Know your place

Where are you? Where has God placed you? The various postcodes in which you live your life are not an accident. They’re not the result of a freak set of circumstances. God has placed you there very deliberately. How do you feel about where God has placed you? How do you feel about the people he has put you among? Who he has called you to love and share Jesus with?

Places are different. But often we don’t stop and think about those differences. And when we fail to stop and think about these differences we fail to love either the place or the people well. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that a dis-located gospel is a huge missed opportunity. What does it look like to be the church where God has placed you? What is the area like? What is it’s history and how has that shaped the present? What are the dreams and aspirations of the people who live where you church is and where you live? What are there needs, not just their felt needs and their actual needs? What is the story people find themselves in? How is that changing and shifting? And how will you find that out? (Hint it’s not by binge watching Netflix or Prime).

One of the dangers for us as churches, pastor and people is that we assume our place is a generic place. That it’s the same as the places and people elsewhere or that we see via our media consumption be it social media or binge watching our favourite series. That it’s generically British. Generically middle or working class. Generically Northern or Southern. And so on. And so we end up preaching a generic gospel via generic sermons and meeting generic needs for a generic area and a generic people and guess what we get a generic response. But that simply isn’t good enough. Yes the spirit can work through that and praise God he does. But God has placed us in the postcodes where we live out our lives for his glory so that we connect with the people who are there not some generic everyman or everywoman with a gospel that is not generic but powerful for each and every individual and family and area.

What is the history of your local area? Hayfield has been shaped by a couple of major things historically; the miner’s strike and resultant closing of the pits and being the site of a former RAF base. That history matters, there are so many things to celebrate, it still has so much influence and has shaped so many people. It is a story of struggle, of resentment of authority, or feeling overlooked, of loss, of economic hardship and so on. That story matters. But now there is also the rampant gentrification which is taking place, the pop up housing estates which seem to have a phenomenal rate of churn as people move in, get promoted or separated or relocated with work and move out with a frequency not seen in the more established older ex-RAF areas.

The old area I loved has changed. The postcode where God has placed us as a church and where we live is now larger, more diverse, spread across classes and aspirations, with various stories and histories and aspirations. And God calls me to love across the divides, to share the gospel across the divides. And the great news is that the gospel is teh one power on the planet that can change a society one life at a time as it wipes away sin and shame and brings life and reconciliation.

Do you know your place? Do you know it’s story, it’s history, it’s hopes and dreams? Do you know how to address those things with the power of the gospel and the great news of Jesus? Do you love those God has placed in your life from that area?

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Ministering for the long term

There is something of an epidemic of pastoral burn out. It takes many forms, some simply fade away losing their spiritual vitality and find that preaching and pastoring just become a chore and so they resign because they can’t keep plodding on when they feel bereft of life and love for Christ. Others flame out spectacularly wither through some form of breakdown or moral failure or collapse. Others simply soldier on but feeling defeated just going through the motions. Sustaining ministry in the long term is about discipline and habits, it’s not about the spectacular and because of that it is so easy to fail to do it, especially in the early years of ministry it is possible to sow the sides of shipwreck or ill health in your 40s or 50s.

I say that partly having been there and partly because I have the scars to prove it. Ministry is exhausting. There are seasons of significance physical, emotional and spiritual pressure. There is the unrelenting unremitting task every week of sitting down to prepare a sermon, longing for and labouring to lead your flock to food and water in Christ. There is burden of pastoral care, with some situations that take months of slog to help resolve, others than result in anger and rejection, and others that break our hearts.

I don’t see much self care being practiced among pastors, which makes us hypocrites because we spend so much time encouraging others to do what we’re not doing. I also on’t see that much pastors care being undertaken by churches for their leaders or by elderships for their pastors. If we want pastors to stay fresh to be able to preach and teach and pastor well for the long term we need them to be vibrantly alive in Christ. But how do we do that?

Ask honest but searching questions – we need, as pastors, to ask these questions of ourselves. Sometimes we find ourselves asking others how they are spiritually? How they are enjoying hearing from God? How they are engaging with God’s word? How their prayer life is? How are they being discipled and discipling others? Where is following Jesus a joy and where is it is hard? And yet we so infrequently ask ourselves those questions. How is my relationship with God? Am I taking the place of the disciple to sit and hear from God and be awed again by who he is and what he has done for me? Where am I being challenged to pick up my cross, deny myself and follow him right now? How am I growing in my grasp of the sheer depth and love and height and breadth of God’s love for me in Christ and what is that leading to? And as we ask those questions what do they reveal and what will we do with that?

Those are great questions for an elder (not in an elders meeting but 1 on 1) to discuss with those pastoring a congregation.

Build real friendships – Pastoring a congregation can be lonely. Pastors need real friendships. We need people we can hang out with. people who we know are for us and don’t want anything specific from us apart from to get to know us. There should be these kind of friendships both in the church and outside of it. These are the people who know us best and will spot the early warning signs, but also often simply be God’s agents of grace to us. We also need to commit to building friendships in ministry with other ministers, not as networks but in genuine friendships where we can laugh together and share burdens and honestly talk about ourselves our churches our families without any sense of one-upmanship or competitiveness. Committing to spend a day or two in such groups regularly will help us keep perspective on ourselves and our ministry.

Care for your family – It’s really easy for our children to feel like they come second to ministry. We need to work hard to ensure that our kids know they are valued, that being their dad is as God given a duty and privilege as leading a church is. That means we need to make time to hang out with them. That may mean doing a film night where you clear the decks and get out the popcorn. It may mean time together playing basketball or walking the dog without distraction on a regular basis. It will change and morph as your children age, but it matters.

Don’t skimp on your day off – What hours are you working? How many days a week? Are you taking your holiday allowance? What is your practice of sabbath? I’m not advocating a hardline sabbatarian stance. But we were made to work for God’s glory and to rest for God’s glory. Do you take a day off? What do you do with it? Is it something restful – a hobby or some other form of recreation that recharges your batteries? What refills you and brings you joy?

As a side note there are pastors who are lazy and don’t work enough but I don’t know many of them. It may be that we need to have our ideas of what is work reshaped or changed. But asking what they do and why is important.

Eat well – I can tell when I’m too busy or stressed by my diet. If I’m eating junk hastily because it’s all I can fit in it’s like the warning light that things are too busy or we’re too stressed. Similarly of we haven’t got time to sit and eat and enjoy company. In Luke’s gospel Jesus always seem to be either on the way to or from a meal. When Elijah is in crisis God sends him food. We are embodied creatures and if we deny the needs of our body it is not honouring to God. We need to take time to eat and eat well, it also provides a great opportunity to build friendships and care for your family.

Find an outlet – I was really struck by something I read this week about competitive pastors. It was suggesting that pastors who are competitive about their churches ought to find another outlet for their competitive streak instead. That’s a helpful idea. I also think it’s just healthy to be involved in other things. To have others avenues for exercise or enjoyment. It might be sport, music, creativity, DIY. Whatever it is having other things we do and care about and are committed to is helpful and good for us.

Get out of God’s way and sleep – How many hours of sleep do you get a night? We’re all different and our need for sleep changes as we age and go through different stages of life. But we all need to sleep. Sleeping is godly. It is us exercising faith in God and stopping to rely on him. Sadly there is something in our culture that seems to feel sleep is the enemy, that it’s heroic to push on through, to deprive ourselves of sleep via stimulants or boast in how little sleep we need. But God has made us to sleep and we can because he does not need to. There are eye opening studies on sleep and it’s amazing benefits that as pastors we need to read and absorb and let shape our lives. If not we are only storing up long term trouble for ourselves.

Honour your marriage – Marriage is God’s gift but our marriages don’t drift into healthiness. Our marriages need our attention. They need time and care taken to hear each other well, respond to each other rightly, and make places of intimacy and godly care. The pressures of ministry make this especially important. Ministry exacts it’s toll on marriage too and so we need to give time deliberately to our marriages.

Maybe you’re thinking yes but I’m young. I’m just starting out. I don’t need to worry about any of this. I’ll put those things in place later. Let me in love say later will be too late. Unhealthy patterns, a lack of discipline, failure to pursue godliness by our actions, is neither sustainable or wise. It is foolish and will not reap a harvest of righteousness. It will lead to burn out, it will model an unhealthy activism for our churches and families, It will lead to significant physical and spiritual problems for both you, your family and your congregation.

If we want to minister for the long term healthy patterns and discipline are key.

Unredacted Jesus

When you read through the gospels it’s amazing how often people want to redact Jesus. People want to edit what he says; the Pharisees want him to edit what he says about the Sabbath or the kingdom or the errors in their religion. The disciples want him to stop talking about the cross and his impending death, and everyone wants him to stop talking about the things that make them uncomfortable – his views on marriage, divorce, money and discipleship. They want the miracles working good teacher full of grace who doesn’t make them uncomfortable or challenge them too much on their sin or their societies move away from God’s word.

How does Jesus respond? He keeps teaching with authority. At times he withdraws to pray. He keeps on performing miracles accrediting his teaching as the very word God from the Son of God. He rebukes his disciples. He confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees and confounds their questioning and attempts to discredit him. Jesus won’t be redacted. He won’t change his teaching, he won’t be silenced on the things the people don’t want teaching on or which confronts the respectable sins of the day.

Following Jesus means denying ourselves, carrying our cross and following him and that includes in his teaching, all of it. To follow Jesus is not just to do good, to love your neighbour, it is to obey him. Jesus says if we love him we will obey his commands. At the end of Matthew he sends his disciples out to make disciples of all nations teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. That’s an astonishing statement. Jesus won’t be redacted, he won’t be edited, we’re not at liberty to silence some of his teaching, or teach – or believe – around the hard bits but avoiding them, or take the black out pen or scissors to his words. Following Jesus means hearing and obeying everything he commands – his words on identity, marriage, divorce, giving, greed and church and acting on them.

You can’t be a disciple of a redacted Jesus. If you won’t believe what he teaches, if you won’t follow it, you aren’t following him, you’re following a fabled Messiah of your own imagination, a therapeutic Messiah who ultimately as a work of fiction has no eternal life to offer you and no hope of life now amidst all the garbage of glory of this world. Part of discipleship is denying ourselves, that includes denying what I would like to think and wrestling to believe what Jesus teaches. It means seeing his love for us displayed in all its glory in his life, death and resurrection and believing that he is so for you that everything he teaches is for your, and the world’s, good.

I wonder sometimes if we redact Jesus because we aren’t fully convinced of his goodness. If we’re not totally sold on the truth that he has come to bring life and life to that full. We think that there’s an alternative, or an amalgam of Jesus teaching and the world’s, that is somehow better. I’ll have a bit of Jesus and a bit of this way of thinking or teaching, it’ll make following Jesus easier and more attractive. But if we redact Jesus at all then we haven’t understood who he is. He is the only Son of God declaring not a possible truth, but THE truth to us. He is THE life not one possible variation of it that we can tweak or improve if we just ignore this bit or add that bit.

Four little words

“Not so with you.” They are four little words that appear in Matthew 20 but which ought to dominate the way we think about leadership in the church. Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the way the church and the kingdom works, how it functions, how it is led. And he contrasts the worldly way of doing leadership with the way of leading in the kingdom.

The leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them, they act as tyrants. Having reached the top and gained position and influence and prestige they use it, they tell others what to do. But says Jesus not so with you. You are not to lead like that. Leadership, and life, in the church is to follow Jesus pattern, he came to serve not to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t helpful things we can learn from the way leadership operates in the world, there are. But it does mean that those leadership lessons mustn’t just be cut and pasted from the world into the church without being sifted and weighed by God’s people in light of God’s world. That means we must take time to work out what the world looks for in a leader and what the church looks for in a leader, because often we get the two confused and look for the same things in the church as in the world, when we do that it ought not to surprise us when they rule like a tyrant, when it’s their way or the highway. That lesson is made plain in 1 Samuel when Israel want a king just like the other nations and end up with a king just like the other nations and it doesn’t end well.

Instead the model Jesus gives us is servant leadership. Not sappy leadership, not soft leadership, but servant leadership. Leadership that knows the truth and holds to the truth but is liberated by the gospel from a quest to obtain security through reputation or position or success via leadership because they have found their security in Christ who gave himself as a ransom for them. Leaders must have a secure grasp on the gospel and it’s implications for them so that it is where their security is found. It alone liberates them to lead like Jesus, serving at cost to self, bearing with, gently correcting, being willing to bear questioning, and loving even when people misunderstand or mishear.

The key to being able to lead like Jesus is to root our identity and security so deeply in Jesus that we are liberated to serve others but not seek security in others approval or our reputation.

‘Not so with you’. How is your leadership? How is your playing your part in the church is it marked by these same things?

Whose voice are we hearing?

We hear a myriad of different voices in our lives, some are hugely influential for good. Others are bad and seem to haunt us no matter whether we want them to or not. Some build us up many tear us down. But here’s the question, whose voice are you hearing as God’s voice?

God speaks to us definitively in his word by his Spirit. That’s why we need to always being weighing and testing what is said and taught with God’s word. Does it measure up? Does it fit? That’s true whether we are in church, listen to the radio, or a YouTube service or sermon or a podcast. Is what is being said what God says? Does it fit with his Spirit inspired word. We need to be less gullible and accepting and more Berean; “Now the¬†Berean¬†Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17v11).

But that’s equally true as we live life out of the voices we hear. It may the voice of a parent who drove us to perform, to do better. Who responded to our test score or 95% not with a well done, but with a ‘what was the one you got wrong?’ Who has left a legacy of perfectionism. Which means that the voice we so often think is God driving us on to do better, to be better, because we are just failures, is not God’s voice at all it is the haunting words of a perfectionist parent, not a God who is gracious and loving. The challenge is to stop that perfectionist voice and hear God’s voice instead as we weigh it up against scripture.

Ot perhaps it is the comment a church member, leader, or even pastor, who says something galatically stupid, makes – it happens more often that we might think. Which leaves us feeling like a failure, or guilty and crushed. If there’s a pattern of that then it needs to be addressed and dealt with and churches should have procedures in place to do so. But often it’s the little one off comment that hasn’t been thought through and isn’t meant to wound but becomes the primary tone in which we then think God speaks. Well if they said that then maybe its true, maybe I am wrong, maybe I am a failure, maybe I am not doing enough, maybe it is all my fault. We need to be more Berean, we need to measure what people say in light of God’s truth. We need to allow God dos peak to us in his voice from his word by his Spirit rather than let others speak for him.

We also, as a church, need to be more careful with our words. We need to speak God’s word to someone in the tone in which he would speak to them. We mustn’t confuse our thoughts and ideas with God’s words.

Paradoxical Pastors

What’s your paradigm of leadership? What does good leadership look like? What does it achieve? What is its goal? What methods are legitimate for it to use? What methods aren’t?

Pastors are leaders and so we need to sit and ask and answer this question. Our churches will have a leadership culture and so we need to ask what it is and how it has, and is, being shaped? There are all sorts of models we can go for. All sorts of ways we can think we should operate. Maybe it’s the visionary – who casts dynamic exciting visions of the future and leads people through sheer inspiration. Maybe it’s the CEO who efficiently keeps everything running through his sound management of teams and good communication. Maybe it’s the entrepreneur who is constantly thinking, dreaming, adapting, imagining and trying new things. There are too many others to name.

Our views on leadership are so shaped by the world we don’t even realise it. As pastors we are up the front, people want to be led, and so we lead. But often our, and their, views of what leadership looks like are more formed by the Apprentice or a Netflix series or the latest Diary of a CEO podcast than the Bible. Sadly it can be true of our institutions of faith . And of the mechanism for applying for funding. The more high profile you are, the more well known you are, the more creative, the more out there the easier it is, the more people will be attracted to your ministry, to give, to come. That creates all sorts of problems, so of the whirlwind thereof we are currently reaping.

But being a pastor is a paradox. It’s the JtB paradox. In John 3v27-30 after a dispute John the Baptist’s (JtB) disciples come to him and tell him about Jesus who everyone is now going to, they seem to be fearful of losing popularity and status, maybe their funding. I love John’s answer: “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourself can testify that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead if him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

There is so much in the passage that we haven’t got time to unpack. But don’t you love John’s humility, he sees every ministry success as given from heaven. He hasn’t earned it, it’s not a badge of honour for him, there’s no danger of it puffing him up, it’s a divine gift of God. And he has always been clear that he’s not the Messiah, his God given role is to point to Jesus. And he is overjoyed at Jesus, amazed afresh that he has heard his voice. And so his ministry goal, is for Christ to increase and for himself to decrease.

Do you see the paradox of pastoral ministry? Even as we preach, lead, counsel and use our God given gifts it’s not about us. At least not if we’re doing it well. If we do it well we get out of the way and Jesus is seen. We are just the delivery method. But we also have a tremendous privilege, to be called to tell others about him, to introduce them to Jesus, to help them see and hear him again and again, without us obscuring or warping him. And our joy isn’t in ministry, it’s not in any of the fripperies that go with it, our joy is in hearing Jesus voice.

It’s scary how easy it is to fall away from that. How susceptible we are to popularity or whatever other metric, measure or motive that obscure Christ for those we are called to make him known to. Pastoring is about embracing obscurity so that we don’t get in the way, so that Christ is known, and seen, and loved, and worshipped and followed. Does that feature in our paradigm? In our plan? Will be be paradoxical pastors? Because it will liberate us to lead by grace because its not about us it’s all about him and his glory not tied up with ours.