As Circle of Hope, most of us pride ourselves in generously allowing people to try out the deepest expressions of their true selves. We like supporting their good ideas and especially enjoy seeing people taking on leadership through our cells and teams. We’ve even raised all our pastors up from within our ranks to their present service!
Last week one problem with leading came to the fore. It had to do with “plowing.” I told the pastors the C.S. Lewis quote below “appealed to me because you all have the terrible and joyful task of plowing. But plowing always means the disruption of the surface so that the deeper, richer soil can be turned over. The earth should not feel violated when it is readied for multiplication, but it does. It is hard to be the ‘violators’ all day.”
Lewis is the master of the apt metaphor and the following quote from Mere Christianity is a good example of his genius. For every leader of the mission of the church, he pictures a grassy expanse, perhaps like all those huge lawns in our region for which the air-cleansing trees were sacrificed. The lawns are like all the self-chosen identities of the people the leaders serve — identities the people carefully mow and weed until they, too, resemble suburban lawns, each guarded by security cameras collecting data on intruders. The Lord which every leader of the church serves plows up those artificial interior landscapes so they can be penetrated with truth and love, and so they can bear the fruit of knowing God again. There is little doubt that most people feel the “plow” as a violation and see the wielder of the plow as a violator.
See what you think of this little gem from Mere Christianity
The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes, and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.
And that is what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.
That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.
We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.
He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. — C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity
Mowers can become plowers
It is encouraging to see that Lewis understood, even in the 1940’s, how distracting life is. I think he could imagine, even then, how our phones would wake us up every day and start notifying us to manicure our personal lawns. He could imagine a day of “fussing and fretting” blowing into every corner of our consciousness until we could hardly be interrupted from our distractions. How sad to be stuck polishing our egg when we were meant to fly! — or stuck mowing our useless lawns when our souls were meant to sow the world with the seeds of real food and “gather fruit for eternal life.”
All Jesus followers put their hand to the plow. But the leaders, who are catalyzing our ongoing reformation, building a transformative community, and liberating our united action have a commission to handle the plow that keeps us from returning to the wilderness of an artificial, spiritually-unproductive landscape. They plow up the grass and plant a farm that grows life in Christ. They have to deal with causing the suffering they do when they stick their blade into the hardened earth of our false selves and sin. They have to deal with the alarm they cause when they tap on the shells of the birds who should be learning to fly.
I’m not sure we will every feel good about our hard earth being violated or our thin shells being penetrated. But I do think we can feel sympathetic to and thankful for our leaders: cell leaders, team leaders, congregation leaders, and church leaders, as they dare to play their vital role in catalyzing what the Spirit is doing to make us new and to redeem the world. As the writer of Hebrews teaches, when it comes to our leaders, we should “Let them [lead] with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful for you.” I can see how hard we make it for them sometimes. And I know they think it is hard to wake up every day with the plow right there beside the bed and all that hardening earth to face.
Do you think this old proverb is true? “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” – Winston Churchill.
I love proverbs like that one, so I don’t care how “true” it is as long as it helps us ponder something worth pondering. In this case, I think we should be pondering, “Am I making a living or making a life?” Maybe even better: “Am I making something wonderful or just getting used by someone to make their fabulous living?”
How Jesus-followers answer that second question right now is elemental to whether their church is a living organism or a demanding volunteer society, whether their church is a community with transforming power or just another inept non-profit overshadowed by the corporations that dominate the landscape. When it comes to being the church, do we rent our lives or own them? Is life in Christ about ownership or volunteering?
Ownership proverbs from passionate pastors
New churches are boldly wrestling with how to get Jesus followers to be more like members of the body of Christ and less like members of the swim club they rarely have time to visit. They are trying out proverbs on their people:
“Members have rights, Owners have responsibilities!” Pastor Matt at Good News Church made “this quick video” about it.
“Battleship vs. Cruise ship” is the title of Pastor Josh’s teaching for Redemption Church. “Ownership is not just coming and seeing what’s happening at Redemption, but being willing to come and die for the mission of connecting people to Jesus for life change!”
“Customers vs. owners “ Ed Stetzer wanted to shift the the culture in his church from passivity to activity. His problem was when new people entered the church, most of them connected to the 100 passive people instead of the 25 active. A bad situation became worse.
Sometimes it is hard to know whether these church leaders are just being critical of people who aren’t making their dreams of church glory come true or they are prophetically noting sinful behavior that will destroy the work of Jesus. I suppose it could be both.
We’re having trouble even associating!
It is not just church people who are considering what is happening with associations in society — that is, entities that require mutuality to exist, not just paying people for their labor. I’ve spent my whole life hired by such associations, so I’m interested, too! People seem to be having trouble associating themselves, period, much more “owning” an association!
The famous Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, but people think it still has relevant observations to offer about the American character. He said, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.” Supposedly, when Americans want something done, they don’t ask the government or the aristocracy, they associate. That tendency purportedly made U.S. democracy strong. I’d say the church in the United States created this character trait more than the Constitution. But associating is a good trait. I am deeply involved in Circle of Hope, Circle Counseling and the Mennonite Central Committee, which are all good examples of highly effective associations
Over time this character trait has been undermined by rapacious capitalism and the ascendancy of so-called democracy over the church. Robert Putnam famously captured the trend in his book Bowling Alone in 2000. It is even more true now that less people join clubs, have dinner with the family or invite friends over. So the associations I love are really bucking the trend. Circle of Hope is founded on cell groups, which is about inviting friends over every week! My cell is, essentially, a family dinner! Nothing could be more countercultural. Plus, our church assumes everyone will eventually share a covenant relationship with the others who form it. Our covenant members are the heart of the community and its many enterprises – they own it. That’s presently odd, as far as the direction the world is going.
I wish we had more fights about whether we are volunteering for or owning the church. This would be a good proverb to ponder: Volunteers help owners do good things. Owners do good things by nature. I think that is true, and it always makes me wonder who the volunteers think they are when they share some little bit of their limited good with an association. Manuals for non-profits remind the organizers to help volunteers “feel some ownership” during the hours they contribute. They generally don’t — what do they feel?
It is good to “feel some ownership” when we volunteer. But having ownership that is in one’s thoughts and feelings rather than in one’s hands and feet is hard to sustain. Just going to church can become so boring, it is unsustainable over the long haul. If you’ve been “going to” a church for over a year and you don’t own it yet, I can’t imagine what it does to your sense of self to keep doing it! How could one possibly see themselves in 1 Corinthians 12 or Acts 2 if their association was mainly a matter of being in the Sunday meeting twice a month, having stints in a cell group and doing random acts of volunteerism?
That sounded critical; I’d rather it was prophetic. But you see what the church is up against. We should be inviting people into our home when we go to a meeting, not tentatively entering someone else’s meeting. But since most people never invite people into their home and rarely are invited, since most of our time is spent making money for someone else, it is quite a leap to act like we own the place when it comes to being the church.
It is great to give our time for the owners
Most people are over “getting stuff” (maybe because the 1% has most of it). They are convinced their 86,000 seconds a day all need to be invested wisely. Or at least they feel guilty for spending 3600 of them at a time making Netflix a reality. They want their moments to count because they only have so many — so they think. This preoccupation with how short life is helps make volunteers scarce. People are out making as much money as possible in the least amount of time so they can get as many experiences as possible to fill their seconds before they are too old to have them. They make money to get experiences [Xbox ad].
Many people have trouble believing that wasting time on volunteering is worth their precious seconds. Some people won’t even get married because relationships take so much time! So associations that depend on volunteers try to make it seem like volunteering is a great experience so someone will do it: “National Volunteer Week is…a wonderful opportunity for everybody to check out the volunteering options in their community. Proactive, hands-on service is an amazing way to meet like-minded people and give something back to your community at the same time. Whether you are looking to use your professional skills to help others, paint a school, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, you will be able to find something to interest you!” Some people love that pitch. But many more, I think, have better ways to be self-interested.
Maybe this is a good proverb: Volunteering is a good experience. It can also extend one’s life. A few years ago, a therapist was researching how kindness affected health. He learned that volunteerism was associated with a markedly lower risk of dying. Depending on the study, the decrease in death rates ranged from 20 to 60%! This is huge. For perspective, another good example of lowering the risk of dying is the introduction of clean drinking water. After water filtration and chlorination were introduced early in the 20th century, death rates from contaminated water dropped about 15 to 20%. Volunteering should be a public health issue!
Even though volunteering is good, I still think feeling like a volunteer in your own church is unworthy of a Jesus follower and makes the Bible writers, who know they have become heirs of the kingdom of God (!), look silly. If a Jesus follower does not really believe they have an eternal life, like Jesus demonstrated when he rose from the dead, then what is the point of being a Jesus follower? Jesus followers are intimates of the King in immeasurable ways! But if volunteering is the best one can do, it is still healthier than protecting one’s time, even though that volunteer time remains the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much time the faithful have to “waste.”
It is better to give our lives because we own them
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. — Matthew 20:28
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” — John 10:17-8
The amazing restoration Jesus has brought us includes the astounding freedom to give our lives. No one can take our lives. We don’t have to buy one with our labor. We have been given it back as a free gift and we are expected to live free from our former masters.
This is the main reason we are owners of the church, not mere members of an association or volunteers in someone else’s enterprise. As good as those latter things are, they are shadows of what it means to be risen with Jesus. Like Him, we choose to serve for the joy set before us and the transformation it brings, not because we have to spend our precious time well enough to justify our existence or get what we deserve. We lay down our lives for others because it is what we are made for, not just because we’ll live longer or feel better about ourselves (although we will!).
Churchill had to convince Britain to give it all they had or the Nazis would have taken over everything. He did it for God, King and democracy, I suppose. His great success shoul have taught everyone a proverb for all time, don’t you think? — You’ve got to own your own country, not live under a Fuhrer. But immoral powermongers are hard to keep out of power, since they wake up every day with nothing to do but grab it.
In the face of our own challenges, our pastors struggle with our idealistic (and straight-from–the-Bible) vision of being the church. Like other places, our church is often colonized by consumers who admire volunteers, when who the pastors really need to lead are owners. Fortunately, our pastors have an amazing preponderance of covenant keepers expressing their ownership in cells, compassion teams and all our other teams and businesses. We are so far from going along with the present societal trends we look weird. But the need is great and the temptation to become just another seconds-of-my-minutes-counter is ever-present.
“We are called out to be a living organism, building community together in love”
Some days I wonder if we have the stuff to keep being a “we” and keep giving our lives fearlessly for the transformation of the world. Usually, those are the very days someone does something that splendidly expresses the life they were given to give with real freedom. Then I am encouraged all over again that Jesus is risen and we are a circle of hope — and a church with some radical proverbs of our own!:
The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.
We are living as a created organism, not creating a religious organization.
Forming cells and teams is a basic way we keep learning how to express who we are and what we do as people called into a new community in Christ.
I read a book about the Byzantine Empire a few years ago. I’m not over it. Periodically, I waft off into a little lesson on Greek emperors. That behavior does not make me popular. But I just instinctively do it sometimes because I am ruminating on the lessons their lives are teaching me. Every leader can learn great cautionary tales from history. Don’t you wish the present leaders of the U.S. would would seriously listen to a few tales? One lesson they could learn from the Byzantine emperors is this: humankind is adept at lying, not least of all to themselves.
Builders and spenders
As I read the intriguing, pared-down history of the Byzantine Empire, focused on the emperors, I was interested to see that one way I could categorize them was as builders and spenders. Some emperors built up the territory, built up the treasury, built up the walls, built alliances and trade. Their successors regularly lived off or squandered all they had built up. Their successors let the navy deteriorate and lost territory, they spent the treasury on luxury and useless living, they neglected the walls and roads and insulted the allies. Often a new emperor who was a builder would arrive just in time to stave off total disaster and rebuild the place.
Building something is hard. You can see how hard it is when you live in the United States. In our lifetimes, the United States is the Byzantine Empire on steroids. I had one of those “aha” moments about how wealthy we are when I was driving up 95 by the airport and I realized what an amazing road I was on, next to this huge airport! We are rich, rich, rich. People are lamenting the lack of jobs when the unemployment rate is 4.1% (Spain ~ 16%, Congo ~ 46%). Everyone thinks they deserve to be rich as their birthright! The 1% recently harvested the profitability reflected in the low unemployment rate with their “tax reform.” They are spenders. Maybe the whole U.S. Empire is dying. Maybe a new emperor will save it. But right now we are rich. It will take a long time to squander everything the country has created and stolen.
I think it might be hard to imagine building something in the United States (like Circle of Hope in all its manifestations) because it has become customary to train everyone to manage the wealth of others or the wealth they expected to receive [Here are some options for you!][Here you go in case you are in elementary school.] I know many people consider managing and increasing wealth as a productive enterprise. I think that is lying to oneself. Wendell Berry starts off one of my favorite poems by revealing that lie again.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. — Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Wendell Berry, excerpt
He goes on to say that we should get in touch with God and the earth so we can be and can do something real — like grow something, like build a church. Churches seem to have a lot of people trained to perform Christian musicals and create weekly variety shows on Sunday, but do we train each other to build practical things? (I have to say this, even though I love a good musical from almost any source!). I run into people living like what is built is there for them to manage or perform rather than living like they were meant to build something useful or beautiful or new — like they are creating with the Creator. People come to Jesus like he is another emperor and they are going to manage the wealth he provides. I think the church trains them to do it. Jesus is, to them, like the founder of the empire and they are the successors, living behind the walls he built, protected from enemies, privileged to have the glory and riches of his kingdom. On one hand that metaphor works. On the other hand, it can be a disaster, since the attitude often means that no one is building anything. And, ultimately, the land is not fat enough for everyone to just live off it.
We’ve got to build something. We usually need to rebuild what has been torn down or gone to ruin. But most of all, we need to build something new with the ever-fresh inspiration of God as Jesus becomes incarnate through us in our era. For instance, as Circle of Hope we have built, by God’s grace, something I am happy to live in. I could probably travel happily on one alley of Circle of Hope — and here we have a freeway (maybe no airport, yet). Even if none of us ever did another creative thing, it might take years to kill us — we’ve been that creative and diligent. But, of course, we need to build something now. Unlike bad Byzantine emperors, we need to scan the horizon, see what’s coming, seize opportunities, care for the big picture, and make the most of what we’ve been given.
Five practical ways to build something
The following are simple things that might help us shake off the empire mentality that stalks us and help us find some fresh new ways to see ourselves in the world as it is now. As Berry suggests:
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
I doubt that my suggestions will seem like we are losing our minds altogether. But they might start something fresh building.
1) Be a friend. The foremost and everyday discipline of a builder is: Build a new relationship and be yourself in Christ in it. This is the crucial building activity that makes or breaks the Kingdom of God. If you already have enough love, enough friends behind your walls, the walls of the Kingdom are crumbling.
2) Start the project. Build the next church, don’t just make cosmetic changes and tell yourself you’ll get to the real project when the rest of life settles down. For some reason, practically serving Jesus is easy to put off. He often takes second place to the latest lover or the newest employer.
Right now, God help us, we are considering buying the biggest mess we have ever bought in the neediest neighborhood at the highest price we’ve ever paid. It is the building in the picture above at 115 W. Chelten. We may not decide to do it, but just thinking about it has already started to reshape us and inspire us. I talked about it all through snow day and I am pretty refreshed right now, and impressed with the leaders who are daring to dig into the idea.
3) Pitch in. Add your capacity to the work. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it, just because someone else has provided what you presently enjoy. Yes, that means all of us should pitch in, not just the leaders. Please don’t say “that’s not my job” too often. It is not the leaders’ church. Everyone has the job of being a builder; Jesus resides in each of us and all of us.
I am certainly not saying, “Get busy you slackers!” Our church is a beehive of activity. LOTS of us love to pitch in. The newest congregation we just hived off is the one with the audacity to consider a huge building! All the congregations can tell stories about what they have been building, lately, this week! (Maybe they will tell them in the comments).
As far as attitudes that ground being a builder and not just a spender go:
4) Own the whole thing. You may be a barista in someone else’s store, but in the church, you are an owner. Don’t let the subjugation you experience in the world leak over into the church. Don’t be a mere spender of what someone else has collected.
5) Spend on the future. The walls are not just the “government’s” responsibility. I’m talking metaphorically, here, not because we should build walls or we care what the government does. The walls were symbolic of Byzantium’s strength. When they were in good order it was because a builder cared and spent time and money to repair them. Jesus does not do the work of the church by himself. If we are living off whatever is there, the walls are crumbling. The church is an expression of whatever life in Christ we have; it is not a hobby we enjoy when “life” isn’t too busy. What is worth our lives right now and tomorrow? That’s a Christian question.
Five lessons are enough for now. But I hope there is some small inspiration here to build the church with Jesus. I think most of the leaders in the U.S. government and elsewhere have been living off the spoils of the empire and don’t care much about building the future. The attitude has trickled down to us regular Joes and Janes until a lot of us never even think of building something. We just “get ours” and assume there will be more to get later. That doesn’t work in the empire and it certainly does not work in the church.
I like sharing an umbrella with someone. It gives me an excuse to get close to them in our special safe place, cared for and caring. Maybe I need to like it, since I often forget to carry an umbrella! (It is hard being a native of California).
I also don’t like walking in the rain next to someone who I don’t think wants to share their umbrella, them dry, me not. And I don’t much care for sharing a tiny umbrella that deposits run off down my collar. (You can tell I have experience with all this).
A leader’s “umbrella”
I am thinking of umbrella’s and rainstorms because the metaphor of existing under the umbrella of someone is a relatively common way to describe how people function in a group. They are often protected by someone else’s greater power; they are “under their umbrella,” so to speak. Some people think of this picture as being about authority, I think of it as being cared for and caring.
To think about being under a leader’s umbrella, let’s start with the Apostle John, the master teacher on community in the early church. His time period was so tumultuous and threatening, he might relate to Jon Snow.
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. (1 John 2:18-20) As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2 John 1:6)
John’s three letters provide a lot of guidance for sorting out the intricacies of relationships in the body of Christ, especially relationships with leaders. The leaders have a limited but crucial function in keeping the church together and moving ahead while it faces all the opposition it always faces. As a leader, John seems to be having a tough time with people who push the boundaries – they say they don’t sin, they leave the fellowship to start communities based on the perverse understandings they call the truth, they don’t walk in love, and more. It looks like things have not changed that much, have they? We are still having trouble dealing with people who brazenly sin. We are never sure what to do with beloved friends who decide to set up shop just outside the boundaries of our church. We are not always sure whether they or us are not walking in love – or even if we like thinking about they or us. We are always sorting things out.
An image that helps do some sorting is about being “under the umbrella” of someone. In John’s terms, being under his umbrella, would be under the “anointing from the Holy One,” and showing that an individual “belonged to us.” He is writing to “dear children” so he undoubtedly thinks of them as under the protection of his parent-like love.
When you share your spiritual umbrella with someone they have a special, intimate place you provide for them. Some of John’s friends we formerly “under his umbrella” as he is under Christ’s “umbrella.” He is in pain as he writes his letters, since they are now out in the rain. It is even more painful that they call the rain sunshine! The whole point of his umbrella was to keep people spiritually dry and they are all wet.
When under a leader’s umbrella seems too special
One time we had an intense discussion among some leaders about how certain people seemed to function “under the umbrella” of a leader (particularly people who seemed to be buddies with a pastor). We were sorting that idea out. Some people seem to get special treatment. When they sin (sometimes repeatedly), the patience shown them looks like it is too patient. It is like they get a “bye,” when other people get opposed. Some people even get elevated into leadership through less-than-typical ways because another leader facilitates that. It can make a person wonder how that happened when others go through a lot of scrutiny and function with a lot more accountability.
It was an important discussion. I had a couple of immediate reactions:
1) When the church is not having a vibrant mission — that means it is not including new people who need to be fed with truth and love, people turn to the niceties of their structure and start wondering about injustices. When the “umbrella” is not expanding, people begin to squabble about getting wet.
2) Pastors and other leaders in the church are allowed personal choices and preferences about who shares their limited umbrella space. Intimacy is not unlimited and is usually subjective. It is not necessarily something one can demand. A leader might have a special interest in someone, have a history with them, or have a deeper knowledge of them than they have of others. They should not show favoritism, but certain people might be under their “protection” in a deeper way than others — that’s OK until it’s not. It is a blessing that we all care for one another — and we have many leaders, not just one pastor. So having a special place with the pastor is not the main marker of one’s value.
Umbrellas take some discernment
As I thought about the conversation some more, I felt a lot of sympathy for people who feel “out in the rain” and for leaders with an umbrella strapped to them:
1) I feel for people who innocently enter the church with hope and trepidation and become subject to the whims of inconsistent leaders. Leaders can often be so blind! — and we can so often be oppressed by their blindness. They forget that what they do usually teaches more than what they say or write. When their friends get special, even undeserved treatment, the rest of the people they oversee don’t feel much like friends. If they don’t even know that they turn a blind eye to an influential friend’s weaknesses, the whole church can feel dangerous.
2) I also feel for leaders who get monitored for any hint of injustice by people who never do the difficult things they are doing. Before one can criticize someone for protecting someone in a perverse way, they should probably have someone under their umbrella themselves! John called people “dear children” — the people he had nurtured in faith are like family to him, so of course he is concerned for their protection. Such care is a beautiful thing; we wouldn’t want to turn it in to a commodity that should be equally available to all from the “pastor store!” We should all be producing that love ourselves, not just demanding it.
It is no wonder that people have deserted the capital-C-Church in droves during the last decade. In general, the leadership is likely to be inept, unconscious or experimenting with things John would call antichrist. It is no wonder that people who manage to stay connected often resort to being nice but a bit remote, lest they have to deal with the intricacies of love in a missional community. John knows it takes the anointing of the Holy Spirit to persevere and truly walk in love.
I hope we stick with it. The deep-level discussion among the leaders encouraged me. It’s not like it is typical for regular people to worry about how to help the person needing discipline while attending to the desires of people who need someone to be disciplined! We are so not antichrist! Though our relationships can get so sick, they are also the places God is making us so well. I hope we keep praying, with John, that the Holy Spirit enables us to walk in love and keep sharing our umbrellas.
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The instinct for leadership is necessary on a lot of levels. Classroom teachers need it. Parents of toddlers need it. Neighborhood organizers need it. Our cell leaders, team leaders and leadership team among Circle of Hope are working it out constantly. It is not that easy to lead, but God provides what we need to take it on when we need to.
The false opposition among leaders
Lately we have been having a series of discussions about an interesting conflict of mentality when it comes to leading. Here are questions that get the discussion going:
How do people organize a new team (like a cleaning team or a mission to prisoners)? Do they get all their thoughts in order, gather all their resources, imagine all the difficulties, have a solid team that has met and discussed everything about their organization and action before they get going? That would certainly make for a nice business plan – and as you can see by our yearly Map, we have more than a little “business plan” about us.
OR. Do they get an inspiration, see a need, sense a movement and gather a few common friends to tackle the issue, having a good idea of where God is leading them, but leaving quite a few details to sort out in action, learning as they are going along and coming up with organizational solutions that meet the needs they discover along the way? That would be a nice demonstration of flexibility and discernment – and as you can see by our commitment to organic and diverse leadership, we have a lot of flexibility.
As you can predict, the organized ones are sometimes suspicious of the flexible ones and get upset that they have to put up with their disorderly ways. The flexible ones are sometimes suspicious of the organized ones and get upset that they have to put up with so much preparation and dialogue instead of getting into action. The organized ones might label the flexible “unprepared” and “irresponsible.” The flexible might label the organized “bureaucrats” and “controlling.”
But, in reality, the organized provide a lot of the context in which the flexible can flex, and the flexible provide a lot of the activity the organized can organize. They are crucial to each other. Neither “identity” is whole without the other. One is more orderly and one is more prophetic, but neither is able to fulfill the mission without the other. Prophecy and order go together like Isaiah in the temple or like Jesus in a circle of twelve, or like Paul in an orderly meeting full of prophetic utterance (1 Cor. 14).
The mission brings everyone together
The way forward in most discussions with leaders that end up in the false dichotomy between the organized and flexible is to turn to the metaphor of “warfare” and “contest” that Jesus uses, as well as other teachers in the Bible. That is, the church is fighting the powers that would steal their joy and they are fighting for the lives of people who are deluded into thinking they or God do not matter.
For Paul, the main reason to organize the church is “winning” people to the gospel. When he describes the process, he demonstrates how flexible he is.
To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 1 Cor 9:21-22
When Paul is talking about the most “flexible” of activities – speaking in tongues, he tries to get some organization in the Corinthian church:
“If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.” 1 Cor 14:8-9
I think the war sorts out the differences. If we are all trying to win the contest, then the different gifts we bring to it sort themselves out. If all we are doing is living in a static system, then some people will get their satisfaction by controlling it (calling that organizing) and others with get their satisfaction by rebelling against it (calling that being flexible).
In this highly organized age, in which so many of us have been trained to manage large systems (even a retail store is pretty complex, I think!), we tend to bring a lot of organization to the church. In an era in which our wars are fought by drones (from the U.S. side, at least) we do not know much about the flexibility it requires to have a large goal that is being incrementally fought for day by day, decision by decision, moment by moment. So we might be stronger on the organized side (even though we seem so disorganized!). We are certainly strong enough on the controlling/rebelling axis! I think we could all become more secure on the flexible side.
When a child is learning, one can’t always consult the book before acting. We need to trust God and trust the Spirit at work in us and on behalf of the child so we can do what we can do best in the moment and move on with confidence. Likewise, when a team or a cell is forming, we need to resist the perfectionism that our professional orientation demands and move to meet the need and give our gifts with whatever skill or opportunity we have.
I often say that we are an army on the move; we will undoubtedly need to improvise. If we wait until we can do everything well, we may have already lost the battle before we get started! We don’t control the outcomes, anyway, so we have the blessed assurance to move into territory we have never even seen with the confidence that God goes before us.
I feel so grateful to be personally surrounded by so many people who work out their faith in such a deep way! They even entertain the thought that they not only exist, they lead! Their faith is not in some secret compartment in them, it is making a difference! They are not an aspiration, they already have value. They are fighting a good fight.
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We poll our Leadership Team once a year or so and they come up with the most interesting and useful stuff! They not only helps us think about ourselves better, they ask questions all sorts of people might ask if they ever got a chance. So this might apply to you and your church. Somebody asked, “What does pastor dominated really mean functionally?”
I am not sure where the person got the phrase “pastor dominated.” It is not like we have a proverb, or a line in the Cell Plan that says “We are pastor dominated” (as opposed to the undominated churches!). I’ve got a feeling I wrote it someplace. Because I have often said it when I was trying to be frank about how we operate. I don’t mean it in a bad way; I want to be pastor dominated. I want to be led. I need the leader.
Domination is almost a dirty word.
But I should use a gentler word than “dominated” shouldn’t I? I like things too colorful, I think (my grandchildren knew my favorite color was red before they asked me). I don’t think anyone in the Untied States thinks highly of the word dominated, do they? Just look at the definition that comes up on Google:
“Domination” is “the exercise of control or influence over someone or something, or the state of being so controlled.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, right off, since parents obviously dominate their children for their own good, if they are a trustworthy parent. I have been using the word in a parental way. But the Google dictionary immediately uses the definition in a sentence like this: “evil plans for domination of the universe.” That sounds bad.
The synonyms given for “domination” are: “rule, government, sovereignty, control, command, authority, power, dominion, dominance, mastery, supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, sway.” That doesn’t really sound so bad. We need people in the lead and there are usually good reasons we put them there. I was using the word in a more discernment-process way, as if I had a love relationship with whoever was given sway. But the immediate example that followed the synonyms was “she was put off by the male domination sanctioned by her boyfriend’s family.”
Apparently the dictionary writers have never experienced a benevolent power, but have experienced a lot of untrustworthy dominators, especially men! When I was saying “pastor dominated” I assumed everyone was in Christ, who is Lord of the church, and “pastor” is just a function we recognize for the leader, who does indeed “dominate’ us in the sense that we listen to him or her and trust them to bring us together and lead as we have all discerned the Spirit wants us to go. The pastors are precious to us.
I think people don’t see dominators like I do
Of course, if I have a pastor who is dominating for the sake of domination, I am, indeed, in trouble. It is a common trouble, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone who has been around the church for long hasn’t met a leader who thinks leading is enjoying their supremacy and using command and control to exercise power for the sake of shoring up their weak ego or manipulating the system for their self-interest, conscious or otherwise. I have experienced that! I’ve probably done it! How could we not fear having such leaders when the White House staff acts so odd everyday under the leadership of a President who takes historical cues from Napoleon, apparently. If my pastor is unconscious, lazy, or does not serve me or us but serves their own interests instead, it is pretty disastrous. Then the leader of our dominion is a dominator like Google thinks they are, not a servant like Jesus.
I think I should not use the word anymore. But I still have to ask whether we ought to stick with how Jesus puts His own content into words or adopt the way the world uses words to describe its obsession with power. I think the person who asked the question, possibly, and certainly the people who wrote the Google definition are suspicious of everyone with power — maybe because they are are guarding their own! Paul appears to think very differently:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. — Ephesians 1:20-25
There is power and Jesus uses it well. I am not trying to write the ultimate theology of power, here. But if you think Jesus is a ruler like Trump, you are mistaken. I thank God that Jesus is my Lord! I don’t have to diminish the word “Lord” because I am afraid of power or I think I have to resist God’s potential abuse of power to protect my autonomy and my own power! I gladly submit to the rightful king of the kingdom. I submit to his rule. Anyone who leads us is also submitted to his rule, or we are in trouble.
So what about the power to dominate?
The Bible writers talk about power all the time, and Jesus demonstrates what he thinks of earthly domination quite clearly. Paul says:
But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. — Romans 5:20-21
Isn’t he joyfully saying that it is grace that properly exercises dominion? It is sin and death that want to adjudicate who is wrong all day. If we are sure our pastors will dominate us for evil (or we just want to make sure they are properly suspected and surrounded by controlling policies), who is dominating, and by what power are they attempting to dominate?
We are called to live in trust of Jesus, who has been revealed as the power above all powers, ruling in truth and love. In his light, anyone who claims an inappropriate authority will be shown up for who they are, if not now, then in the end. I share Paul’s praise of Jesus:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. — Colossians 1:15-17
If anything is going to hold together in the church, it will be because Jesus is holding it together, not because we have everyone in properly-defined corrals for their unseemly power. One the contrary, we celebrate the power of Jesus unleashed among us.
So functionally, calling us “pastor dominated” (which I will stop doing, since Google has a lot of power) comes from an egalitarian place, since we are all listening to Jesus and following. The leader has a specific role in the body, not a right to dominate us in some antichrist way. They exercise leader power for our common good. We help them do this. We nurture, correct, encourage and love our pastors into their full capacity to move us, shape us, help us, and teach us. We set them apart for a special role because we think they are given it by God, not because their innate power deserves it or demands it or because we are so foolish we can’t follow God without them. And that goes for all the other leaders we have unleashed — there must be 100 or more! They all lead because they are loved, not because they are greedy for power.
We know that any one of us might be called out to lead, if it were necessary. Would you do it? Probably. But, after all this, you might be afraid to heed the call because someone might tag you “dominating!” That would be trouble.
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The famous account in 1 Kings 3 about Solomon “splitting the baby” has worked its way into the memory of western culture. If a leader aspires to wisdom they often think of themselves dressed in red as in Poussin’s painting of the event: self assured, ruling as someone raised above the crowd. We seem to agree that a great leader is a hero, giving wise judgment that saves the day.
Christians, in particular, are so steeped in their principles and holiness that they, in particular, put impossible demands on themselves and often do nothing unless they are qualified to sit on some idealized throne. They question their secret, mixed motives. They let heroes lead.
Is the leader always a “hero?”
The word “hero” is used a lot these days. They appear to be everywhere. You can be a hero if you do your homework! The Black Lives Matter movement ran headlong into the post-9/11 hero proliferation when they stated the obvious: not all policemen are heroes, especially when they don’t have enough wisdom to avoid shooting people.
I don’t think you are a hero if you wear the costume. To be fair, some people are trying to undo the brute force the costume often implies. But no matter. The transformation of the world does not come because we’re multiplying heroes. Jesus doesn’t meet the usual definition for one, after all.
Nevertheless, Christian leaders often feel bad about themselves because they are not “up front;” they are not a perfect example, or on a throne somewhere. I think their ambition or sense of obligation comes from a misreading of the Bible (but not a misunderstanding of Poussin’s painting or Trump’s posturing!). The Bible is not calling anyone to be Captain America.
Think again about Solomon. When he was presented with two babies, the new king was presented with a test of his capacity. A lot of his authority and reputation would ride on a difficult decision. Plus he might forever separate a family if he were wrong. He could have flipped a coin about the she said/she said argument that was going on in front of him. He could have faked it by pretending he could decide based on fact or law. Flipping or faking, wiser heads in his court would have known, and he would have been undermined as well as the system.
Fortunately, Solomon cared. He did not hide behind a show of authority or look for some legal technicality to dismiss the case. He was honest about his situation, his responsibilities and his ignorance. Instead of going for either/or, he dug down beyond the legal and factual issues into the truth in the women and their relationship. He looked for the love. To do so he recast the whole situation as a psychological test. As a result, one woman revealed her bitterness and detachment, the other her self-giving love. Deep called to deep, the deadlock was broken, the decision was clear and doubts about the king and system were dispelled. It is such a successful moment it made it into the Bible!
The success makes it look like Solomon had it all planned or was not much like the rest of us. He was certainly specially gifted to lead with wisdom, but Solomon did not have a clear target for a smart bomb any more than drone operators in Nevada do. His motives were mixed. He needed to hesitate and come up with more than the usual. He was cautious. He had to consider the true mother, the baby, his own job security — and who knows what else is not implied by the short paragraph? It is the same for all of us, especially when we are given leadership positions, but always when we take the lead. Our motives are mixed and our situations are complex. Solomon was realistic and brilliantly pragmatic. I admire that.
Mixed motives make sense in a complex world
I think the Republican candidates I saw in debate last week might suspect I am wearing a t-shirt that says, “When all else fails, lower your standards” as I write. Because they uniformly said they could make America great by leading better than the unheroic Barack Obama. They seemed to think they would do everything right because that is just what they do. I doubt it. Men and women who want to do the right thing in turbulent times need more than a soundbite about their high standards to succeed. Especially if you are among the 99% who have little power and less money, your motives will be mixed:
how to survive — how to help;
how to give one’s best — how to make it into another round;
how to speak the truth — how to deal with people who don’t care about it.
In our complex circumstances, given our mixed motives, here are four things I recommend as approaches leaders need to consider:
Think more about what you need to do than about your motives (or someone else’s motives). The game is complex and so are you – take your best shot.
Don’t think you are disqualified from leading because your motives are mixed and complicated. Life is not on a straight path and many circumstances don’t fit into tidy, moralistic categories – do what you are moved to do.
Trust yourself – even when your motives pull you in different directions. Conflict is always instructive and often a key to opportunity. You don’t need to crank up or calm down – learn.
Before you lead in making things better, make sure you care. Your motives may not line up like you wish but, if you care, they are probably good enough and strong enough – get some skin in the game and make a difference. You are gifted by God, too.
Your mixed motives are probably appropriate for a complex world. Don’t count yourself out right when Jesus needs you! Even the “wisdom of Solomon” was acted out by a young, needy king who relied on God, not by a self-assured, narcissist determined to control the situation. You’ll do fine.
******************************************************************************************I like a book on this subject that is not about the church but, surprisingly, about middle managers leading business and government. It is worth a read: Leading Quietly by Joseph Badaracco.
Updated from 2015
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Great, influential churches often look like they run on the energy of the charismatic leader who fronts them. Sometimes that is true. But my experience says that it is mainly the leadership team behind the leader who makes these world-changing churches happen. We are devoted to the proposition that God has gifted people to lead whatever church, whatever circle of hope, needs to be created and sustained. If those gifted people aren’t present or are undeployable for some reason, the church will adjust to whatever substance it has.
As we have developed as a church, so has our leadership team. A few years ago we realized that we needed to make some major developmental changes if we wanted to keep following our potential into our destiny. One of the main things we did was create an inventive Leadership Team that reflects our priorities and convictions. Like our church, our leadership team is a collection of small groups that form one team. The pastors form the main team. The Cell Leader Coordinators are a team. The Church Planting Core Team keeps us on the apostolic edge. The Compassion Core Team makes sure compassion is at the heart of us. The Capacity Core Team makes sure we have the infrastructure to do what we are given to do.
We want to put ourselves out there to be part of how Jesus is transforming the world. Each of our five leadership teams represents a whole collection of teams who work out the aspects of our mission they lead. The Leadership Team members who have their pictures on the website are representative of a much larger group of leaders who make up our extensive network — Cell Leaders, Sunday meeting team leaders, compassion team leaders, mission team leaders, capacity team leaders, and children’s team leaders. We are all integral to the whole – we designed it that way. No passion, no leadership, no initiative – no church.
We have been blessed from the beginning of our mission; we found many people who would lead. We found hundreds of risk takers who wanted to change the world, even though they were not the most qualified, richest or put-together people God could find, even though our vision is countercultural and so not that easy to share. In our own relaxed, nonjudgmental, communal way, we have made a big difference in our region. We could not have done it if our leaders had not made significant decisions about how to think about their lives. They decided to be transformational people on a transformational team.
In making the decision to be that kind of person, they had to face at least four typical things that make or break our leaders. When they faced the issues, they had to change their mind and lifestyles to lead.
Their day-to-day job serves their vocation in Christ.
They do their job so the can live their vocation. Who they are is a member of the body of Christ, not an employee of a corporation. If their job is in line with their vocation great! (Mine is, good for me!) But if they go to the job to get the money to fuel their vocation, like their role in the church, they feel that is the right thing to do.
Their family is a part of the tribe.
Their family is not a separate “nation state” competing for scarce resources. They share their resources as part of a common enterprise. This is crucially significant. Individualistic, competitive Americans are always making it seem like any “job” steals from the family, who lives in “leisure time.” That’s a lie. Everything we do has one Lord and the kids need to know that mom and dad are not the Lord, doling out time as if they create the universe. That mentality is the postmodern myth writ small – all choice and no obedience.
They pick mates that match their vocation
They find mates who share their goals or they make deals with the ones they have. Leading takes time. Loving your mate also takes time. If leading the church is always seen as taking time from your mate, leading is hard. If one does not have a supportive mate, they probably can’t lead. Of course, if your mate does not recognize your gifts and calling in Christ, then the marriage is going to be difficult.
They find joy in what they do
You could say that the secret many leaders have learned is how to gamify their duties. They find joy in serving. They don’t feel robbed, they feel energized by the creativity of building a church that can transform the world. They are part of something big and exciting, not stuck in an “institution” that takes a lot of time.
Being changed and changing lives is hard. Love is challenging. Truth telling is demanding. Every time we come up against the powerful forces that dominate the world, it is tempting to return to Egypt. When we face our limitations, it is tempting to return to our vomit like a dog. When our way is unclear or demanding, it is tempting to desert Jesus. The Leadership Team of the church are the people we call out to keep us going when the going is tough. Most every day, for some of us, the going is tough. There are just enough of us who have the combination of faith, prophecy or pastoring to lead us. So we give them the lead and thank God they are brave enough to take it!
It is going to be an exciting year in the world and among us. I hope the winter slowdown has given you some space to recuperate. I hope you have managed to put Trump’s tweets in perspective and realized the antidote we are. And I hope we will, in the Philadelphia region and wherever this is read, deploy and support gifted leaders who will steer our church through difficult times and provide the transformation in Christ so many people are missing.
This week, pray for our Leadership Team. They will all be at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in Aston on January 6-7 for retreat. They are brave, good people, but any one of them might be, like you, facing a tough time. Our prayers and support make them able to give their gifts.
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Every day, I need evangelized. Like Paul said of Abraham, the faithful friend of God:
“He did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God,being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20-21).
I am also not wavering. But I need to be strengthened. I need to be fully persuaded that God has the power to do what he promises. This strengthening and persuasion happens every day.
To be honest, we, as a church, need to keep the spark of evangelism stoked among us and through us or we might “waver through unbelief” like Paul fears the Romans might waver (or why bring up Abraham, right?). If Paul looked over our church, he might be writing a letter to our leaders and to all of us when he saw the kinds of things we do rather than persuading people that God has the power to do what he promises through Jesus Christ.
Here are three things we tend to do these days that show we need evangelized — no judgment, just things to think and talk about.
We manage lovelessness
This week, all sorts of people are going to bring out the four horsemen in their relationships at home, in your cell and with the leaders. We are going to be tempted to manage the symptoms of their lovelessness rather than teach a better way. Rather than reconcile after our teaching causes conflict, we will be tempted to keep things calm by not confronting the life-sucking lack of love and keeping our mouths shut. We try to manage the lovelessness. This managing rarely succeeds and the territory of the loveless expands rather than stays in the boundaries we set. Basically, we spawn a dysfunctional family like that from which many of us came.
Tonight Scott Hatch and I reminisced about when we met. I had called the number I found in his zine, Burnt Toast. It was on the zine rack in Tower Books on South Street where I hung out a lot. He said, “Sure. Come over.” Scott Clinton rumbled down the stairs at some point while I was in their living room and I met him for the first time, too. I was in the middle of a big risk: planting a new church based on a new movement of God’s Spirit in my life. Those guys ended up taking a risk to join in, too, and they are still doing it. (Tonight we also remembered how Scott was responsible for the six cop cars that met me one night on Tenth St. But that’s another story).
I have enjoyed being the pastor for the Brethren in Christ of Philadelphia/Circle of Hope Center City/Broad and Washington/1125 S. Broad so far. There have been a few tough times; but if you ask me how it has felt, I’ll tell you it has been fun. Not all pastors get to say that. Thanks everyone.
I have enjoyed teaching every week, leading a cell, being on a PM Team, beginning and leading mission teams and compassion teams, even finding buildings and rehabbing them. I liked being available for emergencies and counseling, answering the door and the phone for strangers and figuring out where money was going to come from. Being the congregation’s pastor is varied and joyous if that’s what God gives you to do. When I saw the Instagram of Rachel blessing Jeffy and Toni’s new house on Saturday morning, I thought, “Yes! That’s what a pastor gets to do.” I couldn’t go because I was elsewhere, but it felt right to see her there being a blessing like pastors get to be.
I will get further opportunities to do the acts of love and truth that have led me, but not just like I have been doing for so long. Now is the time for a second act. We are taking a new risk together and this month brings it all to a head. Most of the time when a founding pastor makes a move it is “out to pasture!” Or a younger king deposes him. Or, like in some corporate dynasty, he moves into a ceremonial role to preserve his sense of power. We are trying something different. We are more like a tribe that sticks together, and continues to develop. So I am changing. It seems natural.