Tag Archives: Pastors

Memento Mori

by Randy Corn

Recently while reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I came across the Latin expression memento mori. Isaacson explains that when a Roman general returned victorious from battle he was given a Triumph, a grand parade, where many gifts and honors were bestowed upon him.  Throughout all of this, a servant would follow the general repeating, “Memento mori,” which loosely translates into “Remember that you have to die.” This is from the chapter in Isaacson’s book where the cancer diagnosis, which would eventually take Jobs’s life, is first mentioned.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all observe the fact that people die, and yet in spite of Scripture and experience most of us fail to consider our own mortality—that is until a doctor brings us a life threatening diagnosis.

About a year ago that happened to me. It put me on an unfamiliar path. I had been the care-giver throughout my pastoral career; now I was the one being cared for. Now I was the one being prayed for, not the one praying. As is typical for me, I began to look around for books to help me on this journey. I found some that have been particularly helpful, and I believe would be a resource for both the suffering and those who want to understand and minister comfort. Most of these are not Christian books, but they are honest in picturing the struggle of men and women wrestling with their own mortality.

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Random House, 2016

This book was recommended to me by my neurologist and is one of the best written books I have come across. The author, who was a neurosurgeon in training, tells of being diagnosed with terminal cancer and how he spent the 22 months until his death. As a doctor he had a clinical view of death, but when it was his life ebbing away his perspective slowly changed. Readers can find themselves somewhere on that learning curve.

  1. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Broadway Books, 1997

This book details the story of a college professor who is dying of ALS.  He reconnects with one of his favorite students from years earlier who had gone on to be a successful sports writer. The two get together each Tuesday for the professor to talk about life and death. The reader feels as though he has taken a seat beside the bed of a wise man who wants to impart that wisdom before it is too late.

  1. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, Hatchette Books, 2008

Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He developed cancer, and though he tried to beat it with a radical procedure, he did not.  He knew from about six months out that his death was imminent. This led to what the university called his “last lecture.” It is a tradition at many schools for a retiring professor to give such a talk.  Pausch was extended this opportunity and took it. The result was a memoir of sorts, packed with common sense rules for life. If there is such a thing as an upbeat book about death, this is it.

  1. The View from a Hearse by Joe Bayly, Clearnote Press, 1969

This book is one of the many recommendations made by Warren Wiersbe from his book, Walking with the Giants. It is from his chapter on the “Minister as Comforter.” I can see why he recommended this book. Bayly is a Christian minister who has served in both local church and Christian college settings, but his understanding of this subject is not merely theoretical. Beyond ministering to the dying and their families, he has lost three of his own children.  He discusses such subjects as praying for healing and gives some very practical advice about counseling the dying and those who love them.

There are many more books on this subject, some of which I have read. But these are the ones that I feel have the most potential benefit both for the dying and for those who minister to them. Only Bayly’s book has a clear Christian perspective on death, but the others are what might be called examples of common grace. They have wisdom and even inspiration to share with us.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 3

by Jackson Watts

Change is inherent to the nature of salvation; repentance itself implies real spiritual change. So it should be no surprise that the congregational life of saved persons also must undergo certain changes in its ministry sometimes in order to better foster growth, discipleship, worship, or evangelism. The challenge is to discern the right degree and type of trellises to support the vines, to use Marshall and Payne’s metaphor.[1]

So far we have established two important truisms concerning church change. First, change is often very difficult, frustrating, and sometimes elusive. It can lead to confusion, conflict, and unwanted departures of leaders and/or members. At its worst, it fractures a church, hindering its witness in the community.

Nevertheless, we’ve also established that not all change is the same. Change has many different faces, requiring different levels of reflection and effort to implement. Implicit in this is a conviction that I think most leaders share: Change doesn’t have to be a problem. It can be a healthy, exciting opportunity despite the challenges that come with it. Understanding the different types of change is an important first step for pastors and churches to work through transitions in a way which strengthens Christ’s church.

Change through Reform

The second type of change is innovation. While innovation is usually associated with a new invention, it doesn’t have to be something entirely new. Don’t think of it like the invention of electricity or the telephone. Innovation is more like going from the first light bulb to LED lighting. Light itself wasn’t invented. Rather, a better means to produce and diffuse light was. Moving from a landline phone to a cell phone would be an innovation within the field of electronic communication. Innovation then, as I am describing it, is the reformation of some aspect of the church’s life.

We know about “reformation” due to the tumultuous period known as the Protestant Reformation. Some would argue that the very nature of the faith was altered, or even recovered. But consider what remained: Churches, priests/pastors, the Lord’s Supper, belief in the Triune God, and other core aspects of Christianity.

Without question, much changed with both church teaching and practice! But I use this illustration to show that Christianity as a religion about Jesus Christ didn’t end or begin. However, significant innovations occurred that were thought of as reforms, returning the church to a pre-existing form (historians can debate the best terminology to be used).

Innovation is arguably the most common form of change, and thus most likely to be attempted. Changes within an existing church culture happen organically, in fact. Sometimes background checks on children’s ministry volunteers must be performed to satisfy the expectations of the church’s insurance company. It is a change, but largely accepted as unavoidable. People resign from ministries, and new people step into those leadership roles. Most members accept and understand that these changes happen, even if they don’t prefer them.

However, innovation happens whenever background checks lead to expectations of special training for children’s helpers. Innovation is when the church changes financial disclosure practices under a new treasurer, or when a new youth pastor stops taking students to a particular camp each year and instead goes to a different one. Financial stewardship and student ministry didn’t end. It isn’t a simple matter of addition or subtraction. Yet these ministries have been reformed in some way. To put it another way, the form (structure) of a ministry (substance) has been altered.

Tweaking or Tampering?  

Innovation and reformation are themselves contested terms. Depending on who you’re speaking to, these words summon different reactions. To Silicon Valley investors, innovation has an appealing ring to it. To those struggling to set up their voicemail, it doesn’t sound so good. Similarly, our Catholic friends may have something of a bitter taste in their mouths toward ‘reformation.’ To those with shelves full of Banner of Truth books, it just as well be ‘Gospel’!

This range of responses is also seen in the local church. Saying one is going to “tweak something” seems harmless enough. To others, it is heartless tampering designed to take control. Reform, in other words, doesn’t necessarily signal improvement, even if that is the goal. Healthy reform have growth in faithfulness as its ultimate aim, but it requires more than good intentions.

Thankfully, whenever leaders successfully improve an existing aspect of the ministry through some innovation, members usually appreciate it. In fact, it is quite rewarding whenever skeptics or even critical members become some of the most vocal supporters of a change once it has happened. The challenge is patiently waiting and praying for that reaction.

Naturally, leaders and lay members alike recognize that there is not just a range of feelings about changing certain features of the ministry. There is also a spectrum when it comes to the scope of the change. A church may have preaching in its worship service each week. But if in a week’s time, the pulpit has been replaced with a new one and the pastor has lost his necktie, this will likely be considered a significant innovation (fairly or unfairly!).

As a general rule, the degree of reflection, prayer, planning, communication, and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms about to occur.[2] Bigger changes equal more preparation, in essence.

Innovation is not entirely unlike incorporation (change type #1). However, pastors usually learn that innovation and reform is most often easier to implement than actually introducing something new. With innovation, churches at least have the concept, structures, or other “raw materials” already in place. Being prepared to accept reforms then becomes the critical issue.

Leadership Insight

Why innovate? It has often been said that change for change-sake isn’t very healthy. People say this because they generally need to see a need for improvement in order to embrace change.

Ultimately, innovation is grounded in the conviction that God is calling his people to a deeper level of faithfulness. If the culture of a church is permeated by beliefs such as, “We are perfect,” “We are fine,” or “Everything is going well,” then any form of change will prove nearly impossible. However, whenever there is a growing sense that the church is imperfect or ineffective—as a whole, or in several areas—there is a greater openness for reform.

How does this awareness of imperfection or ineffectiveness occur? The primary means by which the church increases in awareness of the need for reform is 1) Preaching/teaching the doctrines of sin and sanctification, and 2) Regular observation and evaluation of the church’s ministry effectiveness.

The first of these is accomplished from the pulpit, the podium, the Sunday School classroom, and numerous other venues where believers intentionally meet for instruction. By learning that we are sinners as well as saints, they will be better able to connect the dots between their hearts and the ministry structures around them. In other words, if Christians still sometimes sin in thought, word, or deed—including inside the church—then this means that sometimes our ministries need sanctifying, so to speak.

Furthermore, the laws of physics tell us that things wear out: people, programs, buildings, etc. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, new chairs, and other tools are unavoidable if we are paying attention to this decaying world. Understanding the extent of the Fall helps us to see that every manmade thing won’t last.

When we take into account both the fallenness of our own natures, as well as the world itself, we know innovation will occasionally be needed as we address the flaws in our ministries. Naturally, this always begins with the heart, mind, and soul. But is an error to overlook the body, and thus the church’s material life. We are embodied souls who worship in places (e.g. buildings), in well-ordered ways (e.g. worship service times, order of services), with carefully-designed tools (e.g. curriculum). These trellises serve the vine best whenever innovation and reform is occasionally undertaken.

The second way to create a church culture that thinks in terms of improvement is to regularly inform members of the patterns of growth and decline of spiritual vitality over time. Church attendance is a valuable metric, but a very limited by itself. Church leaders must find biblical and practical means of observing, recording, and reporting how God is at work in the congregation. Some of these are easier to measure than others, but by developing multiple means of assessment of the church as a whole, and then specific areas of ministry, the congregation will be better positioned to understand what potential reforms may be needed.[3]

As a rule, this will be much more effective than saying, “We need to mix things up,” or “The church down the street is doing this, so let’s try it, too.” Members who are growing in maturity are doing so because they understand sin and sanctification, and they care deeply about the unfolding life of the church. It works it reverse as well: members being taught about sin and sanctification and who are helped to better see the ministry for what it is will grow in maturity. Such members become advocates of and partners in reform, not opponents.

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[1] Cf. Colin Marshall & Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mindset that Changes Everything. See a brief summary of their proposal here.

[2] This is why my illustration about the Protestant Reformation is intentional. Some would argue that we see the whole gamut of changes in this event: incorporation, innovation, and interruption (see forthcoming Part 4). This illustrates another facet of my argument, which is that once you begin ‘innovating’ or generally changing many things, at some point you begin having several different types of change all at once, which is more apt to lead to conflict than multiple changes of a single type in a single area of ministry.

[3] The concerns about the proper use of numbers or data are well-expressed in Kevin Hester’s recent post.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 2

by Jackson Watts

What’s in a change? We never truly know until we enter into the crucible which is change.

As I explained in my previous post, church leaders (especially pastors) face numerous challenges in the course of leading God’s flock. Among them is the difficult task of helping implement change. This change operates both on the level of personal spiritual sanctification, as well as the structural aspects of the church’s congregational life which are intended to foster spiritual renewal and progress. We might say that changes in the organism (individual believers’ lives) are inextricably connected to organizational changes (the programs, policies, and procedures of the church’s ministry).

Pastors, especially by virtue of their role as overseers or bishops (episkopoi), must wisely work together with other leaders and mature members to discern which changes will best accomplish the church’s mission.

However, many of us intuitively know that not all change is the same, though some may tend to associate all change with discomfort and hurt feelings. Part of why this is so often the case is because there has been a failure to consider the nature of specific changes. In other words, church change isn’t a monolithic category.

I would suggest that there are at least three main forms of change a church can experience. Each is difficult in its own way, but each is also sometimes necessary. Here we will consider the first of these three unique types of change.

What’s New?

The first type of change is when something new is introduced to the church’s life—what I call “incorporation.” This is the resourcing of the church’s ministry because a new practice or custom, artifact or object, or value or belief is introduced to improve or strengthen the church.[1] Sometimes the newness is associated with a pastor’s particular background or experience elsewhere, or perhaps an emerging trend among associated churches. The perception is that the pastor is “bringing this newness” or that all the other churches are doing this now. Regardless of the source, usually a pastor or group of leaders presents the idea, hoping to persuade members of its value, and then implement it as smoothly as possible.

The main obstacle with this type of change is that the newness in question seems like an unwanted intrusion on a church’s existing life. For members who aren’t in the habit of self-examination, there is usually an implicit assumption that everything is already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” epitomizes this sentiment. Therefore, the default position is to reject anything new on this basis without further reflection.

Any number of other sensibilities can be attached to this reticence toward change. Members may be fearful of how something they deeply value may be negatively impacted by the intrusion of the new. New programs, practices or tools have a tendency to displace older programs, practices or tools that may be deeply cherished.

Another common reason towards resisting the new is that many churches have had a checkered history when it comes to implementing new things. More than likely, the frustrated pastor is unaware that some of the congregational resistance to change has been conditioned to be that way by prior, unsuccessful changes. If crossing Jordan posed its difficulties for the Israelites after they had the Red Sea crossing in their rearview mirror, then it’s no surprise that sometimes church members—especially those desiring peace—don’t want to retread old ground whenever things weren’t successful before.

In this way, our experiences tend to be hermeneutical in nature. If a church leader has had success with a particular change in a previous ministry situation, it conditions him to think that it could go well and work smoothly in other contexts equally well. Likewise, if people have had unpleasant experiences with various forms of “newness,” this will shape their perception and expectations concerning the impending change.

Expectations and Ends

An equally problematic pattern with incorporation can be when churches want to adopt anything and everything new simply because it is new. In this, the church reveals its captivity to the myth that whatever is new is inherently good, and whatever is old is inherently bad. Another aspect of this is the belief that this new thing will deliver to the church something needed or sought after, whether converts, improved finances, or any number of other positive things. In this respect, the modern notion of ‘technique’ (especially in its commercialized American form) is simply applied to ministry. If the right technique is applied, then this will engender the desired result.

Many people will recognize that the first reaction above by some lay members is problematic in that it out-of-hand rejects anything without careful spiritual reflection. But the second mindset is also problematic because it also lacks a certain level of essential biblical evaluation. Rejecting something new for the wrong reasons is, in the long run, just as detrimental as promoting or accepting something new for the wrong reasons.

Pastors must work diligently to make a reasoned case, from Scriptural principles, for why certain new additions to the church’s life should be pursued. Additionally, they must develop an understanding of the context into which such new changes are being proposed. This will not only help them gauge the reactions they will receive, but the likelihood of success even if the changes are adopted.

A second thing they must do is closely evaluate which problem they are trying to solve, or area of ministry they are trying to improve by such a change. What is the end, in other words, of this effort? What are we realistically expecting to happen as a result of this change? Will the evaluation of the change’s effectiveness continue even after its adoption? How, if at all, will the church tweak the change or even reverse course if things are not successful?

These questions demand more time, attention, and reflection than we sometimes want to give, even if we are well-intentioned throughout the process. But they are the reasonable extensions of any case for incorporating something new into an existing church ministry.

Leadership Insight

We must come to appreciate the unique ministry setting in which God has placed us. Certainly the principles of Scripture are truthful, valid, and beneficial in any place where God’s people are. Yet these can never be hastily abandoned in the name of cultural relevance, or even in a misplaced desire to give the illusion that the church is making progress simply because they are doing something new and different.

There are also no doubt trans-cultural principles that shape pastoral ministry in any context. However, one of these principles is, in fact, that all ministry is local! This means that the pastor must be an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being a theologian. They must be students of the people they are called to love and serve. They must explore the history which has shaped the church throughout the years, making it the unique congregation that it is. The church’s history itself is constituted not by random events that simply happened to the church; its history is the sum total of the decisions (good and bad), gifts, victories, defeats, and dreams of the people. An awareness of such history will facilitate pastors in all types of change, especially with incorporation.

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[1] More on these three ‘traditions’ will be shared in a later post.

Pastoral Care & Priorities

by W. Jackson Watts

One of the most important aspects of pastoral ministry is understanding how one’s “pulpit ministry” is connected to their “pew ministry.” By pulpit ministry, I mean the regular, weekly preaching and teaching of God’s Word. In what I’m calling “pew ministry,” I’m referring to the personal engagement of the pastor (or pastoral staff) with congregants through ministries like visitation, counseling, and simply being present in times of physical trials.

Pastors spend a significant portion of many of their weeks in hospitals and nursing homes–perhaps just as many hours as they spend invested in personal prayer and study of the Word at times. For myself (and I suspect many others), sometimes we wonder if we are actually being faithful to the theology of the pastorate found in Scripture and our ordination vows. Why is it so easy to allow our love for people and/or desire to meet their expectations to create imbalance in our pastoral work?”

These are not new concerns. In fact, Acts 6 narrates the circumstances which led to the institution of the diaconate, designed especially to share the physical burdens of the flock of God. There are other Scriptural admonitions given to entire congregations which seem to imply (at the very least) that pastoral care should sometimes by re-envisioned as “congregational care.” That is, with an “every-member ministry” mindset in which some believers have the gifts of mercy, the pastor(s) and his people ought to bump into one another regularly in the hospital waiting room to see another brother or sister.

There is a different angle on this dynamic of pastoral care that I was reminded of recently. I was reading one of the best books on ministry that I have ever read entitled Freedom for Ministry by Richard John Neuhaus. I regret that the book is so little-known among Free Will Baptists. However, it is written by a deceased Lutheran-turned-Catholic, which probably has something to do with that. Also, it was originally published in the late-1970s. Still, Neuhaus provides a stinging critique of the unhealthy shape of so much late 20th century church life, while also providing warm, godly encouragement and direction to pastors of many stripes.

In the following excerpt, Neuhaus narrates something of a common concern:

Perhaps every pastor has had the experience when visiting a [congregant] that a child answers the door and excitedly announces to the parent that ‘God is here.’ The adults share a chuckle and observe that soon enough, maybe too soon, the child will realize the pastor isn’t God [1].

This humorous anecdote starts to touch upon a larger issue. Sometimes we have anxiety about whether or not we are developing the impression within people that they haven’t truly been visited by a church family member until the pastor himself has done so. Neuhaus develops this anecdote by addressing this type of concern:

Yet the connection between the representative and the One represented is very strong, as is the connection between the Church and the ministry of the Church. All our talk about lay ministers and the ethos of democratization notwithstanding, the minister inescapably represents the Church. We are rightly disturbed when people speak of a local church as ‘Pastor Jones’s church.’ Pastor Jones is first to protest that it is Christ’s church; and the more he insists on the point, the more people admire his modesty and give that as yet another reason for being a member of Pastor Jones’s church [2].

Another way of pastors may experience this latter sensibility is when, as they greet members in the foyer departing the service, they hear the phrase, “Good service(s).” Not good sermon, but good service, which immediately begs the question, “Does this also mean I get all the blame when the music isn’t so great?” Nevertheless, let’s return to Neuhaus’ account of how the church’s ministry and pastoral presence are tied together:

As we go about our everyday tasks, our actions both shape and reflect our understanding of the models of the community’s ministry. A lovely fourteen-year-old girl dies shortly after a tonsillectomy because of the criminal carelessness of an anesthetist. One rushes to the home to join the relatives and neighbors in weeping and in raging at the wrongness of it all, and in offering up this outrage to him who judges justly and in mercy. One’s being there is in a powerful sense the ‘presence’ of the Church, and of Christ. Why is it so urgently, so pathetically, important that the pastor be there? Because he is the palpable sign of the supportive community and the community’s Lord. Of course Christ has preceded the pastor. Of course Christ’s presence is abidingly immediate to each believer. Of course, of course. But in such times of crisis these commonplaces are frighteningly distant and abstract [3].

Here I think Neuhaus calls our attention to how Christ’s incarnation, and ultimately the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, enables us to think about the importance of being physically present to people. God did not create disembodied souls; He created persons. Furthermore, He created complex creatures with thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and emotions. Of course, due to the Fall we also experience heartache, disappointment, anxiety, grief, and all manner of inner conflict prompted by the vicissitudes of life.

So although Jesus may be physically absent from this world, when we serve people in His name, we perform those acts as unto Him (Mt. 10:42; Col. 3:17, 23). And when pastors link hands with the ill in a moment of prayer, we need to make sure they understand they are linking hands with the community of faith.

Practically speaking, I think the best way of embodying such a perspective would be to begin by developing a clear understanding in the local church of God’s call to member care from the New Testament. Additionally, the tendency to prioritize personal contact in times of acute physical crises is a wise judgment. If people are looking death squarely in the eye, then not only is comfort a need, but preparation for the life to come. Even if pastors are reminding believers in these dire situations that God is with them, often there will be unbelieving family members, friends, and medical professionals nearby. We shouldn’t overlook these opportunities for member care and evangelism.

Finally, I think Neuhaus’ observations remind us about the need to communicate that when pastors or laymen minister in these types of circumstances, they should remember the need to let people know that, “We’re praying for you,” and “We love you,” as well as, “I love you, and I’m praying for you.”

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[1] Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 43.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.