The burden of one – why pastors are struggling in ministry

I put this post up a couple of years ago, and it has been one of my most-read (and personal favorite) articles. More than ever, I see pastors struggling to bear “the burden of one”, and confused about how to tap into the biblical model of “the power of many”.

Pastors are under a lot of pressure.

In most churches today, we employ one person (or a small team) to do the job of many. The Bible tells us that God “ordained some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors, some to be teachers.” And yet, we position pastors to be all of these things at once – to lead, to minister, to inspire, to challenge, and to teach – all at the same time!

The Bible clearly tells us that God has given each one of us grace to build up the church. There are at least five very different ministry roles God has given us within the church, according to Ephesians 4 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The problem is, churches try to look for one man (or woman) who fits all of these categories at once. That was never God’s design for the church.

The church already has everything it needs. We cannot outsource the work of the combined church to one individual, no matter how talented they may be.

One person (the pastor) is symbolically responsible for the spiritual growth of many. One person is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of an entire community. One person is standing in front of many, responsible to teach, lead and inspire them, a paid role model under pressure to maintain an appearance of “having it all together”. That is a heavy load for one person to bear.

Church in rows has become the burden of one, instead of the combined power of many. One person stands at the front, symbolically taking responsibility for the spiritual growth and well-being of the entire church, while the rest of the church sit silently in rows, their spiritual gifts unused, their “spiritual” hands tied behind their backs. People who are unable to contribute or respond will shut down and become apathetic. They will lose confidence in themselves and not bother trying. They will start to believe they have nothing of value to contribute. They will never be empowered to discover their spiritual gift or to use it for building up the church.

This imbalance is bad for God’s people. It is bad for the pastor as well.  The statistics reveal how unsustainable the role of a pastor is. According to statistics, 45% of pastors report suffering such severe periods of depression or burnout that they have had to take time out from their job. 50% report that they feel unable to meet the needs of the job. 75% report suffering severe stress causing emotional issues. 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family. Over 20,000 pastors leave the ministry each year in the United States alone, due to burnout, conflict or moral failure. That’s a sign of a seriously stressful career path.

The responsibility of the spiritual growth and well-being of the community should be shared amongst the many, not shouldered by one person. But the congregation are disempowered and not in a position to share the load. We can’t activate them by preaching more powerful sermons. We can’t shake them up by turning up the music, or adding more musicians on stage. We need to give them a voice, give them a value, give them an impact. We need to empower them and involve them in ministering to one another. We need to stop adding to the burden of one, and tap into the power of many.

Love Feast – communion as a shared meal.

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My all-time favourite TV show would have to be Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Set in the future, it follows the lives and relationships of an odd assortment of characters as they travel the universe in an ageing spaceship.

At the heart of the ship, named “Serenity”, is a common eating area. As they eat together, the passengers and crew share more than food – they share laughter, and stories, and conflict, and special moments. At the table, Mal is no longer captain, Simon and River are no longer fugitives – they are all equals, comrades with a common unity. Bonds are formed and strengthened which enable them to keep each other’s backs as they go out into dangerous worlds. They cease to be individuals, and become family.

The act of sharing a meal is one of the most simple and effective ways to build up any community of people. Jesus spent a great part of his ministry eating with people. Many of his stories were about feasts and banquets. The early church celebrated communion by eating together. The modern simple church movement and missional communities often structure their gatherings around a meal. One inspirational movement that excites me is called “Neighbor’s Table” – a love movement begun by Sarah Harmeyer in 2012, which is spreading across communities and neighbourhoods.

Each week at Fresh Start Community, we end our meeting by eating lunch together – nothing flash, just sandwiches and salad. We call it the Love Feast – communion as a shared meal. I think it would be beautiful for God’s people to rediscover the relationship-building, one-anothering power of sharing food with one another.

Why so many Christians are “done” with church.

walking away

A couple of weeks ago, Thom Schultz posted an article called “The rise of the Dones“. I suggest you read it. It is an acknowledgement of a very real process taking place across churches – the best and most reliable church-attenders are getting tired of the system and leaving for good.

Churches have worried for some years about the rise of the “nones” (people who are reject traditional faith and decide not to associate with formal religion), but the “dones” are a different category altogether – sincere believers who are walking away from the institutional church after decades of faithful attendance and service. Schultz says these people are leaving and aren’t coming back. This strikes a blow to the future of churches, who rely on this group to serve on rosters, pay the bills and fill the pews. It’s enough to fill a pastor’s heart with fear.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon play out amongst my peer group over the past few years. People I grew up in church with are taking more and more Sundays off, until they stop attending altogether. Often, these are people who were actively involved in ministry and committees, sometimes even pastors. They feel a little guilty, but also experience a sense of relief at no longer having to turn up each week, sit passively through a service, and pay for buildings and salaries. They still love Jesus and try to follow him, but regular church attendance is no longer important to them.

Some are leaving to create transformational, Jesus-centred communities who engage in their neighbourhood and impact the world around them. Others don’t have the energy to build or find groups like that. They’ve given up on finding purpose and meaning within the wall of a church building. Their spiritual needs can be met elsewhere, and they’re ready to move on.

What can we do to reverse this trend? To be honest, I’m not sure we can. Even if we tweak the service, or change the model, we may not be able to re-inspire these people and attract them back. It’s worth using this time to ask hard questions, and listen closely to the answers – whether we like them or not. The culture and society around us are shifting, and the church is not sustainable if it cannot shift as well.

Why I’m thinking about getting arrested.

Handcuffs and Key

I’m a well-behaved person. I never drink, I seldom swear, and I generally drive within the speed limit. I don’t have any criminal convictions and have never been charged with anything – but that might be about to change. Kevin-Neil and I are seriously considering getting arrested.

This is not a decision I take lightly. I don’t like getting in trouble. But if I take Jesus’ words seriously, I have to act accordingly.

Australia’s inhumane treatment of refugees has troubled me for many years now, but the past 12 months have been particularly distressing. I’m sick of the dehumanising language, the dishonesty and secrecy, and the blatant human rights abuses. I’m particularly appalled at the detention of the most vulnerable and innocent people – the many hundreds of children who have been penalised and scapegoated, locked up for long periods of time, and suffering emotionally and psychologically.

That’s why my husband and I are prepared to face the risk of arrest, and join more than 100 Christian leaders across our country who have asked their local politicians one simple question; “when will you release the children?”.

The Love Makes A Way movement is spreading across Australia, because Jesus-followers know there is a better way to treat our neighbours than to lock them up and hide them away in other countries. We read a Bible that instructs us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; for the rights of all who are destitute” (Prov 13:8). We join a long and rich tradition of Christians practicing nonviolent civil disobedience, including the biblical prophets and apostles. We stand beside the many Australians who are rising up to say “we’re better than this“.

You may not agree with our decision. Part of me is still unsure whether to go through with it. But at some point, I have to take a stand. What do you think? Do you believe that love can make a way?

 

 

Simple Church: Unity within Diversity – a new book coming soon.

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Every now and then, you need to declutter your home (or your life) and figure out what is important enough to keep.

Over the past 2000 years, the church has picked up all sorts of clutter. Today, many churches, pastors and individuals are wanting to return to the basics, to the foundations of what church is supposed to be about. They want to learn from those who have moved from complexity to simplicity in their church practices.

That is why, earlier this year, Eric Carpenter approached a number of bloggers who advocate and write about simple ways of doing church. He asked us to provide a positive perspective on what we stand for (rather than what we stand against). From this collaboration, he has put together a book called “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“, which will be released before Christmas. I was privileged to contribute a chapter, describing my vision of “a church of equal laity, with Christ the one and only Head”.

I love the subtitle of this book – “unity within diversity”. 24 writers have written about different topics, from different perspectives – but we are all seeking to discuss, and communicate, and share what we have learned about simple practices of being the church. I’m looking forward to reading  and learning from Jeremy Myers, Kathy Escobar, Chris Jefferies, Miguel Labrador, Christopher Dryden, Alan Knox, Guy Muse and many others.

“Simple Church” is now available for pre-order. I pray it blesses you as you work through what aspects of church are worth holding on to.

Simple Church

Will podcasts replace pastors? Perhaps they already are…

wireless mice

I was asked recently if I hated sermons. My answer was “no”. I understand why people may see me as anti-sermon. If you read my blog regularly, you know I advocate moving away from sermon-centric, performance-based churches to multi-voiced, interdependent communities of empowerment.

The truth is, I actually rather like sermons.

A good sermon is a wonderful opportunity to learn. Some people have honed their knowledge base and their communication skills, and can convey complex concepts in a way people can understand, remember and apply. A well-structured lecture with new information can provoke me to think, and change, and grow.

Modern technology means we don’t have to travel long distances to hear great thinkers and gifted communicators – many churches are now podcasting their sermons online each week. Podcasts present a great opportunity to “flip the church” and practice “church in a circle“. I’m hearing more and more of groups of Christians who meet weekly to share a meal and love one another as a community. Instead of attending “regular church”, they listen to a podcast sermon in their own time, and discuss it when they gather, going deeper and applying the truths they’ve learned to their lives and neighbourhoods.

What these “podrishioners” are getting right is an emphasis on making the most of their time together. Singing and sermons shouldn’t take up so much of our time that we don’t have energy or space to do the “one-anothering” the Bible repeatedly calls us to.

I don’t hate sermons. They play an important role in teaching God’s people information, and calling them to a shared vision. I’m excited to see people getting creative with how they share and access sermons, and working towards sustainable, empowering ways of doing church in the future.

 

Love God. Love others. The rest is details.

Faith

According to Jesus, the entire Old Testament Law and the Prophets can be boiled down to two commandments; “Love God“, and “Love others“. The first is our personal, vertical relationship with God. The second is our interpersonal, horizontal relationship with people.

These two love-actions are not separate from each other – they are intrinsically linked. That’s why Jesus says; “the second (command) is like (the first)” (Matthew 22:39). Loving God and loving others go together. If we say we love God, but do not love one another, we are lying to ourselves and do not know the truth of God’s love.

To me, the shape of the cross is a reminder of the intersection of vertical spirituality (love for God) and horizontal (love for others). We experience and take part in God’s love when we learn to stretch out our arms and embrace the other, when we lay ourselves down to lift others up, when we unclench our fists and forgive those who have hurt us.

We are called to a cross-shaped love in our relationships with one another. That is the main reason I believe churches need to prioritise face-to-face, side-by-side, heart-to-heart one-anothering in our gatherings. Creating spaces for God’s people to encourage, confess, teach, minister and pray for one another is a joy-filled experience which blows me away every time I encounter it.

Love God. Love others. Everything we do as “church” should be equipping each other to fulfil these two commands. The rest is just religion.

Scapegoating, terror alerts, and how Australian Christians should respond.

Red Light

Unpopular governments are always anxious to turn the anger of the people away from themselves and towards someone else. The philosopher Rene Girard describes the “scapegoat mechanism” all societies use to defuse internal tensions by agreeing upon a common enemy, a scapegoat, an outside party to carry the blame and anger and sin of the whole community. It’s a theme universal as time itself – scapegoating is at the heart of all wars and conflicts, as well as the basis for racism, patriarchy, homophobia, social injustice and genocide.

Since 2001, Australian leaders on both sides of politics have deliberately set up scapegoats to distract the focus from their own incompetence. Elections have been won on promises to “stop the boats” – stirring up anxiety over foreign refugees seeking freedom and a future by traveling to our nation by sea. Thousands of traumatized men, women and children have been locked up and hidden away, often for years, and now face being relocated as part of the cruel “No Way” campaign, hand-balled to nations with abysmal human rights records. Asylum seekers are no longer treated as vulnerable people with rights, but as human political pawns.

More recently, the peaceful, moderate Muslim population of Australia have become the target of prejudice and suspicion, as the government capitalizes on the horror of ISIL by stirring up fear of “homegrown terrorism” (conveniently distracting the population from an unpopular budget and rushing through laws which undermine our freedoms). In the past two weeks, since our terror alert was raised, we’ve seen a rapid escalation in hate crimes, racist attacks and threats of violence against mosques, Islamic schools and Australian women wearing headscarves known as hijab. The Muslim faith has become associated in some people’s minds with radicalized extremism, and has become a scapegoat for the internal tensions within our broader society.

Jesus showed us a different way to live.

Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat when he died on the cross. In this world-changing act, he exposed the forces of violence by which our societies operate, and welcomed in a new kingdom, a new way to relate to one another, the way of love.

Through his life and teachings, Jesus  turned the scapegoating system upside down. He lifted up the marginalized and ostracized. He embraced the outsider. He met the needs of the needy. He loved the unlovely. He healed the sick, supported the weak, celebrated the least, the lost and the last. But he also stood up to the authorities, the gatekeepers, the system of hierarchy and scapegoating which divided people into separate groups.

Jesus began a new kingdom.

As Jesus-followers, we are called to a radical, subversive position of nonviolent love. Not some passive, sit-on-your-hands-and-do-nothing position, but an attitude of identifying with the outsiders and scapegoats in our society, and boldly challenging the crowd in their thirst for violence. Our creative nonviolence is meant to expose the violence deep at the heart of our “civilized societies”.

This call to action is not without risk. Jesus was crucified by his own people group for preaching peace. Many leaders of nonviolence movements have been assassinated. Jesus was serious when he told us we would has to take up our cross daily if we were willing to follow in his footsteps.

In the midst of the hysteria and racism, I am encouraged.

I’m encouraged by the #WISH movement (Women In Solidarity with Hijabis), which emerged after Kate Leaney (from Welcome to Australia) wore a hijab for a week to identify with her Muslim friends. I am inspired by more than 70 Christian leaders (nuns and priests, Anglicans and Pentecostals, and every type of Christian in between) who have been arrested for sitting in politicians’ offices and politely asking when the children will be released from detention. I am excited that there are hundreds more from all denominations preparing to creatively demonstrate nonviolent love as part of the #LoveMakesAWay movement, despite the risks of taking on the system.

These brave people are exposing the heart of cruelty and violence in our system.

As Jesus followers, we don’t need to give in to fear, and we certainly don’t need to scapegoat other humans. Now is the time for us to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and scapegoated. Now is the time for us to befriend and defend Australian Muslims. Now is the time for us to reframe the conversation around asylum seekers, and stand up for the least of these.

Because Jesus shows us that where there is no way, love makes a way.

Blessed are the messy people.

Smiling Girl with Hands Covered in Paint

Thank you, God, for the messy people. They tear down my neat boundaries. They take me out of my comfort zone and invite me into the messiness of life.

Thank you, God, for the question-askers. They drive me back to the text to learn more. They make me admit I don’t have all the answers. They inspire me with their hunger for knowledge and understanding.

Thank you, God, for the vulnerable. They expose my own vulnerabilities. They give me courage to share openly and honestly. They draw out my empathy and gentleness.

Thank you, God, for the little people. They force me to behave like an adult. They remind me I am responsible for the well-being of others. They show me what simple, trusting faith looks like.

Thank you, God, for the outsiders. They see life differently. I need their rich and different perspective.

Thank you, God, for those who have suffered greatly. Their wisdom is written on their faces and poured out in their words. They shift the focus from shallow things to deep. They know the full value of life and relationships.

Thank you, God, for the broken and needy. Their hearts are close to you.

Thank you, God, for bringing people into our lives, who will push us, and stretch us, and challenge us, and shape us, and help us grow. May we always see their beauty and worth through your eyes.

Lectio Divina – an ancient church practice in a modern church setting.

Bible

 I’ve been Twitter friends with Fred Liggin for a while now (he also blogs at “Inside this guy’s head“). Each week, his missional community gathers with other communities for communal worship. Some weeks, they practise the ancient church discipline of Lectio Divina - a reflective, communal approach to Scripture, which can be used in churches in place of a sermon. I asked Fred to tell me more about this technique, and how it works in a large group gathering.

Each Sunday morning all of our missional communities and faith family come together under one roof. We sing, we share at the Lord’s Table, and we focus on God’s Word. As a church, we are learning to value dialogue (not only monologue), and are fostering a conversational community where communal discernment is embraced and invited, where shared leadership is emphasised, and each person actively participates. We use a variety of techniques to explore Scripture together, including Lectio Divina.

Lectio Devina: Discerning Life With God Together

The Sundays we practice Lectio Devina prove to be beautifully formative experiences. I could offer story after story of what we’ve seen and heard in the midst of our gatherings (and I will tell you one of them today). But first, this is how we practice it in a large gathering of people.

There are four basic moves in our practice of Lectio Devina (we call these “moves” in an effort to distinguish them from a “steps” mentality because it is not a four-step linear process; it as a movement between states of awareness where each stage naturally progresses). This is not a Bible study where we are interpreting the text, as much as allowing the text to interpret us. Here is how it works in detail.

Movement One: Reading Deeply

While sitting in a comfortable position after a few moments of silence (which is awkward in our noisy world!) we begin with silence before God. We are now ready to listen as someone reads the text aloud. Everyone is reminded to savor each word as they listen for a particular phrase that speaks to them and captures their imagination. After the reading a few moments of silence each person is invited to ask God, “What word or phrase do you want me to hear today?” A few more moments of quiet reflection is offered. Finally, anyone is welcomed to share aloud just the word or phrase. No elaboration is needed. This means we do not share anything that isn’t present in the text. In other words, we do not seek to make application. Not yet. We just listen. We simply allow God’s Spirit to speak through His Word slowly as we identify a word or phrase directly from Scripture.

Movement Two: Thinking Deeply

The text is read aloud again using the same translation, preferably by a different voice as it provides a different experience. Each person is invited to slowly repeat the phrase that seems to be for them while the passage is read again. We want to think deeply with God. We ask God, “Where does this  phrase touch my life?” After a few moments to reflect each person is invited to share their reflection aloud using phrases such as “I hear…” “I see…” “I feel…”

Movement Three: Living Deeply

The text is read aloud a third and final time. Each person is invited to speak to God in words or images what He places on their heart. That response may be confession, thanksgiving, joy, or repentance. Finally, each person asks God, “What do You want me to do in light of this phrase?” This may come instantly for some while for others it unfolds throughout time. After a few moments of reflection anyone is invited to share aloud their response.

Movement Four: Rest

Finally we simply rest in silence in God’s presence, meditating on this experience with His Living Word.

Once we have enjoyed this time together I usually ask the church if we could identify any consistent themes within the room. I don’t force it. I want to allow the chance for deeper listening to what the Spirit could be saying to us as a community. I may offer extra insight into the particular Scripture in its context, but for no more than 10 minutes and only after we’ve all listened deeply to God through the text. I do not want to shape our readings, only ask God to shape our understanding of what it means to live from this text as His people joined with Him in Williamsburg, Virginia. My hope is that this part of the experience gives our collective reading theological and missiological integrity while inviting all of God’s people to work out the text in their lives as disciples of Jesus.

Lana’s Story

Lana had joined us in our gatherings for quite some time. She wasn’t sure what do with Jesus, much less church. Like many she had been burned. And like many she enjoyed complete and utter independence. If anything Lana was a New Age spiritualist. But over the past few months Jesus had been capturing her attention. Most weeks, Lana would come late to gathering and leave early in an effort to avoid as many people as possible. This Sunday would be different.

After practicing Lectio Devina with Psalm 131 (which is a great text to introduce Lectio Devina with, by the way), Lana was compelled to share her reflection from movement three: “I think God is telling me I need to forgive my ex-husband, who abused me and left me almost homeless along with our children.”

She began to weep. And as she did, many in our community stepped out of their seats and just simply surrounded her in silence. It was as if God wanted her to know she wasn’t alone. No words were said, no advice given. People just surrounded her. Some were praying silently for her peace while some were just simply sharing her burden.

Making space for God to work

A sermon on forgiveness would not have created the space for that to happen. Yes, of course the Holy Spirit can work in, through, beyond and in spite of a sermon, I get that and I believe it. It’s why I preach. I’ve seen God use sermons in countless ways. But God is often a both/and Person, not an either/or. He is not limited in His capacity to work through a variety of circumstances, moments or mediums. Because I believe in His creative power to work among us, I feel it is my responsibility to make space for God to work when we gather.

At Williamsburg Christian Church we are finding that using a variety of practices of learning from Scripture blesses us and forms us in particular ways. We are embracing mutuality as a core value as we learn what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom in everyday places and spaces. We are learning to listen to the Holy Spirit, and to one another.

Have you practiced Lectio Divina or “Dwelling in The Word” in your church community? How has it impacted you? Do you see the value in this practice of listening to God’s Word and to each other?