You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Post Is About You

I’m writing you because I’ve always liked you and appreciated your heart for ministry.[1]The blog title is with apologies to Carly Simon. However, I’ve noticed over the years a failing that is more harmful than you might initially realize. It has several symptoms, but one is that you take credit for the little success that God has allowed you to be part of. It’s like Laura Story says in her song, “Grace,”

My heart is so proud
My mind is so unfocused
I see the things You do through me
As great things I have done

It seems to me that you think ministry success is intrinsic to you and not to God’s grace through you. Yes, some have been influenced and blessed by your ministry. Some have enjoyed your preaching and been changed by it. I’ve talked to people that are very appreciative, but you’ve imagined that said something about you and your talents rather than God and his grace. (And I should know since I’m writing this post to myself.)

God says he hates pride (Jam 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5), but you don’t seem to hate it that much. You realize that, right? You express envy of others’ ministry—you know this is true! Rather than rejoicing that God’s Kingdom is advancing through other unworthy servants you wish it was advancing through you. You want to be the nexus of God’s work. Scripture says there is one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), and you want it to be you. That attitude dethrones Christ. You need to be dethroned, not Christ.

Actually, envy is very likely one of the chief characteristics of your heart. You look at other Christian families and wish your family was in the same stages of life as they are with the same seeming success. Do you see how unseemly that is? Paul tells us to…

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15 (ESV)

You do weep with those that suffer; however, even that is tainted by your own tendency to think that maybe, maybe God has given them suffering and not you as evidence of his chastisement of them and his joy in you. Do you see how sneaky your pride is?  

But the first half of the verse you rarely obey. You hear of the blessings that others receive, and inside you sound like the child you once heard who screamed, “BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?” You want the blessings of certain milestones with your children, and you’re not satisfied with God’s timing. You long for the acknowledgement that others receive, and you’re not content with how God has used you so far.

Please listen carefully; don’t be defensive. You act a bit like Diotrephes in 3 John.

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 3 John 9 (ESV)

One of your college professors memorably said of Diotrephes, “The loving of prominence and the longing for preeminence is in all of us.” [2]Doug McLachlan I don’t know if it’s in all of us, but it certainly is in you. You want to be recognized and acknowledged. It’s not a little failing; it’s actually a grotesque distortion of the servant attitude that Christ displays throughout the Gospels and the Apostle Paul so richly described in Phil 2. Do you count others as more significant than yourself (Phil 2:3)? Do you look out for the interests of others or just your own (Phil 2:4)? Not often you don’t.

Listen, I like you. I’m your biggest fan. I’ve known your ministry from the beginning, and you’ve always talked about transparency and vulnerability; your response to this can show how transparent you really are. So far, you’ve talked about it without being very transparent or vulnerable yourself. Wouldn’t it be good for you to admit that pride is more entwined with your service than you have realized? Could that be the first step towards more humble ministry; even a more God-blessed ministry?

Even you writing this post is probably an example of pride in your heart costumed as faux humility. You do realize that, don’t you, don’t you?

Consequently, I hope you read these words more than once and recognize that God could use them to set your life on a trajectory of more pleasing service to Him. It might not be more successful by the temporal measures of ministry success, but it could be more God-glorifying and Christ-exalting. And isn’t that why you claim to serve anyway?

References

References
1 The blog title is with apologies to Carly Simon.
2 Doug McLachlan

3 Encouraging Metaphors of Belongingness

We like to be included, don’t we? In the ’80s there was sitcom called Cheers about a Boston Pub and the characters that regularly came or worked there. Do you remember the song? One line was “You want to go where everybody knows your name.” It was a place you belonged. Granted, a bar is really a terrible place to find this sense of belongingness, but that was their pitch.

Have you ever put something together and had extra bolts? Everything works but you have extra pieces. Have you ever felt like that extra piece? Maybe in some groups you feel like an extra bolt. You don’t think you belong. When I don’t feel like I belong, it’s God’s grace that makes me think of others and not just myself—to stay and please Christ by loving others. It’s hard to feel like an extra part. We shouldn’t give in to that feeling at church because we really do belong.

Our kids are going to be home for Christmas—we’ll see all of them even though we will only be all together for one day. This is a big deal because we have one child in each of the four time zones of the lower 48 states which makes it difficult to get together often. God has been gracious to us, and our family loves being with each other. If your family is close, you have a good start to understanding the three metaphors of belongingness or the three metaphors of inclusion that the Apostle Paul uses to describe the church in Eph 2. They really are remarkable.

You Are Citizens in Christ’s Kingdom (2:19a)

Ephesians 2:19 (ESV) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

Paul is using the metaphor of national identity. Specifically here it’s being part of Christ’s kingdom, but it’s a national identity. Our political battles about illegal immigration give us some insight into how Paul is describing us. We’re aware that we have people in our nation that don’t have the full rights of citizenship. Because they’re very concerned about being deported, they are susceptible to being oppressed. They don’t want to draw any attention to themselves, so they won’t contact the police. They feel they don’t quite belong.

In a previous ministry we knew a Canadian woman married to an American man, and she told us that she was always exceptionally careful to follow all traffic laws. In my naivete I didn’t think she could be tossed out of the U.S., but she said she could, and for any reason whatsoever. And this could happen even though she was married with children.

Paul is telling us that we’re no longer illegal immigrants in someone else’s nation. We belong. We’re full members of Christ’s kingdom, not second-rate citizens. There aren’t two classes of residents in Christ’s kingdom: Jews and Gentiles. No, out of the two Christ made one new humanity (2:15).

To use the language of the text, we are fellow citizens—a word only used here in the New Testament. You’re not homeless anymore. You’re not stateless anymore. You belong to Christ’s kingdom. Now you are fellow citizens (Phil 3:20) with people of every race and tongue—saints who have trusted God. You belong. You have an identity in Christ’s kingdom.

You Are Members of God’s Household (2:19b)

Ephesians 2:19b (ESV) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, …and members of the household of God,

Family is a great metaphor because it speaks of intimacy. It’s possible to be a citizen of a nation and be alone. Yes you have security; you don’t get kicked out of a nation. You’re always a citizen and that brings rights and privileges that cannot be abridged. But it doesn’t bring closeness necessarily. It doesn’t bring intimacy. For that we have the metaphor of God’s household—His family.

Being part of a family means knowing you always belong.

When my kids were younger we celebrated many birthday parties at our house. One particular time we were planning it with the child and one of her siblings wondered if he were invited to the birthday party too. The answer was “Of course. You’re part of the family.” Family members don’t need an invitation; of course they can come to the party.

When you go on vacation, you don’t have to tell each kid individually that they are invited on the family vacation. Family doesn’t have to invite immediate family members to Christmas either. They know they are welcome.

That’s the picture of God’s household. You belong. You’re part of the family. Family in the best sense of that word is a good word to describe the relationships that we have with each other and with God in the church.

This is a metaphor that doesn’t really work if we’re talking about the universal church. A local church can be a family in all the wonderful senses of that metaphor.

You Are the Structure of Christ’s Growing Temple (2:20-22)

Ephesians 2:20–22 (ESV) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

It’s still a metaphor for the church, but it uses a growing temple as the picture. A temple where the apostles and prophets are the foundation. And the passage goes on to say that Jesus is the Cornerstone—a real person, not His teaching. And saints are the structure—again real people, not our teaching.

What does it mean that Jesus is the Cornerstone of this growing temple? We don’t get the importance of this picture with our modern building methods. Nowadays with an important building, the cornerstone is laid at the building dedication, when construction is completed. It’s normally inscribed with the date, but it’s not really important to the construction of the building. It signifies the end of construction.

However, in the first century and before, the cornerstone was the very first stone laid. It wasn’t haphazard. It took time to lay the cornerstone because every other stone in the foundation and superstructure was measured by the cornerstone. The position of all the other stones was determined by the Cornerstone. All other stones adjust themselves to the Cornerstone.

The Apostles and prophets and the saints mentioned above all adjust themselves to Christ. Christ gives the church its direction.

We have a structure that fits together but also grows. It’s like a building in that it fits together and is built, but it’s like a plant in that it actually grows. It’s not a static building. And every Christian is part of the structure of this building (cf. 1 Peter 2:5).

Verse 21 tells us that in Christ the entire structure becomes a holy temple “in the Lord”—in Christ. Our union with Christ makes us part of this temple.

The unity and growth of the church are joined in these verses and Jesus is the secret of both. And the growth here is not individual growth; it’s corporate. This metaphor reminds us why we need the church. We cannot grow without it.

You belong; you have an identity. You are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. You are a member of God’s family. You are part of Christ’s growing temple. All of these metaphors should find their best definition in your local church. That’s where a sense of belongingness is most felt.

I hope you are there on Sunday. I will be.

Message to Garcia

All four of my children spent a week at the United States Naval Academy the summer before their senior year for the USNA Summer Seminar. It’s an opportunity for students to experience a little of the Naval Academy to help them decide if they want to pursue a nomination and appointment. While there, they heard a story that the Navy has used for almost 100 years. It’s summarized as “Message to Garcia.”

It was a published essay that claims that just before the beginning of the Spanish-American War, President McKinley needed to get a message to the head of the Cuban insurgency, Calixto Garcia. Unfortunately, no one knew where he was in the interior of Cuba. But, he was told, a man named Rowan could find him if anyone could. So the President dispatched Lt. Andrew S. Rowan to find Garcia and deliver the message, and Rowan didn’t ask any questions. He just did it.

One part of the essay summarizes Rowan’s task this way.

How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia—are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing—“Carry a message to Garcia.” [1]Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia (East Aurora, NY: Roycrofters, 1914) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17195/17195-h/17195-h.htm, Accessed on May 11, 2021.

The essay encourages initiative, determination, and independent action to solve problems. The author took quite a bit of historical liberty with it and that and being told “Message to Garcia” when you ask any questions about a task you’ve been given have contributed to the cynicism with which many regard it today. Sometimes it’s a way to cut off discussion and accuse the questioner of lacking initiative.

But “Message to Garcia” is probably what some of us need to hear in our ministries. The average pastor, the average volunteer, and the average servant find it too easy to quit whenever they face any opposition. Christian ministry is not without hazards and difficulties. Probably some of us do need a stiffening of the vertebrae.

A friend of mine used to humorously claim that “Real men quit.” He based that assertion off the KJV translation of 1 Cor 16:13. Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.” “See,” he would say, “Real men quit. We’re commanded to quit like men” he would say with a wink. Of course the Apostle Paul is saying the opposite—he wants us to act like men. And real men don’t quit. Or at least they don’t quit easily, right?

I don’t know what opposition your ministry is experiencing. There are a lot of difficult situations that pastors can experience. Not every person you serve acts like Jesus. But don’t give up just because it’s hard. Hard is not bad, hard is just hard. Embrace a little of the “Message to Garcia” and fight through the obstacles. God will give you daily sustaining grace.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (ESV)

References

References
1 Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia (East Aurora, NY: Roycrofters, 1914) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17195/17195-h/17195-h.htm, Accessed on May 11, 2021.

Pastor, You Must Counsel

My first job after seminary was for a small Christian publishing house. Editing tasks and even some writing were in my job description. We only had about 15 employees, and we did it all: writing, editing, layout, printing, collating, binding, shipping, sales, and conferences. From start to finish we published our own curriculum. And twice a year we shut down production to do inventory; the entire staff participated. Everything had to be counted by hand; it was exhausting and boring work. I hated it. It took a long time, didn’t seem to yield visible results, and I didn’t understand it’s importance. It certainly seemed like it wasn’t a necessary part of my job description.

Sometimes pastors look at counseling like I looked at inventorying. It’s hard work that seems to yield few results, and it doesn’t seem like a significant part of their job description. And, therefore, many pastors don’t counsel. Their hearts sink a little bit when a member wants to meet with them and they suspect they want counsel. They would rather refer them to a counselor outside the church or assign another pastor the counseling task. While a counseling pastor can be a great hire, I will argue that lead pastors should still counsel. I want to make the case that every pastor—especially lead pastors—should counsel.

So, Pastor, why should you counsel your members?

Because ALL Christians Should Counsel

Romans 15:14 (ESV) I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.

Jay Adams titled his first book, Competent to Counsel, from the phrase in this verse, “able to instruct one another.” He points out that the Apostle Paul was not addressing the leaders of the Roman church. No, he was talking to the average Christian in the congregation. Every believer is able to admonish/instruct/counsel another. It’s part of one-another ministry.

So if this is one way that believers minister to each other, then it’s also a way that pastors minister to their members—other believers. Most believers will do it informally, but pastors have the privilege of also doing formal counseling.

Because Counseling Is Shepherding

Acts 20:31 (ESV) Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

In Acts 20 Paul has already claimed that he ministered in large and small groups (20:20). Now Paul claims that he did one-to-one ministry. A pastor that doesn’t counsel isn’t really shepherding his flock. Counseling is one way that you shepherd. You’re called pastors—that is, shepherds.

And shepherding is hard work. Jesus thought so.

Matthew 18:12–14 (ESV) What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

A shepherd doesn’t say, “I’ve got 99 sheep; that’s enough.” If you don’t want to counsel, you don’t want to pastor. Counseling is one way that you pursue the sheep that runs.

Deepak Reju says, “What’s presumed here is both that the sheep view their pastor as approachable and that the pastor deliberately affords time in his schedule to get down into the weeds of life and walk alongside the sheep.” [1]Bob Kellemen and Kevin Carson, Biblical Counseling and the Church: God’s Care Through God’s People. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 49.

Shepherding is not really done from the pulpit. It’s being approachable; it’s rolling up your sleeves and working in someone’s life. Counseling gets you down with the sheep; it gives you opportunities to love your sheep—to do some tender shepherding. Do you have time in your schedule to mix with the sheep? Yes counseling is hard and time consuming, but it’s also what a shepherd does.

Because Counseling Helps You Know Your Congregation

For about 15 years of my life I was in churches that had at least yearly evangelistic meetings. A full time evangelist would come and preach each night for about a week. It occurred to me at times that this evangelist really didn’t know our community and our church since he swooped in for a week and then left for the next church. He would tell us night after night to invite our friends and relatives when too many of us weren’t even admitting we were Christians to our friends and relatives. He would sell a Scripture memorization system he published when most men in the church weren’t even reading their Bibles regularly, much less memorizing them.

The pastor that counsels people in his congregation will know his congregation. He’ll realize their marriage concerns; he’ll know their struggles with children and teenagers. He’ll know what it’s like at work for them. Since your counselees are normally a cross section of your congregation, you can extrapolate what you learn to your entire congregation. Don’t be the pastor that thinks preaching affords him an intimate connection with his congregation. Those guys in the ivory tower are often respected for their exegesis, but not for their relationships in the congregation.

Because Counseling Improves Your Preaching and Teaching

The more you counsel, the more you know people. The better you know people, the better informed your preaching is. Some have said that preaching involves exegeting the passage and also exegeting your people. Counseling helps you exegete people. It’s more likely that your lessons and sermons will reach the hearts of your people; they will be more applicable. Your illustrations will communicate truth better because you actually know where your congregation is spiritually and what types of struggles they have. Your illustrations and applications will have punch.

Because Counseling Humbles You

Many pastors are encouraged by listeners’ comments after their sermons. People come by and express appreciation for that sermon. “Pastor, that’s exactly what I needed today.” It’s great that God’s people can be so thankful and kind, but a steady diet of compliments can deceive a pastor into thinking he’s a far better communicator than he actually is. Or he can believe that he’s actually more important to God’s work in this congregation than he really is.

In general people don’t tend to grow as fast as you, the pastor, think they should. And counseling reminds you that the Spirit, the Scripture, and the Church are far more important resources than you are.

David Powlison says you should work with some slow-movers when you are the lead pastor. Counseling people whose growth seems painstakingly slow can increase your patience, and it also humbles you. Why? Because you aren’t that great at teaching truth. You labor over it with this person, and they continue to struggle. They don’t get it, and they don’t get it easily even when they are being tutored by the pastor. Preaching without counseling can fool us into thinking that we communicate Scriptural truth really well. Sitting down with a struggling couple can remind us that unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain.

Because Counseling Builds Relationships

When you retire or move on to another ministry, your people will probably not remember any particular sermon you preached. And that’s true even if they generally appreciated your preaching. But some will remember how you counseled them at the worst time in their lives. You were there when their child committed suicide. You were there when their marriage was in shambles. You were there when they got the dreaded cancer diagnosis. And you showed them from Scripture how God wanted them to live. Hopefully your church will appreciate your ministry, but some… some will know you tirelessly met with them until they were growing and thriving. And they will be some of your closest relationships.

Pastors, you’re missing out if you’re not counseling people in your congregation. Never get so busy that you offload that responsibility entirely to other people in your church or someone outside of your church. You need to counsel your people.

References

References
1 Bob Kellemen and Kevin Carson, Biblical Counseling and the Church: God’s Care Through God’s People. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 49.

Moses on Leadership

It seems that there are just a few weeks, maybe months, between evangelical leaders being exposed for tragic sins. The latest is just the latest, not the last. Dig into them and there always seems to be some combination of unaccountable authority, overweening pride, and presumed entitlement—the unholy trinity of sinful leadership.

And those faults are as old as leaders in Scripture. But there is at least one man that is recognized for his humility. “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3 ESV).

Recently a godly man who greatly influenced my ministry philosophy received a leadership award for his lifetime of service in Christian ministry. One comment made in his tribute video was that he was talking about servant leadership before it was popular. And that’s so true. He was talking about it in the ’80s, and he got pushback from some ministry leaders then that thought authoritarian leadership was necessary in evangelicalism. Sadly, conservative evangelicalism is still in awe of those leaders with big personalities and big results. The meek man, the humble man, the servant, well… he’ll often get passed over.

This description of Moses occurs in the context of his authority being criticized by siblings, Aaron and Miriam which makes it especially noteworthy. How many Christian leaders respond with meekness when being unjustly criticized? In light of all the moral failures of evangelical mega-ministry leaders, Moses’ meekness is surprising. We don’t promote many meek men. Humble men don’t rise to the top of our churches and evangelical institutions.

It has been God’s grace to me that I never pastored a large church, nor led a large ministry, nor had a big name in conservative evangelicalism. I believe the list of men who can handle that is far smaller than the list of men that want it. Like most seminarians, I dreamed of importance. One of my college professors said of Diotrephes in 3 John, “The loving of prominence and the longing for preeminence is in every one of us.”

I was thrilled to hear that this man received an award for his lifetime of humble service. But I also felt something else for a brief moment. I was disappointed that I would never get an award like that. That no one would ever recognize me as a servant leader–because I’m not one. And I want the recognition. The longing for preeminence indeed.

Moses’s meekness isn’t just in contrast to mega-ministry leaders, it’s also in contrast to me. I want glory; I want importance. But being known as a meek, humble leader, well, really, what could be better than that?

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