Thursday, July 23, 2009

Unlearning Church

I have preached and written about the need for the church--ECOB in particular, but all churches in general--to move away from being program based to relationally based. Another way to say this, is to move from seeing church ministry as running a bunch of programs to seeing the church's ministry as building intentional relationships with people. Lying at the root of this transition is the belief that our mission as a church is to make disciples, and discipleship happens most effectively through intentional relationships of spiritual accountability.

This shift has significant ramifications for the church. Of course the church will always run programs, but the goal of such programs in this new paradigm shifts. Instead of asking questions like "how many people were involved in this program?" or "was it done professionally?" or "did it run smoothly?" we need to ask "did people grow spiritually?" or "did the program provide opportunity to build relationships with people that allow us to walk with them on their spiritual journey?" or "were people better equipped in one of the tree "R's" of discipleship?" (Relationship with Jesus, Responsibility for themselves, Reaching out to others).

I recently came across an article entitled "Unlearning Church" by Pastor Mike Slaughter. (See the link on the side bar under "Some Other Good Stuff.) Mike pastors Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church which was one of the early mega-churches in our nation. Ginghamsburg has been on the cutting edge of using technology in worship and basically set the stage for much of what happens in many mega-churches today. I have been there for worship several times and have a friend who is very active there. It is a great church. Mike's article looks deep into present day church culture and challenges us to move toward a focus on discipleship. I encourage you to read the article.

My vision for ECOB is that we become much more of an intentional disciplemaking community. We are in the process. God is shaping us for increased effectiveness in the coming age. While on Sabbatical--especially during the last third of it--I will be working on some specifics related to what it means for ECOB to move forward into this vision. The ramifications of this on how we currently perceive of church, measure our success, deploy our people, focus our staff, run our programs, and just about everything else, will be significant. But then, can you dream with me of what it would be like to be a church that is very present in our community, where regularly new people are connecting who have never been in church before, and they are invited into meaningful relationships with believers who are committed to walking with them on their Christian journey, where every one of us assumes our responsibility to be the people of God in mission to each other and our world? Wow! That is the church Jesus envisioned and died for, and that is the church we are becoming.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sabbatical Plan

The following post outlines what my goals are for my Sabbatical which will occur, God willing, August 31st through November 29th, 2009 (returning to work on November 30th).

The focus of my Sabbatical grows out of the things that I have sensed have been going on in my life for the past several years. I have addressed those the previous post entitled "Why Sabbatical."

A Focus on the Holy Spirit

I have felt the drain of ministry most significantly on my own spiritual resources. In the past, I have found spiritual vitality most consistently through solitude, the focused and in depth study of the Word and the fueling of my personal relationship with God through the indwelling of his Spirit. Therefore I want to spend a significant amount of time during the Sabbatical working through the New Testament teaching about the vital nature of the Holy Spirit and how it is that he transforms us and empowers us. I have had a sense in recent years that I have had somewhat of a disconnect on the intimacy level of my relationship with Jesus, and I hope through study, prayer and meditation, to recover this, or better yet, to experience it anew in even greater ways.

My primary source for this part of my sabbatical, other than the Bible, is Gordon Fee's academic work, God's Empowering Presence (1994: Hendrickson). I have wanted to work through this when it was first published (wow! 15 years ago already) and never have. Fee is not only one of our best NT scholars, but is a Pentecostal from the Assembly of God church. His insights and exegesis have been hugely helpful over the years.

This "Holy Spirit journey" might also include revisiting some places/people who have been instrumental in my walk with God in the past (like the International House of Prayer in Kansas City).

Prayer support in this area would be welcome. And if you wish, you could get this book and read it with me. It is a heavy tome; however, Fee has condensed and summarized it in a book for wider readership, entitled Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (1996: Hendrickson), which will be a much easier read.

Developing Strategic Plans for the continued transition of ECOB into an Intentional Disciple Making Community

I have been working with the leadership of the church on an overall vision and strategy for becoming an intentional disciple making community of believers. This overall vision is well formulated but specifics of it need to be worked on and developed for interpretation to the congregation. I would hope to come back from Sabbatical with some specific plans on how to proceed.

My personal study of the Holy Spirit's ministry dovetails at this point. I have preached and have written about the fact that the church is essentially a pneumatic (the Greek word for spirit) community, formed by the Spirit, led by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit. At least, this is God's intention for the church. Today, the real presence of the Holy Spirit among us, in our worship and meetings and families, seems to play, at best, a minimal role in our community, rather than the dominate role. I want to be open to God changing this at ECOB.

Seeking a Fuller Understanding of God's Movement in my life

A second item, related to the above, is my quest to seek a deeper and fuller understanding of how God has been moving in my life during the past few years. To do this, I am hoping to connect with a Spiritual Director. I have been in conversation with the leadership of our local Catholic Church. The Catholics have a rich tradition in the art of spiritual direction and so I have gone there for help with this. Spiritual Directors are not counselors but rather "discerners" who listen to your heart and help you discern the movement of God. I am not sure if our how this will come together, but I am pursuing it.

I would welcome prayer support in this area, as well.

Continued Growth in my Self Awareness and Leadership Skills

I have met regularly with Leadership Coach Geoff Davis for personal direction and development and holistic health, and will continue to do that before, during and after sabbatical. Geoff helps me look both at how I manage my life and how I lead with integrity.

Down Time and Fun Time

Of course, Sabbatical will be a time to have some fun and do some things that I cannot normally do. The constraints of pastoral ministry (always on call and weekends being "prime time") take its toll over the years. I expect that near the beginning and end of the Sabbatical period, Doris and I will hit the road for some time off and to be together. My plan as of now is to take off on or about September 7 for a 2 week road trip following the Seaway trail from Massena, NY, to Springfield, PA, along the St Lawrence Seaway, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The route passes 29 lighthouses, of which I want to photograph every one, as well as numerous historic landmarks, museums and other attractions. And then at the end of the Sabbatical, Doris and I will do a mini time away for our 36th anniversary, which is November 24th.

Of course there will be some time for family and for tinkering on my car.


You might wonder where I will worship during this time. Good question. I would love to worship at ECOB, but you and I both know that if I do, I would be too easily drawn back into the responsibilities of work. You should expect to see Doris from time to time, however. I plan to worship consistently at one of our area churches. I'll let you know which one later.


I desire to post regularly to this Sabbatical Blog leading up to and throughout the sabbatical time. I welcome you to journey with me via this format. You can enter your email address on the right to receive new posts to this blog right in your email. I would especially welcome prayers during this time.

Why Sabbatical?

The privilege of taking a sabbatical is not a common practice in the work force of our world. Generally it has been a practice only in those professions where there is the high stress of intense people involvement, like the medical field, education and pastoral ministry. In recent years, it has become rather common place in ministry settings, and for good reason.

I shared with the Ministry and Evangelism Commission how over the years, even when pastors were not granted sabbaticals, they took them by changing churches every, on the average, 5 to 7 years. (There is something about the sequence of 7, give or take a year or so one way or the other.) There is a reason for this fairly short tenure. It is not the work load that a pastor carries. Most people in the work force, at least those with jobs of a managerial or leadership nature, work just as many hours and carry just as many responsibilities. The work load of a pastor is heavy, but it is more the nature of the work that takes its toll so quickly on a pastor. The nature of pastoral work has no comparison in the secular work force. I have worked in both the business world and the church, and know first hand the difference. This difference is often forgotten by lay people who oppose pastoral sabbaticals with the comment, "I've worked (you add the number of years) and have never had a sabbatical!"

So let me try to explain what my journey has been and why I am at a place where a sabbatical seems like the best thing to do. First off let me say that I am not complaining. I chose to follow God's call into this kind of ministry, and (on most days) I do not desire to do anything else.

The Stress of Transitional Leadership

My experience at ECOB has been great, though there have been some really tough times. I am blessed to work with dedicated lay leadership and very committed and competent staff. For this I am very grateful. But let me outline some significant aspects of my experience that have led me to this place that I have called "spiritual burnout."

Before coming to ECOB I had my struggles with pastoral ministry. I have talked openly about this with the congregation on a number of occasions. My family and I went to Nigeria in 1989 with me thinking I would never return to pastoral work again. God had a different idea, and after taking me through a period where I reassessed what it meant to be Christian and what pastoral leadership involved, he reissued to me a call back to the pastorate. I came to realize, among many other things, that God's call on me and the skill set he gave me, was for leadership more than pastoral care. I was called to help build healthily congregations that truly embodied God's purposes for his church. I came back from Africa as American society was plummeting headlong into its most significant cultural transformation ever, along with Western society in general. These changes were raging havoc with the church, especially traditional denominational congregations. I am called to help the traditional church survive the transition into vibrant life in a new kind of world.

A few months into my calling here at ECOB, God clearly whispered to me these words. He said, "The church I am building at Ephrata is different from the one that was there before." The word "different" does not suggest "better" or "bigger" or "not Brethren." But "different" does suggest "different." How will it be different? God didn't say, but we have already begun seeing some differences. The perceived "differences" needed for vibrant Christianity to thrive in the age before us has been widely written about via many venues, but most everyone is just guessing. None of us knows for sure what the church will look like when the current social transformation has run its course. Some of us are committed to following God into and through this spiritual "wormhole" so that a faithful church will emerge on the other side. I am one of those leaders. (See "The Changing Shape of the Church" under Some Other Good Stuff on the right side of this blog.)

The stress of this kind of transitional leadership is intense. The level of stress of both a spiritual nature and a practical one is such that most pastors with this calling and skill set do not survive long in traditional congregations. We see it all the time, and it is one reason the pool of transitional pastors is so small--nearly non-existent--in the Church of the Brethren. I believe I am committed to staying for the long haul. This is my home, my church, my calling. There have been times (most recently just last fall) when I came close to "throwing in the towel" and hanging up whatever it is Brethren pastors hang up when they quit. (I guess it is the basin and the towel?) But God was faithful in bringing me through that time and giving me a sense of vision for the future. There is much more God desires for ECOB and I would love to be a part of it. Sabbatical will give me an uninterrupted time to pray through some things related to the ministry of ECOB.

The Stress of Spiritual Leadership

The single most significant aspect of leadership in the church is the spiritual nature of it. This makes pastoral ministry unique among the workforce in today's world. It is one thing to face a decision that might mean the difference between your company making a profit this year or losing money; or to carry responsibility for the financial well being of your employees; or to deal daily with people who have developmental challenges; or to give counsel to a string of clients seeking help; or to prepare a technical presentation for an audience.

Those kind of responsibilities and decisions are difficult. However, the decisions facing pastors, the relationships in which we engage, the advice we offer, the "speeches" we make all have spiritual ramifications. The spiritual well-being of people hangs in the balance. I often wonder what a heart surgeon feels as he holds a person's heart in his hands and realizes one slip of the knife will send this person to eternity. That is stress. Well, imagine what a pastor feels when the truth he or she dispenses will make a difference in where a person spends eternity, and how they live in the mean time, rendering either a judgment of "well done" from God, or some other verdict. That's stress of an immense magnitude.

I cannot begin to explain what the stress of the spiritual realities pastors face is like. It is beyond words. Added to the normal spiritual stress of pastoral work is a high level of spiritual warfare that a transformational leader faces. Whenever a pastor commits him or her self to taking a church deeper into the will and work of God, leading it to a healthier place of focused ministry, a whole host of demonic attacks occur. That is just the way it is and we know it and are willing to endure it. But it takes its toll. ECOB has been through its share of spiritual attack, and it is not over yet, nor will it ever be. We have all been impacted by this, but none of us as much as me, as the Senior pastor. I'm not complaining or bragging; it's just the facts. The spiritual nature of my calling here at ECOB has been more intense than at any other time in my ministry.


Pastoral ministry has great joy involved with it. We walk with people through weddings and baby dedications and family joys, and a host of other things. We get to meet new people and make new friends, as people connect with the church. But there are also losses, and each loss takes its toll on us. This is true of all of us. We lose a loved one through death, and we grieve. A marriage goes south, and we grieve. A relationship with a friend turns sour, and we grieve. Most of the time, experiences like these do not happen in multiples in our lives, but are spread out through a lifetime, and thus are usually manageable. When they do bunch up, we often need some help walking through them to healing on the other side. Our GriefShare team knows this well.

But pastors are dealing with these things weekly. A funeral, a couple seeking help with their marriage, a disgruntled church member are the normal and regular parts of our lives. Most of the time, we can move through these things by keeping a certain emotional distance. Of course the struggle is between our own care, and our compassion for our people. The difference between us and many other professional caregivers is the fact that the people we deal with are people that we have a week-by-week relationship with. That is usually not so for other caregivers. So how do we really care about others and yet keep our emotions healthy?

So pastors also feel loss. Again, I am not complaining, but in recent years I have had some losses that have hit me on a personal level much more closely than usual. ECOB has had--and given its size this is not unusual--a number of deaths.Just in the last 5 years I have done 50 funerals. (I did not have the earlier years at my fingertips.) Each one of them touches my heart. A few of them were people who were very active in the congregation and with whom I had closer relationships than might be true of many in the congregation. I have felt the pain of this. Of course, I have also lost my own dad, which undoubtedly has taken its toll.

Then there have been the people who have left our congregation, either to drift away from the Lord or to worship elsewhere. Though we have seen many new people connect with the church, there also have been those who have left. Some leave for very understandable reasons; others because of broken relationships or because they struggle to feel at home in this new church that is emerging. It may seem strange to some, but I feel every loss, even when the situation is the best thing for all concerned. It is just the way it is for pastors, and the years take their toll.

And a third loss I have felt keenly is the loss of Tim as part of our pastoral staff team. Tim and I related well to each other and complemented each other's leadership abilities. And though Tim is still around, and we still connect, his departure has left a void in my life and in that of the congregation.

Again, let me state that I am not complaining or whining; but these are the facts of my journey and constitute the things that I have been feeling in my life.

Final thoughts

I shared with the Ministry and Evangelism Commission that I am at the kind of place where pastors do one of three things: they quit and go work at Home Depot; they take another church because a new place seems like it might bring a fresh energy, and often does for 5 to 7 years; or they sort of kick it in neutral and disconnect and coast until their congregation takes notice and confronts them. I've seen all these happen before.

For me, I do not feel called to another church. And though working at Home Depot looks fun, it would mean running from what God has called me to do. And I will not coast; I am not that kind of person.

Fortunately, there is a fourth option. There is the option of giving the pastor some time to disengage from the congregation and to recharge the spiritual batteries and seek some emotional healing. Ministry and Evangelism was wise enough to see this fourth option as a possibility. For the past year or so they have been working on a Sabbatical policy for ECOB and will begin to implement that policy with my Sabbatical this Fall. I thank them, and the congregation for the gift, and will do my best to make the best use of my time. My Sabbatical plan follows in another post.