Are you a cult leader?

John 1:35-42

“He brought Simon to Jesus…”

As John the Baptist was standing around with two of his disciples, Jesus walked by and John identified him as the one they should be following. The two disciples followed Jesus and spent time with him, after which Andrew (one of the two) left to find his brother. “Simon, we found him. We found the Messiah.” And he took his brother to meet this Jesus. Every time we read of Andrew, he is bringing someone to Jesus. He must have learned it from his first Teacher, John, but Andrew never deviated from his task of getting the saving presence of Jesus in front of those who needed it.

The great thing is that Andrew knew what he was talking about. Andrew had spent time with Jesus. He learned from Jesus. He knew Jesus. Andrew was not speaking from conjecture. He was not theorizing, he was testifying. As John did, Andrew brought people to Jesus because he, himself, had had an encounter with this Christ. His own life must have been changed by this man. His evangelism is true.

Just as his first Teacher did, Andrew made sure to always be clear what he was working for, who he was working for. I think it is a safe bet to assume that Andrew made it a priority to have all that he did point to Jesus. Knowing even the little we know about him, Andrew would have been mortified if people started to follow him rather than Jesus.

Often, we pastors are subject to a cult of adoration. Either people treat us as something to be admired, or we are fighting so hard for respect that we over-inflate our own worth. Whatever the reason, the situation prevents us from focusing on the call we have been created for: bringing people to Jesus.

And it has to be real. It has to be true. It has to be born of experience. When we say “Jesus,” people have to know that we mean it. How can we proclaim a Savior that has not saved us? This is not about butts in the pew or cash in the offering plate. This is about changed lives. If our lives have not been changed, I’m not sure we are qualified to do this work.

How has Jesus Christ has made you whole?

Get down off your pedestal

John 1:29-34

“And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

One of the most powerful things I learned in my training for the ministry is to remember that, whether I like it or not, I was going to be viewed as a “representative of the sacred.” Regardless of my comfort level with being “God’s spokesman,” in many cases, that’s exactly how I would be viewed. As such, I developed a habit of reading myself in the character of Jesus in all of the Gospel stories. Whatever Jesus did, I thought I also had to do. If I was going to represent God to a particular community, then I had better bone up on what, exactly, I was supposed to be representing. And, truly, when one sends another in their place, don’t they expect to be well represented?

It is like when my parents used to say to me, “You are a Whitsitt.” I always had to remember that I was carrying that name into public. Whatever I did was going to reflect – well or poorly – upon my family.

But as pastors, I think this has gotten us in trouble. We have confused ourselves for Christ, when we should instead be playing the role of John the Baptist.

In this text, John is standing at the banks of the Jordan, calling people to repent and prepare for the Messiah, and then the Messiah shows up. John wants everyone to know it, and so he shouts to all who would hear everything that is important about this man, culminating with “This is the Son of God!”

Just prior to this scene, John has said point blank, “I am not the Christ.” John is clear with the people who are showing up that he is not the one that they are waiting for – the one who will take away the sins of the world. That job belongs to someone else.

As pastors, we are guilty of allowing our ministry to be about us and what we do. We are not strident enough in our protest that we are “not the Christ.” To be sure, there are people in our congregations who love to remind us that we are nowhere near being the Christ, but they are sure happy to ask us to perform miracles, aren’t they?

John offers pastors a great model for the posture of ministry: He continually knocks himself off the pedestal people try to put him on.

How have you been placed on a pedestal?

Rend your heart, not your clothing

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

“…rend your heart and not your clothing…”

At the beginning of Lent, the prophet calls us to repentance. But it is of a particular kind. Joel makes it clear to us three different times in today’s scripture lesson that the evidence of change the Lord seeks is different than the normal practices of penance.

Typically, when confronted with having lived a life that ran counter to God’s intentions, the people would go to the Temple, fast, and pray in torn clothing, It was a public display, but in that day (as in this one) it was easy to allow the display to be nothing more. The movements to this play were something that could be performed without much investment. The prayers are there to be said, so say them. The food is there to be abstained from, so abstain from it. The clothes are there to be torn, so tear them. Don’t make a big deal out of it; it is not a big deal.

But God wants it to be a big deal. Joel quotes the Lord as desiring that the people return with their “whole hearts.” In the ancient Hebrew imagination, the heart was considered the seat of the intellect. To “rend your hearts” is to change your mind. It is the same instruction that Peter gives to the crowd after his sermon in Acts. “Change you minds,” he says. “Metanoia. Rend your hearts.”

As pastors, we are guilty of “rending our clothing” all the time. When asked how we plan to take care of ourselves in the stress of the job, we rattle off pithy little truisms like “take a walk,” or “read.” We present these as Just The Right Thing, and people leave us alone. But as we continue to live a life in which we are stretched and stressed, overworked and under-cared for, taking a walk is not good enough. It is just one of several coping mechanisms, not a solution to the real issue: we have a wrong understanding of the work we have been called to do.

Edwin Friedman is right when he says that the best thing a person can bring to any situation is her own changed self. Now is no longer the time for you to rend your clothing. Now is the time for you to do the hard work of confronting the game you have been playing and begin changing your mind about the work of ministry. You can no longer do it all and expect a quick little walk in the woods to sustain you. The game has to change. You have to change.

How do you give into the game?

Why you gotta be so mean?

I’ve got that ear-worm of a Talyor Swift song stuck in my head…

Anywho…

I’ve started researching what I hope becomes my next full length book. It’s based on the idea that the role of “pastor” can and should be thought of primarily as a “court jester.” I’m working with the title Jester/Pastor. We’ll see if it flies.

Part of what intrigues me about the Jester is the granting of the license. Jesters, also called “fools,” typically fell into one of two categories: the “natural fool” and the “licensed fool.”

Natural fools were those who’s very person amused others. From what I can glean in my limited research, these were people who had some sort of cognitive, communicative, or physical difference that set them apart from the typical population. A lack of awareness granted society permission to get a laugh at their expense.

On the other hand, there were Licensed Fools. These were performers who were trained, called, and granted permission to not only amused the court and the populace, but were also welcomed into a ruler’s inner circle. They often became an advisor of sorts. Licensed Fools were granted permission to say things that others might be thinking. Because of this freedom, Fools developed an ability to couch hard truths in humor, to soften the blow a bit, to allow those being critiqued to save a bit of face. Because of the trust engendered between a ruler and their fool, this was a delicate dance and the Fool needed to know the temperament of the ruler in order to be successful. Say too little and you’re not fulfilling your duty. Say too much and you’ve forgotten your place. And there were dire consequences for forgetting your place…

This reality is called the “Limit to the License,” and every Fool did well to remember it.

I want to suggest that pastors are like Licensed Fools. We have the privilege of being welcomed into people’s lives and we get to say things to them that others are not allowed to. But there is a limit to this license because we are not the ruler.

The limit to our license is found in the recognition that when people are on the spiritual path there are certain things they can hear and certain things they cannot. That is not their problem; a fish does not know it is in water. We must be very careful when we speak publicly. We might go too far. Like the Fool at court, we may amuse those watching, but if the Ruler cannot hear our critique then it is useless and could, potentially, be life/career threatening.

Recently, a prominent pastor has been offering what many believe to be a good and accurate critique of the Spiritual But Not Religious. In truth, I think I’m prone to agree with the theology and ecclesiology behind the argument, but I fear that this pastor has bumped up against the “Limit to the License.” In trying to offer a clarifying word, I believe that meanness has been the result. There are claims at humor, but it feels too much like when someone cuts you down and then cries, “KIDDING!” I’m not buying it. The damage has been done.

I am particularly sensitive to this because it is a tendency of mine as well. Ask anyone with whom I’ve ever argued and they will tell you that I can be a real asshole. I mean, seriously: a Class-A, #1 Asshole. I was trained as a writer and actor, was a state champion debater, raised in a religious world that prized apologetics, a personality that makes me think I’m the most original person on the planet, and have a lot of psychological baggage to work out. If you go toe to toe with me, you may win, but you’ll get beat up pretty badly. I can make you question your very sense of self worth. It’s ugly. But it’s not okay, and I’ve spent my adult life trying to reckon with it. The need especially became clear when I became a “Licensed Fool.”

So, fellow Fools, we have been called to embody something more honorable. We fail – Lord, we fail! – but we have to learn to admit it, make restitution if need be, and resolve to do it differently next time. We should live our lives in such a way that we are never asked, “Why you gotta be so mean?”

A bored or anxious pastor is not a good pastor

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly said that:

  • When someone has skills or talents that are overkill for what is being asked of them, they get bored.
  • When what is being asked of them is not achievable through the use of their skills and talents, they get anxious.

Pastors suffer from both conditions.

Those who have been called to serve in the particular role of pastor are a unique breed of cat (Aren’t we all? But go with me here…). We say that these are the people who have been identified as being especially gifted at nurturing and educating us into the larger narrative that God is writing in history. This is a powerful and awesome reality, and, out of the full Body of Christ, we have asked particular ones of us to devote their lives to helping us see it.

This is what most pastors have signed up for. Willingly. Excitedly. Pastors are artists of the highest order, and artists will give up almost anything to make art.

And yet…

When a congregation has no interest in exploration or wonder or doubt or innovation or… The pastor is going to get bored, and will struggle with whether she wants to be in ministry in that place. Or at all.

When a congregational board insists that the pastor focus all his time and energy in marketing and recruitment for the sake of the bottom line…. Sorry, “evangelism”… The pastor will get anxious, and will struggle with whether he has actually been called to ministry in the first place. He might burn out, quit, and work at a menial uninspiring job. What a sad place for an artist to be.

What we ought to do with our pastors is help them find the sweet spot of their skills/talents where they are making the art they’ve been called to make and are stretched to make it better. I’ll bang this drum over and over again: Pastors are not called to be managers and administrators. That is an entirely different skill-set.

Pastors are artists. Do you want a good pastor? Then let her make her art, and she will blow your world wide open. If you don’t, then you’re squandering a precious gift that God has given you.

What I wish church personnel committees understood about their pastor’s desire to do her job

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-directed, and connected to others. And when that desire is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

Daniel H. Pink, Drive

Here’s what I wish Church Personnel Committees understood about the pastors who have been called to serve them:

Big theological words aside (call, faith journey, testimony, etc.), 99.99% of pastors became pastors because they are creative people who are willing to give of themselves to see a group of people thrive. They are willing to put a lot of time and energy into other people, helping them to see their full potential as Children of God. They are willing to deny their own needs (to a fault) for the sake of others being able to experience the joy and comfort of being the center of someone else’s attention.

And, yet, many get treated as if they are a bunch of juvenile babies who are lazy and want to goof off.

To be sure, there is often a gross misunderstanding of what it is that pastors do, but I think there is a deeper culprit behind this desire to micromanage the pastor. Like most HR folks, personnel committees operate with a conviction that people don’t like to work.

As a result of this perspective, we do crazy things. Things like requiring 50 hour workweeks in the belief that, if we don’t, the pastor won’t visit us or prep for Bible Study or… Or we insist that the pastor’s butt is always in their office chair in the belief that, if we don’t, they will skip out and go drink coffee and goof off.

I know a lot of pastors, and I don’t think there is anything further from the truth. If anything, pastors are workaholics.

The book I’m reading, Drive (which I quoted above), holds as its main thesis that a) people have an innate inner drive to do creative and meaningful things with other people, but that b) our standard system of rewards and punishments actually negate the intrinsic motivation we all possess and cause us to accomplish far less than we otherwise would. Once basic needs are satisfied, people have a drive to work.

And we can’t stop. Why do you think a lot of retirees “work” more in retirement than before? Why do you think a man who has not had any vacation for a year spends his Christmas break compiling an ebook full of sermons?

Pastors want to do a good job and want to care for the people they’ve been called to serve. But, too often, they are treated like children.

How can we structure a pastoral relationship that liberates the innate inner drive to do good and meaningful work?

Oh, the places I don’t really want to go…

I have a friend who uses big words. He uses them on purpose and not in a way that makes you feel stupid when he does it. The other day he told me he was “facile” in regards to something. I had to go look it up. I learned something.

But guys like him are becoming rare.

Knowledge is easier to obtain now than in used to be. There is no shortage of information. If I want to know something, Wikipedia is just a browser away. “define:[word]” is one of my favorite Google searches ever.

I don’t need some smarty-pants to tell me things any more. I can go find it myself. And, yet, I often don’t.

There is an overabundance of information at our disposal. We don’t know what to do with it all. There have been studies after studies done that show that the more choices we have, the less content we are.

Do you remember when you first began shopping for yourself and stood in the aisle looking at all the different kinds of spaghetti sauce you could buy? It’s overwhelming. A few nights ago, I spent 2 hours trolling Bandcamp, looking for new music. Any kind of independent artist you could want is there, but I was having a damn hard time finding anything through the crowd. There’s just too much. I have this fear that I’m going to miss something good, that I’m going to spend my hard earned cash on something when the thing I really want is one more click away…

It seems to me that pastors have a unique opportunity in this moment. We have an opportunity to recognize our role as the new Public Intellectuals.

An Intellectual is a person who concerns herself with the life of the mind. She is passionate about ideas and the ways those ideas shape the way we live. She is concerned about her thinking being “critical” in nature. Rocks must be overturned, doors opened, avenues explored. She does not shy away from hard truths, and goes where information leads her. She always knows that deeper and deeper realities are discoverable even when her colleagues stop.

What makes a pastor a Public Intellectual is that she does not have the luxury of this exploration being private. By the very nature of her calling, a pastor is asked to do this wrestling in public. In front of other people. Where she might be criticized.

And this is the rub.

Pastors succumb to doing a lot of things they should not, but they often shy away from being the primary person in a community asking questions that have no destination for certain. The truth is that we have been given tools that a lot of people do not have in order to navigate the questions that a lot of people are asking. But we still have to ask them. We still have to give our best answer, and then ask people what they see.

There is a lot of religious information out there, and with a populace that is not slowing down in their drive to be “spiritual,” the need for someone to authentically help navigate all that information is at an all time high. Folks don’t need to be spoonfed the answers, but they want to watch us run the obstacle course of faith first – complete with tripping and falling – because watching us run it will give them courage to run it themselves.

This isn’t easy work, but it’s fairly straightforward. It requires that we steel our spines and go places we might not otherwise want to go.

But it is important work, and our people need us to do it. Pastors, we can no longer afford to be facile about our work as theologians. (See what I did there? 🙂 )