Archive for February, 2011

When I was a kid, I thought pastors, like Mary Poppins, were “practically perfect in every way.”  My pastor-dad sure seemed that way, and when we got together with his own pastor-dad, he seemed flawless as well.  I began to assume that all pastors were just as admirable.

After my father left the ministry, our family attended a much larger church where the pastor and his pulpit were much further away from us congregation-sitters.  The pastor’s stance behind the pulpit, the lights that shone on him, and the distance between us all made me feel like he was only two miracles away from sainthood.  When he left our church for another assignment, our family bought his 1965 Chevy Malibu (my first car, which was totaled in an accident.)

When we eventually attended another church, that pastor’s churchly proximity to the people was much closer, but he was even more distant emotionally.  When I shook hands with him at the door, he always said, “Hi, guy.”  As I recall, he never even asked my name.  (We teenage boys all look alike, I guess.)  That pastor eventually resigned.  Years later, I learned why.  I’d rather not share the reasons.  They’re not pretty.

After my formative years, I served on church staffs under three senior pastors.  Then I became a pastor myself and have met and known scores of pastors.  I admire pastors because of their dedication, sacrifices, and perseverance.  Being a pastor is a 24/7, 365-day calling.  And in the days ahead, I want to help pastors who have gone through tough times in their congregations, especially those who have become the victims of a forced exit.

But I have met and known pastors who were ticking time bombs, too.  Let me share with you five kinds of pastors who inevitably cause trouble in congregations.

First, there is the pastor who has an inflated view of himself.  This pastor has charisma, a forceful personality, and can quickly attract followers.  He’s usually a compelling speaker and may be a dynamic leader.  During his initial years in a congregation, the church grows quickly.  But behind-the-scenes, this pastor begins to alientate people.  He becomes obsessed with his appearance or his bank account.  He tells everyone that he drives the best car and lives in the greatest neighborhood.  He demands that people around him call him by his proper title (“pastor” or “doctor”).  But this individual values image over character.  He’s really a loner because no one can ever get close to him.  He thinks that rules apply to others, not himself.  And worst of all, this person rarely admits mistakes because he will always find somebody else to blame.  There is a term we use for such people: narcissists.  And there are too many of them in church ministry.  (The stories I could tell!)

Next, there is the pastor who does everything himself.  In a word, he overfunctions.  I once knew a pastor who could be found every Friday afternoon in the church worship center.  Was he praying?  Rehearsing his message?  No, he was cleaning!  He wanted everything “just so” for Sunday.  He chose to act that way because of personal anxiety.  In a similar vein, in the first church I served as pastor, a room in my home served as the church office, and I was the functioning office manager.  I had a used mimeograph machine in my garage and I typed lessons and leadership things onto stencils, placed each stencil onto the machine, and then turned a crank to obtain copies.  (I can still smell the ink.  Ick!)  While I had to make those copies, I quickly learned that I should (a) limit my responsibilities to those tasks that I did best, and (b) hire staff or recruit volunteers to do everything else – and then release them to do the ministry.  Pastors who feel like they need to oversee or do everything in a church end up pastoring smaller churches – and sometimes are forced out because they can’t trust anyone to do things as well as they can.

Third, there is the pastor who is just plain lazy.  In other words, they underfunction.  I served under one.  He was in the church office about six hours a week.  He didn’t introduce any leadership initiatives.  Nobody ever knew where he was (this predated cell phones by twenty years).  On Sunday evenings, rather than present a prepared message, he took questions from the people.  He was very likeable (I still smile when I think about him), and he was very good to me, so I hesitate to say anything uncomplimentary.  But in the end, he was voted out of office in a public meeting, and if there was any one charge that could be laid against him, it would have been “doesn’t work hard enough for this congregation.”  The average full-time pastor works 50-60 hours a week, but there are those who feel they can barely work at all and get away with it.  They rarely do.

Fourth, there is the pastor who never listens.  When I was a youth pastor, I went to lunch with a friend who reads this blog.  While we were conversing, he said to me, “Jim, the way you’re talking now is fine in the pulpit, but it doesn’t work in a restaurant.”  Ouch!  He was right, and I tried to adjust my way of relating to people over the years, but one of the occupational hazards of preaching is that sometimes you forget to turn it off.  At least I was aware of the problem.  I have met too many pastors who were way too insensitive.  They believe that whatever they have to say is automatically more interesting than whatever you have to say.  One time, I was having lunch with a group of ten pastors around a table at a conference, and for a solid hour, the pastors of the two largest churches were the only ones doing the talking.  They never asked any of the other pastors their names, or where they were from, or how their ministry was going.  These guys just lectured the rest of us like we were supposed to take notes.  This “pecking order” takes place among pastors because the American church believes that the larger your church, the more successful you are.  (I feel a rant coming on, but I am practicing self-restraint.)

Finally, there is the pastor who is way too nice.  At first glance, this might not seem like a problem, but it definitely is.  A pastor who is “a really nice guy” tries to cultivate an “I like everyone” image, but that’s unsustainable in church ministry.  A nice pastor will eventually get bulldozed by a dominating board member.  A nice pastor won’t be able to confront staff members when they mess up.  A nice pastor will pull his punches when he preaches, rarely saying anything very memorable.  (John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and Peter all had an “edge” about them when they spoke.  While John the apostle didn’t, he was the exception.  Today he’s the rule.)  While I like the pastor of our church very much, he sometimes lets it fly.  (Last Sunday, when he tore into “superficial Christians,” Kim and I both said “Amen” at the same time.)  77% of all pastors are “feelers” on the Myers-Briggs test and they tend to wilt or run under pressure.  While nice pastors are often pleasant to be around, they usually don’t get much done, either – and when their critics come after them, they find that “being nice” won’t save their job.  Nice pastors don’t cause trouble themselves, but they permit trouble in their churches because nobody fears them.  Think about it.

I could have mentioned many other kinds of pastors who cause trouble – like dominating pastors, controlling pastors, promiscuous pastors, manipulative pastors – but I’ll save those for another time.  The great majority of pastors don’t cause trouble.  They faithfully teach God’s Word, model a Christlike life, endeavor to win the lost to the Lord, and try to spread the aroma of Jesus to everyone around them.  I’m glad God called me to be a pastor, and I’m very glad for the pastors who have been in my life.

But what can the people of a church do if their pastor is causing trouble?  I’ll address that five days from today.  (I’ll be putting our new place together next Monday.)  Until then – stay out of trouble!

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During my first year of college, someone told me about a rumor that was going around our church about one of my friends and me.  The gist of the rumor was, “Isn’t it a shame that Jim and [so and so] are no longer getting along?”  What was being said was not true and really ticked me off – so I decided to do some detective work and locate the source of the rumor.

I asked the person who told me the rumor who they heard it from, and when they told me, I went to that person’s house.  But that individual wasn’t the source.  They heard it from somebody else.

So I went to the next person’s house … and so on, for most of the morning.  And guess what?

I never did find out who started the rumor.

I learned a lesson that day.  Since you and I cannot control other people’s tongues, all we can do is control our own ears and not pay attention to everything that everybody says about us.

In other words, there will always be gossips, and we cannot rid the world of them, try as we might.

But we can rid the world of one gossip: ourselves.

What is gossip?  To paraphrase a Supreme Court judge, “I know it when I hear it.”

It’s not gossip to talk about other people, otherwise every time we talked about President Obama or the Lord Jesus, we would be guilty of a sin – and that’s just plain silly.

It’s not gossip to relay bad news about someone.  If a friend of mine goes into the hospital, and I mention that to a few people, that’s not gossip.  Or if someone at my workplace loses a job, and I share that information with a co-worker, that’s not gossip.

It’s not gossip to mention a person’s humanity.  Several weeks ago, our pastor mentioned that he is afraid of heights.  I’m not crazy about deep water.  My wife is not a lover of snakes.  If you want to repeat that information to other people, they’ll probably say, “So what?”  Everybody is afraid of something.  That just means we’re human.

It’s not gossip to express an opinion about someone.  For instance, I cannot watch any Red Carpet events that happen before the Grammys or the Oscars.  It drives me crazy to see and hear celebrity gawkers making a big deal about things that don’t matter (like hair and dresses – you know).  Even though I’ll express some cynicism about those events, that isn’t gossip.  (It’s just discernment!)

So when does gossip occur?

Gossip occurs when I share information about another person and I add a malicious element to it.  For example, “Did you hear that Joe is in the hospital?”  (Nothing wrong with that.)  “I always knew that one day, his habit of eating hot dogs would catch up with him.”  (Ouch!  Gossip!)

Gossip also occurs when I speculate about why someone is having a problem.  “Did you hear that the Horners just separated?”  (If it’s public knowledge, that isn’t necessarily gossip.)  “I’ll bet it’s because of that new single guy in their small group.”  (Red flag!  Gossip!)

Gossip also occurs when we share privileged information about someone we know.  That individual trusts us with a secret, but we just can’t keep it to ourselves any longer.  We have to tell somebody – often the first person we see!  “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but Tim and his family are leaving the church and I’ve heard it’s because they don’t like the youth program.”  (No, no, no!  That’s clearly gossip!)

Finally, gossip occurs when I talk about someone behind their back.  If I notice a weakness in someone’s life, and I really love them, I might ask the Lord to show me a time when I might talk to them about it.  But instead of doing that, I chicken out and tell others what I’ve noticed but I never tell the person I’m gossipping about to their face.

Many years ago, when I was a youth pastor, I did a question-and-answer session with some of the kids in our church.  One of the girls asked me, “Why don’t your socks match?”  I had put my socks on in the dark that morning and had gone all day without noticing what that girl did notice.  She could have told the person next to her about my socks, and that person could have told someone else, and pretty soon, everyone in the room might have known about my mismatch except me.  But to her credit, she asked me directly about the socks – and we all had a pretty good laugh about my mistake.

In 1 Timothy 3:11, Paul discusses the qualifications for deacon’s wives in the local church.  Paul writes, “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.”  The phrase “malicious talkers” is literally “she-devils.”  The word “devil” means “slanderer.”  Paul tells Timothy that he is to avoid selecting men as spiritual leaders who have “she-devils” as wives.  Rather, the wife of a spiritual leader should be “trustworthy in everything.”

Why bring this up?  Because gossip destroys people.  Gossip destroys other Christians.  Gossip destroys pastors.  And gossip destroys churches.  Gossips can be “she-devils” or “he-devils,” but please notice: gossipping never advances Christ’s work.  It only advances Satan’s.  The devil is the one who uses deception to destroy the work of Christ.

Ten years ago, I had a friend who served as the pastor of a church that had purchased a parcel of land and wanted to build a school on it.  The neighbors in the surrounding community fiercely opposed the project, which was their right.  But if they dealt with the facts, they would have lost the fight outright.  One day, I visited the homeowners building in our neighborhood and noticed that the HOA newsletter devoted its two pages to a litany of reasons why the school project should be opposed.  When I read over their arguments, I counted fifteen lies!  The church had been repeating the facts about the project in the newspaper and at public meetings, but that didn’t stop the opposition.  They had gossip on their side … but they lost anyway.  Gossippers are never winners.

And maybe that’s why they gossip in the first place.  Gossips don’t tend to focus on losers.  They tend to focus on winners.  They become aware of people who seem to have more authority or money or fame or intelligence – or even spirituality – and they become jealous of their success, so they tear them down with their words to bring them down to size.  Rather than channeling their energies into building others up, they major in tearing others down.

If we recognize that we do gossip – and we all do at times – how can we stop doing it?

The most effective deterrents to gossip often come from Scripture.  Some of the Proverbs deal with gossip in a simple but powerful way.  For example, Proverbs 11:13 says, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.”  Which of the two do you want to be: a gossip or a trustworthy person?  (Me, too.)  Or how about  Proverbs 17:9: “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.”  If I know about a sin someone has committed, should I conceal it from others or expose it to their inquiring minds?  (If I don’t want to have any good friends, I should expose the secret.)  Or how about Proverbs 10:19,  one of my very favorite verses?  “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”  Sometimes we gossip just because we talk too much!  Like 24-hour cable TV, sometimes we don’t know how to fill the silence so we revert to talking about other people.

For some, a good dose of James 3:1-12 can stop them from gossipping for quite a while.  Much of the Book of James comes straight from the Sermon on the Mount – and that’s where I have found my greatest motivation to guard my tongue.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-2 always pierce my heart : “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  In other words, “what goes around, comes around.”  If I harshly criticize others behind their back, others will just as harshly criticize me behind my back.  If I invest my precious time in being petty about others, then others will invest their time in being petty about me.  If I “dish it out,” I better be ready to “take it,” Jesus says, because that’s the way His universe works.

But Jesus implies that if I’m kind in talking about others, then others will be kind talking about me.  If I’m merciful to others, they will be merciful toward me.  Skip down ten verses in Matthew 7 to the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

I can either spend my time loving others or harming them with my words.  I can either build people up or tear them down verbally.

That’s why when I write, I will be critical of practices that I believe divide Christians and churches, but I will rarely mention people’s names.  In fact, I will do my best to disguise the identity of those I use as illustrations.

What have you found most effective in curtailing gossip in your own life?

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I am excited!  Tomorrow afternoon, our new ministry, Restoring Kingdom Builders, will hold its first board meeting.  We will be making decisions on a mission statement, goals, bylaws, and a budget, as well as making formative plans for our first Wellness Retreat later this year.

RKB is dedicated to educating Christians in the prevention and management of church conflict from a biblical perspective – especially as it relates to pastors – and to beginning the healing process for pastors and their families who experience a forced exit from a church.

It feels like I am starting my ministry life over.

Let me give you a brief recap of my ministerial career – which spans more than 35 years – so you can see how I have been exposed to these issues for most of my life.  (Warning: the following material deals with the dark side of the church.  But I know you can handle it!)

If you read my last blog post, you know that my father was a pastor in Garden Grove, and after two years of conflict (mostly with the governing board), he resigned his position when I was eleven.  Nineteen months later, he died of cancer.  While the stress from the conflict may not have caused his death, it most likely accelerated the cancer’s growth.  Since my dad lacked support from the board and his denomination, he had to suffer alone professionally.  Part of me wants to go back in time and fix that situation, but although I can’t, I can help other pastors who go through similar trials.

When our family finally left, we took refuge in another Orange County church.  When the pastor eventually resigned (for positive reasons), the congregation called a new pastor, who abruptly fired the most popular staff member.  His ministry never recovered.  Years later, I read an article he wrote about that experience, and there was far more conflict in that church than I ever knew.  After he was forced to resign, that pastor became a psychologist on the East Coast.

When my best friend invited me to some special youth meetings at his church (once again, in Garden Grove), I loved the church, and pretty soon, our whole family was going there.  But two years later, the founding pastor resigned under mysterious circumstances.  The church eventually called a former member who had been a medical missionary in Saudi Arabia to be their pastor.  After becoming his youth pastor and later marrying his daughter, my father-in-law was eventually forced out as pastor, too.  (But it had nothing to do with my marriage!)

Largely due to the influence of one of my cousins and her husband, I was later called to be the youth pastor of a church in Orange, California.  Less than a year later, in a messy public meeting, the congregation voted the pastor out of office.  (Now there was a case study!)  That was the church where I learned what not to do.

After seventeen months in that church, I was called to be the youth pastor of another church in Garden Grove.  While my tenure there went well, the pastor was relentlessly attacked and was so emotionally devastated that he could barely function.  After he retired, he never performed any pastoral functions (like weddings or funerals) again.  Although I wasn’t in a position to make things right, I had friends on both sides of the conflict, but I always supported my pastor in public.

After I graduated from seminary, I was called to pastor a small church in the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale.  The previous pastor – you guessed it – had been fired after only one year on the job.  After a couple years there, I figured I was next on the board’s “hit list,” but at the eleventh hour, a sister church in Santa Clara invited us to merge with them.  I became the new pastor of the merged church, but only after the pastor from the other church was forced to leave.  (Have you detected a pattern yet?)

Several years into my ministry in Santa Clara, an older couple formed a group with the intent of getting rid of me as pastor.  While they were unsuccessful, we lost 20% of our congregation when they formed a new church only a mile away.

In the meantime, I made friends with many pastors in our district, but six or seven of them suddenly resigned their ministries within a couple years.  When I contacted them, they told me they had been forced out of their churches by either the governing board or a vocal minority.  I was shocked to discover that most of these pastors did not receive an adequate severance package and had been stigmatized.  These pastors also told me – to a man – that I was the only pastor in our district to contact them.  That was three decades ago.

Everything culminated in the late 1980s when the pastor from a prominent district church was unceremoniously forced out of office by his board with help from district personnel.  His dismissal resulted in legal action against both the church and the district.  While the political thing to do was support the district, I knew what really happened (I still have the documentation) and disagreed strongly with the way things were done.  My eyes were opened to the way that politics often trumps righteousness in church circles – and it grieved me greatly.

So I wrote an article for our denominational magazine called “Who Cares For Lost Shepherds?”  Christians like to talk about reaching lost sheep for Christ, but I wondered aloud why so few believers seem to care about pastors (shepherds) that are forced out of churches – especially those who have not committed impeachable offenses.

I also did a study (with the knowledge and consent of district leaders) on what happened to pastors who had left their churches in our district.  I discovered that 50 out of 60 pastors who had left their churches also left the denomination – and there was no way to track how they were doing or where they had gone.  Those pastors just vanished.  That troubled me.  It still does.

My ministry in the 1990s went well.  I served as the pastor of an outreach-oriented church in Santa Clara, but after seven years there, I was worn out and considered going into clergy caregiving.  I had lunch with conflict expert Speed Leas in his home and later attended the CareGivers Forum conference in Colorado, but it wasn’t God’s time for me to be involved in ministering to pastors just yet.

After becoming the senior pastor of a church in California, I entered the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.  When it came time to declare my topic for my doctoral project, I chose to write on attacks by church antagonists informed by family systems theory.  I reveled in all the researching and writing for the project and learned a great deal about such situations.

For a few years, I taught workshops at an area-wide Christian leadership convention, and my best-attended sessions had to do with conflict in churches.

Then after 10 1/2 years in the same church, I experienced every pastor’s nightmare myself – and I learned even more going through that ordeal.

After moving to Arizona, I asked the Lord what His next assignment was for me.  Good friends suggested that I teach at a Christian college or seminary, or that I become a pastor again, or that I become an interim pastor, or maybe even a church staff member.  But to be honest, none of those positions excited me in the least.  If I ever do return to church ministry, my wife has informed me that I might once again become a bachelor.

Even though it means starting over, the Lord has given me a passion for pastors, their families, and churches that have been wounded by conflict, and I intend to follow His leading and build this ministry until the day He calls me home.

So if you hear about a pastor or spouse who are going through rough waters, encourage them to contact me.  I look forward to ministering to my wounded brothers and sisters in the days ahead.

Thankfully, I have several mentors who have been doing similiar ministries for years, and they are available to me for counsel and encouragement.

Will you pray for Restoring Kingdom Builders?  Please ask the Father:

*that our first board meeting will go well.

*that we can obtain our non-profit and tax-exempt status faster than usual.

*that the Lord will help me finish my book soon.

*that God will send wounded pastors and their spouses our way.

*that God’s people will generously support our ministry.

If you do decide to pray for our ministry, will you let me know?  It would mean a lot to Kim and me to know that you are praying for our ministry as it begins.

Thank you so much for reading my blog.  I’m constantly amazed at how many people look in on it every few days.  May the Lord richly bless you and grant you His peace today and always.

Let’s shed some light on the dark side of the church!

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My father died 44 years ago today.  I always remember.

He grew up in West Chicago, the second of five children.  His father was a pastor and was more the scholarly type.  (I inherited some of his books.)  My dad loved baseball, once sneaking into some major league meetings with his brother to get the autographs of players like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.  (I didn’t inherit those.) 

After serving in the Navy, my father attended Bryan College in Tennessee and later Biola College in downtown Los Angeles.  He entered Talbot Theological Seminary upon its inception and was in its first graduating class of seven.  (I later attended both schools as well.)  Dr. Charles Feinberg, Talbot’s founding dean, taught my first seminary class in Old Testament Introduction.  He could be tough on certain students but was always kind to me, most likely because my father and I share the same name.  (I’m Jim Jr.)

My dad seemed to love being a pastor.  I remember him baptizing my great-grandmother in Whittier (we called her “The Amazon” because she was so big and tall) and barely being able to get her up out of the water.  When I was a young child, our family drove from Anaheim to Sunnymead (now Moreno Valley) to a church he served as pastor there.  During one Sunday night service, when my dad asked the congregation for “favorites” (hymns people specially requested by number), I raised my hand.  Sitting on the front row, clothed in my pajamas, I asked for Hymn 100 – not because I knew the hymn, but because I had just learned the number “100.”  The hymn was “Under His Wings,” and even though it’s disappeared from hymnbooks today, it’s never disappeared from my heart, because my father took me seriously.  The congregation sang all three stanzas.

One Saturday night, when I was six, my dad led me to Christ, and he baptized me the following year.  He later founded a church in Westminster which eventually moved to Garden Grove.  Back in those days, many pastors built their churches by going door-to-door.  (It was termed “calling.”)  One or two nights every week, my father walked from house-to-house, sharing Jesus with anyone who would listen.  Without any kind of staff, he slowly built a viable church. 

Our family of five went to Sunday School and morning worship on Sunday mornings, as well as services on Sunday and Wednesday nights.  (And we usually stopped at Savon for nickel ice cream cones afterwards.)  At one Sunday night service, when I was 11, I sang a duet with my dad, the only time I ever did that.  We sang “Now I Belong to Jesus.” 

Every summer, my dad took a second job delivering telephone books.  My brother and I would sit on the back end of our station wagon and place the books on porches as he called out the addresses.  We saw a good deal of Orange County and Los Angeles that way. 

The leaders of the church flipped on my dad a few years after the church’s founding.  Two brothers and their families left the church, but six months later, the governing board asked them to return, and one of them was made chairman.  This action was taken without my father’s knowledge or consent.  He immediately resigned with nowhere to go and eventually became a milkman, but he wanted to get back into church ministry. 

My father loved his family so much.  Although he worked extremely hard, he always made time for his kids.  He taught my brother John and I to play baseball and football (in the street) and basketball (in our front driveway).  My poor mother had to listen to her boys throwing a tennis ball against the chimney for years, but we still got to do it.  (Unless we hit a window – then all bets were off.) 

My dad passed on his love of baseball to me and my brother.  He brought home packs of baseball cards when I was just six and would comment on the abilities of the players.  Bob Friend?  He was a good ballplayer.  Johnny Roseboro?  He was a “meathead.”  When my sister was born, my dad bought a box of baseball cards for both my brother and me while we waited in the hospital.

He also took my brother and me to many baseball games.  My first game was at the Los Angeles Coliseum when I was just six.  (The Pirates beat the Dodgers 5-2.)  Before Dodger Stadium opened, we attended an Open House and I was able to run the bases.  I got to see Hall of Famers play like Roberto Clemente, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and my favorite, Sandy Koufax.  Although we didn’t have much money (we always parked a mile away to save a buck on parking, and we brought our own popcorn), my dad always made sure to spend time with his boys. 

My dad could be a bit on the crazy side.  In our home movies, he’s always goofing off.  He made up nicknames for all my friends.  He would take popular songs and insert our names in them.  I can still remember him tossing us kids around and brushing our faces against his whiskers. 

Our family went on vacations most summers: to Chicago (on the train), Yosemite, the World’s Fair in Seattle, Chicago again (by car on Route 66), and finally Sequoia National Park.  I say finally because it was during that trip that my dad began having abdominal pains.  He was initially diagnosed as having hepatitis, but was eventually diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. 

Many people prayed for my father’s healing.  His parents came out from Chicago and stayed with us during his illness.  During that time, he came to a basketball game in which I was playing.  I scored 10 points, pretty good for a Jr. High kid.  He wouldn’t see me play again.

My dad was in and out of the hospital, and one Thursday morning, my mom told me before school, “Make sure to kiss your dad today.”  I did.  Several hours later, I was called out of US History class and met my mother in the school office, where she told me, “Daddy went to be with the Lord.”  He was only 38.

Two days later, his funeral was held at a chapel in Westminster.  To their credit, my friends came to his service.  Five pastors gave eulogies, which we still have on tape.  When Pastor Glen spoke (our neighbor from two doors down), he mentioned how he always saw my dad playing baseball with my brother and me in the street.  I lost it.

My dad would have been proud that all three of his children still follow Jesus.  Both his boys married missionary kids, my brother’s daughter married a pastor (who also graduated from Talbot), and my sister cares deeply about people in need, especially those without Jesus. 

He never met my wife, or my children, but he would have loved them as his own.  He would have been proud of my wife’s love for missions, the fact that both our kids are leaders in their churches, and that my son is marrying a fantastic Christian woman this summer.

My dad’s greatest legacy is that he showed me the importance of loving your family.  Although he went through some tough times, we always knew how much he cared for us.

Six years after my father’s death, our church’s new pastor discovered that the board had hired me to work with youth for the summer.  I dated and then married his daughter.  My father-in-law has been my best ministry mentor over the years and has encouraged me in countless ways.

Nine years after my father died, my mother married a wonderful Christian man who is one of the greatest servants of Christ I have ever known.  He was a missionary for three decades with the Navajos and is always looking for ways to serve Jesus.  Many people have either a loving father or a loving step-father, but I have been privileged to have both, as well as a supportive father-in-law.  I am truly blessed.

Sometimes I dream about my dad.  The dreams are always happy.  We’re either together on earth or together in heaven.  Because of his faith in Christ, and the faith he passed on to me, I have the assurance we will see each other again.  As Dr. Feinberg told me once when I saw him on campus, “Your father is dancing in glory.” 

Someday, we’ll all dance together.

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I’ve heard thousands of sermons during my lifetime, and preached thousands myself.  Whenever I hear someone preach – whether it’s a pastor, guest speaker, TV evangelist, or seminary professor – the uppermost question in the back of my mind is: “What are you really like?”  If a speaker admits his or her humanity in a message, then I can connect with them.  But if a speaker acts like he or she is perfect while the listeners are imperfect, I usually tune out.  Angels make lousy preachers.  I want to see divinity (the Word of God) delivered through humanity (a real live person).

This is one of the primary reasons that Bill Hybels from Willow Creeek Church (near Chicago) has long been one of my favorite preachers.  He shares things at such a deep level that you as a listener feel liberated.  The book on marriage that he wrote with his wife Lynne, called Fit to be Tied, is a great example of Christian authenticity.  Both Bill and Lynne share their marital struggles in a way that is both real and redemptive.  Bill and Lynne have publicly acknowledged their need for marriage counseling, and I once heard Bill admit in a seminar for pastors that he was currently in counseling to address some issues from his past.  At the time, Willow Creek was the largest church in America, and I was amazed at his courage in candidly sharing his humanity with us.

For those of us who went to church in the 1960s and early 1970s, we rarely if ever heard our pastors admit they had problems in their lives.  They kept telling us that we had issues but they acted like they didn’t have any.  Maybe it was the way they were trained in seminary, or maybe authority figures back then were not permitted to admit they had foibles.  (For example, the press covered up nearly all of JFK’s indiscretions.)  For this reason, many of us grew up thinking that our pastors were “three feet above contradiction” (referring to the height of the platform from which the pastor spoke).

For this reason, I still remember trivia about Christian leaders that showed me they were human.

Dr. Charles Feinberg, dean of Talbot Seminary, once referred to the TV show Get Smart in an Old Testament class.  (I thought, “You watch Maxwell Smart too?)

Mr. William Ebeling, who taught at Biola for decades, once dropped something on the floor and said, “I’m always this shaky after the Dodgers lose.”

Dr. David Augsburger, one of the world’s foremost authorities on conflict, showed our class an episode of Seinfeld to illustrate the importance of confidentiality in counseling (it’s the one where the rabbi reveals on television things Elaine told him in private).

Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline and other great books (I’m reading Streams of Living Water right now) is such a big baseball fan that he asked my father-in-law to give him regular updates of the World Series score while he was teaching a night class.

John Stott, the great British teacher and scholar (and I think I have every one of his books) – the closest thing Protestants have to a Pope – has always loved James Bond movies.

During my last class at Fuller, Kim and I were sitting in the back of Leith Anderson’s class on leadership, and his wife (who was seated behind us) told me they needed to get back to their room in time to watch 24.

And during a two week Doctor of Ministry class at Fuller, Dr. Archibald Hart held a pizza night for all the students and showed Mr. Bean (the beginning of my love for the guy) as well as a John Cleese movie.

These kinds of small revelations seem rather commonplace today, but for years, they were not.

For example, J. Vernon McGee, the famous radio preacher, once wrote that he couldn’t attend a professional baseball game because of all the smoking, drinking, and cursing.

One of my professors in seminary put his television in his garage and only hauled it out for the World Series.

I distinctly remember hearing a pastor speak at a missionary conference when I was in seminary, and the pastor was the hero in every story that he told.

Pastors used to chide their people for staying home from church one Sunday night a year to watch the Super Bowl.  (I would have hated to be a pastor on July 20, 1969, when the moon landing was televised.  That happened on a Sunday afternoon/evening and most people stayed home from evening services to watch history being made – but the pastor still had to show up for church!)

When pastors fail to reveal they are human, they seem to live in celestial places, not on earth.  They descend from heaven, present God’s Word, and then float back up again, living on a cloud until the next time they speak.  They don’t seem to understand the people they teach.  And they certainly lack empathy and compassion for those who struggle with sin or life.

This is why I believe it’s important for pastors to consistently share their humanity with their congregations.  Twenty years ago, as I was preparing to relearn how to preach so I could better reach unchurched people, one of my pastoral colleagues – who was doing a phenomenal job of reaching those without Christ – told me that he made sure to tell at least one story during every message that demonstrated he was human.  That kind of sharing is essential in our day.

Years ago, I had lunch with a Christian leader who attended a mega church in Silicon Valley.  While we were talking, he began to cry.  He told me that he wished his pastor would share stories from his life rather than from books.  He loved his pastor and wanted to know him better, but his pastor was trying so hard to convince everyone (and maybe himself) that he was perfect that he just couldn’t let down his guard in public.  I was privileged to spend three hours with that pastor one time at lunch, and he shared his humanity with me, but for some reason, he couldn’t do it with his congregation.  He had to protect his image.

I’m reading through the Psalms in my quiet time right now (in The Message), and the authors (including David, who wrote roughly half the Psalms) are very open about their thoughts and feelings.  Read II Corinthians again and see how Paul opens up a vein and pours out his heart to his readers.  And note how frustrated Jesus could be on occasion and how angry He got (without sinning!) on other occasions.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, He was clearly undergoing a bout with depression as He faced the loss of every anchor He held dear in His life on earth.  Yes, Jesus was fully divine, but He was also fully human – made “a little lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:9) in His incarnation.

Because of Jesus’ humanity, I can relate to Him.  Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.”  The result?  We are drawn to Christ.  “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (verse 16).  I can relate to Him because He first related to me.

So please don’t make a mental list of all your pastor’s mistakes and share that list with others to make yourself look good.  And never think that your pastor is perfect.  He isn’t.  If you hear him say something stupid, or you see him doing something questionable, don’t come unglued.

Remember that he is not an angel – and never will be.

He’s just like you – he’s  human.  And God made him that way.

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Years ago, I attended a spring training game at Municipal Stadium in Phoenix where the Oakland A’s play.  I arrived right when the gates opened, as I often did, and heard U2’s song With or Without You blaring through the loudspeakers.  (And it sounded so good.)  Several times in the song, Bono sang these words:

And you give yourself away

And you give yourself away

And you give, and you give

And you give yourself away

Those lyrics could describe the feelings of a mother with small children, or a caregiver working with a terminally ill patient, or a customer service representative at a department store, or even a public school teacher trying to control a large class.

Or a local church pastor.

For most of my ministry life, I liked being a pastor.  Yes, there were some tough times, but the good that was done usually outweighed the bad.  I was doing what God called me to do, I was surrounded by Christians who acted like Christians, and I could sense the smile of God upon my life and ministry.

But then slowly, things changed.

Eighteen months ago, I felt like I was falling apart, and I had no idea what was happening to me.  I took a few days off work to read a couple of books that seemed related to what I was feeling, and they helped some, but I still wasn’t right.  Eventually, I saw a Christian counselor who gave me some tests to take, and after he scored them, he told me, “You’re suffering from a severe case of burnout and you’re near a breakdown.”  While his diagnosis initially shocked me, the literature confirmed his conclusion.  Burnout had crept up on me without my knowledge or consent.

But I had all the symptoms.  I felt empty inside.  I didn’t want to hang around most people because I couldn’t control my negative emotions.  After always being a self-starter, I could not seem to motivate myself.  And worst of all, it felt like God had abandoned me.  In the past, it always seemed like I could sense God’s presence, but now He seemed to be a million miles away.  Although I wasn’t suicidal, it would have been okay with me if I had just vanished.

How could a veteran pastor experience such symptoms?

When pastors suffer from burnout, they don’t want to tell anybody.  There is still a stigma about the condition in Christian circles because people assume that if a pastor is truly spiritual, he will never experience burnout.  Because it was hard enough to admit it to myself, I only told a handful of people.  I believed that if the word got out, I would be forced to leave the church because burnout victims require prolonged inactivity.

I didn’t fit the usual profile of a burnout victim.  I had a regular quiet time with the Lord.  I exercised 30-45 minutes at least five times a week.  My home life has always been wonderful.  And I didn’t feel driven inside.  The issues that were draining me were not in my private life.  Instead, they were all at church.

Like many pastors, I am a person who needs to see things happen in his life.  Early in my ministry, I liked cutting the grass at my house because I could immediately see the results of my labor.  (This strategy doesn’t work all that well in Phoenix because you have to look hard to find grass.)  I needed to see attendance rising, giving increasing, and lives being changed.

While I tried not to measure my self-worth exclusively by numbers, I was always conscious that some people in the church – especially those who are business-oriented – almost always judge a pastor’s worth “by the numbers.”  I’ve had a lifelong battle with that value system, but in the ministry, whether you like it or not, “You are your stats.”  To keep the stats going up, you need momentum.  And to keep momentum, you need to continually make plans for new growth.

I once was acquainted with a church that had been in existence for nearly thirty years.  Despite the fact that the church lacked a worship center, it had grown.  To accommodate new growth, the leaders proposed putting a new worship center on the front lawn right next to a major street.

When the proposal was brought before the congregation, matters became contentious, and when the vote for the new building was taken, it failed by a slim margin.  At that point, many of the church’s most gifted individuals left the church and the congregation went through a few years of tough times, culminating in an invitation for the church I served as pastor (which was five miles away) to merge with it, which we did.  But we struggled because it’s hard to resurrect momentum.

When a church is growing, it needs to seize those God-given opportunities to “take the land” or it may very well end up wandering in the wilderness for a long, long time.

Without going into details, I spent months in my last church doing research and putting plans together to keep the momentum going only to have those plans blocked.  Although I told very few people at the time, I knew that was the beginning of the end of my ministry in that place.  It was only a few days later that I was diagnosed with burnout.

My story can be replicated thousands of times in the lives of pastors all over this country.

My guess is that most of you reading this blog are not pastors.  Let me share with you several things that you can do to help your pastor avoid burnout.

First, pray for him daily – and let him know you’re praying for him.  (It’s been my experience that those who pray for their pastor rarely attack him, while those who attack him rarely pray for him.)  And when appropriate, pray with him.  Pastors are so used to praying for others that they are usually greatly moved when someone wants to pray for them.

Second, encourage him to stay home most nights.  Years ago, I heard Chuck Swindoll say that a church that expects its pastor to work many nights will eventually lose him.  Andy Stanley, who pastors one of America’s largest churches in the Atlanta area, says that he’s home almost every night of the week.  Toward the end of my ministry, being out three to four nights a week began to take its toll on me – especially as I got older – and I longed to be home more often.

Third, honestly let your pastor know when he’s doing a good job.  Some pastors are able to affirm themselves and don’t need as much external affirmation, while other pastors constantly need to know they’re helping somebody.  It always meant more to me to receive a note of encouragement on Monday or Tuesday than it did on Sunday – although I always appreciated it regardless of the timing.  When the pastor doesn’t hear affirmation from anyone for a week or two, he may very well question his effectiveness, which is one of the symptoms of burnout.

Finally, intervene if you think your pastor is headed toward burnout.  Talk to him.  Talk to his wife.  Talk to the board.  Talk to the staff.  While the pastor needs to care for himself, many could sing with Bono, “And you give yourself away … and you give … and you give … and you give yourself away.”  But if you don’t take in more than you give … you will burn out.

Burnout happens more in the helping professions (doctors, nurses, paramedics, psychologists, missionaries) than in other professions because the work never ends and because the caring mechanisms of the body shut down after prolonged stress.

I will write more about this extremely relevant issue in the days ahead.  If you’d like to read more about this issue, here’s a brief description of the symptoms and cure for pastoral burnout:


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There is a silent epidemic stealthily creeping its way through Christian churches and pastor’s homes these days.  It’s called burnout, and it may not be what you think.

Many years ago, I served as the pastor of a church that sold its property and moved to a warehouse in the light industrial area of our city.  We were simultaneously closing down one church (what to do with all the pianos?), running our current church, and planning for a new church, all at the same time.  The whole exercise just about killed me.  In addition, we had scores of board meetings, most lasting five to seven hours.  When we were done by eleven at night, we got home early.

During one stretch, I worked three 70-80 hour work weeks in a row.  One Friday, on my day off, I received a call telling me that the city demanded that a pile of trash in front of the warehouse be removed immediately.  Since almost everyone else in the church was at work, guess who went down there, threw the trash into the dumpster, and then jumped in and smashed the trash with his feet?  (I used to ask myself, “Would Chuck Swindoll do this?”)

But though I was becoming increasingly tired, I was stressed out, not burned out.  There’s a difference.

When you’re stressed out, you’re overloaded.  You have too much to do and not enough time to do it.  For example, I’ve been feeling a bit stressed out lately because my wife and I are moving to another house forty minutes away and we have to pack our place and move everything by the end of the month.  In fact, it will be our eighth place to live in thirteen years.  But even though it’s stressful, I’m up for it.

But when you’re experiencing burnout, you’re not up for anything.  As Dr. Archibald Hart says, burnout won’t kill you, but it will make you wish you were dead.

Pastors who suffer from burnout try and connect with God but can’t seem to do so.  They feel that God has abandoned them and no longer cares about them.  These pastors desperately need encouragement from their Christian brothers and sisters but are afraid to share how they’re doing because they don’t feel very spiritual.  And if the key leaders of the church find out how they’re really feeling, pastors are afraid they will be forcefully terminated – because in too many situations, when the news leaks out, they are terminated.

Pastors who suffer from burnout find themselves emotionally wrung out.  Because they don’t feel joyful, they have a hard time feeling or expressing pleasure.  The only emotions they can easily express are negative ones like frustration or sadness, but they try hard to keep those feelings to themselves.  Like Samson in the Philistine temple, they keep asking the Lord to get them through the next service or the next meeting because their energy resevoirs are spent.  They feel numb and dead inside.

Pastors who suffer from burnout find themselves increasingly isolated from others.  They know they’re not acting like themselves and are afraid to show their worst side to their congregation.  So they try and manuever their way through each day by only connecting with those people they must contact.  As much as they dislike it, they might even find themselves hiding from people on Sundays because they seem to have little control over how they feel and act.

Pastors who suffer from burnout usually only confide in their spouse, if anyone.  Most pastors are too proud and stubborn to seek counseling (although that’s the very thing they need most).  Yet without counseling, they will continue to spiral downward.  Trained counselors can provide an accurate diagnosis of burnout and point a pastor toward the road to recovery.

Pastors who suffer from burnout become overly sensitive.  They misinterpret any form of criticism and cannot seem to restrain their negative emotions, which just makes them want to avoid people all the more.  They are afraid of inflicting damage on the people they love.  When they act like this, pastors feel tremendously guilty because ministry is all about loving and serving people.

Pastors who suffer from burnout cannot find the motivation to do their best work.  They might scrape together the energy to prepare and deliver messages but they lack the necessary drive to be proactive in beginning new projects.  They spend a lot of time asking themselves, “What’s wrong with me?  What has happened to me?  Why don’t I feel normal?”  And the truth is, they honestly don’t know why.

Burnout doesn’t announce itself through a sudden bodily pain or injury.  It creeps up on you unaware, tackles you, and then flees before you ever see its face.  But the effects of burnout linger on: mental confusion, energy loss, relational aversion, internal emptiness, and a seemingly hopeless future.

Because so many pastors are burned out these days, they are leaving pastoral ministry in droves.  Some seek help and gradually recover, but many seek secular work, and some never darken the door of a church for years, if ever.

One of America’s most famous pastors came to a breaking point last year.  Although he says that he hadn’t yet done any damage to his ministry and relationships, he was concerned that might happen, so with the blessing of his church board, he took more than six months off to try and recover.  Sadly, most pastors who suffer from burnout need at least that much time off or more, but their church boards aren’t likely to give them that kind of time.  It’s easier to just let the pastor go and hire one with fresh energy.

This burnout issue is growing more and more serious.  It’s serious for pastors because, as Dr. Archibald Hart says, it can mean the beginning of the end of a career.  But it’s serious for churches too because some churches can actually set a pastor up for burnout.

I’ll talk more about pastoral burnout in my next article and suggest ways that both pastors and churches can aid in recovery – because pastors cannot do it alone.

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