformation of those whom they lead. Scazzero emphasizes the need for analyzing success properly, not embracing a “bigger is better” model but pushing for deeper and more significant success. He writes, “When it comes to the church and numbers, the problem isn’t that we count, it’s that we have so fully embraced the world’s dictum that bigger is better that numbers have become the only thing we count.” Scazzero stresses the importance of who you are rather than what you do and how being with God improves your emotional health more than doing for God does.

A key point that Scazzero highlights is the need to address and face conflict rather than sweeping it under the rug. Too often, leaders (especially spiritual leaders) will adopt a “don’t rock the boat” approach as long as things are moving along. Scazzero points out the need to ask painful and difficult questions for the sake of everyone involved. If the “elephants in the room” are not addressed, the church and its leaders will need to pay a significantly higher price later on.

Scazzero takes the reader through the journey of self-discovery towards emotional health. He discusses the idea of facing your shadow. As Scazzero describes it, the shadow is, “the accumulation of untamed emotions, less-than pure motives and thoughts that, while largely unconscious, strongly influence and shape your behaviors.” Scazzero talks of the shadow side of some of the gifts that we have, things that most of us use to our advantage that can easily be used to the detriment of others if we are unaware of them. Scazzero says that, ““…we have a stewardship responsibility to honestly face our shadow.”

Throughout the book are various exercises designed to help the leaders move through these various areas towards emotional health. He talks about the importance of establishing a rule of life, a means by which one can stay consistent and maintain a healthy balance between life and work. One of those things that he sees as essential is the establishment of a weekly Sabbath to incorporate necessary rest into one’s schedule. The surveys and assessments include questions that can help the reader move towards healthiness in the areas of facing and addressing their shadow, leading out of their singleness/marriage, growing in their oneness with God, and practicing Sabbath rest.

The book is divided into two halves: the inner life and the outer life. After walking through the four essential questions that Scazzero lays out regarding your shadow, your singleness/marriage, your loving union with God, and your Sabbath, Scazzero moves on to how these things play out in ministry. He discusses the importance of planning and decision making, of culture and team building, of power and wise boundaries, and of endings and beginnings.

2/3 of the way through The Emotionally Healthy Leader, Scazzero writes, “We share openly about what God is teaching us – in sermons, staff meetings, private conversations, and with members of our small group.” I would say that may very well be the secret of his success: his humility. Scazzero leads from his strengths but is not afraid to confront, identify, and share his weaknesses and limitations. His humility is evident and he never comes across as a “know-it-all” but rather as one who wants to share his own struggles in order that others can avoid the same ones. He shares from his heart out of a desire to see others avoid some of the same mistakes that he has made in his life.

Since Scazzero has been writing books for the last decade, the honest and reflective insights that he shares have been incredibly helpful to me. Having grown up in the home of a pastor and now being a pastor myself, what Scazzero shares is not something you can get in a basic seminary course, although it should be. Learning and embracing what Scazzero shares is essential and life-giving for those who are willing to take the time.

I think that “The Emotionally Healthy Leader” is not just a good resource, but an essential resource for any pastor or ministry leader who wants to really see the kind of transformative growth to which God calls us in both ourselves and the people we lead. If you are serious about seeking out emotional health and aren’t afraid of embarking on a journey of renewal and restoration, then you need to get a copy of this book.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Net Galley. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

What If

usace frf duck.ncOnce upon a time, while I was in college studying civil engineering, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction I would take when I graduated.

I had chosen civil engineering as a major because of the diversity of opportunities that it would afford me. There were so many different possibilities of things to do once I graduated that I wasn’t quite sure which direction to take.

So, during my senior year, when everyone was beginning to narrow down their options and take senior design classes that were specific to their area of concentration, I decided to take multiple senior design classes in all of the areas that I had been considering: hydraulics, project management, and coastal engineering.

I had become interested in coastal engineering while at Lehigh University. I had taken coastal engineering and was introduced to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. My class had gone on a field trip to the New Jersey shore to observe a beach nourishment project. I was fascinated that this was a field of study that I could further pursue.

Having grown up on Long Island Sound in southwestern Connecticut, I was a beach person. I never imagined myself moving too far inland from the coast, no matter where I lived.

When I sought to pursue a graduate degree in engineering, I looked primarily for schools that had programs in water resources or coastal engineering. I applied and was accepted to a few coastal schools like University of Maryland and University of Rhode Island, but because I had not done as well as I would have liked in my undergraduate studies, there were no scholarship or fellowship opportunities for me. I ended up getting my Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of New Haven.

After 10 years in the engineering field, I had risen through the ranks and begun my ascent towards management. I had gone through project management training through my company and received my professional license, but I never felt fulfilled. I felt as if the dreams and desires that I had for my engineering career were elusive and always one more step away from me. Those 10 years were a wrestling match as I tried to discern where I would end up, both professionally and geographically.

I finally ended up doing what most pastor’s kids swear that they will never do: I became a pastor.

Over the 11 years since I became a pastor, there have been occasions here and there where I have thought and wondered about what would have happened had I stayed in engineering and had my career taken a different turn there. As I’ve begun to find my own place in full-time ministry and have begun to live into my strengths, my own fulfillment in what I do has increased and there aren’t many time when I have those moments of wondering.

But sometimes, they still come…

While we were in the Outer Banks last week, one of those moments came…

As we drove to the house where we were staying, we passed the Field Research Facility for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Duck, North Carolina. Those feelings started to bubble up within me and I thought about my dreams of working at the beach, of being part of projects that would be enjoyable and beneficial, both for me and for others.

On one of my morning runs, I ran down to the Field Research Facility and lingered at the sign that gave information about what happened there. As I looked into the distance at the tower that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, I wondered what it would be like to live and work here, in what might be perceived as “paradise” to many people.

I let myself get lost in the moment and didn’t rush out of it too quickly, but eventually I came back to reality. I thought about the “what ifs” but I also thought about the “what is.”

I realized just how blessed that I am to be where I am. I realized that my journey had never been a straight line and had always taken anything but a linear pathway. I realized that the fulfillment that I was finding in what I do was a far cry from the lack of fulfillment in what I used to do once upon a time. I work with some incredible people and minister with and to some incredible people as well. I have opportunities that I can take advantage at this place and at this time that I might never have again, all by simply being a pastor.

Sure, there will always be days when the “what ifs” will creep up. I still have my engineering license and my degrees, I worked too hard to forget about them, but I’m not sure that I will ever work full-time in the field again.

There are times that I wish that I had multiple lifetimes to pursue all of my dreams and desires, but in the meantime, while someone’s trying to invent a DeLorean time machine, I’ll simply find contentment in knowing that I’m doing what I was created to do…….and I’ll smile!

Swimming In Grace

When we started our church more than two years ago, we knew that name was important. We knew that when you name something, it can be a powerful instrument in signifying identity.

Over and over throughout the Bible, people’s names mattered. Often, when they would experience a life-changing event, their name would be changed. Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul.

Names matter and we knew it.

As we poured through Scripture to see what possibilities there might be for us, we kept coming back to one word: restore. Among the verses that come to mind is Joel 2:25, “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.” After much consideration, we knew that we had to have the word “restoration” in our name.

But we also knew that any time that you have something in your name, you had better expect that your identity and who you are would deal with that specific thing. We knew that putting “restoration” in our name would involve more than just a trendy or hip sounding name, but it would mean that we would be involved with the restoration that the Gospel brings to people’s lives…..at least, if we really took seriously the name and the task set before us.

Over that time since we first launched out at a middle school, I have been awed by the many ways that God has worked to make that happen and humbled by the fact that, at times, he has used me as an instrument of his grace and a means of pointing people towards the life-changing power of the Gospel which brings restoration.

Yesterday was one of those days.

There are moments when I show up on a Sunday morning and I am dangerously close to “phoning it in.” My attitude isn’t always the greatest and I’m watching the clock to see when we’ll be done. That’s the attitude with which I come in with at times.

In the process of the morning, though, I find my heart being changed. I find that my attitude starts to improve. If it doesn’t, I usually look back and marvel at the fact that God was still able to use me, despite my bad attitude. Usually I’m feeling a slight twinge of guilt knowing that I was wrong from the beginning.

But there are other times when I show up and I’m ready. I’m ready for God to do something special. Not because I’m special or gifted, but because he’s God, because he wants restoration to take place in the lives of his people and in the lives of those who have yet to meet him and know him.

That’s how I showed up yesterday.

I recently retook the StrengthsFinders test to see my top 5 strengths. This being the third time that I have taken it over the past 14 years, my strengths had changed slightly again. Making its debut appearance among my strengths was “Self-assurance.” A brief description from the StrengthsFinders 2.0 book, “Self-assurance is similar to self-confidence, In the deepest part of you, you have faith in your strengths. You know that you are able – able to take risks, able to meet new challenges, able to stake claims, and, most important, able to deliver.” I have confidence, even more so because of who I am in Christ. I know my strengths and know that I can be used by God if I am diligent and faithful in what he’s given me.

It was with that confidence that I came yesterday morning. I had done my part to study and prepare a message. I had leaned on God in the midst of that preparation, seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. Now I needed to have confidence in what he had given me and confidence in who he was, the author and perfecter of our faith. As I came, I came knowing that God was going to speak to someone just as strongly as he had spoken to me all during my preparation.

As I sat in the front row with my fellow pastor, we whispered to one another as the dots were connected and themes seamlessly weaved themselves through our prayers, the music, and the message.

Afterwards, I knew that God had done the work. I leaned on his words in Isaiah 55:10-11, ““For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Afterwards, I was swimming in grace, knowing that God had used a simple, broken, imperfect vessel like me to bring a Gospel message to a dry land, a place in need of restoration.

The thing about Sunday nights and Monday mornings for pastors is that they can be lonely times. They can be letdowns, of sorts. After pouring your heart and soul into preparation and delivery of a message, you feel tapped out, emotionally, spiritually, physically.

That’s why I needed the reminder of grace, and there’s nothing better than swimming in it, immersing myself completely in it, to better understand and appreciate just how powerful that message is and what it means to me. When I take myself out of the picture, or at least put myself in the second chair where I belong, it’s much easier to avoid the disappointment. When I allow myself to sit in the first chair, then of course I will be disappointed because, in and of myself, I am unable to sustain things in the same way that the Giver of Life does.

After multiple conversations with people afterwards and then some additional words of encouragement in message form later on, I was able to rest in the grace of God that had sustained me and had used me, not because of who I am by myself, but because of who I am in Christ.

And just as I had started the day swimming, I ended it swimming as well. My family and I took a trip to the pool and spent a few hours there. I was immersing myself in a different kind of grace at that point, the grace of God to use me in the simple situations as well.

As I waded into the water, with kids hanging on my arms, I looked up to the sky and smiled.

Grace comes in different forms and at different times. Yesterday, I saw a bit of the gamut of that grace and it brought a smile to my face.

If there is any encouragement at all, it is this, that God can use one such as I to be an instrument of that grace despite my imperfections and my flaws. Every day I make new mistakes, often I make the same ones, but God’s grace works through those mistakes and picks me up, humbling me, changing me, and transforming me to be who I need to be in him.

Today is Monday, but when I start with grace, it doesn’t feel so much like a Monday at all.

Impending Disaster

Have you ever felt like you knew something was going to happen before it actually did? I don’t mean having “second sight” or something like that. I’m talking about when you see the pieces of something coming together in such a way that you can almost predict the outcome before it actually happens.

Before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, I felt like this every time they played a game that counted, especially against the Yankees. It was as if the script had been written, that it had been maximized for heartbreak, and that there was simply nothing that could be done to stop it before the train finally went off the tracks.

Through the years, I’ve seen the same sort of things play out within my family, among my friends, and even among people in my church or community. It’s as if there is an imaginary script that’s being written behind the scenes, and although you aren’t the one writing the script, you might as well have because you know all of the plot twists and significant happenings before they take place.

It’s kind of painful if you have any emotional investment in the situation whatsoever. In fact, the more emotionally vested you are in the situation, the people, and the outcome, the more painful it seems to be. And regardless of the emotional investment, there just doesn’t seem to be a thing that can be done to change the outcome.

It’s hard to describe the heartbreak that I’ve felt as I have watched these situations play out. It’s heartbreaking to see scenarios on a path of disaster and destruction that’s inevitable. It’s even more heartbreaking, at least to me, when you feel like you might have been able to stop it if you had had more information along the way, if the person had opened up about their struggles, or there were more people engaged in the situation earlier.

The thing is, it seems to happen more and more and the heartbreak just doesn’t stop. When you’ve watched multiple people walk down the same path of destruction, it gets tiresome and it gets to a point where you just want to grab them, shake them, point to the wreckage of others who you’ve seen and say, “Can you open your eyes? Can you see what you’re doing?”

But what can be done? How can it be stopped? Is it possible to keep the train on the tracks, to keep the impending and imminent disaster from happening? Is there a way to intervene, to step in and direct people towards a solution?

I think that it’s possible. I think that, given the right circumstances, these situations can be halted before they go too far. There are five observations that I have made that seem to contribute to contribute to the inevitability of the situations and make it that much harder to actually find a healthy and helpful resolution. If we look for the signs and are aware of the potential for disaster, we may be able to stop it before it goes too far.

So, here are my five observations:

1. We don’t ask for help until it’s too late

We are proud people who hate to admit weakness. When we are in the midst of struggles, one of the last things that we want to do is to admit that we don’t have the answers and can’t resolve our issues on our own. I’ve seen this in people who I have worked for and with, people within my family or among my friends. When we think that we can resolve situations on our own, we usually try and fail and then brush everything under the rug in hopes that it will go away. When it doesn’t (and it most certainly doesn’t), we may finally come to the place where we ask for help.

By the time that we finally muster enough courage and swallow enough pride to admit that we can’t solve the issue, things have escalated to such a frenzied state that it’s seemingly impossible to bring resolution to the situation. I’m not saying that it is impossible, after all, everything is possible with God, but if we haven’t felt like we could involve other people in the situation, will we really involve God?

When we become aware of an unsolvable situation, we need to admit it much sooner than we do. We need to come to that place of humility far sooner than we do if we really want resolution, otherwise, the disaster will look more imminent the further along we progress.

2. We don’t build deep relationships

We live in a society where we feign connectedness. Social media gives us the illusion that we are connected to many people, but that illusion can easily lead us astray into thinking that the depth of those relationships is greater than it really is. Staying connected in a deep and meaningful way takes more than simply writing some comments on a social media thread and thinking that everyone is being honest, including yourself.

Deep relationships are like anything else that grows, they take time and nourishment to thrive. We can’t expect to build deep relationships if we aren’t willing to spend the time and commit the energy. We can’t throw our relationships into a microwave and have them fully formed in 30 seconds or less.

We also can’t expect depth in our relationships unless we’re really willing to be open and honest. If we are always holding back and never really revealing ourselves to those with whom we are in relationship, how do we expect them to open up to us and how do we expect that some of the deeper issues with which we struggle can be resolved?

We need to do our best to avoid the social media trap that “everything is awesome” when it’s really not.

3. We don’t go to the right place for help

As a pastor, I can point a big finger to pastors in this area. Hear this from me very clearly, if you don’t hold a counseling, psychology, or mental health degree, know your own limitations, pastors. You can only get so far with people and with certain issues before you’re way above your pay grade and need to make referrals.

There’s no shame in it and there is so much more to gain from this. There are certain situations and circumstances that a Bible verse and some prayer just aren’t enough to help. I’m not diminishing the importance of Scripture and prayer, but I am saying that there are often things that we need to do besides simply read the Bible and pray.

We need to be able to humble ourselves enough to realize that we don’t have all of the answers nor do we all have adequate training to move people towards resolution.

Speaking of humility, when we have issues, we need to not just slough them off but confront them in real and effective ways. We can’t simply will ourselves to get better or take the “just try harder” approach, it doesn’t work.

As one who has sought out good counselors, I can say that there is a lack of them, at least where I live. But it’s important to find good people who can be effective and helpful if you want to find resolution. I’m working on building up a list of people to whom I can refer or use myself, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

4. We give up too easily

We don’t show near the loyalty that previous generations have shown. When we our dissatisfied with an experience or product, we don’t try to see what options there are for changing the situation, we simply discard it and move on to the next thing.

Unfortunately, we do this with things other than disposable brands and products. We do it with relationships all the time. You hurt me, I’m defriending you. You betrayed me, I’m leaving you. You’ve lost my trust, I’m never talking to you again.

I’m not sure what happened to the old “stick it out” mentality, but it seems that we move on too quickly to the next thing without giving sufficient time and energy to what’s right before us. Chances are, if we don’t stick around to seek resolution in what’s in front of us, we’ll eventually find ourselves in a situation where we’ll do it again, or someone will do it to us and simply walk away.

I could tell stories about the times that I have spoken with someone who was in the process of walking away because they had “tried” to work things out. When I start probing them about what that they had tried and done, they usually didn’t give me affirmative answers to the suggestions that I have made. In other words, their efforts and “trying” was not nearly as exhaustive as they might have convinced themselves that it was.

There might come a time when you have seriously exhausted your opportunities, but until that time, keep on trying.

5. We aren’t honest with ourselves and with one another

This was mentioned indirectly in some of the previous points, but redundancy is a good thing. When we fail to divulge all of the information about a situation, especially to the people who can most help us out, we will fail to find resolution. When we continue to tell people that “everything’s fine” when it’s much worse than they see, we’re heading for disaster. We need to be honest with ourselves and with one another. We need to be able to admit our faults and admit when we have made mistakes.

I have seen situations come to a head when people have not been willing to admit that the situation was far worse than it really was, and then the whole thing blows up in their face. Even though I’ve sensed things along the way and had even asked about the gravity of the situation, I always received the “everything’s fine” response.

Unless we can come to the place where we are bitterly honest about what’s going on in a situation, we won’t find resolution. It may be really difficult to lay it all out on the table, but if we are really seeking resolution, we need to.

Sometimes this means that we need to probe people more than feels comfortable to us. If we have friends that seem to be in dire straits, than we might need to ask tough questions and dig deep to get to the heart of the issue.

As trite as it might seem, we have to remember that the first step is often admitting that there’s a problem. That admission is the first step towards honesty.

 

Following these observations isn’t a foolproof guarantee of avoiding the impending disaster, but I think it can go a long way, especially if we start to change a few things here and there. If you’ve experienced it before, you know how heartbreaking it is to see it all play out exactly like you thought it would. And, no matter how much you hoped against it, it usually plays out just like you thought that it would.

We can start to see change when it starts with us, not waiting until it’s too late, building deeper relationships, going to the right places for help, not giving up too easily, and being honest with ourselves and with others. I’d hate for it to me that someone was looking at and seeing the impending disaster play out. I think you probably feel the same way.

Next – A Book Review

vanderbloemen_NEXT_wSpineb.inddThe landscape of the American church is littered with the wreckage of church successions gone bad. While some pastors have planned for who will come in and assume the position once they are gone, there are too many situations where the unexpected like death or sexual indiscretions have wreaked havoc on a church. There have been situations where pastors came to what they thought would be the end of their tenure only to find that they were uncertain as to where they might go next. Succession, although an uncomfortable and risky topic, needs to be part of the conversation had between every pastor and his/her church.

With pastoral succession and the creation of a new culture in mind, William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird wrote, “Next: Pastoral Succession That Works.” The authors say early on in the book that, “Healthy succession is much more art than science. The plan and details must be tailored to each situation.” They claim that it is never too early to start planning for one’s succession, citing the corporate world where many CEOs talk about their own succession plan as soon as they take their position. Essentially, the authors state, every pastor is simply an interim pastor, it’s only their length of stay that varies.

Vanderbloemen and Bird walk the reader through some essential questions to be asked by both pastors and church boards or search committees. They give helpful hints and steps that can be taken to outline a succession plan, conversations to have with key leaders. They ask questions that can help pastors probe deep into who they are, digging deep to find out where their passion lies and what else they might pursue if they were to leave their current position.

The authors spent years compiling information and conducting interviews regarding church successions. This book was birthed out of the countless hours spent researching successions. The book is full of case studies of both successful and unsuccessful successions that have taken place. Over and over again, I felt myself relating to these stories, having either experienced similar situations myself or having heard of these situations experienced by someone that I know. In the midst of laying out and sharing their research, the authors simply put the information out there, not criticizing or judging, but simply sharing insights.

As I read through this book, I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself, “I wish that I had this book a few years ago” or “I wish that I could give this book to [fill in name here].” It’s a book that is helpful for anyone who holds a position of leadership in the church, be it as a pastor, an elder, a deacon, or any other position of authority. What the authors share is information that needs to be brought out into the open, discussed, and then act as a catalyst to make a change moving forward.

The only criticism that I had for the book was that there were moments when I felt that they were unashamedly promoting one of their companies. While those moments were few and far between, I think that the research and findings as well as the compilation of them could easily have stood themselves as a testimony to the companies rather than requiring a few strategically placed self-promotions.

Other than that, I have high praise for this book. It belongs on the bookshelf of every pastor who wants to be taken seriously and who wants to remain effective for as long as God would allow. This is a worthwhile resource that’s worth your time to read.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)