Reckless

In the book of Numbers is a quirky story of Balaam and his donkey.  The story is of Balaam the prophet being courted by Balak the king of Moab to prophesy against the children of Israel while on their way to the promised land.  Balaam is evidently on his way to a perch where he can look down on the children of Israel when his donkey sees an angel from God that Balaam does not see.  The donkey seeks to go around the angel and crushes Balaam’s leg against part of a wall.  This leads to the Balaam getting more and more annoyed to the point that he beats his donkey three times.

At this point the donkey talks to Balaam.  Balaam is evidently so upset at his donkey’s apparent disobedience that he does not see the unusual nature of the donkey speaking back to him.

We all can recount times where people have set their sights so earnestly in a single direction that the perception of the actual terrain around has become skewed.  Too often the circumstance can be traced back to thoughts like “God, here is my plan, now bless it” rather than “God, what is Your plan?”

Motivations can be varied but personal esteem or reward is usually near the top.  Perhaps we want to look good before others, our church to look good, our opponents to be outdone, our appeal to the community to be greater, our logic to be affirmed, or our future to be more secure.  These still come down to selfish interests.  The King Balak would likely have given reward to Balaam, and though Balaam seemed verbally to distance himself from that compensation, likely it was a motivator.

So on Balaam’s journey after his experience on the donkey he finally has the angel speak to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me” (Numbers 22:32 NIV).

How many times have I followed a ‘reckless path’, one of my own devising?  It could be a path where I was not technically disobeying but pushing the boundary.

May God give us all more ability to see our blindness caused by our self directed paths.

 

 

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On Church Boards

Questions on roles, expectations, training, and evaluation of deacons and elders come to CBWC offices regularly.  What is often really behind the question is not what is biblical but a curiosity of what might be culturally common within those roles.  Yes, in the Western World we have a fairly well developed ‘church culture’.

Culturally there has been the development of some rather rigid roles for deacon and elder. Biblically deacons served tables, but not many do that specific role any more.  The roles for an elder can vary quite widely in Scripture, but certainly there were some that were used to administrate or ‘rule’ with regard to a church’s functioning.  Biblically there is no specifics on the election or appointment processes for those who would serve as elders.  Timothy was to appoint elders, but not much is there on how he went about the pragmatics of making those choices.

Too often we think of elders as those serving on an elders’ board.  In reality, however, if an elder takes a year or more off from the elders’ board, are they no longer one of the elders for that church community?  We may have used the term ‘elder’ too rigidly.  It is my belief that it is a good thing for people to desire to be an elder in character and role and that they do not need to be elected as such to serve in that capacity.

There are Biblically no details regarding meetings of elders or deacons, unless one would possibly include Acts 15.  Was there a committee chair, the taking of minutes, a schedule of meetings, or a devotional?  All of these are additions from our culture.  True, they may be helpful assets to committee type roles in our modern world, but they are extra-biblical pieces.

The word ‘elder’ can be used scripturally as those whose jurisdiction was over a very broad region, not merely a specific church family.  In the small town in which I was a pastor I think the town’s elders could have been a fellow who was a printer from the Pentecostal church, a high-hoe operator from the Lutheran church, and a few farmers from the Nazarene and Baptist churches.  If people wanted reputable Christian advice the community knew who these elders were.  Community members were likely to go to them as much as to the pastors of those churches if they needed advice or counsel.

One church I worked with intentionally did away with elder and deacon boards.  They had a ‘leading committee’ and that committee had ‘committee members’.  This took away much of the inappropriate attachments of trying to tie biblical verses, which were for a more ancient context, into a more contemporary one.

I am not against deacon or elder boards, but at least let’s be honest about the cultural pieces attached to how we use the terms.  Those serving in those roles are to be humble, careful not to ‘lord it over others’.  There is nothing more dangerous than someone having responsibility without accountability.  Everyone needs to answer back responsibly to the congregation.  Entitlement and self-inflated egos over being a deacon or elder need to take the way of the dodo bird.

 

 

The Gift of Sharing

“Give me your tired, your poor,

 Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

 The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

 Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Those are the words on the Statue of Liberty.  Welcoming strangers is to be one of the marks of believers.    Jesus shares the affirmation of the ‘sheep’, whom He affirms by saying,

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”  (Matthew 25:35-36 NIV).

I remember the difficulties as a small child of sharing with my siblings.  When I say that you need to appreciate that I was one of eight children.  Sharing my Tonka truck, or my bike, or my football were not theoretical things that might happen … they happened all the time.  Okay, some of that was not by choice as most of my siblings were bigger than me.

Sharing is not a natural trait of the human condition, but Jesus shared no small portion with us.  He has shared or is sharing His Spirit, His work, His home, His peace, His mercy, His family, His riches, His purpose, His burden, His goals, and many other facets of privilege.

The Apostle Paul speaks against some self-sufficient types when he says, For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”  (1 Cor 4:7).  Absolutely everything we have we have been given by God, and we need to have that sharing spirit to inspire us to bless others with what we have received.

May God give us more of a sense of how much we have been given and the courage to share as we see a world in such great need.

Your co-worker,  Dennis

Hiring Associate Staff From Within Your Own Church

The practice of hiring staff from within one’s own church is becoming more common.  This step has both positive and negative potential outcomes, so various considerations need to be pondered before such steps are taken.  There are many variables, so let’s begin.

First let’s talk about when a layperson is considered for an associate position.  There are many upsides to this choice.  Likely if a person is considered at all they are highly esteemed among their church family.  Their gifting and weaknesses have been recognized and are widely known to a level that is beyond what one would have on an outside candidate.  These individuals know the church, are established in relationships, are familiar with the church structures, and can relate to the church culture and history.  An added bonus is that there are no relocation costs to consider.  These considerations are often very helpful pieces and such candidates are good possibilities, especially for part time roles.

So what are some of the possible downsides to this choice?  I think the key challenge these individuals face is in the sociological transition of the role change.  There is an adjustment from being ‘just one of the gang’ to now being a ‘pastor’.  Often this is more of an adjustment than the individual expects.  The relationship with the individual’s supervisor, often the senior pastor, may need to switch from a cordial friendship to one of accountability with expectations.  At some point the reality of the switch can bring some friction.  Also an associate role usually involves some level of administration and leadership and former friends can react with an attitude of ‘who made you a ruler over us?’  The transition from being a friend and colleague to being an administrator needing to coordinate volunteers can deeply affect one’s former relationships. There can be jealousies faced which a new person from the outside would never have experienced.

Another potential downfall is if anything goes sideways with the hired individual.  This might be through an annual review, a corrective by a board member or pastor, or a personal disagreement with the church’s direction.   The individual’s pre-established connections within the church leaves greater vulnerability to gossip.  Unofficially there may be more of a loyalty to friends with less loyalty to the board chair or senior pastor.  Some other disgruntled layperson might also attempt to use the former relationship with the individual to gain inroads as a way to disrupt a current decision or direction of the church.  If the relationship with such a hire goes sideways, do they leave the role and return as before, back into the fabric of the church family as an average layperson?  Not likely.  Do they then have to leave or would they likely leave?  If they feel they have to leave, what is to be the response of those supportive of the individual?

I have seen many of these scenarios work out wonderfully well, but because of the relational aspects already at play within the church there needs to be some serious conversation about expectations and possible outcomes.

May God guide us all as we seek to recognize leaders and effectively position them to help equip the church for works of service to the King of Kings!

O To Be Useful!

It is a great privilege to be involved in pastoral settlement. I get to work with pastoral candidates and search committees on a variety of levels.

In a recent conversation with someone who has similar responsibilities in another denomination, he stated he often meets people who quickly state they are gifted in preaching and pastoral care. In response to such an admission the denominational leader sometimes replies, “So what do you do that’s useful?”

That may sound like a cynical statement, which at times it might be, but there is some insight here with the changing role of pastoral ministry. If we go back sixty years ago, pastors were often among the most educated in a community, among the few brave enough to speak publicly, among the few with the resources of good materials for Biblical research, and among the few with inter-church relationships. Bring that forward to 2015 and we have on average more educated inter-connected congregants, people raised to speak their mind with less fear of public speaking, people with access on their smartphones to excellent Biblical resources, and people with a broader understanding of the Christian church beyond the walls of their own church. I can add to that list the broad availability of knowledge and teaching which is online, on television, on the internet, and in a plethora of books and podcasts. The average congregant now has the potential to be less uninformed about less and less.

Church families need preaching and pastoral care, but those giftings are not found only in the paid pastoral role. Seldom does a church approach me for pulpit supply while their pastor is away on holiday. More and more there are budding preachers within the congregation itself eager to share what God has revealed to them. Many churches also coordinate their pastoral care around a few volunteers willing to give their time for such efforts.

As churches grow they often look for individuals who are able to lead teams, or are gifted in administration, or are able to form local missional outreaches, or are able to motivate toward a specific meaningful ministry. A unique track-record with these skills can pique the interest of a search committee. Not to take this away from anyone, but pastoral care by an educated, skilled pastor is rather expensive if one looks through the lens the hourly wage. For those around 50 and under, time is a particularly important commodity, so visiting for the sake of visiting is not like those who are elderly who had the tradition of a pastor stopping by from time to time. Each church and pastor needs to devise what works well for them in this area.

For those in pastoral ministry or in church leadership positons, it will be helpful in the future if we all enhance our skills and develop new ones. The church needs equippers, encouragers, administrators, motivators, outreach workers, servants of the poor, strategists to reach target ministry groups, youth workers, crisis workers, friends of immigrants, evangelists of all types, hospitality specialists, and manual labourers.

May God give us all a sense of what He has called us to be and to do, and might we have the freedom to use our unique gifts!

Use Some Emotion With Our Message

Okay, I confess. I acknowledge I like watching ‘The Voice’. We record it and watch it fast-forwarding most of the parts, slowing down to watch the musical parts … at least the ones I think I’ll like.

The show is very intriguing to me because there are parallels to the roles within ministry, particularly preaching. It has been interesting to watch and see some individuals are technically correct in their presentation in that they say the right words, they have the right inflections, they smile and walk in all the right ways. However time and time again the choice is made in terms of how much ‘heart’ is in the song, or, in my own words, a sense of communicating on an emotional-level the song’s message is presented. One of the show’s critics stated that they would ‘rather be moved than impressed’. Does that not relate to preaching?

So, pulling this into the realm of preaching, in many pulpits the emotional sense of the message is lost or less than it should be. Perhaps this is because we have our preachers trained in classrooms, in an academic setting that is often devoid of emotional presentation in handling dynamic truth. Preachers too often emulate teachers rather than individuals passionate for people to respond to a soul-changing message.

I’ll keep this short, but in a couple weeks from the time of this writing Passion Week is here culminating with Resurrection Sunday. It is the time of year we remember the events of the cross and the wonder of Jesus rising from the dead. These truths can be presented as mere Biblical fact … or it can be presented with passion and conviction. I want both parts present.

Paul was unapologetic when he stated that his work was to ‘persuade’. In our culture this is less than cool, but it is a relevant aspect of what we are called to do. Yes, the Holy Spirit ultimately does the work of changing hearts and this is not done by mere men and women. But let us not fall down in our opportunities by presenting the truth with the dryness of a CNN report. It does not take tears or rending of garments, but let us not be afraid of our emotions when sharing that Jesus lives!

Hallelujah! Amen!

Your co-worker, Dennis

Faith People

So where are today’s ‘faith people’? Hebrews 11 is full of individuals who stepped forward in their generation and took risks, took abuse, took imperfect personalities, took their lack of experience … and they led us as examples to follow. This is true for us as individuals, as families, and as churches.
‘Fear or faith’ is always the choice. Fear keeps things the same. Fear is risk-averse. Fear does what seems safe. Fear sees change as an enemy. Fear protects what ‘is’. Fear involves less adrenaline, less dreaming, less seeking, less honesty when praying “Lord, whatever You want.”

Faith people are attuned to God. They dream dreams. They accept not having every detail planned out in their future. They face challenges as opportunities for God to work through them. They work beyond what ‘is’ to what ‘can be’.

This message is not unlike what most of our pastors would preach, but we need to see it taken beyond the pulpit. We need to prepare a new generation of spiritual leaders for the work we do together on the prairies. We need to think beyond our own tenure within our current ministry. We need to pray and believe God for the advancement of His Kingdom through our work together. Much work is to be done, but riding the coattails of a previous generation will only lead to stages of regression.

Your co-worker, Dennis Stone, CBWC Alberta Regional Minister