Working Too Hard?

Pastoring is a profession like any other. I am constantly working to hone and upgrade my skills and become a true master of my craft. This takes diligence, effort and a lot of punching the clock. Pastoring isn’t nearly as sexy as I thought it would be.

Pastoring is also a profession unlike any other. I am a midwife and surrogate parent. I am responsible for the spiritual care and well being of my spiritual family, arguably the most important part of their lives, and yet I am given little power to affect anything in their lives. I only have the influence they let me have. Hence, much of my job is persuasion… and it is wearisome.

In my more melancholy moments (like this one), I wonder about the effectiveness of the model of church we have embraced in the West. We, the church leaders and pastors, have tried to make everything so easy — we break down the teachings of Jesus into three point sermons complete with application points; we do much of the heavy lifting in prayer, intercession and service; we try to set the bar as low as possible so it is easy for people to participate; and we pour ridiculous amounts of time, energy, focus and creativity into preparing messages that are usually dismissed with little more than a “good message pastor.” This last piece has me particularly vexed.

The last time I bothered to look up the figure and poll my peers, the average pastor spent around 20 hours of their week preparing a sermon. For those whose sole purpose is preaching and teaching, that number can inflate to 35 or more. I live in a town with 20 churches, each pastor preparing a message each week. That is 400 hours and more being invested into the people of God each and every week, almost 21,000 hours in a year. With that kind of focused investment from highly trained and highly passionate people, why is 50%+ of the city still unreached and the rest of the city relatively unchanged? I’ve been noodling on that for some time and still don’t have the answers I’d like.

It does occur to me, however, that I might be working too hard. Working too hard to make the sayings of Jesus easily digestible, working too hard to apply those teachings to other people’s lives and situations. For me, sermon prep is a worship experience because it forces me to submit to a God who does not think like I do and to rework what I thought I knew in order to follow his train of thought. Perhaps more people need to be doing that each week than the 19 other pastors and I? What if the model we’ve embraced, comfortable as it is, has actually incapacitated the church and is barring us from actually doing what Jesus commanded us to do?

Like I said, I don’t have any good answers, just a lot of nagging questions. I’d love to hear from you guys though. Have sermons changed your life? Are they worthwhile? What would make them more transformative?

Ben

Equipping or Enabling

I spent a good portion of last week pondering the Kingship of Jesus in preparation for last Sunday’s message. At the most basic level, the Gospel is that Jesus came as a King to announce the arrival of his Kingdom. People could get on board with that Reality or not, but he said in no uncertain terms that failure to submit to him would result in death and/or being cast into outer darkness/ the lake of Fire (see Luke 19:27 for the clearest example). It is True that Jesus is much more than a King, that the Gospel talks about other issues besides God’s Kingdom, but even a cursory read through of the book of Acts reveals that it is the message of Jesus as King of the Earth and Judge of the Living and the Dead that provoked repentance and conversion, nothing else. To be quite blunt, the Apostles didn’t walk into a pagan city, say “Jesus loves you” and have thousands of people submit their lives to Christ. Through powerful words (and even more powerful actions) the Disciples argued and demonstrated that Jesus was indeed the one God had chosen as King by raising him from the dead and that they were Jesus’s delegated authorities on the Earth. It is True that Jesus loves us and died for our sins because of that Love. It is equally true that he is a King who demands obedience from his followers. In fact, to love him is to be obedient to him and to disobey is the same as not loving him (John 14:23-24).

The Church is an army

If Jesus has delegated the forceful advancement of his Kingdom on the earth to the Church (Matt. 11:12 and Matt. 28:16-20) then that makes the Church an army. Just as the Marine Corps is not the government of the United States, but a representative thereof, carrying out the will of our Commander in Chief and advancing the interests and ideologies of the American people throughout the world, so too the Church is the organization designed to advance the Kingdom of God and the will of our King on the Earth.

This has a number of implications for us as followers of Jesus, but I’m going to hone in on my call as a Pastor. Biblically speaking, my job is to work in conjunction with other leaders in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”(Eph. 4:12). To carry on with the army metaphor, I need to teach the recruits how to identify the enemy and dispatch them, stay in formation and achieve the objectives of the mission, make sure no one gets left behind and develop people’s specialities so that we have the right people for the right job. (I’m not an army man so my list is far short of what actually happens, I’m sure.)

Let’s take target practice for an example.

What were to happen if a batch of new recruits went down to the firing range and the drill instructor said, “Wait. I know this is hard, so let me do it for you.” The instructor then proceeded to fire every shot for each recruit. Sure, the targets would display the work of an expert marksman, but the instructor would be exhausted and the soldiers still untrained. What happens when they are deployed? The instructor can’t take every shot for them — they need to learn to do it for themselves. They need to be equipped or else they are done for.

Equipping not Enabling in Pastoral Ministry

As clear as that seems in the Army, when we switch domains and start talking about the Church, things get fuzzy for some reason. Broadly speaking, Pastors are trained to enable people. We are trained to take away pain, to shepherd people and care for them, to speak reassuringly and to come running when we are called to do battle with darkness. Pastors are good at this kind of work and well loved for it. Even better, by enabling people rather than empowering them, we have excellent job security.

I’ve been as guilty of enabling people as anyone I know. My desire is to care for people, but this past week of reflection has revealed that I tend to be short sighted in my approach. When people ask me a question that is in the Book, it is easier to tell them a straight answer than to suggest they take the time to find it for themselves. (After all, I’m trained and paid to know the answer, right?) But I’ve come to realize that teaching people to be Biblically literate, to teach them how to find answers for themselves is much more important than giving them the right answer.

A more difficult example would be when someone comes to me asking about divorce. What should they do? Well, the truth is, the Bible has stories on both sides. David fled from abusive authority and broken covenant while God told Hagar to return to an unhealed and abusive authority because God had more he wanted to do there. And so, the only thing I can do responsibly is to turn things back on them and, after explaining the Principles of the two stories above, ask them which Principle applies. They have to make the decision after talking it over with Papa. It isn’t compassionate or loving for me to tell them to bail if God wants them to stay. (To be gut level honest, I cringe while I write this even though I know it is the Truth, but that is due to my sin and immaturity. I’m not more compassionate than God and God definitely commanded Hagar to return to an abusive relationship.) That story and Principle may not apply to 99.9% of cases, but it does apply to someone or else it wouldn’t be in there. In cases like this, I can’t give someone a straight answer. I can only explain Principles and then point them back to Papa. For some reason, that is exceptionally difficult for me to do – I feel like I wasn’t helpful or kind, but it is the right response nonetheless.

The place I am growing into is going to require me to become much more skilled at equipping instead of enabling. I’m going to have to learn a new way of communicating and I will need an extensive overhaul of my internal belief structure. But if I am going to become the person I want to be and lead God’s people where he wants them to go, then I’m going to have to belly up to the bar and suck down some strong medicine.

Wish me luck.

Ben