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Archive for the ‘Personal Stories’ Category

For many years, I struggled with jealousy toward those in ministry who seemed more successful than I was.

In my mid-twenties, I was a full-time youth/Christian education director at a church in Orange County, California.  A friend I’ll call Ben … the pastor’s son … was a youth pastor at a church I had admired all my life, and he was making plans to attend seminary outside California.

Ben recommended that the church hire me as his replacement, and since many people already knew me, that’s what happened.

But right off the bat, I ran into resistance.

One high school girl told me that she felt sorry for me because I didn’t compare to Ben.

The adult youth leaders openly resisted my leadership.

An adult youth leader once stared at me and finally said, “Jim, you’re just so different than Ben” … intimating that wasn’t a good thing.

The following Christmas, Ben returned to the church and spoke on Sunday to a packed house where I was forced to sit on the platform and watch the lovefest between him and the congregation.  It hurt … immensely.

When I left that church three-and-a-half years later, I tried to pave the way for the next youth pastor.

A few years later, the pastor retired, and who did the church hire as their new pastor?  That’s right … Ben.

When I left that church, I became pastor of a small church in Silicon Valley.  Pastor Joe led the largest church in the area, and one Sunday when I was on vacation, I took my family to that megachurch.

It was so crowded that we sat on the last row of the balcony.  It was a hot day … the a/c wasn’t working … and we could barely see the stage.

But boy, could Pastor Joe pack them in!

I served a church of less than 100 people, and Pastor Joe pastored 2000 … and had co-written a book with someone who had a study Bible named after him.

To me, Pastor Joe was the epitome of success … and I felt great jealousy toward Pastor Joe because he seemed wildly successful while I was not.

But then something happened that profoundly impacted those feelings.

I had started a Spiritual Leadership Retreat for pastors and their board members in our district the year before.

Pastors often attend conferences … return home … tell their board members what they learned … but meet resistance because the board didn’t hear what the pastor heard.

So, I thought … let’s get pastors and their boards together, bring in a speaker, let him do a few sessions, and then after each session, ask the pastors and their boards to discuss the speaker’s ideas immediately.

We needed a speaker for our second retreat, and someone suggested Pastor Joe, so I contacted him, and we met in a restaurant to talk.

Going into that luncheon, I was greatly intimidated by Pastor Joe.  After all, he was a SOMEBODY while I was a NOBODY.

But during our three hours together, he poured out his heart to me about all the problems he was having in his church.

The biggest problem involved a staff member who was single and had been caught having sex with another woman.

The pastor and his elders decided to remove this man from his position … keep him at the church … put him under an accountability group … and give him a job as a church custodian.

Pastor Joe could not have predicted the avalanche of criticism he would receive.  He had received 300 letters that he could not bear to answer about the decision he and the board had made.  Half the writers felt the decision was too strict, while half felt the decision was too lenient.

The pastor also shared some shocking news with me.  While he had a degree from a Bible college, he had never gone to seminary, and his lack of a master’s degree made him feel very insecure.

So he overstudied.  He spent 15 hours a week on his Sunday morning message … 15 hours on his Sunday evening message … and 20 hours on his Wednesday night message.

Why did he spent 20 hours on his midweek message, I wondered?

Because, he told me, on several occasions, he stood up to speak and John MacArthur was sitting in the congregation, and Joe didn’t want to say anything inaccurate.

The three hours I spent with that pastor did more to cure me of jealousy than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Here is what I’ve learned about jealousy over the years:

First, we should never compare ourselves to others because God has made us all so different.

Whitey Herzog was a Hall of Fame manager who led both the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals to World Series championships.

During his heyday in the 1980s, Herzog was often considered to be the best manager in baseball, an accolade he disputed.  He said the only way to tell the best manager was to give several managers the exact same players and see where they finished at the end of the year … an impossible feat.

In the same way, the only way to compare pastors would be to take a few of them … put them all in the same community … give them the same number of people … give them the same size campus and buildings … give them identical staffs and board members … give them the same income … and then see how they fared five years later.

But since that’s completely unrealistic, why even try to compare ourselves with others?

It may be human, but it’s ultimately counterproductive.

Second, jealousy often doesn’t start inside of us but within the followers of others.

Before Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, John’s ministry took people by storm, and his followers reveled in their access to this superstar and his fame.

But then Jesus came along and began baptizing as well.  The Baptism Wars were ready to start when John’s disciples said to him in John 3:26, “Rabbi, that man [notice they won’t name Jesus] who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

There wasn’t any problem between John and Jesus.  The problem was with John’s followers.

In the story I told above about Pastor Ben … the youth pastor I succeeded … there wasn’t any problem between us.  We often met for meals at denominational events and laughed about my perception of the way people adored him.

And years later, I served as his teaching pastor for sixteen months.

Since we can’t stop people from comparing us to others, we either have to plug our ears or realize that we have our admirers as well, even if they aren’t as numerous or vocal.

Third, our job isn’t to become famous or well-loved, but to carry out God’s unique assignment for us.

In John 3:27-29, John tells his followers that he knows his role very well.  Jesus is the bridegroom, and John’s assignment is to be Jesus’ friend, or best man.

In other words, John says, who cares what people think about me as long as Jesus receives the spotlight?

That’s what he meant when he said, “He must become greater; I must become less.”

During my second staff assignment, I occasionally preached from the church’s large pulpit.  There was a small plaque attached to it that only the preacher could view.  The plaque read, “Sir, we must see Jesus.”

I’ve heard guys preach who told story after story where they were the heroes … and those individuals often acquired a large following.

But like John, there comes a time when we all have to say, “I don’t even care if people remember my name as long as they see Jesus.”

And since He’s why we serve, there’s no reason to be jealous of Him.

Fourth, every pastor has his successes … but they only last for a season.

After a very slow start, I’ve had some successes in ministry:

*I once appeared with several other pastors on a live radio program in the Bay Area.  I was very nervous going in, but talked quite a lot, and when I drove back to my church for our midweek Bible study, the congregation gathered in the lobby to greet me.

While that was cool, nothing really happened because of it.

*I pastored the largest Protestant church in a city of 75,000 for years.

But it didn’t last.

*The starting quarterback of the Oakland Raiders attended my church one year right before the season started.

But he only came for three weeks … and went on to became the worst quarterback in the league.

*I earned a doctoral degree, and enjoyed my classwork immensely.

But two years after graduation, I was forced out as pastor.

*I wrote a book, which I never thought I’d do, and it’s fun to see it on Amazon.

But the paperback has stopped selling, and as of this writing, it’s number 2,176,901 on Amazon, although I did sell one today, which will probably help me jump over a million places.

Our perceived ministry successes often don’t last very long.  John the Baptist’s ministry came and went quickly.  Jesus’ ministry lasted less than four years.

Years ago, I became convinced that success in ministry can only be measured by faithfulness.  On occasion, God lets us taste greater success, but it rarely lasts forever, because …

Finally, great success is often followed by great suffering.

When Paul ascended to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12, he said he “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”

Paul was tempted to say, “Wow!  I’ll bet nobody else has had this experience!  I am obviously someone very special!”

But, Paul writes, “to keep me from becoming conceited” he received “a thorn in my flesh,” some kind of nagging bodily ailment.

When I sat in that restaurant with Pastor Joe, and heard him tell me about the 300 critical letters he had received, I reminded myself of an adage I had often heard:

“Big churches have big problems … small churches have small problems.”

At that moment, I realized that if I were ever to pastor a large church, I would probably have to suffer greatly … and I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay the price.

And I was instantly cured of jealousy.

A year-and-a-half after our initial meeting, Pastor Joe died.  I never found out what killed him, but mean-spirited criticism, constant stress, and sitting in a chair studying fifty hours a week surely didn’t help.

Several years later, that church of 2000 had plunged to 400 … and was barely holding on.

_______________

When I was in seminary, we had to attend chapel four times a week.  Because we had to leave for work after chapel, my friend Dave and I both sat together on the back row.

Today, Dave pastors a large church.  He’s on the radio every day in many US markets.  I often watch his service on Roku.  He has a lot of influence in the Calvary Chapel movement.  He wrote the notes for The Word for Today Study Bible.  He hosted Chuck Smith’s question and answer radio program with Chuck many times … especially at the end of Chuck’s life.

I don’t feel any jealousy toward Dave.  He’s been my friend for nearly 50 years.  I know how gifted he is and how hard he’s worked over the years.

In fact, I’m happy for him … and when the Lord takes me home, I want Dave to conduct my memorial service.

Dave has a very public ministry.  By contrast, mine is quite private.

I spent two hours on the phone yesterday with a leader who has been struggling with some issues in his church.  The situation is complex … without easy answers … but I know I was able to help him.

At this point in my life, I wouldn’t trade places with Dave for anything.  I am quite content with my small ministry and glad that the Lord has called me to it.

And in the end, isn’t the antidote to jealousy to be content with the place, people, status, and salary the Lord has given us?

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In the fall of 2009, my wife and I went on a missions trip to Moldova with three other people.  After spending several days in London to recuperate and see some sights, Kim and I traveled north to Wales, Keswick, Edinburgh, and York before returning home.

trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-061trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-319  trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-512 trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-532

Whenever I look at photos from that trip, this little voice tells me, “The whole time you were away, the church board back home was plotting to end your ministry.”

As I’ve recounted in my book Church Coup, the official board met with me on October 24, 2009 and announced a decision designed to end my tenure at the church I had served effectively and faithfully for 10 1/2 years.

Talk about an “October surprise!”

Forty-three days later, I resigned, and preached my final sermon a week later.

I’ve been through many tough times in ministry, and managed to overcome each situation with God’s help.

But not this time … because the spirit in the church had changed.

When I refer to such a “spirit,” I’m talking about an atmosphere … a climate … a mood that I could feel … though others may not have sensed it.

In fact, one way of looking at that fifty-day conflict is to identify the spirits that drove some to push out their pastor.

As I’ve listened to the stories of many pastors and church leaders since my departure, I’ve learned that these spirits are usually present before a pastor is forced to resign … as well as during any extended conflict.

As I see it, there are at least seven spirits that drive a church coup:

First, there’s the spirit of resistance.

For years, we were the largest Protestant church in our city of 75,000 people … by far … excellent numbers in a city with only three decent Protestant churches at the time.

But an underground resistance movement… fueled by someone outside the church … slowly expanded and reached a crescendo by the fall of 2009.

Most of my time as pastor, both my leadership and preaching were well-received … but near the end of my tenure, things had changed.

Resistance is the feeling a pastor senses that certain leaders and members are no longer following his leadership.

I first started detecting resistance when we started a building program around 2002.  I let the congregation have input on both the architect’s drawings as well as our fundraising plan.

And every vote involving the building was unanimous.

We lost about eight percent of our people during that time, and two individuals in the inner circle tried to sabotage the project.

As a leader, I never forced my ideas on people.  I made proposals, stated my case, asked for input, addressed objections, called for an official decision, and then moved forward.

If various individuals didn’t like my proposals, they had many opportunities to voice their displeasure in public.

But they didn’t … they went underground instead.

By the time 2009 rolled around, I could feel the resistance, especially when I preached.  To quote Phil Collins, there was “something in the air.”

No matter what I did – perform a wedding, conduct a funeral, propose a change – there always seemed to be pushback.

Especially from the church board.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not please them.  They never told me I was doing a good job.  They never tried to encourage me.  I always felt like I was on trial.

And their resistance started wearing me down.

Second, there’s the spirit of bitterness.

Regardless of church size, it only takes seven to ten people to force a pastor out.  If that minority is determined to oust the pastor … and are willing to use the law of the jungle … they often succeed.

Some people were angry with me because I took positions contrary to theirs on matters like baptism … women in ministry … outreach events … worship style … you name it.

A handful shared their disagreements with me and we worked things out.  Most told everyone but me about their anger and pulled others into their web.

For example, as our new worship center neared completion, I created seven principles for the way we were going to run our worship services.  I went to the church board and gained unanimous approval for those principles.

But a woman on the worship team disagreed vehemently.  She began complaining about me to anyone who would listen, to the point that the board chairman had to intervene.

I invited her into my office, listened to her concerns, explained my position, thought we had an understanding, and assumed that was the end of it.

Until she started complaining again.

A few months later … having caused much division … she and her family left the church.  It hurt.  I thought we were friends.

I’m unsure if she ever forgave me.   And when people feel and express bitterness toward their pastor, that bitterness spreads, and eventually wears a pastor down … and can tear a church apart.

And all too often, the bitterness morphs into a vendetta.

Third, there’s the spirit of hypocrisy.

A hypocrite is a play-actor … someone who acts one way in public but another way in private.

While hypocrites act in a spiritual manner outwardly, they are completely different people inside.

Pastors can sense those individuals and families who aren’t behind them.  You try and move toward them, and love on them, but sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

There was a couple in that church who had been there since the church started.  No matter what, I just couldn’t seem to connect with them.

Let’s call them Bo and Jo.

I ministered to them when there were deaths in their family.  I intentionally sought them out for conversation after services.  They were cordial but rarely warm.

I knew they were good friends with my predecessor but tried to ignore that connection.  After all, what could I do about it?

Eight days after the conflict started, the entire church board resigned, and a week later, we held two already-scheduled congregational meetings designed to announce the board’s departure.

After 24 years of leading healthy congregational meetings, all hell broke loose that Sunday.  A few members became unglued and publicly sided with the board.

After the second meeting, Bo came up to me and said, “I’m praying for you, brother.”  I looked at him and said, “Are you, Bo?”  (I knew he stood against me.)

A friend later told me that Jo was crying in the ladies room because she was afraid that I wasn’t going to be kicked out as pastor.

Before I resigned, I was informed that Bo and Jo played a crucial role in forcing me out.

Jesus knew who the hypocrites around Him were and called them out.  I sensed who some were but never knew what to do except keep them out of leadership.

If you don’t want me as your pastor, there’s a simple solution: leave the church.

But people like Bo and Jo don’t want to leave.  They want their pastor to leave instead … even if he isn’t guilty of any major offense … because in their minds, it’s their church, not his church.

And, of course, they know best.

And because hypocrites are experts at playing a part, pastors may not know who they are, so they can’t proactively work things out with them.

Fourth, there’s the spirit of cowardice.

When it comes to interpersonal squabbles at church, most Christians are cowards.

If they’re personally offended by someone, they don’t approach the person who hurt them as Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:15 … they complain to their network instead.

This is especially true when it comes to pastors.

Whenever someone had the courage to tell me directly they were upset about something, I always thanked them for speaking with me personally … but it rarely happened … not because I’m scary, but because people find it uncomfortable to confront their pastor.

But sometimes, what people are thinking and feeling about their pastor is based on inaccurate information … and God’s people may not want to hear the truth.

Last year, I heard about a church where someone accused the pastor of stealing a small amount of money.  Instead of speaking with the pastor privately, this individual reported the pastor to the authorities, and then told many others in the church about his accusation.

As the charges bounced around the congregation, some felt emboldened, and added their own personal gripes about the pastor to the mix.

The pastor was driven from office even though the evidence clearly showed he had done nothing wrong.

His career was destroyed over a lie.

Christians become cowards when:

*board members are upset with the pastor but never tell him how they feel.

*members allow false accusations about their pastor to spread.

*everybody is afraid to confront the ringleaders who initially attacked the pastor.

*people who know the truth won’t share it for fear of being vilified.

If God’s people would just grant their pastors the protections Scripture offers them in Deuteronomy 19:15-21, Matthew 18:15-17, and 1 Timothy 5:19-21, we could put an end to the epidemic of pastoral terminations once and for all.

But that will require a spirit of courage that is sadly lacking in most congregations… and it requires working hard to disintegrate the groupthink that grips so many.

Fifth, there’s the spirit of gullibility.

Many years ago, I began an Easter service by announcing that the President of the United States had suddenly resigned.

After hearing gasps all over the room, I exclaimed, “April Fool!”

If I tried that today, someone would check out the news on their smart phone before I ever got to “April Fool.”

But churchgoers who often check out the facts regarding the news rarely check out negative information they hear about their pastor.

If I was a regular churchgoer and I heard a serious rumor about my pastor, I would want to know:

*the original source of the rumor.

*who is spreading the rumor.

*who they’ve been talking with.

*how solid their information is.

*the views of different staff and board members.

If I believe the first thing I hear, then I’m really gullible.  And if I pass on that information without verifying it, I could well be passing on a lie … and destroying both my pastor and my church.

But wise, mature, discerning Christians check out the veracity of what they hear before they do anything else.

Yet in all too many churches, people hear negative information about their pastor … instantly believe it … spread the story to others … and then can’t revise the narrative because it will make them look bad … so they continue to perpetuate half-truths and outright lies.

During our conflict, after board members resigned, they and their wives jumped on their phones and called as many people as possible.  (A friend from out-of-state told us who called her and what was said.  Why call her?)

When I was telling my story to my ministry mentor several years ago – a former pastor and denominational president – this is the point at which he said, “Jim, I am so sorry.”

It’s one thing for people who hate their pastor to spread vicious rumors about him.  It’s another thing for good Christian people to believe them … especially when the pastor has a decade-long track record of integrity.

What hurts more than anything is that most people never bothered to pick up the phone to hear my side of the story.

The week before I resigned, Satan attacked my family in a horrible way.  Few people know the story.  I’ll spare you the details.

During the attack, I received a phone call from a newly-elected board member who told me about the latest charge against me.  He told me the source of the rumor … where that person heard it from … and exactly what they were saying.

Because he called, I was able to snuff out the rumor with facts, which I’m sure he passed on to the other new members.

I could have snuffed out all the rumors if people had just contacted me … and I still can … but by this time, nobody cares.

Don’t the conquerors write the history?

Sixth, there’s the spirit of blindness.

By blindness, I mean that a pastor’s attackers believe they see his faults clearly.

They just can’t see their own.

Let’s modify Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5 a bit:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your pastor’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your pastor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your pastor’s eye.”

Paul’s words in Galatians 6:1 (with one modification) are also appropriate here:

Brothers, if your pastor is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.

God’s Word does not say that you are to watch your pastor’s life and then tell others about every little thing he may have done or said wrong.

No, Scripture says that before you deal with those caught in sin, you should first “watch yourself” to make sure you have a humble, loving approach so you can restore the wayward person.

And if you don’t first “watch yourself,” you aren’t qualified to address anyone’s sin.

Whenever a pastor is pushed out of a church, there are usually a few narcissists and sociopaths involved.  People who have these personality disorders never admit they do anything wrong at home … at work … or on the road.

They bring that same mentality to church, and when they sense their pastor is vulnerable, they move in for the kill … and never feel badly about the part they play.

What’s amazing to me is that many churches allow such spiritually blind people to be their leaders.

Finally, there’s the spirit of destruction.

There is a spirit behind these seven spirits … and it’s not the Holy Spirit of God.

As Ephesians 2:2 specifies, it’s “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” … Satan.

As I say quite often, Satan has invaded a church when two factors are present: deception and destruction.

Or we might say … deception leading to destruction.

Jesus said in John 8:44 that Satan is “a liar and the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning” … and He was addressing His comments to spiritual leaders.

When a pastor has done something wrong, those in a church controlled by the Holy Spirit will gently and lovingly confront him with the goal of restoring him spiritually and even vocationally.

But under similar circumstances, those influenced by Satan will harshly and hatefully condemn him with the goal of destroying him both personally and professionally.

Instead of identifying Satan’s work in their own lives, such people gleefully detect satanic influence in their pastor.

As Neil Young sang, “I don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them.”

My wife and I could not only sense Satan’s influence during the conflict … we could taste and feel it.

It’s something you never forget.

After the church board resigned, I hired a church consultant … with the assistance of five well-respected congregational leaders.

After interviewing some leaders, and witnessing two horrendous congregational meetings, the consultant wrote a report where he exonerated my wife and me and faulted others.

Then a nine-person team from the church looked into the charges against us and publicly announced that we were not guilty of wrongdoing.

But one year later, the tables had turned, and friends sadly informed me that my reputation inside the church had been decimated.

The verdicts of the consultant and nine-person team no longer mattered.  My opponents had to win.  I had to be destroyed.

The hit job on me was so complete that after I left the church, not one person – including family, friends, or colleagues – felt that I should ever pastor again.

After 36 years, my church ministry career was over.

_______________

Several months after I resigned and moved to another state, I had a conversation with a church consultant from the Midwest.  I kept asking him, “Why did these people … who claimed to be Christians … act the way they did?”  Because I could never act that way toward anyone else, I couldn’t get my head around it.

The consultant told me, “Jim, the opposition to your ministry was probably there for years, but you didn’t see it because people covered it up well.  When you were attacked, their true feelings came spilling out.”

_______________

I’m going to end this article by quoting Galatians 5:19-23:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hated, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Which terms best represent those that try and force out their pastor?

Hint: it’s not the second group.

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While cleaning out some boxes kept in storage yesterday, I ran across a photo taken of me at an event from my last church … and I instantly felt a twinge of pain inside.

Then I started to feel sadness behind my eyes … like I wanted to cry but couldn’t.  That feeling lasted for about half an hour.

I’ve had these feelings for years now, and I don’t like them.  They come upon me at unexpected times, especially when I focus too much on the conflict that propelled me out of church ministry seven years ago.

Even though I’ve written extensively about pastoral termination and church conflict over the past six years – having written nearly 525 articles – I haven’t written much about the feelings that a pastor has after he’s been forced out of office.

While I can’t speak for every pastor who goes through this horrendous experience, maybe it would be helpful to describe what’s healthy … and unhealthy … after a pastor undergoes termination.

So offering up my own experiences as a model, let me share five emotions that I experienced in the aftermath of my departure from ministry in 2009:

First, I was shocked by the viciousness some people demonstrated to get rid of me. 

Some people I served as pastor did everything in their power to destroy my position as pastor as well as my reputation.

And I mean destroy.

There is no way to sugarcoat what they did or said.  These professing Christians intended harm toward me, their pastor.

It was revenge … and personal.

Only I didn’t know then … and don’t know today … what I did or didn’t do to illicit such hatred from them.

That shock lasts a long time.  In many ways, I’m still not over it.

I never preached with a hateful tone nor a hateful manner, so those feelings did not originate with me.  They either came from an internal or external source.  My guess is that they came from someone outside the church who fanned the flames of anger inside the church.

The attitude of these people was not, “We disagree with your views on several subjects,” nor, “We think you’ve lost effectiveness and should go.”

No, their attitude was, “We hate you, Jim, and we want you to leave and never come back.”

These were people who professed to love Jesus, His Word, and His people … so how could they demonstrate such rage against their pastor who had served them faithfully for 10 1/2 years?

I have no idea.

When I was nineteen years old, I became a youth pastor.  One night, after finding out that two of my former Sunday School teachers were involved in sexual immorality, my pastor told me, “Jim, don’t ever be shocked by what Christians do.”

Over the years, I’ve tried not to be.

But sometimes, I still am.  Sometimes, the whole conflict invades my soul without warning, and I shake my head and say to myself, “I could never, ever treat a pastor the way I was treated.”

If I’m shocked at anything today, it’s that not even one person responsible for pushing me out has ever apologized for their actions.

Second, I engaged in a lot of self-reproach.

I have this really unhealthy habit of believing bad things people say about me while ignoring the good things.

It’s not so much a self-esteem issue as it is blaming myself for not being perfect.

So when the church board attacked me privately … and their allies attacked me publicly … I figured that I must be who they said I am: a horrible person and pastor.

Nearly every charge made against me was a partial or complete falsehood, and I knew that at the time, but I still blamed myself for not being everything they wanted in a pastor.

Whenever someone severely criticized me, I used to tell myself, “How arrogant of me to think that I can please all 400 adults in this church.  I can’t, and nobody else can, either.”

That’s a healthy way to view criticism.  But when your critics all align together, and pool their complaints, and fire them off into the ether, it’s natural to think, “They must be right.  I must be a colossal bozo.”

That’s why going to counseling was so important for both me and my wife.  We needed an outside, objective, different perspective.

We saw two counselors: one who practiced a few miles from that church, and another who practiced in another state.

Both told me the same thing: the way you were treated was wrong, and your critics failed to demonstrate any love or redemption, the tip-off that your opponents were not very spiritual.

Let me quote from Dennis Murray in his book Healing For Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack:

“The attack on you is not information about you.  It is information about the handful of ringleaders who organized the battle…. Healing begins by recognizing that you did the right thing.  You were blessed with an incredible ‘manure detector’ that allowed you to see exactly what was happening.  You have been blessed with a perceptive intelligence that allows you to distinguish truth from lies.  Your intuition is highly developed and you were able to separate fact from fiction.”

Although I still don’t know why my attackers hated me so much, I no longer blame myself for the conflict, and realize that while I made mistakes in ministry, nothing I did justified the way I was treated.

Third, I experienced a normal amount of depression.

Dr. Archibald Hart is the best teacher I’ve ever had.  He taught “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class in Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program.  (And he told me that he would put my book Church Coup on his reading list.)

Dr. Hart believes that whenever you’re depressed, you need to find the core loss, and only then will you start to recover.

My wife and I lost so much after my resignation: my position, my income, my reputation, our house (it was underwater and was sold in a short sale), our church family, our credit rating, and worst of all, most of our friends.

That’s a formula for depression.

When my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat sponsored by The Ministering to Minister’s Foundation the month after our departure, Dr. Charles Chandler and his colleagues stressed the importance of both going to counseling and taking antidepressants to aid in recovery.

Fortunately, my wife and I were both already doing those things.

After we left our last ministry, we moved to another state 750 miles away.  For months, I could either explode in anger or break into tears at the drop of a hat.  I spent weeks just walking around the neighborhood where we lived, wondering how I could ever pastor a church again.

My core loss?  In my view, I had lost my identity as a person … and in a very real sense, was lost both vocationally and personally.

Which means that to go forward, I would have to reinvent myself vocationally.

Here’s what I’ve learned about depression after a forced departure:

*Whenever I returned to the community where my previous church was located, I would become increasingly anxious and afraid.  I can no longer get anywhere near it.  It’s poison to my soul.

*Whenever I took a trip out-of-state, my depression lifted, probably because I felt safe.

*Whenever I’ve talked about my situation in public – like in a workshop for Christian leaders – I feel fine.

*Whenever I write a blog, I rarely feel sad because I’m trying to help others by engaging in something redemptive.

*When I wrote my book Church Coup, and had to look at documents that were created during the conflict, I could feel my intestines tie into knots.  If it’s a difficult book to read, imagine how painful it was to write.  (This is probably why there are very few books written by pastors about their own forced terminations.)

*When I became an interim pastor three years after leaving my last ministry, I felt great most of the time … except when I was drawn into several conflicts.

I’ve been asked if I’m willing to do any more interim work, but right now, the answer is “no.”  Whenever I even imagine myself serving at a church, the pressure behind my eyes builds again, and I start feeling a large degree of anxiety.

For me, healing involves working, and being involved in ministry … just not church ministry.

Fourth, I am completely open about every aspect of the conflict.

Years ago, I determined that I would be a pastor who would express his humanity and describe his feelings if it would be redemptive.  I grew up with pastors who never let us know who they were or what they felt strongly about, and I didn’t want to be like them.

So when the Lord allowed me to go through a 50-day conflict of which I was the focus, I resolved that I was going to make things redemptive by sharing what happened to me so that I could help others.

Many pastors have who been pushed out of their churches don’t want to talk about what happened to them with anyone.  They keep it all inside … for whatever reason.

Maybe they don’t want to relive it.  Maybe they don’t want to dwell on the past.  Maybe they figure they can’t change what happened.

Or maybe it’s all just too painful.

My ministry mentors are leaders like Archibald Hart, Bill Hybels, and Stephen Brown … men who are authentic and transparent about their feelings and failures.

So if someone wants to talk about our conflict, I’m glad to engage.  If someone wants to steer away from the topic, I’ll follow their lead.

Several months ago, I learned that someone who had supported my ministry during the entire time I was at my last church turned against me after I left … and she surely wasn’t the only one.

It hurt me for a moment, but then I figured, “Why should this bother me?  I can’t straighten out everybody.  Besides, the next time we’ll see each other is in heaven, so she can only hurt me if I let her.”

But I felt that sadness behind the eyes again, and had to wait for it to subside.

To write my book, I had to engage in hours of personal ruminating as well as many interpersonal conversations.  My hope was that by writing a complete account of what happened … with commentary from conflict experts … I could put the entire situation behind me.

Writing the book did help a great deal.  I don’t have to revisit any major events mentally because I’ve already recorded them.

I would say this: being open about what happened to me probably wrecked any chance I have of returning to church ministry someday, but it’s made me much more empathetic and effective in helping pastors who have undergone this horrendous experience.

And I think that’s a great trade-off.

Finally, I have felt a strong sense of isolation.

I love Sherlock Holmes, whether it’s Doyle’s original stories, the episodes filmed for Masterpiece Theatre in the 1980s, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s current take on Holmes.

Holmes was a consulting detective which means that people who wanted help with a problem had to seek Holmes out directly.  They came to him … he didn’t go to them.

When I was a pastor, people emailed and called me for help during the week. They made appointments for my counsel.  They sought me before and after services.  As an introvert, I loved it when people came to me for help.

I was a somebody at church.

But when you’re no longer a pastor, you suddenly feel like a nobody at every church you visit.  And God help you if you tell the pastor that you’re an ex-pastor who would like to use his spiritual gifts to make a difference.  Most of the time, you will be perceived as a threat and shunned just for saying that much.

The Christian community simply does not know what to do with its former pastors.

My wife and I live in a desert community.  We have many business clients but no real friends in the area.  We are not only each other’s best friends … we are each other’s only friends.

We do have some family around: 60 miles away … 75 miles away … 330 miles away … and 490 miles away.

And we do have some good friends we see several times a year.

But it’s not the same as when you have church friends that you see several times a week because they live in your community.  We’ve tried going that route, but so far, it hasn’t worked.

In case you’re wondering, I love my life right now.  The Lord retired me early, and I enjoy working with my wife, seeing our grandsons, watching sports, and going to concerts and ballgames.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This Monday marks seven years since the beginning of the conflict that pushed me out of church ministry.  As I do every year, I’ll be writing a special blog about that experience and including some things I’ve never shared before.

If I can help you or a loved one who has undergone a church attack, please let me know.  Either leave a comment on this blog or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org

Sometimes reaching out to someone who understands is the best way to start your recovery.

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Over my 25 years as a pastor, I worked with various church boards, and many board chairmen.

Up until my last several years in ministry, I got along with all of them, and considered each one a personal friend.

The first chairman I served with was 74 years old.  I was only 27.   We used to drive up Interstate 880 to Oakland from Silicon Valley together and watch the Oakland A’s play.

Another chairman met me at 6:00 am on Tuesday mornings for prayer.  He lived right behind the church and could tell when I was working because he could see my car in the parking lot.

A third chairman helped spearhead a radical change: selling our church property so we could start a new church with a new name in a new location … with a new mission.

The above gentleman have all gone home to be with the Lord.

Still another chairman helped guide my last church through fundraising and the construction of a new worship center … and always had my back, for which I will always be grateful.

But I’d like to tell you about someone who was, in my mind, the ideal board chairman.  His name?

Russ Jones.

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Russ and his wife AJ came to our church in Santa Clara in the spring of 1993.

At the time, we were meeting in a warehouse with a concrete floor.  The sound from the stage during the Sunday service was bouncing all over the room.

Russ and his wife kept coming back to the church, and they eventually donated funds for the warehouse to be carpeted.

Through a series of events, Russ became an elder, and then chairman of the board.

Here’s why he did such a great job:

*Russ spent time getting to know me.  He knew what I liked and didn’t like.  He knew how to talk my language so that I listened and heeded his advice.  We became a team.

*Russ had an extensive business background and wasn’t intimidated by the company that managed the warehouse (which I was).  Because a contractor had cheated us financially before Russ’ arrival, we had some rough days financially as a congregation, yet Russ handled all financial discussions with a calm and confident demeanor, which freed me to focus on ministry.

*Russ also knew how to correct me when necessary.  One time, when ministry stresses were getting to me, I didn’t handle myself well in a board meeting.  Russ took me out to breakfast, told me how I was coming across, suggested how to handle things in the future, and gave me a letter to reiterate his concerns (which I still have).  He never ran me down to others or plotted behind my back.  He was always up front and honest with me.

*Russ let me know that he was there to serve me and the agenda God had given me.  He considered me to be the professional.  While this didn’t mean that he always agreed with my ideas, he always respected me, and I could sense that respect.  Russ didn’t meet with the board in secret to create and institute his own agenda: he always tried to carry out mine.

In fact, five years ago, he wrote a blog article about the role of the board chairman in relation to the pastor at my request:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2011/08/31/support-your-local-pastor/

Russ also had some personal qualities that I found endearing:

*He was a big kidder.  I come from a family where some of the men – including my father – enjoyed verbal sparring, and I enjoyed joking with Russ immensely.

*He was outgoing and friendly.  He could talk with anybody about anything … and frequently did.  To this day, everybody in my family loves Russ.

*He was a big sports fan, and especially loved the Los Angeles Dodgers and UCLA Bruins.  When the Giants or 49ers lost, boy, did I hear about it!  (Russ took me to my first NFL game.  The 49ers beat New England 21-3, so you know it was a long time ago.)

*He was totally trustworthy.  Several times, I found myself in dilemmas, and after talking with Russ, I knew what to do.  When the board in my last church made some drastic decisions, I consulted with Russ, who told me exactly what they were doing … and he was right.

*He was incredibly generous.  When I left the church in Santa Clara in early 1998, I joined the staff of a church in Arizona, but had to raise 1/3 of my salary.  I appealed to family and friends for those funds, and Russ and his wife donated the largest monthly amount.

Russ and AJ moved to Arizona soon after I moved back to California, but we still saw each other a lot.  They eventually moved to Wickenburg, Arizona, living on the edge of town closest to California.

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When we could, we’d go to a spring training game together, whether in Scottsdale to watch the Giants …

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… or to Tempe to watch the Angels and Giants.

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When I turned 60 nearly three years ago, Russ and AJ made the long drive from Wickenburg to a Fuddrucker’s in Orange County which touched me deeply.

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And like me, Russ enjoyed obtaining signatures from former baseball players, like Bobby Richardson, former second baseman of the New York Yankees from the late 1950s and early 1960s:

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Over the course of my ministry, I’ve discovered that many churchgoers try and befriend their pastor while they’re attending a particular church, but drop him like a hot potato when either he or they leave.

Russ wasn’t like that.  The friendship that we developed transcended the typical pastor-parishioner relationship.

When we both lived in Arizona a few years ago, we frequently had breakfast together … and I didn’t want those times to end.

To me, Russ was a father figure, a mentor, and a ministry partner.

But most of all, Russ was my friend.

After a stroke and a series of illnesses, God took Russ home several weeks ago.  Fortunately, I was able to see him one final time last spring when he was staying at a rehab center in Surprise, Arizona.

Even though he wasn’t as sharp or as quick as usual, he was still the same Russ … and he still loved his Lord.

I will be speaking at his memorial service this weekend in Wickenburg, and I’ve already shared with you what I’ll be saying.

Russ, thanks for being my friend.  I miss you, but know that I will see you one day when we reunite around the throne of God.

And when that day comes, we won’t have to talk about politics – or straightening out the world – any more.

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I have very few heroes anymore.  For example:

*As a kid, I looked up to a certain baseball player … later found out he had an affair with a famous actress while he was playing … and that after he retired, he became a drug addict.

*I looked up to a well-known pastor for many years for his authenticity, biblical insight, and writing skills.  When I had a chance to meet him, I jumped at the chance.  Several years ago, I found out he had an affair, that his wife divorced him, and that the news never hit the wider Christian public.

*I remember when a singer whose music I enjoyed was arrested for drunk driving.  Later in his autobiography, this man … who wrote and sang tender love songs … confessed that he once took a chainsaw to his wife’s bed during an argument.

I could talk for hours about people I once put on a pedestal who embarrassed themselves or disappointed their followers by violating common decency or their own moral standards.

Let’s say that over the years, I’ve had 100 different heroes.  At this point in my life, it’s probably down to less than ten (Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax from baseball; Archibald Hart, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John Stott from the Christian community).

I don’t expect perfection from someone I admire, but I do want them to exemplify virtues like authenticity, modesty, and wisdom.

And next week, one of my few remaining heroes will retire after 67 years of doing the same thing.

His name?

Vin Scully … voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers … and generally considered to be the greatest sports announcer of all time.

My first memory of hearing Vin Scully on the radio was as a six-year-old boy in Anaheim, California.  Our family had an old black radio in the kitchen, and Scully was announcing the Phillies-Dodgers 1960 home opener.  (Frank Sullivan was the starting pitcher for the Phillies.  Don’t ask me how I know that.)

The following month, my dad took me to the Los Angeles Coliseum where the Dodgers played their first four years.  I remember how green the grass was … how vast the outfield was … and that Vin Scully’s voice seemed to be everywhere because the LA crowd brought their transistor radios (they were fairly new at the time) to the game.

Vin Scully was a big part of my childhood.  The Dodgers only televised nine games a year (all from San Francisco), so to follow the team, you had to listen to the radio.  I often fell asleep listening to Scully talk baseball on 50,000 watt KFI, AM 640.

Scully broadcast the first three innings … Jerry Doggett took the next three … and Scully then handled the final three.  Unlike most announcers, he didn’t interact with his partner … he wanted to call the action himself.

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I heard Scully broadcast portions of all four of Sandy Koufax’ no-hitters.  When Koufax threw his last one on a Thursday night in September 1965 against the Chicago Cubs, my brother John and I listened to the whole game on the radio, even though we were supposed to be asleep.  When Koufax struck out Harvey Kuenn for the final out, he cried out, “A perfect game!”  My brother and I jumped for joy in the darkness.

Scully’s call of the final inning of that game is a classic.  It’s here on YouTube if you’ve never heard it:

I listened to Vin Scully call Dodger games for 22 years until my family moved to Silicon Valley in 1981.  Sometimes we could pick up Dodger broadcasts from Santa Clara, but it became difficult to follow the Dodgers 400 miles away, and when our son Ryan started following baseball, it was natural for us to follow the Dodgers’ arch rivals, the San Francisco Giants, because we could attend their games and watch them on television.

On my day off, I used to drive up to San Francisco and visit the hotels of the teams that were playing the Giants, and the Dodgers always stayed at the Hilton.  There was a long hallway from the lobby to the elevators, and everybody on the team had to walk by the few of us who were waiting for signatures.  On one occasion, Vin Scully signed this portrait by Nick Volpe for me:

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This Sunday, Scully will be doing his final home broadcast for the Dodgers, and the team has devoted the entire weekend to honoring him.

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On Sunday, October 2, Vin Scully will broadcast his last game from San Francisco, and both the Dodgers and Giants will carry his broadcast in the third inning … an unparalleled tribute.

While watching the Giant-Dodger games from Dodger Stadium this past week, I listened to Scully all three nights, and even at his advanced age, he is head and shoulders above any announcer I’ve ever heard … and I’ve heard some great ones.

Why is Scully so good?

First, he is a master teacher.  If you don’t know much about baseball, he’ll inform you.  If you don’t know much about the players, he’ll enlighten you.  (He does a brief biography of every player who comes to bat from the visiting team.)  If you don’t know much about baseball rules, he will explain them.  While his trade is baseball, he always puts the game in perspective.  I’ve learned a lot about life by listening to him as well.

Second, he is an incredible storyteller.  Scully has not only read deeply about baseball history, he’s been a fan himself since the 1930s, and has either seen or known most of the greats personally.  I love to hear and tell stories myself, and Scully has been an influence on my love for baseball and anecdotes since my childhood days.

Third, he is always fair.  When the Dodgers aren’t playing well, he’ll say so.  When the opposing team is messing up, he’ll point it out without berating them.  The Giants have been having a terrible problem over the past few weeks with their relief pitching, and when they blew another game in the ninth inning to the Dodgers several nights ago, Scully expressed genuine empathy for Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy.

Fourth, he isn’t afraid to mention God.  Most sports announcers avoid the “G” word, but Scully talks about God and “the good Lord” all the time.  He’s a practicing Roman Catholic, but his acknowledgement of the reality of God is refreshing in our politically correct world.  You’ve heard the phrase, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans?”  The first time I heard that was from the lips of Vin Scully.

Finally, he is a humble and modest man.  Scully knows how much he means to Dodger fans … and even Southern California … but it’s never gone to his head.  He made the Baseball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster in the early 1980s, but he seems to be the same person in every venue.  The few times I’ve asked him for his signature, he’s always complied.

Eight years ago, my wife and I visited the famed Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, and whose star did we run across?  That’s right …

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I didn’t want my picture taken with most of the stars … but this one, I did.

Scully is so good that I love listening to him even while I’m rooting against the Dodgers.

Here is Scully’s final letter to his beloved fans.  It’s the classiest letter I’ve ever read … just like the man.

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Along with the Los Angeles area … all of Southern California … all of baseball … and much of the country … I want to echo the sentiments of this Facebook page logo:

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The Swedish pop group ABBA had a career that roughly paralleled the seven-and-a-half years that I was a youth pastor.

I was never crazy about their outfits … didn’t know the two female vocalists were each married to a different male vocalist … and wasn’t aware of their history or histrionics.

But regardless, songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Super Trouper” and even “Mamma Mia” are superb songs.

And for me, music isn’t about an artist’s lifestyle or love life.  It’s about the songs … and if a song is great, I don’t care who sings it.

In times past, some Christians have divided music into sacred music (songs to and about God) and secular music (songs about life and/or love, but not God).

I suppose I once thought that way, but as I’ve gotten older, I find that I only recognize two categories of music: good music and bad music.

A non-Christian can write and perform a good song, while a Christian can write and perform a bad song.  It’s not about the faith of the artist … it’s about the song itself.

And when an artist compiles a collection of great songs, they’ve put out a classic album.

Two weeks ago, I presented five secular albums that I think many Christians would like:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2016/08/04/ten-secular-albums-for-christians/

Among secular artists, here are five more albums that I believe Christians can enjoy:

Mary Black: Babes in the Wood

Mary Black is one of the foremost female vocalists that Ireland has produced over the past thirty or so years … and maybe the very best.  She’s not a songwriter, but an interpreter of songs.

I first was exposed to her music when I was searching online for songs by The Corrs and someone had mistakenly labeled “Song for Ireland” by The Corrs … but Mary Black was the one who sang it.

If you love Ireland or Irish music, and you aren’t familiar with this song, I encourage you to find it and listen to it.  It’s incredible!

There is a spiritual sense to some of her music, especially on this album, where the first two songs – “Still Believing” and “Bright Blue Rose,” set the tone.  The latter song ends with these lyrics:

One bright blue rose outlives all those

Two thousand years and still it goes

To ponder His death and His life eternally

I bought all of Mary’s albums used from Amazon, and some came very cheaply.  Then I discovered that if you buy music from her website, she will sign what you buy for free if you ask.  I bought two items and ended up with three signatures!

As I’m getting older, I’m looking for artists who are talented but sing about things that I can relate to, and Mary Black’s music fits the bill.  I encourage you to check out her music!

Ray Davies: The Kinks Choral Collection

The Kinks are the most British of all British Invasion groups.  I was never a big fan, but sometime last year, I read a review of The Kinks Anthology: 1964-1971 in, of all places, World magazine (an evangelical Christian print/online magazine).

I started poking around some of The Kinks’ music online, and found myself thoroughly enjoying much of it.  Ray Davies – chief songwriter and vocalist – writes witty observations about life.  Sometimes the music is on the raunchy side (remember “Lola?”), but most of the time, The Kinks’ songs provide insight and perspective on everyday life experiences.

The Kinks Choral Collection consists of many of the band’s most famous songs.  Ray Davies does all the lead vocals, but this time, he’s backed by The Crouch End Festival Chorus … and most of the time, it works.

The album contains songs like “Celluloid Heroes,” which is my favorite Kinks’ song, and one I played for my mother-in-law a few years back.  (She loved it.)  It also includes “Waterloo Sunset,” named the 42nd greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone, as well as “You Really Got Me” and new song “Postcard from London,” a nostalgic look back at the City on The Thames featuring a duet with Chrissie Hynde.

Roughly half the songs come from one of the best albums you’ve never heard: The Village Green Preservation Society, an album that came out on the same November day in 1968 as The Beatles’ White Album.  Rated 5 stars by The All Music Guide, Davies and company look back at the England of their childhood with sympathetic portraits of fascinating people.

Although he doesn’t claim to be a Christian, a lot of songs on this album sound like hymns, such as “Village Green,” which contains this lyric:

I miss the Village Green

And all the simple people

I miss the Village Green

The church, the clock, the steeple

I miss the morning dew

Fresh air and Sunday School

The Kinks aren’t for everybody, but almost anyone can listen to and enjoy this album.  It’s a lot of fun.

Neil Young: Comes a Time; Harvest Moon; Prairie Wind; Silver and Gold

Harvest Moon

Neil Young can rock out as hard as anybody, which is why many people consider him to be the godfather of grunge.

But out of all the music I own, nobody does slow, thoughtful, and simple acoustic music better than Neil Young … so much so that I have an entire playlist devoted to his acoustic songs.

I’m sure the critics can distinguish between these albums – done nearly thirty years apart – but for me, the songs all blend together, which is why I didn’t choose one album above the others.

Memorable songs include “Four Strong Winds” (a song by Canadians Ian and Sylvia from the mid-1960s), “One of These Days,” “Buffalo Springfield Again,” and surprisingly, “When God Made Me,” which again, sounds like a hymn.  Some of the best songs from these albums were done on the DVD “Heart of Gold” which is a top-notch concert from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Neil Young is intentionally unpredictable, which is part of his charm, but if you want some great background music while you’re working or driving, any or all of these albums will work.

Paul McCartney: Back in the U.S. Live 2002

Back in early 2002, Paul McCartney announced that he was going out on tour … his first one in many years … and opening night was just ten minutes from my house.

I thought it unlikely that I could buy tickets, especially because they were going on sale Sunday at 10 am, and you had to call the ticket outlet on the phone … and, of course, I had something else to do during that time.

But my wife got sick and had to stay home from church, and she called at precisely the right time, because when I came home from church, she had purchased three tickets to the concert.  When the show started, I broke into tears because I never dreamed I’d be able to see Paul McCartney in concert.

Paul McCartney is my favorite singer for many reasons, but one is that I can actually sing along to most of his songs.  I’ve now seen him in concert three times and he puts on a phenomenal show.

This album, in my view, has his best selection of live songs, including the song he wrote after 9/11 called “Freedom,” which begins this way:

This is my right

A right given by God

To live a free life

To live in freedom

I remember when many adults and most Christians hated The Beatles, and now everybody seems to love them.  Whatever one thinks about their beliefs or lifestyles or influence, their songs will live on long after the last two remaining Beatles are gone.

Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006

In my view, Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century.  He broke all the rules for songwriting in the mid-1960s and is incredibly prolific.  I have more albums by him than by any other artist.

One of my best friends is a pastor and quotes Dylan often in his sermons, and every time he does, I smile because my friend first introduced me to Dylan nearly 50 years ago.

I know, I know … some people can’t stand Dylan’s voice … but nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, and it doesn’t take that long to become accustomed to his style.

Dylan hasn’t officially put out a lot of his best stuff, so Columbia started the Bootleg series in 1998 to clean up the sound from many of his unreleased or live recordings … and to put some bootleggers out of business.

When this album came out in 2008, I listened to it repeatedly.  It has alternate versions of already released songs like “Mississippi” and “Dignity” as well as a smattering of never released songs.

The best song on the album is the last one, the incomparable “Cross the Green Mountain,” a song about the Civil War sang by one of its participants.  It’s one of the most powerful, raw, and brooding songs I’ve ever heard, and you’ll never forget it if you hear it, either.  Just a masterpiece.

I could include many additional albums, but these readily came to mind … and if you noticed, I tend to prefer artists who are roughly my age because we’ve had similar life experiences.

Thanks for letting me indulge my passion for music!

More about pastors and conflict next time.

 

 

 

 

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I grew up in a fundamentalist subculture … both at home and at church … and it affected the way I viewed popular culture.

I didn’t see my first film in a movie theater until I was 19 years old, and even then, it was a Billy Graham film.

While we were allowed to watch Shirley Temple movies on television, the children of the fundamentalist pastor two houses down weren’t even allowed to watch those!

Even though I’ve always loved music, I didn’t listen to the radio on a regular basis until I was 14.  The year happened to be 1968 … a great, great year for music!

I’ve never forgotten how I felt when I heard those first few songs on the radio: “Jennifer Juniper” by Donovan; “Love is All Around” by The Troggs; “A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals; “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles; and “Everything That Touches You” by The Association, to name just a few.

And when I went to Hume Lake Christian Camp for the first time that summer, somebody smuggled in a radio, and all week long, we heard songs like “Indian Lake” by The Cowsills; “Tuesday Afternoon” by The Moody Blues; “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris; “Sky Pilot” by The Animals (a song about a military chaplain in Vietnam); and “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert.

But when we went back to church, we heard that all music on the radio was subversive, unchristian, and even evil, even though there wasn’t any contemporary Christian music at the time (unless it was sanitized folk).

Most Christian kids didn’t pay any attention to the warnings, although I started the habit of listening carefully to every song lyric and avoiding those songs which had lyrics that made me uncomfortable for spiritual or moral reasons.

Over the years, I have acquired a fair amount of vinyl albums (all gone now, including one signed by Johnny Cash) … cassettes (stuck in storage) … CDs (my wife bought my first one in 1991) … and mp3s.

I listen to all kinds of music: classical (especially Bach) … gospel (especially Johnny Cash but including George Beverly Shea) … Contemporary Christian (I love Delirious, Phil Keaggy, Twila Paris, Carolyn Arends and Kim Hill) … and yes, even secular music.

These are my guidelines for selecting secular music:

*I want the artists I hear to have lived reasonably good lives.  Most secular artists have failed morally at times … sometimes very publicly … but some have also done a lot of good (like U2).  Many of my favorite artists, like Bono and Justin Hayward (from the Moody Blues), have been married for decades.

*I want the music I hear to be 90% safe.  Most secular artists slip in songs or phrases that don’t reflect my values, but one objectionable song on a 15-song CD isn’t going to ruin the other 14 songs for me.  I just delete those songs on iTunes.  I evaluate an artist as a whole, not just based on one or two songs.

*I want to hear music that makes me think, gives me a different perspective, or makes me a better believer.  For example, I believe I’m a better person for having listened to U2 and Bob Dylan over the years.  Both have heightened my social conscience.

*I want to see my favorite artists in concert and to feel good about being there.  Over the past several years, I’ve seen Paul McCartney, U2, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Justin Hayward, and next month, I’m going to see ELO at The Hollywood Bowl (and sit on benches at the very back).  I’m always amused by the fact that although some Christians only listen to Christian music, the Christian artists they listen to hear and appreciate many secular artists!  (For example, did you know that MercyMe did a cover of Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down?”)

If you’re interested in any of these albums or artists, I suggest you listen to their songs on iTunes or Amazon before you buy anything.

Having said all that, these are five very good secular albums that I think are safe for Christians … and in no particular order:

Someday by Susanna Hoffs

Susanna Hoffs is the former/sometimes lead vocalist of The Bangles, an all-girl band from the 1980s that played music rooted in the 1960s.  This CD came out four years ago when I was in New Hampshire, and I listened to it practically every day for weeks.  The ten songs on this album are relatively brief, but they have great melodies, wonderful arrangements, heartfelt lyrics … and hearken back to the Sixties.  I have never tired of this album.

Hymns to the Silence by Van Morrison

Hymns to the Silence

Many people only know Van Morrison for his song “Brown-Eyed Girl” from 1967, but he has an incredibly rich catalogue of beautiful, complex music dating back more than 50 years.  I bought this album in 1991 after a glowing review in Time that contained a quote from Bruce Springsteen that said that Van’s music was “way too spiritual.”  This double album – only $9.99 on Amazon or iTunes – contains “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and a song called “By His Grace,” as well as Van-rants like “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore” and “Why Must I Always Explain.”

Although he’s dabbled in various faiths at times, there’s a Christian undercurrent in much of his music (especially in songs like “Whenever God Shines His Light”) and even Phil Keaggy covered Van’s song “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”  If you like this album, try Down the Road and Magic Time as well.  I took my wife to a Van concert more than twenty years ago, and his booming voice filled the auditorium.  Van definitely marches to his own drummer, but when he’s good, he puts out some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear.

Home by The Corrs

The Corrs are a sibling-only band from Ireland.  They write their own songs and sing and play on their albums, and usually have a Celtic/pop sound all their own.  This CD … their last for ten years until last November’s White Light … is a collection of traditional Irish tunes with both traditional and contemporary arrangements.  The Corrs are better known in Europe and the rest of the world than in the United States … although I hear their songs in public places all the time … possibly because they aren’t wild or vulgar and have a sense of decency about them.  (I once stayed after a Phil Keaggy concert at a church and the roadies played their album Talk On Corners while cleaning up.)  This is one of the albums I play whenever I need to relax because it’s so soothing.

Spirits of the Western Sky by Justin Hayward

Spirits Of The Western Sky

I like haunting music, and Justin Hayward has mastered the genre.  His compositions like “Nights in White Satin” and “New Horizons” still send shivers up my spine.  My wife and I recently saw him in concert and his voice still holds up fifty years after he began with The Moody Blues.  While The Moodies tour America every year, they don’t plan on putting out any more albums, but thankfully, Justin Hayward put this terrific one out early in 2013.

Many years ago, I read that the Moodies’ bass player/vocalist John Lodge is a Christian, and I recently stumbled upon a ten-year-old interview where journalist Paul Du Noyer asked Justin Hayward, “And where has this search brought Justin Hayward in 2006?”  Hayward replied, “I would have to say Christianity.  I came from a family with a very strong faith, I moved away through all sorts of Eastern religions, through meditation, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, anything else.  It was reading C.S. Lewis, books like Mere Christianity, that helped me to define what I really felt and finally decide.  So I came full circle.”

Justin Hayward doesn’t make any overtly Christian statements in his music, and if he did, his career would be marginalized and his audience might dwindle significantly.  I do love the Moodies’ Christmas album December – even though it’s 13 years old – because it’s held up very well over time, but again, there are no overtly Christian statements in the songs.  But this album is full of great music – mostly featuring acoustic guitars – and you just might like it.

How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb by U2

I once read a journalist who claimed that U2 was too secular for Christians and too Christian for secularists.  U2 writes and sings their songs in parables: if you’re a Christian, you get it, but if you’re not, you can enjoy the music anyway.

Although I love much of their music … “One” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are two of my all-time favorite songs … U2 occasionally disappoints me lyrically … but not on this CD.

When this album came out in 2004 – and it won a host of Grammy awards, including Album of the Year – I bought a bunch of them and gave them away.  But although U2 can compose and sing a prayer like “Yahweh” … the song that ends the album … they can also indict Christian churches on a song like “Crumbs From Your Table” and wonder what’s beyond this life in “One Step Closer.”

Although Bono and other members of the band are Christians, their songs are difficult to do in church because they often question faith rather than affirm it.  Bono loves the Psalms and wishes that Christian writers today would compose more authentic lyrics … as do I … but it’s hard to sing the lyrics to “Vertigo” on a Sunday morning, even though the songs ends with, “Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”

My favorite lyric on this album is from the hard-rocking song “Love and Peace or Else” where Bono sings, “As you enter this life, I pray you depart, with a wrinkled face, and a brand new heart.”  Christian references abound on this album, but it’s not packaged like the typical CCM stuff.

U2 toured behind this album in 2005, and several weeks before my birthday, my wife asked me what I wanted, and I told her, “I just want to see U2 in concert.”  Fortunately, they were playing ten minutes from our house, and she went online and bought tickets.  We sat behind the band … off to the side … and the large letters on the back of Bono’s jacket spelled out SINNER … a reminder that even when the audience is wildly applauding the singer, he knows who he really is.

I will recommend five more albums next time … and would love to hear about your favorites as well!

 

 

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