One of the hardest things for us to do is to love. It’s hard sometimes as leaders to love the people we are leading, because we inevitably encounter struggles with them, backlash against our leadership, anxiety and vacillation, criticism, and so on. It’s hard for people in organizations to love their leaders, because they inevitably experience disappointment and disillusionment with us, because they come to see our weaknesses, character flaws, and the mistakes we make. It’s hard for those of us in spiritual communities to love those outside our bubble, those different from us, because we see them as “other”, as flawed, and maybe even as a threat.
The Bible, and especially New Testament authors like Paul and John, challenge us over and over to love. Jesus offers the thrilling insight that when we do things for others (for “the least of these”), we do it for him. He doesn’t say that doing things for others is “sort of like” doing it for him. There is a sense in which doing things to/for others is actually doing them to/for Christ. Thomas Merton talks about this, and I’m going to quote him at length, because it’s so helpful:
“We have to resolutely put away our attachment to natural appearance and our habit of judging according to the outward face of things. I must learn that my fellow man, just as he is, whether he is my friend or my enemy, my brother or a stranger from the other side of the world, whether he be wise of foolish, no matter what my be his limitations, ‘is Christ.’ …
“Any prisoner, any starving man, any sick or dying man, any sinner, any man whatever, is to be regarded as Christ–this is the formal command of the Savior Himself. This doctrine is far too simple to satisfy many modern Christians, and undoubtedly many will remain very uneasy with it, tormented by the difficulty that perhaps after all, this particular neighbor is a bad man, and therefore cannot be Christ.
“The solution of this difficulty is to unify oneself with the Spirit of Christ, to start thinking and loving as a Christian, and to stop being a hairsplitting pharisee. Our faith is not supposed …to assess the state of our neighbor’s conscience. It is the needle by which we draw the thread of charity through our neighbor’s soul and our own soul and sew ourselves together in one Christ. Our faith is given us not to see whether or not our neighbor is Christ, but to recognize Christ in him and to help our love make both him and ourselves more fully Christ. …
“Corrupt forms of love wait for the neighbor to ‘become a worthy object of love’ before actually loving him. This is not the way of Christ. Since Christ Himself loved us when we were by no means worthy of love and still loves us with all our unworthiness, our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. …
“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved–if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved–he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”
– Thomas Merton
When: January 15-20, 2017 (you have access to the condo from Jan 14-21)
Where: Arroyo Roble Restort, Sedona, AZ
Cost: $800 early bird (includes retreat and condo reservation), spouse attends FREE
His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.
But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.
(2 Chronicles 26:15-16)
In the past year, five of my friends who are pastors have lost their ministries because of moral failure.
Most of them were widely known beyond their local contexts as authors, conference speakers, movement leaders and such. From the outside, they appeared to be at their peak.
For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has graciously protected me from moral collapse over the years. Knowing the fragility and fickleness of my own heart, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…” Indeed, I feel my proneness to wander every single day.
When I was a seminary student, an older, seasoned pastor spoke in a chapel service and said,“Some of you are very gifted. You aspire to do great things in ministry one day. God have mercy on you.” Eighteen years later, I am beginning to understand what he meant by that.
And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I’m sure there were several reasons why Spurgeon gave this advice. But the reason his advice makes sense to me is because…
Being a pastor is hard.
One day in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:
God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.
The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large “resource” church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture reading, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.
Some of those “demons,” it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high. More on this in a moment. But first…
Not many months after this man’s tragic suicide, another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because a similar, secret depression.
As an aspiring pastor myself, the news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men—both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope—end up losing hope for themselves?
As the stories of these pastors became more public, it became clear that both of them shared an all-too common reality for pastors. Both had allowed themselves Continue reading Thoughts on the rise and fall of pastors
Anyone living in our culture today is vulnerable to addiction — including pastors. And anyone struggling with addiction needs recovery — including pastors. But recovery is hard for pastors; harder than it needs to be.
Recovery is hard for pastors for many reasons. Because of their position as spiritual leaders, pastors have a hard time admitting to problems in their lives, and reaching out for help. This is partly the result of pride, but it’s also the result of the system we have created in the church today. Pastors aren’t stupid: they realize that being too open about their problems — or open to the wrong people — could get them fired.
So they don’t get the help they need. And more often than not, when they do seek help, they do so in secret, and their fear and shame about discovery often hamper their recovery efforts.
Leadership Journal recently published a great article by Amy Simpson on Pastors in Recovery. She did a lot of research for this article, including reaching out to me, and I’m grateful to be included in the article. There is a lot of good stuff in this article!
One of my favorite books of late has been “The Mystic Heart,” written by the late Wayne Teasdale. Just to be clear, I don’t buy all of his assumptions and arguments in the book, but there is a lot of really helpful teaching in it about what mysticism is and how it shapes our lives. I wanted to share a couple quotes from the book about how the pursuit of the spiritual life goes against the grain of our culture.
We live in a culture that is blind to the spiritual life. It is spiritually illiterate, morally confused, psychologically dysfunctional, and heavily addicted to violence, entertainment, and consumerism. It is “religious” to a point — that is, as long as it doesn’t cost much. Most Americans, we are told, believe in God, but too few realize that life is a spiritual process, a journey in which certain skills in self-mastery have to be learned. We cannot depend on our culture either to guide or support us in our quest. We must do the hard work of clarification ourselves.
Our life here is under a cloud of illusion and delusion; we are pulled now in this direction, now in that. It is important for us to be self-directed: We must decide where our life is going, what direction it will take and why. That kind of decisiveness requires courage and perspective; it means that we must cut ourselves free from our cultural conditioning.
In another place, Teasdale talks about the journey of life — the purpose of life in terms of an inner development that ultimately creates the foundation upon which our outward service and contribution to the rest of the world is built on. Here’s what he says:
Life is a journey from hypocrisy to sincerity, from self-centeredness to other-centerdness and love, from self-deception, ignorance, and illusion to self-honesty, clarity, and truth. We are all immersed in these struggles, whether we realize and accept them or not. Even if we reject them, have made a choice.
It is really only through an intense life of spiritual practice that we become aware of our human condition. As long as people are content not to look, not to embrace their ultimate vocation to [become like Christ], they will chase after every distraction that comes along as a substitute for a life of depth. In the United States, for example, entertainment has become our collective practice. We live from TV show to TV show, from The Today Show to The Tonight Show. The personal cost is great: deeper ignorance, confusion, and despair, and less authenticity.
I want to know God as a follower of Jesus. The Bible helps me do that. The Bible points me to the Source of spiritual life, but it is not the source. The Bible points me to the One who I worship, but it is not what I worship. I’ve recently come across two quotes that have helped me out by articulating this in helpful ways. Enjoy …
In his book Integral Christianity, Paul Smith writes this:
Christians have sat down at the Restaurant of Life and the waiter has come to give us our particular designated menu, the Bible. Christians have studied their menu in every detail until they have understood what was offered. And, for hundreds of years, they have not ordered from the menu. Instead, they had tried to eat the menu!
No wonder they have been grumpy, under nourished, and doctrinaire. Eating the menu instead of ordering from it is the traditional church’s idea of having a spiritual experience (except for a conversion experience among evangelicals and worship among charismatics). When we learn how to order from the menu we can get a nourishing, great-tasting, wonderful meal. A cognitive framework is of great help and encouragement, but it alone is not enough. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.
On a related note, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say about the Bible:
I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink.
The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.
Over the years in my work with sexual strugglers, it became clear that there is a spectrum of struggle … some people simply fight a battle with sexual temptation (and periodically lose), while others would fall into the category of sexual addicts. The line between the two is not always clear — it’s more like a spectrum, not a simple either/or — and many people struggle to honestly face the extent of their problem.
I have come to call this group of people — who fall repeatedly into sexual temptation, but don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for addiction — “sexual strugglers.” Often people in this category don’t have the patterns of emotional and sexual trauma from early life, and they don’t give evidence of other problematic addictive behaviors. But for some reason, they still struggle with behaviors around sex — often related to Internet pornography.
I believe that sexual strugglers need to focus on four things. I wrote an article about his on my sexualsanity.com website. I’ll include a link to the article, but just FYI here is the list of four things that people need to focus on:
- Vigilance – Recognizing that this is an ongoing issue that won’t go away, and continuing to pay attention to dangers
- Boundaries – Establishing limits and “bottom lines,” and identifying the places and situations where you get into trouble. Then finding ways to minimize or avoid them.
- Support – Creating a network of friends who (a) know the whole truth about your struggle, (b) are willing to help you in it, and (c) you enjoy being with.
- Emotional Awareness – Being attentive to your emotional states, and finding healthy ways of caring for yourself (so you don’t find yourself sad, resentful, and/or anxious and looking for unhealthy ways of coping … ie. acting out).
I’ve noticed a theme in the lives of leaders I work with — most of whom are involved in church work: they are overwhelmed.
They are overwhelmed by the demands of church ministry, they are overwhelmed with the needs they encounter, and they are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. There is a virtual flood of ideas washing over them every week for how to do their work better, new conferences to go to, new programs to implement, and on and on. They struggle to manage their time, because there is a never-ending que of messages to respond to, emails to process, messages to prepare for, and problems to deal with.
To be clear: the issue of overwhelm is more than just about feeling busy. Busyness is not new … people have always felt busy. Remember that Henry David Thoreau felt so overwhelmed by the busyness of life that he needed to withdraw from the world and move into a cabin in the woods. He did this because life had become too hectic … and this was in the 1800s! This was before electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, the Internet, cell phones.
The problem of overwhelm in church ministry runs deeper than just full calendars and long to-do lists. This is a crucially important point, because if we misunderstand the problem, the solutions we try to solve it won’t work.
When it comes to pastors and other church leaders, I think there two bigger issues going on.
1. Overwhelming needs in the lives of people we serve
One is that leaders are faced with tremendous need and brokenness in the people they work with. It doesn’t matter what ministry setting we are in … we will find deep brokenness and dysfunction everywhere. We are as likely to encounter extreme sexual immorality in the sheltered rural community as we are in the city … drug abuse in the upper middle class community as in the working class community … relational brokenness and abuse in the suburb as in the urban core.
To put it mildly, the needs are overwhelming. Continue reading Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry
I’m getting ready to conduct a recovery workshop at a prison in Texas in February. Lately I’ve been reading up about the realities of incarceration in our country … and I am appalled. Right now more than one out of 100 Americans is behind bars. We imprison more of our people than any other country.
A big part of the problem is our failed war on drugs, with mandatory sentencing in drug related offenses. I am no fan of drugs, but I’m fed up with our country’s approach to this very important issue. Isn’t it time that we declare the “war on drugs” to be a colossal failure, and instead push more money into addiction treatment? If we took just a FRACTION of the money we spend today on law enforcement and incarceration for the “war on drugs” and diverted it treatment, we could actually start to make some headway.
At the very least, we could reduce the crazy mandatory sentences we have for drug-related offenses, and institute more restorative justice approaches.
Take a look at the infographic in this article, and ask yourself, “Who is benefiting from the war on drugs?” Obviously drug cartels and dealers, but also (and here’s the disturbing part) … so are police departments, which have seen their budgets grow exponentially to “stem the tide” against illegal drugs, the companies that supply weapons and technology to both drug cartels and the police departments that fight them, and — most disturbing — PRISONS.
The fastest growing population in the US is our prisons … and as the graphic shows, we now imprison 1 out of every 100 citizens. We imprison more of our citizens than any country in the world. AND … half of federal prisoners and 1/4 of all prisoners are there because of no-violent, drug-related offenses.
Who is paying for this?
According to the latest figures I could find (2007), it costs taxpayers an average of $31,267 per year to feed, house, and guard each and every prisoner. I’m sure it’s gone up since then. Amazingly, NYC just released that in 2012, it cost them $167,731 per prisoner.
And of course incarceration is just the tip of the iceberg. Continue reading The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible