Friday, December 21, 2012

No Longer A Rookie

Fresh out of Youth Ministry, I took my first preaching ministry position.
I actually knew a few things by now. During my nine-year run with a church in Los Angeles, I’d gotten my masters degree in marriage and family counseling, while I toiled away leading missionary teams into sweltering, third-world barrios of Mexico’s border towns, facilitating parenting seminars, and overseeing teen-led Vacation Bible Schools.  There had been opportunities to supply-preach for smaller congregations in the area, which meant I was no longer completely useless behind the pulpit. In fact, while the rest of my associates were on vacation, and a fill-in was needed, I could actually provoke a roundelay of ‘amen’s’ from the home crowd. Some even requested that I be put in the preaching rotation, which I secretly wanted, as I was eager for God to expand my ministry.
On the strength of my resume – and my willingness to work for the smallest of congregations – I landed a job almost right away in the suburb of a midsized city in the southeast. It was my first experience as a Senior Minister. I was willing to do whatever it took to prove myself, and when I got up to preach that first Sunday, it felt like I was blasting off to the moon. It was what I had been waiting for - my own thing - and my heart was filled with hope and the promise of an enviable future.
The head elder of this congregation, my putative master, was a textbook example of People Who Should Never Be An Elder. On the ‘very first Sunday’ he visited the church, I am told, he and his wife began campaigning for eldership by alerting every one to his experience and sound doctrine – ‘should space on the board become available.’ His principle business had something to do with the government and high-level security clearances in a neighborhood which was forty-five minutes away by metro. As this, apparently, wasn’t prestigious enough, he had chosen the church as a way to bolster his social standing more quickly and assuredly.
From the get-go, Max seemed intimidated. At every suggestion I offered, he’d snort with contempt, roll his eyes with world-weary derision and shoot down whatever outrage – be it a contemporary worship style, improving the condition of the rat-infested building, or simply changing the look of the bulletin – I’d come up with. He was merciless in his naked contempt for every idea I came in with, and tried to bully me at every turn.  
As the principal change-agent to this dying institution and already a veteran of church politics, I established formal lines of written communication – faithful re-creations of the church I had just left: proposals, memos, accompanied constantly by handshakes and smiles. I began the work, facilitating a congregational meeting which surveyed the group’s self-perceptions, copiously recording each stated strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat as it was expressed. Compiling the list of responses, including the opinions of every individual in attendance, building consensus and ownership, I then presented the felt-needs to Max, requesting him to join me in building strategies to best meet the challenges at hand – it felt like an act of congress, but it was effective. If my apathetic, imperative head-elder was not already thoroughly spooked by my ability to inspire change, he certainly was by this action.
We squabbled all the time, Max and I. He was indignant that I repositioned the desk in my office to facilitate a more open, counseling-friendly environment and wanted to argue over the ‘correct’ way for a minister’s office to be configured. He frequently and passive-aggressively would forget to attend regularly scheduled Elder’s meetings – knowing full-well any decisions made in his absence were academic. He poked, prodded, sulked, conspired and competed. When the water well collapsed, I suggested that we improve our situation by connecting to the city waterline. Predictably, he assured me there was no money to meet the exorbitant $12,000 expense. I yearned for this tiny congregation to bring glory to God, and in that vein, I came up with the most ambitious idea my super-heated, endorphin-overloaded blend of faith and ambition could muster, a sort of Elijah-Calls Down-Fire-From-Heaven challenge. I asked the congregation ‘to pray and honor the Lord with contributions to offset the financial need in one, single, solitary special-offering’ . . . and they did. Just one month from the day the request was made, this thirty-member, suburban outpost of middle-class Christian soldiers glorified God with their giving to the tune of $15,642.40. Yet, rather than rejoicing in what great faith had been displayed, rather than being happy, truly happy, like Gideon’s lucky few - a band of outnumbered warriors who achieved total victory over the circumstances – Max viewed it as a personal defeat. “Chalk one up for the preacher,” he sarcastically grumbled at me . . . then waddled away.
I was thirty-two years old and the minister of a dying church. As would become something of a recurring theme in my career, I was following close on the heels of the departed burnt-out minister who, it had been said, was a great people person but an ungifted leader. I, it was hoped, was the solution to all their problems: a fresh-faced, eager minister just out of a master’s program, who would respond to my aged constituents’ wishes, and was willing and capable of turning an already bad situation around.
This place was an old-school operation. Located in an unincorporated area named after a Scottish tobacco plantation and slave owner, the building was a long, narrow, brick-and-mortar gymnasium of a place with a basement and adjoining entryway. The members, principally, were retired and semi-retired government employees and ex-military personnel. They were genuinely lovely, intelligent, warm-hearted and funny older people who could be counted on every Sunday, had remarkable resiliency and were considered (rightly) to be wonderful, charming and welcoming hosts, especially under the cloud of the devastating attrition they’d encountered during the last decade.
Entirely Caucasian, it was the only Independent Christian Church on the overwhelmingly African American eastside of town, and in spite of the fact that the community was experiencing historic population increases and a booming housing market – the church remained in decline. Being the minister, and nominally in charge of my own ministry – I was not happy about continuing with the same anachronistic style of programming that was well past its heyday. But I was patient, changing very little during the first year.
A support staffer, far younger and healthier, uncharitably referred to the auditorium as a ‘wrinkle room’ and made fun of the somewhat sad, even funeral-like atmosphere of a typical organ-only worship service.  They may have owned the building outright and had a nice nest-egg in the bank, but the future was decidedly not bright – every Sunday staking out the welcome table, peering at the front door in search of first-time-visitors that would never come.  I did my best to punch up the worship service, assembling a black-gospel choir accompanied by a partial band appealing to the preferences of the community. I administered over the work responsibly, spent the church’s money wisely, and generally behaved in such a way as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the old guard.
Despite some inroads into the community, things were not going as planned. Long-time members were uncomfortable with the changing demographics and migrated to churches outside the county. I don’t think they were prepared for the required cultural changes and modernization. Some in the congregation had given their life to the building, having, years ago, taken out second-mortgages to build the thing. So it pained me to see their dream of rekindling the past die in increments.
‘But we all love that hymn’ Max would protest when I suggested removing a particular moribund song from the repertoire. He’d keep certain things on, favorites which brought back memories of the glory days, week in and week out, waiting for those folks to return. But they were not coming this Sunday, I could have pointed out – in fact, they weren’t ever coming back. The place was dying. The smell of desperation was in the air. You could detect it halfway down the block, as we were surrounded by larger but equally visitor-hungry congregations. You could see it on member’s faces when a few straggling visitors would on occasion happen through the door, they would pounce on them like starved remoras.
But I soldiered on. I didn’t know what else to do. Restrained from putting much of an imprint on the place – and unprepared to offer a viable alternative – I became distracted and depressed and settled down into the role of an overpaid Bible study leader rather than a minister.  What I learned on this assignment was a sad lesson that has served me well since: I learned to recognize failure.
 The trajectory of many ministers after an experience like this - should they survive it - is to move on to the next establishment, usually already hemorrhaging when they arrive. They become hooked on a Senior Minister-size paycheck and end up chasing money rather than effective ministry. In fact, some are condemned to being a travelling Mr. Fixit, always arriving after a former minister messes things up. More often than not they end up functioning as more of an undertaker than a minister.
Having only recently achieved my dream of becoming a minister, I began looking for something more. And rather than feeding off the expiring dreams of a succession of misguided souls, I moved back to Southern California and started a new venture.   

Monday, November 26, 2012

So You're Considering the Ministry?

For seminary students, youth ministers looking to move up, newcomers to the business – and otherwise unemployables who make up a small minority of our vocation – I have a few nuggets of advice, the boiled-down wisdom of twenty-five years of doing right and doing wrong in the ministry.
 For the growing number of people who are considering becoming a full-time vocational minister as a second career I have some advice, too. In fact, let’s address you first:
So you want to be a minister? You really, really, really want to be a minister? If you have been working in another line of business, have  been accustomed to working eight-to-nine-hour days, weekends and evenings off, regular time with your spouse; if you are used to having clear-cut, realistic expectations, a modicum of family privacy, spoken to and interacted with as a human being, seen as a normal person – a sensitive, multidimensional entity with weaknesses, failures, fears, the sort of qualities you’d expect of most working persons – then maybe you should reconsider what you’ll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month online Master’s of Divinity course put this nonsense in your head to start with.
Keep in mind that, at least in the beginning, you have few rights, are not entitled to authority, and can fully expect to be treated as though everyone in the congregation is your boss. Believe it. I have seen more than one well-meaning career changer who attended a six-month ministry course and showed up to do the work of ministry. More often than not, one look at what they would really be spending their first few months doing, one look at what their schedule would be, and they ran away in terror.
To those serious ones who know what it is they are entering, who are fully prepared, ready, willing, able, and committed to a career path like the one just described – who want to be ministers, called to be ministers, whatever the personal costs and unrealistic demands – then I have this to say to you:
Welcome to my world!
And, assuming your faith is real and prayer-life active, consider these suggestions as to your conduct, attitude and preparation for the path you intend to follow.
1.       Be fully committed. Don’t be a fence-sitter or a waffler. If you’re going to be a lead-minister someday, be sure about it, single-minded in your determination to achieve victory at all costs. If you think you might find yourself standing in a church basement one day, after feeding 100 Vacation Bible School kids cookies and juice, wondering if you made the right move; or on some night when no one shows up for the life-changing Bible study you spent all week preparing, find yourself doubting the wisdom of your chosen path, then you will be a liability to yourself and others. You are, for all intents and purposes, an indentured servant. Ready yourself to take instruction, give instruction when necessary, and live with the outcome without complaint. Be ready to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

2.       Learn Spanish! I can’t stress this enough. The Latino population in the US is 16% and growing. Many of the communities you are about to enter are Spanish-speaking. The very heart of Christian evangelism, whether you like it or not, is Mexican, Dominican, Salvadorian and Ecuadorian – most of whom are Catholic. If you can’t communicate, develop relationships, understand felt needs and pass them along, then you are at a tremendous disadvantage.

Should you become a minister, Spanish is absolutely essential. Also, learn as much as you can about the distinct cultures, histories and geographies of Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. An immigrant from Puebla is different in background from an immigrant from Mexico City. Someone who fled El Salvador to get away from the Mano Blanco has a completely different world-view than the Cuban immigrant who speaks the same language.

These are your church members, your friends, the people you will be ministering to, and incorporating into the fabric of your congregation. Show them respect by bothering to know them. Learn their language. Eat their food. It will be personally rewarding and essential to your calling of expanding God’s kingdom.

3.       Don’t misappropriate church funds. In fact, don’t do anything that you couldn’t take a polygraph test over. If you are a minister who uses church funds for personal airfare, overly uses the church credit card for “incidentals,” or have a penchant for taking annual “mission trips” to Paris and Rome, be fully prepared to answer the criticism that is about to come your way. Presumably, your idiosyncrasies will – on balance – make you no less a minister to your congregation. If you are a sneak, however, it will follow you forever. This is a small community; everybody knows everybody else. You will do yourself immeasurable harm.
4.       Be internet savvy and use social networking. If you don’t understand terms like “search engine optimization,” “backlinks,” and “organic search results,” you will be invisible and sorely deficient of first-time visitors. Develop an internet marketing strategy otherwise nobody cares – except your consumer-oriented neighbors, who will be sure to drive an extra ten minutes past your church to find a more relevant congregation because they can’t find you on the internet.

5.       Never make excuses or blame others.
6.       Never call-in sick on a Sunday. Except in cases of dismemberment, arterial bleeding, sucking chest wounds or death of an immediate family member.
7.       Lazy, sloppy, and inattentive are bad. Enterprising, detailed and hyperactive are good.
8.       Be prepared to witness every variety of human folly and injustice without it damaging your faith in God or poisoning your attitude. You will simply have to endure the contradictions and hypocritical inequities of life. ‘Why does the pastor take home more than twice the amount of money than me, he does half the work?’ should not be a question that drives you to tears of rage and frustration. It will just be like that sometimes. Accept it.

‘Why is he/she treated better than me?’

‘Why does the minister get to take Wednesday nights off, while the rest of the staff works hard providing Bible studies, youth programs, and kids groups?’

‘Why is my hard work and dedication not sufficiently appreciated?’

These are all questions best left unasked. The answers will drive you away from God if you are not careful. If you keep asking yourself questions like these, you will find yourself slipping into martyr mode, depression, burnout and unemployment.

9.       Be as wise as a serpent but innocent as a dove. It’s ok to assume the worst about everybody, but don’t let it poison your outlook or affect your faith in a loving Savior. Let it all roll off your back. Ignore it. Focus on the good and be amused by the rest. Just because someone you work with is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, and capricious child of God shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying their company, working with them or finding them entertaining. Churches produce hypocrites, it’s one of our principle exports. I am a hypocrite. You are probably a hypocrite too.

10.   Avoid working for churches where the minister’s name is more well-known than the name of the church employing him. Avoid working for churches that look run down. 
11.   Read! Read history books, commentaries, biographies, and blogs. Surfing church websites are useful for staying abreast of industry trends, and for pinching marketing/outreach ideas and concepts. Some awareness of the history of your work is useful, too. It allows you to put your own less-than-stellar circumstances in perspective when you’ve examined and appreciated the full sweep of church history. Read the biography of Augustine. Review Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
12.   Have a sense of humor about things. You’ll need it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Saint

I first met The Saint when I relocated to Los Angeles in 1991. He was then, and remains, a west coast fixture, loved by generations of Angelinos, ministers, Bible college professors, missionaries, young adults, parents, grandparents and the homeless. I won’t give his name, though every minister living in southern California who reads this will know who I’m talking about. He’ll certainly know. He’ll call me.
‘Hey, whass-goin-on?,’ he’ll say. He says ‘whass-goin-on’ like it’s still in vogue. It’s his homage to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit single.
 ‘Hey, I read your blog . . .’
‘Yess . . . ‘ I’ll respond waiting for the shoe to drop.
‘You didn’t tell me you were going to write all that,’ he’ll say. ‘Did you have to include that in your webpage . . . blog . . . inter-web thing?’
Now, the first thing I heard about The Saint when I worked with him back in the ‘90s was that ‘he would pick up homeless people from a Santa Monica graveyard every Tuesday, take them home, feed them, give them a shower, provide them unlimited access to the family refrigerator, bathroom, washer and dryer, and then hand them a weekly allowance.’ At first I figured this to be some kind of urban legend – then I witnessed it with my own eyes. But the point is that this was the first thing I heard about him. That he turned his home into a weekly sanctuary for the homeless. And The Saint, as you might imagine, isn’t at all comfortable drawing attention to himself. Others like to describe him as ‘a godly, selfless, meek, and humble man of God – the real deal’ which is typically a fair description. He is not an unattractive guy – he looks like an older, bald Terrance Howard – he is just under 6 foot, an avid racquet-ball player, with strong shoulders and deceptively quizzical eyes. He likes to play the good guy – an aggressive defender of the weak – and like a protective golden retriever, fiercely loyal.
Pensive, even-keeled, peace-making, tolerant, adaptable – an aide, a psychotherapist, a mediator, a confidant, a guide: The Saint is all those things. He’s also the most stand-up guy I ever worked with. He inspires a strange and consuming allegiance. I try, in my service to others, to be just like him.
During my first month working with The Saint – a man I knew nothing of other than the rumor, and the fact that everyone appeared to revere him – I struggled through a few Bible studies with the youth of the church on the second floor of the education wing. I was their new Youth Minister. These were smug upper-class teenagers who had determined long before I arrived that anyone from the Midwest couldn’t possibly relate to their way of life. As a result, youth group discussions ended up being long, drawn-out, uncomfortable sessions punctuated by frequent periods of uncomfortable silence. So I finished my first month feeling discouraged, exhausted and resigned to the fact that these teens would never accept me. But one evening as I walked back to my office preparing to slink away into the night, a parent gave me a curious look and told me, ‘The Saint wants you meet with you in his office.’ Down the hall in The Saint’s inner-sanctum, my nurturing colleague looked up at me, complimented me on a fine job, and invited me to dinner. ‘You are doing a good job with the teens,’ he began. ‘I know the kids aren’t very receptive, but they need you.’ I can’t begin to describe the gratification I felt at having gained his approval, especially considering it was his shoes I was desperately trying to fill.
I frankly wasn’t that respectful of him in the beginning. I was thrilled by the opportunity to minister in Los Angeles, and I headed to the west coast that October filled with hope and confidence, certain I’d outshine my predecessor. I pulled into town, I remember, wearing – Lord help me – a pastel yellow oxford-cloth shirt and mint-green, pleated Dockers. The shoes too, were green. The only thing missing was a fanny-pack. Here I was, pulling into a neighborhood that for all intents and purposes was a mecca for upper-class black families, many of whom were nationally known entertainers and sports heroes, a part of town where people dressed in the latest Neiman Marcus fashions – Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace – and in some deranged, mid ‘80s bout of mid-western hubris, I chose to make my entrance in 100% cotton Bob Saget-wear, just itching to show the big city folks how we do it back home.
I alone was too dumb to see how over my head I was in this new environment. But unintimidated as only the ignorant can be, I discounted every existing program that had been established before I arrived, regaling my new associates with exaggerated versions of my cross-cultural ministry experience in the southwestern corner of Ohio. Overcompensating for my youthful insecurity, I tried to portray myself as some street-smart, experienced, professional urban-missionary.
They were, to be charitable to myself, not impressed. The Saint, in particular, smiled and kept focused on his new duties as Associate Minister, all the while indulgently enduring without comment my endless self-aggrandizing line of witless chatter. I should have understood his silence and pregnant pauses for what they were, the sufferings of a fool. I should have understood. But I didn’t.
So the unmerited grace he extended to me that fateful evening at the end of my first month on the job changed me. I felt going home that night, humbled but renewed. The Saint, you see, after withstanding my obnoxious behavior, redeemed me when I didn’t deserve it.
I worked alongside The Saint for years – almost a decade – and since then, for almost a quarter of a century, I have hardly gone three days in a row without talking to him either over the phone or in person. He was there during the lowest point of my career. I was burnt out from a five-year run serving a severely dysfunctional church in Washington D.C. as a not very good minister. I was determined to get out of the ministry, sickened by an ego-maniacal, imperious Elder/Treasurer, being solely responsible for every program the church conducted and then having to beg for my paycheck (perpetually past due) so I could pay my mortgage . . . I was spent, desperate, unhappy, with a negligible-to-bad reputation for not respecting “the way we have always done things.”
Always in my corner, never giving up on me, he offered to give me money, encouragement, resources, anything he felt I needed and without hesitation. He was always willing to take tremendous leaps of faith on his part to help me continue, even if he hadn’t laid eyes on me in years. Looking at me, hearing the edited-for-television version of things I had been through, he must have had every reason to believe I’d give up and disappear. But as so often happens with The Saint, his trust was rewarded. I was so shaken by his baseless faith in me, that such a blameless individual as The Saint would make such gestures – that I determined I’d sooner cut off my hands, poke out an eye, shave my head and run barefoot over burning coals than to betray that trust.
He taught me how to profoundly change a person’s life. It’s about Chesed - a Hebrew vision of the ideal life characterized by mercy and compassion. If you were struggling to manage the responsibilities that come with living, working, taking care of your family because of self-destructive choices? Be honest about it. It’s okay to walk into The Saint’s office and say, ‘Hey, I was up all night smoking crack, sticking up liquor stores, and drinking the blood of animals sacrificed to pagan gods’ . . .  if that’s the truth. That’s acceptable. But if you show up denying there is a problem and then try saying, ‘Uh . . . I was on the way to work and the ambassador to China crashed his limo right next to me . . . and I had to get out and give him mouth-to-mouth . . . and like I saved the country from an international foreign relations debacle, man!’ You, my friend, will be out of luck. No one can help you.  
The Saint understood – as I came to understand – that character is far more important than skills or personal history. He understood, and taught me, that a morally-flawed individual who tells you the truth, even if it’s embarrassing, is less likely to take advantage of your forgiveness than a person who lies to save face from the smallest indiscretion.  He’d lift ex-junkie degenerates out of the gutter and turn them into trusted deacons, guys who’d lose an arm rather than take for granted the trust and respect bestowed upon them by The Saint. He’d get homeless guys right off the street, give them duties within a graduated system of responsibility, new clothes, and full participation in the administrative committees of the church. Nothing made him happier than seeing one of his recruits turn their life around.
The most important and lasting lessons I learned from The Saint were about spiritual maturity and interpersonal relationships – how do you respond to a person who has blown it? Your response to that situation reveals just as much –if not more - about your maturity as it does about theirs. Spiritually mature leaders understand that the objective, when faced with a person who has been caught in a sin, is restoration. When a brother has stumbled, but he hopes to do right, wants to do right, is willing to do right; your goal is to help him get back on the straight and narrow – not to hurt him further. Good intentions aren’t enough. And I always, always want to be ready to help. Just like The Saint.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Church Planting Syndrome And Other Medical Anomalies

Back in the day, ‘I want to be a church planter’ used to be a strange and terrible affliction. Why so many otherwise sensible ministers would give in to such a destructive urge is hard to say, considering the menacing statistic that 80% of church-plants fail within the first year. Today, however, things have changed as church-planting is a much more promising endeavor. According to the North American Mission Board and thanks to the advancements in church-planting systems, the current rate of survivability is something like 68% after the first four years - even though the typical church-plant fails to surpass 100 in attendance during that same initial phase.
Yet despite the recent leaps forward there are still significant risks. The venture is an enterprise with enormous fixed expenses (rent, advertisement, audio/visual equipment, storage, towable trailer, branding, website development, insurance, etc.), an unmistakably young and untested staff, and – if you are in an urban environment – a notoriously transient and unstable population. The chances of ever reaching self-sustainability are about two in three –not bad I guess. But keep in mind that until that threshold of autonomy is achieved there are times when you are standing on the tracks, watching the lights of the oncoming locomotive, wondering if you will be the one in three that gets run over.   
What motivates a minister to take such a risk? Hopefully it’s because God has called him to meet a need, and in response, he has carefully evaluated the risk, consulted with other experienced professionals, soberly assessed his own giftedness, and has an overriding desire to glorify God through great sacrifice and humility.
There are, unfortunately, instances that don’t measure up to this standard. Consider, for instance, the classic cautionary tale of the ego-driven minister who was always told that the church’s elders were holding him back. ‘You should start your own church,’ his friends would tell him. And our minister believed them. He wants to strike out on his own – not to make money, not really, but to enjoy the freedom of making decisions without anyone second-guessing him or clogging up the works. And he’ll have plenty of chances to make those decisions – when his free-loading, Christian friends who told him what a success he’d be starting his own church never show up to help. All these short-sighted geniuses will be more than happy to show up for a Sunday service, drinking the free Starbucks, eating the pastries, taking credit for this bold venture – until the place starts running into trouble, at which point they dematerialize, shaking their heads at their foolish minister who just didn’t seem to live up to the calling.
Maybe the minister is having a mid-life crisis. He figures this is his last shot at the greatness he so desires. He is convinced that his time will never come as long as he is underappreciated at the current dysfunctional church where he is employed.  This isn’t as uncommon as you think – perfectly reasonable, even learned ministers, hitting their thirties suddenly start writing checks with their egos.
Unsurprisingly, a minister who starts a church to be told he’s wonderful is totally unprepared for the realities of the calling. He’s completely blindsided when the start-up doesn’t explode with converts immediately. Under-capitalized, uneducated about the arcane requirements of public school bureaucracies and their rental agreements, frequent signage repairs, unforeseen equipment replacement, first-time-visitor numbers drop, or fail to improve, he panics, and starts looking for the quick fix. He thrashes around in an escalating state of agitation, tinkering with branding, starting-time and order of worship service, various outreach schemes. As the end draws near, these ideas are replaced by more immediately practical ones: get a second job . . . cut back on advertisement . . . find a less expensive venue. Naturally, as the congregation becomes more schizophrenic – one week meeting here at one time, one week meeting there at another – as the poor minister tries one thing after another like a rat trying to escape a burning building, the already elusive church-going public begins to detect the unmistakable odor of uncertainty, fear, and approaching death. What is amazing is how long some of these neophytes hang on after the clouds of doom gather around the place - as if God is going to miraculously save them from the chaos they themselves have created.   
Of course there are many, many ministers who do well in the world of church-planting, who know what they’re doing. They know from the get-go what they want, what they are capable of doing well, and exactly how much it’s going to cost them at the outset. Most important, they have a fixed idea of how long they’re able to suffer financially before they pull the plug. Like a true professional, a confident church planter doesn’t bother with magic bullets, changing the style of worship, or compromising core principles. With steely resolve, a minister with a true calling, in the face of adversity, will suck it up and redouble his efforts to make this church the Christ-centered congregation he had envisioned all along praying that the secularized population will eventually discover it, trust it, learn to love it. These guys know that when you hit the panic button and call in the consultants (read: unemployable ministers, or failed church planters who still want to make a living), or start taking austerity measures like retreating to someone’s living room – or worst of all, combining with another struggling congregation – that they may as well close the doors for good. It’s just not good stewardship. A smart church-planter will, when he realizes things haven’t worked out, fold up his tent and move on – before he’s knocked out of the ministry for good. One disastrous ministry can put an end to your entire career.
Some ministers are even less easy to explain than the novice who over-estimates his own ability. Proven church-planters, guys with congregations of over 1,000 thriving members, ministers who’ve already beaten the odds, who have had and still have a successful God-ordained ministry, what makes these guys over-reach? Often, the original flagship operation is a simple, straightforward concept: a new church in a new community, or a re-launched church in an existing community, or simply a well-established church that never stopped growing. But success makes these guys feel invulnerable. They must be geniuses, right? They have drawn thousands of people into their own auditoriums! So rather than planting other autonomous congregations, why not franchise and open a 500 seat satellite-campus with simulcast sermons and a merchandising outlet in another community? The answer is so simple. Because it’s not Biblical!
Changing lives, bringing hundreds or thousands of people together in a single Bible-based congregation? What’s wrong with that? You’re blessed man! Keep up the good work! Why this sudden urge to expand an empire into a theologically-questionable, mini-denominational operation? One of the big questions that keeps coming back but is never answered is: Are multi-site churches the modern-day precursors to denominations, enabled by new technology? Unfortunately this sort of high-level question is never addressed.
So, given all these perils . . . why? Why would anyone want to do it?
Inarguably, a successful church-plant demands that you live on a stipend-of-a-salary for the first few years – if you get paid at all, working seven-day weeks, with total involvement in every aspect of a complicated, demanding, and high-pressure vocation. If you work in an urban area you must not only be fluent in Spanish but in the Torah-like intricacies of tax law, unified school districting codes, insurance, and fire department regulations. And with every dime you’ve got tied up in the venue, suddenly the school sends you a notice informing you that the lease – which expires next week – can’t be renewed because of a clerical error; your in-home Bible study host just called to say they will be out of town for the next three weeks requiring you to secure an alternate location; Media Shout, the projection software, keeps crashing, shutting down your multimedia presentation in middle of the worship service; the air-conditioning hasn’t worked in three weeks and it’s the middle of July; there is a new family in the church whose stated mission is to teach everyone in the church to speak in tongues, which ensures your presence at every small group meeting for the next six months; you just spent 30,000 dollars on mass-marketing post cards, but the information table is out of welcome-packets and you have nothing in the coffers to cover the expense before the first visitors arrive; the head of the Infants and Babies ministry suddenly got a job out of the country and will be leaving at the end of the month;  the indoor display girl wants a certified check or she’s not shipping your delivery; you didn’t get enough thermal coffee-cup sleeves for the weekend; and is that young, female visitor waiting for one of your roadie guys to stop flirting with her so she can go home?
By the grace of God we have developed a team with the ability to meet all the requirements of surviving these tedious and unforgiving challenges, a group of servants who live, breathe and actually enjoy solving little problems like the ones above. Our church staff loves the challenge, the minutiae, the puzzling mysteries of how God’s grace can be used to conquer, outwit, and endure. They are good. They are so good that I still wake up every Sunday morning at five minutes to six, always before the alarm. Why? Because to disappoint them or the God we serve – not to live up to their shining example of total commitment would be, even now, treason to my calling.  I have become a real minister capable of organizing, operating and most important, leading a church – because of these great men and women of faith.
Why do I do it? I do it because every other alternative seems as dull as dishwater. I do it because there is no greater feeling than knowing that the presence of God is more dynamic in the life of a believer because of the work He has allowed me to do.  For me that, more than any other thing, brings significance and meaning to my life.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

How To Make God's Word Live

Unless you’re one of us already, you’ll probably never break down the various nuances of meaning contained in some Hebrew word found in the authoritative Masoretic text of the Old Testament. And that’s okay. On my day off, I rarely want to read another commentary or listen to another homiletic dissertation unless I’m looking for a new idea or sermon illustration to use. What I want is to experience God, either for myself or through others – everyday Christian experiences of God’s dynamic presence. A forty-year-old wife, Kathy, after years of infertility and several miscarriages, prayerfully, tearfully, successfully giving birth to a son while being supported by the prayers of fellow Christians - that is a pure shot of adrenaline to me, even when I’ve been immersed all day in the latest church leadership strategies and all the bits of ministry we do to stimulate an individual’s spiritual growth. Occasionally one church member, Janet, would say to me before sharing how God has answered a need in her life, ‘This must seem pretty ordinary for you, Pastor Terry . . .’ She had no idea how magical, how reassuring, how pleasurable her simple ‘God gave me the strength to finish my twenty-six mile marathon’ anecdote was for me, what a delight that an ordinary event became a testimony – being, as it was, blessedly devoid of advanced preparation and rehearsal.
But you want to know how these experiences happen. Where do they begin? What you’d like to know is how to make your study of God as dynamic as having the apostle Paul living in your guest room. Maybe you’re curious about the helps, the techniques, the few simple tools that can make your Bible study experiences seem as if you were sitting in the boat next to John, the disciple, during the calming of the Sea of Galilee.     
Let’s talk about the tools first. What do you absolutely need?
You need, for heaven’s sake, a decent version of the Bible. No con foisted on the general, church-going public is so atrocious, so wrongheaded, or so widely believed as the one that tells you that you need various versions of the Bible to keep it fresh and relevant. How would you feel if, as a landlord, your tenants were constantly and unilaterally toying with the language of the lease because the existing version ‘just doesn’t speak to us, man’? I doubt you’d find it reassuring. Yet so many well-intentioned publishers treat God’s Covenant with the same reckless subjectivity. And many of these mongrel tarts have now become cultural favorites. I wish sometimes I could go through the libraries of believers throughout America just throwing these adaptations off the shelf – all those contemporary-language Bibles, those free paraphrases with lengthy insertions and omissions, advertised as ’Bible-as-novel’  - not one of them is any more than, at best, devotional literature. For instance, in the well known Beatitudes of Matthew chapter five there is a world of difference between the Good News Bible’s ‘Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor;’ and the NASB’s ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. The word ‘happy’ is generally understood as being pleased over a particular situation. ‘Blessed’ is a pregnant theological term meaning internal fulfillment regardless of external circumstances. So while winning a million dollars may make you happy, it is a far cry from experiencing blessing.  
Please believe me, here’s all you will ever need in the Bible department: ONE good Bible translation, taken from the original languages with the intent of preserving the syntax of the ancient text. Which version? Okay, most serious Bible students find that buying the New International Version (NIV) provides the best ease-of-understanding to accuracy ratio, and it is a fine translation. It is the most popular modern translation in history for a reason. The use of English makes it slightly easier to memorize, and helps in the understanding of passages that have been traditionally difficult to translate. Most of the Bible scholars I know have for years used what is widely regarded as the most literal translation of the 20th century - the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It is, admittedly, a little more confusing to read, but its reliability and fidelity to the original languages is unmatched.
But there are so many Bible publishers, which one is the best? As long as it’s a reliable translation, the publisher’s printed comments in the margins of the page are simply a matter of personal preference. Just keep in mind that the comments you find there are not a part of the original text and, therefore, not divinely inspired. That being said, I like Zondervan’s NIV Study Bible for its conveniently located background information at the beginning of every book. And it has – in addition to many of its other fine helps – the added attraction of sending the message to your peers that you take your Bible study seriously.
Okay, there are a couple of other helps you might find useful. I employ the use of a Bible atlas, also published by the fine folks at Zondervan, because if you are ever going to fully appreciate things like the severity of Jonah’s rebellion against God, you are going to have to understand the relative distances between Joppa, Nineveh, and Tarshish. An encyclopedia of the Bible comes in handy once in a while, if, for example, you find yourself wondering about the significance of raisin cakes. But how often do you do that?
Study helps are obvious. What else is necessary for the serious student of God’s Word? Numero uno – the indispensable ingredient for illumination and enlightenment – is an understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit. Maybe you have heard John MacArthur on the radio reviewing Romans 8:28 and bringing listeners to tears as he explains the value of suffering in the life of the believer – the man’s been unleashing the Word of God for years. Sure, it’s just one phrase, ‘And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God,’ but his commentary hits so close to home it sounds like . . . well . . . powerful, man!!! Acquiring this kind of insight from the Spirit can only be achieved when you understand that God’s Word is just as much about a relationship as it is about the content. As you approach the Word of God, you do so prayerfully seeking more than just facts about His existence. To be transformed by God’s Word, to be moved by His Spirit, is more than simply having a raised awareness of God. It’s more than an academic exercise, more than a religious ritual. It is to enter into a relationship with God, so that who He is influences who you are. It’s not a big deal to go to church and to find an awareness of God, to accumulate information about God, or even to feel God. What makes God’s Word dynamic in your life is when - and pay attention here, folks - the Holy Spirit takes the information and awakens it within you so that you understand how it applies to your situation. When Moses prayed, ‘let me know your ways’, he was not asking for additional revelation from God, he was asking for clarity about how to use the information he had already been given in order to lead the people of Israel through the wilderness. Illumination requires that you, like Moses, cultivate intimacy with God. And the key to achieving intimacy in any relationship is trust. Only in the context of trust and fidelity can there be an open exchange of private thoughts and ideas. You, yourself, would never share your most intimate thoughts with someone you considered out-of-favor. So the question is: Can God trust you? Will you follow His direction once He gives you the insight? If your answer is something like, ‘It depends on whether or not it’s to my liking’ - don’t expect much in return.

Your journey of personal enlightenment all comes down to relationship. Beware of shortcuts and cheap substitutes. As you navigate your way, there are some things you must keep clear. Participation in church programs, however noble, is no replacement for relationship. Worship services, service projects, Bible studies all have their place, but these things should be the by-product of God’s presence in your life not an alternative to personal fellowship. If what you are doing for God replaces the time you spend nurturing communication with God, you have exchanged God’s presence for something less.
What about prosperity? Many people have turned the church into a lottery. For them, the motivation to spend time with God revolves around the desire to acquire blessing – which is to say, a financial blessing. Intimacy with God is measured by the gilded comforts found in material possessions. Don’t get me wrong, God blesses us - there is nothing wrong with a new car or a new house. But something has gone seriously wrong when God’s favor can be demonstrated by a Lexus.
Some define their connection with God by popular experience. Perhaps you have seen it on television; wild, drawn-out, ecstatic services punctuated by people barking like dogs, laughing like hyenas, and running up and down the aisle – all in the name of Jesus. Emotional experiences often imitate, but never duplicate, the powerful realities of being closely associated with the Creator of the universe. I don’t want to overstate my case. I am not against emotional experiences, or feeling God’s Spirit. There are times when God will bring tears to your eyes or a spring to your step, but I am against anything that compromises objective truth.
Example: Here’s a process I have used countless times while helping others discover God’s direction for their lives. It has worked time and time again. Take an issue – career choice, potential mate, parenting decision – document every general principle found in Scripture about the subject – you know, using your brand new NASB Bible? - and pray, asking for God’s guidance. Assess even the tiniest details about your current circumstances and ask, ‘God, is there a point here?’ God often speaks through circumstances, accidents, opportunities, and misfortunes. These things are designed to take you to the next step. God uses everything. Nothing is luck. Next, use some common sense by including the input of other spiritual people besides yourself – say your minister or an objective, mature, Christian friend. The Bible says there is safety in the counsel of others and let’s be honest, if you come up with a plan that no one else buys into – you may be the spiritual problem. Finally, once you arrive at a biblically sound, reasonable resolution that is confirmed by the senses of other spiritual people outside of yourself, sprinkle in a little faith, garnish with expectancy and move forward in confidence . . . See?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

From Our Neighborhood To Yours

I saw a banner the other day outside a church building located along the freeway as I made my way to the other side of town, advertising ‘Everyone Welcome’. A brightly colored collage of multi-generational, all-white, American middle-class faces filled the conspicuous advertisement. I can’t imagine a better example of Things To Be Wary Of in light of the fact that this, primarily Caucasian, church was located in a leafy green, upscale bedroom community consisting, almost entirely, of African Americans.  Yet there it was. I wonder had the sign said ‘Whites Welcome’, if it would still be standing?  
Finding a place to grow spiritually is a risk. Every once in a while a badly behaving church official, for instance, will be caught embezzling money from the church coffers, a pedophile will be discovered within the ranks of the Christian education program surreptitiously molesting little boys in the men’s bathroom, or a much-beloved church leader will be forced to come out of the shadows to admit a lifetime of addiction. Does this mean you should leave the church? No – not necessarily. Every church is susceptible to this type of painful contradiction. The bigger the church, the broader the range of moral failings, the higher the likelihood of scandal.  I’m not going to deny myself an opportunity to be blessed, to be comforted, to be encouraged or even to be witness to some glorious manifestation of God’s provision all because of a single, albeit horrible, fall from grace.
But there are some general rules I adhere to, things I have seen over the years that remain in mind and have altered my perception of ministry. I may be perfectly willing to attend Christmas mass at a Catholic church in Mexico, where the annoying practices of praying to Mary and confessing to a priest are dubiously practiced and I can see with my own eyes prayers being offered to graven images (I mean, where else am I going to go? I’m in Mexico!), but on home turf, with the daily objective of connecting people to Christ, there are some definite dos and don’ts I’ve chosen to live by.
I never go to a church that does not reflect the racial makeup of its community unless I’m worshipping at a place like La Iglesia de Hechos 2:42 - an El Salvadorian, first-generation, Spanish-speaking-only church in the middle of South Central Los Angeles where I know the reason for the disparity is a language barrier. I am confident the complexion of the church is not a result of some deliberate marketing campaign.
You walk into Big City Christian Church in an ethnically diverse suburb on any tranquil Sunday morning and you find a warmly worded welcome printed just inside the branded, professionally designed collateral. The greeting is accompanied by various directives for participation, location of child care, and a smiling picture of the pastor. What’s not to like? Here is something that should leap out as you navigate the bulletin: no cultural diversity among the staff. And as you get comfortable in your seat, you notice little diversity among the members.
Here’s how it works: the pastor of this fine fellowship sends out marketing post-cards every few months to generate first-time visitors. He targets ‘desirable’ neighborhoods through the careful selection of zip codes, determining who will, or will not, walk through the front door on any given Sunday. All right, some churches do not use mailings, but they do collect follow-up information from visitors – email addresses, phone numbers, physical addresses – which is then kept or discarded to fit with a predetermined result. It has the same effect! The pastor is hoping to reach middle to upper-class prospects, which, he rationalizes, is in the best interest of the church. He’s assuming also that most minorities will not be comfortable with the church’s style of worship and would be better-off left out of the equation.  Outreach? It’s a sophisticated, consumer-based approach to church growth. Terrible, you say? Why doesn’t he simply saturate a ten-mile radius around the church with advertisement? The church shouldn’t discriminate according to race or class. Right? Sure, he can . . . but what is preventing the board of elders from thinking exactly the same way? The elder board evaluates the pastor according to two primary metrics – numerical growth and financial support. Don’t forget to factor in the reality that many of the elders are parents and have strong prejudices against interracial dating. But elders oversee the church by establishing biblically-based administrative policies, you say! They can eliminate prejudice! Friends, I have been in monthly, elder board meetings for over two decades, and believe me, it does not inspire confidence. Chances are good that the policies being voted upon and approved in your congregation have more to do with a General Electric employee handbook – mission statements, human resource guidelines, by-law revisions - than they do with scripture. These are not optimum Kingdom-expanding conditions.
This is why you don’t see a lot of church mailers in the mailboxes, for instance, of lower-class neighborhoods – not enough return on investment. The pastor knows. He also anticipates the likelihood of losing major financial contributors if internal demographics begin to shift in an inconvenient direction.
Church outreach is a tricky business in the urbanized, multi-cultural areas of America’s population centers. If the pastor encourages a high-energy, celebration style of worship with a heavy ethnic flair, reflecting the preferences of the surrounding community, but the primary supporters of the ministry do not like the changes, the pastor will generally fall back to what he knows, what is familiar, and what is safe. If that means Indie style, acoustic guitar-based worship music and even-keeled, not-overly-emotional sermon deliveries – that is what you are getting.
Most heroes in the evangelical world lead homogenous mega-churches. Rather than accommodating ethnic/cultural/socio-economic diversity by creating pathways for expression in the life of the church, people are asked to assimilate and leave their cultural differences in the church parking lot. On one occasion while attending a church planting conference, I listened as the instructor lamented about how much money his organization had wasted in the minority-filled inner-cities. After much prayer and countless attempts to establish a successful plant, he and his organization had decided ‘to focus energy and resources outside the city limits’. Following his presentation, it came time for a break from the serious matters of the day, where we were treated to a little comic relief – a cartoon video of a bumbling Chinese chef singing in broken, heavily accented English, ‘Welcome to Wong Way Chicken, I take-a you oda please, would you like a little bit begitable and flied lice?’ The room – filled with white, middle-class males and just minutes away from the country’s largest Chinese-American population - roared with laughter. After the break we all went back to hearing passionate dissertations on how best to reach the over 80% of non-church-going Americans by being ‘seeker sensitive’ and ‘relevant to culture’ - it was surreal.
Another thing I don’t accept is prejudices against interracial marriages. In my experience, most churches don’t address this issue directly with scripture. It’s a matter of practicality. More often than not, you hear people say ‘I don’t want my son or daughter marrying’ this group or that group ‘because I am worried about the kids’ or whatever. Don’t misunderstand me, everyone has a right to that preference.  But let’s be clear, that is a preference, not a biblical demand. Moses, a jew, married a woman of African descent, the Ethiopian, Kushite woman named Zipporah. Afterward, Moses’ sister, Miriam, protested the interracial marriage so relentlessly that God rewarded her with leprosy. In other words, He turned her, presumably, olive colored skin white. It was poetic justice. Conversely, the bible does have a lot to say about religious intermarriage, but you don’t hear a lot of protests among Christians when it comes to the ladies of the church dating non-Christian men – particularly if he lives in Hollywood Hills, drives a BMW, and has a large bank account.
How about a congregation that sponsors a Spanish-only service? Well . . . sometimes but never as an obvious attempt to avoid diversity. Spanish-only services are an open invitation for the culturally challenged pastor, an easy compromise between a result-oriented board of elders and an ever-changing community. But if authentic ministry is about relationships, how, exactly, will those relationships be nurtured? Also keep in mind that segregation of this nature can backfire when, for example, first-generation Filipinos seek exclusivity as a means to preserve their ethnic identity. It’s one thing to provide a worship experience for first-generation, Asian American adults in their primary language; it’s quite another for that same group to resist the inevitable cultural changes that are necessary as subsequent Americanized generations assimilate.
A few years back, while on staff of an ethnically transitioning congregation, I had the misfortune of working with a sensitive young man serving as the worship leader who, in addition to a wide and varied social life, was something of a racist. During one meeting, I suggested we incorporate a few Mass Choir selections into our praise and worship time. This, I reasoned, would be an important gesture as we faced the need to accommodate, rather than assimilate, our neighbors in the community. Ordinarily, requests of this nature were politely and thoughtfully entertained – not, however, on this occasion. ‘But Terry,’ my associate responded, ‘do you really want all those black people in our church?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. In that peculiar slow motion one experiences in car wrecks, I sat there speechless – like a hypnotized chicken. The only memorable detail I recall about my response was the expression on my face, significant in that it was frozen into a rictus of a grin. Such are the strange and terrible powers of racism. Years later, after being fired for having an unrepentant and immoral lifestyle, he threatened to sue the church for – you guessed it - discrimination.
While we are on the subject of church staffs, simply hiring someone on the basis of their skin color is equally disturbing. A wise pastor will do more than hire ethnically diverse staff members, he will deploy them so as to influence the cultural fabric of the congregation. My long time associate and lifetime best friend served for nearly thirty years as the sole African American on his church staff. Never once was he invited to share his unique perspective or to provide practical ideas aimed at cultural accommodation. As a result, he often wondered if he was simply a token of race – a cynical, symbol-over-substance, public relations ploy. No one, after all, wants to be known as ‘the brown guy’ who was hired to prove the church’s openess to racial diversity.
What leaders must understand is that before we can build multiethnic churches, we must be willing to live multiethnic lives.
Multiculturalism is complex and not always about race, but also age, class, and church experience. Seeing any one person as solely one of these things reduces the church to a shallow institution of consumerism and clouds our understanding of God’s beautiful and complex creation.
Consider this passage from the book of Revelation chapter 7 (NIV) which embodies God’s intent:
‘After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”’
What a beautiful picture of the church.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Who Ministers

Who ministers to you anyway? What warm and congenial saints toil tirelessly just beyond the tables of the reception center? You see the pastor: he’s the guy with spiky hair, cool glasses, maybe a soul patch under his lip. But who is actually ministering to you? Are they young, ambitious seminary grads, putting in their time behind the scenes until they get their shot at the Big Job? Perhaps, but increasingly that is not the case. If the pastor is anything like me, the church staff is a typical working class, grown-up-in-the-church lot, motivated by God’s Word, the peculiar lifestyle of being in ministry and a mixture of all things good and local. Unless your church is very large, they probably aren’t even full-time employees – assuming they are paid at all.
Ministry done well is a beautiful thing to experience. The church staff is a caring collaboration resembling, at its best, a M.A.S.H. unit or well coordinated team of first responders. They are more - much more - than a skilled crew or formal partnership of hired guns. Effective church staffs care for one another, have been to one another’s homes, eat together, celebrate holidays together, and if asked what an associate’s dad does for a living - they’ll know. They serve one another and contribute to an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations. A properly organized, fully committed staffer, one who works selflessly, and has a ‘calling’ – meaning a God ordained, customized life purpose, which, most important, brings God the greatest glory – can perform his duties with influential grace.
What most people don’t get about professional-level ministry is that it is not at all about the latest praise songs, the most innovative children’s program, the most creative use of worship technology; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you walked in the door of the auditorium. Ministry – the real business of spiritual growth – is about relationship. The fact is, the greatness of any church is not measured by how modern the building, the acreage of the campus, or the number of people in attendance. Those things have their place. Authentic ministry is measured by the capacity not just to serve, but to relate to those whom you serve.
You want staff members to possess an affinity for people. Someone who shows up on Sunday morning, discharges their duties, and is the first to drive out of the parking lot is not what I’m looking for. While it’s necessary for staffers to establish personal boundaries – it’s a good idea to let the staff breath a little by not requiring their attendance at every church event – this is still a family. Ultimately, I want life to be shared and bonds to be created. If I want entertainment by an isolated cast of characters, I’ll send people to Disneyland. People come to church expecting to find connection; they don’t want some budding musical talent treating the worship service like a temporary gig just paying the bills until that big break comes along in the music industry. Nor do they want a pastor who is so involved in ‘vision casting’ that he can’t be bothered to lead a small group or make a hospital call.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you each individual member of the staff has to have a relationship with everyone in the church. That’s not possible. I’m saying that being a member of a church staff goes beyond fulfilling a job description. There’s a gulf the size of an ocean between adequate ministry and a caring community. And it all begins with the staff. There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits and the kind of discipline required to touch someone’s life. There’s no faking it in ministry.  Authenticity is measured by your willingness to be inconvenienced. Yes, some relationships, inevitably, will happen by chance. But chance is not a model for ministry.
 The relationship between Pastor and Associate Pastor can be a particularly intimate one, for instance, and it’s nice to have someone with a similar background and world-view when you’re going to spend almost every waking hour together. Women staff members, however rare they might be in the testosterone heavy, male-dominated world of church staffs, are a particular delight. To have a sensitive, intuitive, knows-just-what-to-say female staff member can be invaluable – and a civilizing factor in a unit where an informal conversation about baseball can easily turn into a heated debate over the utilities of the sacrifice bunt.
I have been fortunate enough to work with some really Godly women – no weak reeds these. One single woman, Elaine, managed to voluntarily cook and deliver mercy-meals to church members befallen by tragedy, while she, herself, was dying of cancer. This was not, keep in mind, part of a church program. A long-time assistant, Janet, who refers to herself as ‘not very adventurous’, managed to hold down a busy campground kitchen situated in a makeshift trailer in the middle of the slums of Tijuana – and still find time to provide advice and comfort to romantically unhappy teenagers. She was compulsive about cleanliness and neatness, and as vocal about it, as Martha Stewart, but gladly suffered for the cause of Christ.
Ministry is also about reliability. It is about week-in-week-out, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a pastor wants in a staff member is an innovator, an associate with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the church’s vision and strategy. Pastors require loyalty, a thick skin and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions. The job requires character – and endurance. When Sunday comes, a good staffer never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and difficulty.
Event calendars are the central nervous system for all effective church staffs. Do not touch a staff member’s personal organizer – meaning their laptop, digital tablet, or smart phone. These manage carefully recorded dates, times, details, contact information for teen pregnancy centers, worship software’s tech support, the home phone number of the local chief-of-police, pizza delivery services, inflatable waterslide vendors and so on. As a staffer, your personal information device, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your brain and it is profoundly upsetting if anyone - up to and including, heaven forbid, an immediate family member – disturbs your precisely personalized and carefully organized system. The universe is in order when your personal organizer is arranged the way you like it; you know where to find everything within two keystrokes and with your eyes closed. Everything you need to delegate tasks and coordinate activity is ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. Fail to update and integrate incoming information, allow it to become disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and annoying everyone else around you.   
Being theologically sound, properly trained, and adequately coordinated is not nearly enough. An effective staff member has to be able to remain level-headed and even-keeled during hectic and stressful situations. When you have fifteen or twenty parents of teenagers all demanding to know why two boys in the youth group were caught mooning the girl’s dorm on the last night of a spiritual retreat - two of the girls being daughters of church Elders; you can’t launch into a defensive tirade critiquing parenting styles and complaining about how you aren’t appreciated. You have to be gracious! Your hero staffer doesn’t let the anger of others, the frantic cries of ‘Incompetence!’, and the long and potentially confusing list of complaints throw him. He’s got to be grounded and understand how to deal with conflict and manage a crisis.  
The ability to ‘work well with others’ is a must. If you are the sound engineer, the worship leader is your dance partner, and chances are, you’re spending the majority of your worship time exchanging hand signals from a cramped sub-marine-like space, adjusting levels, mixing feeds and constantly surveying the room to make sure that voices can be heard above instruments so that the whole listening experience is pleasant and balanced. The both of you are trying to hit time-sensitive and synchronized cues, gratify a wide variety of personal preferences, all the while exemplifying the love of God and unity of Christ’s body. So you had better get along. It will not do to have two overly sensitive facilitators of worship arguing over some perceived insult when there are impressionable people around who are new to the faith. 
So who, exactly, are these guys, the men and women in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my experience that all church staffers are salt-of-the-earth, selfless servants, do-gooders, an unusual assortment of sober, gentle, patient, kindly saints and friendly neighbors. You wouldn’t be too far off base.  A church’s staff, as one pastor friend explains it, attracts a caring element, people for whom something in their lives clicked – their faith. They enjoyed high school, they are not running away from anything – be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law. And maybe, like me, they just like it here. They are comfortable with the rather disciplined and caring code of conduct within the church hallways, the elevated level of tolerance for the needy, the hurting, the lonely, the rejected. In most churches, one’s position in the world matters little if at all. Do you love Jesus? Are you willing to serve Him? Can I count on you to show up and do your part?
That’s what counts.
There are exceptions. I can break down dysfunctional church staffers into three subgroups.
You’ve got the Artists: the annoying, high-maintenance minority. This group includes specialists like worship leaders, musicians, and the occasional vocalists whose voices are so ethereal and mesmerizing that delusions of grandeur are often tolerated. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word ‘artist’, I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up for work on time. More often than not their efforts, convinced as they are of their own delicate genius, are geared more to narcissism than providing a satisfying worship experience in which the great majority of church-goers can participate. Personally, I’d prefer praising God with music that sounds good and is an honest reflection of the leader’s heart, than with the latest hit from the Christian music scene which showcases the artist’s vocal range, or has a really cool guitar solo.  
Then there are the Exiles: people who just couldn’t make it in another business and, mid-career, decided they would give ministry a try. They say things like ‘I want to pursue ministry as a career’ or ‘I’m just so unhappy where I am now.’ It’s not clear if they are pursuing Jesus or going on a job search.
Finally, there are the Mercenaries: people who do it for cash and do it well. They are particularly proficient in some area of ministry, though they have little love or natural proclivity for engaging others in conversation. They do it at a high level because they are paid well to do it – they are professionals, purveyors of religion.  Forced to choose, I’d take a stand up mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When a job applicant starts telling me how they have the anointing, I see trouble coming. Send me another moderately gifted guitar player. I can teach him to lead worship. I can’t teach character. Show up on time to lead your ministry six months in a row and we’ll talk about letting you start a Saturday night service with computer generated lighting, stage props, and liturgical rope dancers. Until then . . . let’s pray about it.