The woes of modern church leadership

Shaun King the founder of cutting edge, 700 plus congregation of Atlanta’s Courageous Church created a stir in September when he stood down stating “I have pushed as hard and far as my mind, body, and spirit can healthily go before crashing”. He had tried to transition the church to a emergent style missional church and it killed him. My stomach churns as I read the story that his wife Rai told on her blog.

2 years into it, after 300+ sermons, who knows how many songs, people coming, people going, stressful lead team meetings, raising money from outside sources because the people who attended the church didn’t actually give enough to support the church, Shaun got frustrated, a few leaders got tired and left, …

Thus Shaun had a vision for “the shift”…as it has come to be known.  After searching the scriptures and seeing Christ’s ministry for what it really was we decided we no longer wanted to participate in the spectator sport we Christians call CHURCH.  So we said, let’s stop meeting every Sunday.  Let’s instead, meet in small groups in each other’s homes.  Let’s share a meal and learn how to be true disciples of Christ.  Let’s all serve together.  Let’s have each small group belong to a cause group that addresses a need in our city. 

We talked about it, met about it, argued about it, preached about it, sang about it, and read books about it for months.  And for the most part, people were buying it.  As a matter of fact, the month before the shift, when Shaun was preaching the hows and whys of what were about to do was our highest attendance and our highest offering in all of 2011.  We thought that meant people were actually ready to be radical and courageous.  4 months later, it’s clear that what that meant was that people love HEARING about being radical and courageous.  It gets our juices flowing and makes us feel all powerful.

(We thought) let’s… create time to serve God instead of serving ourselves by getting high off of church services.  If people aren’t in church every Sunday, maybe they’ll serve instead.…FAIL!  What most people did after “the shift” is go to another church on the Sundays we didn’t meet….

Shaun and Rai fought tooth and nail to lead their congregation out of a Sunday-focused, program-oriented, volunteer-intensive all-consuming contemporary church, but after three months, 85% of the congregation wanted it back to the way it was. They both burned out and crucified themselves on the altar of ministry in the modern church and fell on their own sword. My heart goes out to them after experiencing similar pain for similar reasons when we transitioned somewhat unsuccessfully to a cell based church.

Rai went on to say

The truth of the matter is, Shaun is simply exhausted.  Pastoring people has been 10 times better than my best hopes and 100 times worse than my worst nightmares.  Unless you’ve done it, you will NEVER understand it.  It looks one way from the outside looking in, but trust me, you don’t know the half.  Pastors are the sickest, loneliest, most depressed people in church.  That’s why they have affairs, that’s why they die at the age of 42 from heart attacks and drug over doses.  That’s why every time you turn on the TV there’s a new scandal, and a fresh news story about the latest greatest to fall from grace.  Taking criticism day in and day out from people who swear up and down they know better is exhausting.  Having people leave for stupid, selfish reasons is exhausting.  The divorce rate for pastors is among the highest of any other group in the country.  Shaun and I have decided we’d like that to not be our story.

Another good pastor burns out and falls by the wayside leaving us just one more reason to wonder, is there a better way to do church?

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After burning out, would I ever lead again?

I’ve been in church leadership since 1990, and full time staff from 2000 to 2009 when I was forced to resign due to depression and anxiety. Would I lead again? Up until now, I would have refused to even contemplate the idea. But my wife just came home after attending church – my former church, fuming about things like hypocrisy, in-authenticity, and PR bullshit (we’ve been made a scapegoat for anything that was bad about church) and we had a great discussion about what church could be like if we could start with a blank slate.

If this burned out, back-from-the-brink pastor could dream a little dream, it would go something like this:

If a pastor didn’t have a budget to meet, rosters to fill, attendance wasn’t measured, and behavior modification wasn’t on the radar, then I reckon it would be a ball. We would be free to do what we’re gifted for.

One caveat would be that I would not be paid – and therefore not full time and not on staff. I don’t think I would even have anyone “reporting” to me in any official capacity, and I definitely wouldn’t have a job description. I would do what I am gifted and led to do and what I’m passionate about. That beautiful little sector where the circles of gifts, strengths and passion overlap is where I’d live.

I’d think more about following Jesus than leading others. I would let Him lead them and remain only a catalyst.

I’d think more about two-way conversations than preaching messages at or to people.

I’d focus more on relationships, than productivity and efficiency.

I would hasten slowly.

I would concern myself more with journeys than destinations.

I would be brutally honest and leave PR spin to politicians, salesmen and con artists.

The life of the church would not revolve around me. I would not be the primary vision caster or motivator. I would allow people to get their own vision from God.

The church wouldn’t be exclusive. It would be a place for followers or non-followers alike.

Relationships with God and others, underpinned by love and acceptance would be the highlight.

Being would take priority over doing.

We wouldn’t own buildings or take on any debt.

The Sunday Service would not be the peak spiritual experience of the believers week.

The arts would have equal place with the spoken word.

Busyness would be a swear word.

I would not burn people out volunteering.

People would be more important than things, issues, ideas, structures, programs, productions, goals or causes.

I would tell stories. God’s story. My stories and others’ stories.

Yes it’s just a fantasy and no I don’t think this will ever happen, but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming is there? Some like Small Boat Big Sea are at least heading in the right direction. A transcript of an interview with them really gives me hope.

What Happened to Wonder?

It’s a bit like playing a game of snap. Just as I was posting about how I crave a different church service, Tim Schraeder asks “What happened to wonder?“. Here he grapples with the same kinds of ideas. Just goes to show maybe I’m not crazy! He says:

There’s a tension that many churches are dealing with these days when it comes to their services and it’s the battle between right and left brained thinking, or emotion over intellect.

Churches, well the progressive, innovative, edgy ones, get production. Some churches feel like a rock show or Broadway, and while I’m a bit indifferent to their methods, I feel that in looking, sounding and feeling like the world we’ve lost a true sense of wonder.

Today our churches look and feel more like conference centers or coffee shops and instead of creating reverent, reflective space, they are cozy and casual. Gizmodo did an article about the STORY Conference which we hosted at Park a few months ago and said, “The Park Community Church in Chicago is a multi-story Christian center that more closely resembles a Starbucks than any cathedral—and in fact houses its own coffee shop.”

I’m not saying those things are bad, people obviously need to be in space that’s warm an inviting… but I guess I’m wrestling with if that’s the right way.

While I completely agree that the message is what matters most, the tension we live in is the fact that people hear messages on different wavelengths. Some can sit and listen to a 45 minute sermon and get it. Other people need to see a picture or hear a story, some need to hear a song. Some people need to be inspired by beauty while others simply need sacred space to reflect and remember. There’s multiple ways to hear the same message.

Today, flickering pixels are our stained glass and God has given us so many new ways to communicate His unchanging message… to do things that evoke our emotions and touch both our mind and our heart. To bring words to life through an image, a story, or a song.

I’m not saying we need to reproduce a jonsi concert, add more lights or more music, get bigger screens and better projectors… I just wholeheartedly believe we need to first be captured with the awe and wonder of who God is and let Him use the gifts He’s uniquely given to all of us to share the what we have seen …

When was the last time you left church in awe… not of the production, music, lights, or anything else… but truly left in awe of who God is and what He’s done?

Schraeder believes that the artist can help save the church. I agree that the arts should figure more prominently (their demise is a consequence of modernism) but disagree that they can (alone) save the church. I do however totally and wholeheartedly agree on where he’s going with it all. If I could go to a church service that I could dream up, it would be one which made me wonder – about God, life, relationships, heaven, earth, people, glory, mystery, faith, miracles, pain, suffering and redemption. I would have a space to reflect, pray, listen to Him and worship. I would not experience a show, a production, a lecture trying to explain or teach anything, desperate fundraising, coercion, pressure, alienation for not volunteering or humiliation.

Schraeder asks pointed questions, that really deserve answers from today’s contemporary modern church:

When was the last time you sat in wonder of God’s love and grace? When was the last time your heart was truly moved? Where is the sense of wonder?

Luckly I didn’t go to church last week

Every Sunday morning I wait for my wife’s creativity to emerge – usually about 90 minutes before church starts. It’s really funny and I actually look forward to what she’ll come up with each week.

Last week it was “Hey, do you want to come to church because after that we can visit your mate John who broke his back a few weeks ago and he’s home now?”

No, I didn’t want to go to church and visit John afterwards. If I wanted to visit John, I’d just visit!

There’s no pressure though and it’s all very amiable. I know she’d like me to go with her and the kids. She knows I don’t really want to, but that I probably would if there was a half decent church nearby (I enjoyed Father’s Day at a mates church three hours away). The church I used to pastor is now run by someone who studiously ignored me, never mentions anything about the past and refused to come over for dinner with us when they first arrived despite us inviting them twice. Me attending there was never going to work – for him, and I guess now for me – even though when I resigned due to depression I had wanted to stay involved.

But I have changed so much in the almost three years I’ve been gone. I see things so differently – I probably wouldn’t fit in anyway.

Last week, I’m so glad I didn’t go. My wife came home and in the afternoon was reading in bed. “How was church this morning” I asked genuinely interested. She was mad. It all came tumbling out. The pastor had said God had been speaking to him this week and asked everyone who desperately needed healing to stand. Then he asked anyone desperately needing forgiveness to stand. And the third category was anyone desperately needing a breakthrough to stand. Then he pulled his swifty; he asked all those standing, to pray for all those still seated. The premise was that if you’re desperate for God, you’re in the right place. And if you’re not desperate, you’re in need of prayer – from the desperate

I would have been one of those seated ones. I would have been prayed for by the standing, along with anyone visiting, or possibly new, or maybe those who are not yet identifying as believers… All of us together would have collectively been made to feel like there was something not quite right in our lives. I would have been fuming. What a dick!

My wife is right. Everyone has a season. There are seasons where we feel desperate. There are seasons of contentment. Who is to judge what season we’re in? My favorite paradigm is one of a journey. On a journey there are times of trouble and good times, there are twists and turns and it doesn’t matter where you are on your journey as long as you keep journeying and don’t get stuck in any one place for too long. No-one can judge where you’re at, nor should they.

Today, we had our babysitter stay overnight, so the car is full. There was no creative “Hey I was wondering….” But after last week, I think all her creative juices all but dried up.

Wanna write a Christian bestseller?

#106 The Side HugMy cousin is a real thinker. He graduated an engineer, then became a patent attorney and never married, so not only can he think, he’s got the time and energy to do it. He’s basically a self-taught theologian. I really applaud thinkers. They get a bad trot in Christendom – written off as all talk, no action. But I think generating ideas is action and can certainly be a catalyst for action.

Anyway, cuz really has a message about the Father heart of God – which he says is the apostolic message that’s getting drowned out across modern western Christendom by speakers and authors talking about principles for the successful christian life – e.g. seven steps to a powerful prayer life, three easy stages to holiness, five ways to a horny God-honoring marriage. He wants us to come back to the Father heart of God but to do it, he needs to do some pretty solid and heavy exposition of Ephesians 1-3 and Romans 6-8 and everything else in the bible.

When I asked him who his audience is, he says the man on the street – average Joe Believer. But when he tells me what it’s going to take to support his position it sounds like the only people who would be able to digest this high-fibre, zero fat, low carb, extreme protein power bar of thought will be  scholars. I explained to him that there are a couple of issues with the rest of the audience.

Firstly, there is the dumbed-down audience that love reading the latest from TD Jakes and John Bevere on a certain topic usually outlining how to master a certain aspect of the Christian life (western christian mindset). Today’s Christians are saved by grace and then bust their boilers and give themselves nose bleeds working out their salvation by mastery i.e. applying “proven” principles to get results to be a successful, God-honoring believer (never mind that following Christ and the idea of “mystery” has fallen by the wayside). We might be saved by faith, but we definitely live by trying to figure it all out in individually wrapped bite-sized portions.

The dumbed-down audience want to read “safe” authors who are recommended by their pastor or someone else “safe”. Author’s must be able to demonstrate their personal success (i.e. mastery) by leading a large church, loving a happy family (all smiles), speaking at big conferences, owning two large houses, traveling to over 40 countries, writing best seller books translated into 93 languages, having 80,000 twitter followers, with a ministry on TV broadcast to the said 40 countries and soon into outer space (don’t laugh about the outer space, I personally know a pastor who is trying to broadcast their worship and music into outer space).

Cuz, I said sagely, we all know you write to this audience to make money – a necessary evil, but then you pour this money into your “vision” so the ends justify the means.

The other audience he could try is the non-churched Christians, post moderns and emergents. The issue with these guys is that they don’t want to look at the bible as a text to be sliced and diced and analysed. The bible isn’t seen as a constitution or wiki on the Christian life. It’s seen as a true, earthy, primal story made up of many stories about many people, the central character being Christ. The overarching story is about God and people. So if the bible is a narrative, your writing might want to be…. a narrative! And it better be released for Kindle as well.

I explain that modernism takes a technical, analytical, systematic view of the bible producing works like “systematic theology” but emergents don’t want to analyse, they want to synthesise. They don’t want technical, they want organic. They don’t want more information, they want relationship. They don’t necessarily want more knowledge of good and evil, they want life, community, worship and they want this in a social justice, eco-friendly, sustainable and all-inclusive package…. don’t even think of using the word “exposition”.

If you write to these guys, you might want to invest in some pop culture (Erwin McManus has his own clothing line and Rob Bell should definitely have his own line of spectacle frames) or maybe you could practice writing stories. Christian fiction is the new non-fiction! Just look at the success of The Shack. After all, everyone loves a good story don’t they?

Everyone Loves Raymond but Producer Hates Business

Phil Rosenthal is the creator, writer and producer of the hit show based on the down-to-earth Ray Romano. The show is epic in its popularity, so much so, that Phil was asked to export it to Russia, using local actors to recreate the series. In the painful process that ensued he discovered that Russians like their comedy over the top and in locking horns with the powers that be, he maintained that the secret to “Everyone Loves Raymond” was that it was a “down to earth – kitchen sink” type of comedy. In this article, he says

”There’s lovely people wherever you go – and then there’s executives. They seem to be the same no matter where you go. I love every aspect of the business except the business. The money part of it, I don’t enjoy. I love writing, acting, directing, producing. I just don’t like the business part of it.”

His words jumped off the touchscreen at me in bed this morning. He could have been me three years ago! My “executives” were super spiritual flaky fundamentalist mafiosa seizing on every word that was out of place that I uttered from the pulpit. One of them criticised me for using the word “fantastic” because the root of the word was fantasy, and there was no fantasy in Christianity. You get the idea.

Over time, I distanced myself from the flakes. I put minders in the way and barriers everywhere to stop them getting through. I opened no mail – my PA did all that. Anything unsigned hit the bin without me knowing. Emails went to her before proceeding to me. Lower level pastors would “vet” people who wanted to see me in an effort to stop the crazies from getting into my head.

But the business, I couldn’t stop.

The business of running church was overwhelming. Managing staff, job descriptions, preparing and running meetings, budget review meetings, board meetings, finance meetings, restructuring, weekly offerings, monthly averages, loan repayments, cost cutting, property valuations, blowouts, and wondering how to make ends meet were simply all consuming. These were the things I lay in bed agonising over.

Just as Rosenthal loved the writing, creating and producing , I actually loved leading – the visionary, creative part. I love to dream. I love to galvanise people toward a cause that is greater than their singular life. I love to build and work in teams. I love thinking outside the box. I love to motivate and encourage. I love to communicate and inspire. I love to experiment and try new things. I love being a catalyst.

But the business killed me. It got me in the end. As interesting as making a sitcom in Russia would be, Rosenthal is not eager to repeat it, claiming ”Poland has called and I’m not going!” Similarly, I can safely say, I’ll never lead in the church again as it currently operates. It’s an insatiable beast that eats pastors alive.

My thoughts on Hillsong

I was asked late last year by a former attender of the church I led what I thought of Hillsong. I’ll try and keep it short! I have friends that are on staff at Hillsong, I’ve met Brian personally and I’ve attended three or four Hillsong conferences so you can decide if I’m biased or just better able to make some comments!

Hillsong is THE flagship Australian church in terms of profile and impact. It’s broken all the mindsets about church size and dynamics. It’s really reinvented the landscape of Christianity in Australia and shown us what’s possible. I’m fairly certain Shout to the Lord is probably THE most popular christian worship song in the world – which, coming from Australia says something. There aren’t many churches in our country that you can attend that won’t be singing one or two Hillsong choruses (even if they don’t like Hillsong – ah the irony of it).

Hillsong really pushed the envelope in making Christianity contemporary – i.e. music, language, services, buildings, programs etc. that speak to ordinary people. It’s been a wake-up call to churches that are a victim of stodgy, boring traditionalism. Much of the resentment toward Hillsong comes from churches who hate to see their “success”. Hillsong is one of the very few Australian churches that are actually growing with a good proportion of new commitments.

I have loved Hillsong conference. It’s really exciting and can be life changing. I’d certainly recommend everyone goes at least once!

Every church has its downside though. Hillsong is huge and that has it’s own disadvantages. It runs very much like a corporate machine. The stress on staff is massive. They have huge vision so the budgets are enormous which always attracts attention from outside. It’s a fairly controlled environment – they do that by establishing a “Hillsong” culture (again this is a corporate/business idea) so there are certain ways to talk, certain language, dress and behavior that’s subliminally peer reinforced, which suits some people I guess, but can be a bit restricting for others. I for one, would never work there under any circumstance. Staff are required to attend a minimum of three weekend services and I simply wouldn’t ever want to do that.

As far as any “scandals” go, there aren’t really any (sadly for the media) – well, no more than any other church with flawed people in it. As with any organisation, there are always people who do stupid things but aren’t necessarily the fault or responsibility of the organisation itself. Brian Houston had to deal with his dads moral failing before he passed away. No fault of Hillsongs’ there. They did get some grant money for certain projects and had to return it because a third party organisation they partnered with folded. Now it looks like Gloria Jeans might be facing insolvency, but the only connection with Hillsong is that they share a board member (very common in big business to share board members with other companies). Mercy ministries folded last year and the directors have been ordered to pay every consumer that was in the program, but again, Mercy is a US organisation that Hillsong partnered with. They got burned there, but it wasn’t necessarily their responsibility.

One prominent homosexual has been trying to paint Hillsong as homophobic, but I don’t think he’s gained too much traction in mainstream church circles, perhaps only in the gay community and the media. He obviously had a pretty bad experience, but homophobia is not actually the position of Hillsong. Never has been, and never will be. No doubt there will be homophobic believers there (church attenders are fairly representative of the population), and believers who embrace homosexuals, just like any other church.

I think Hillsong spends around $1.5m on meeting practical needs in their area (my figures are probably rusty, but that’s the order of things), so it would be nice if the media also covered the good things they’re doing.

The issues that make the media are usually about money. You need to know that no church prints money, and no church is “for-profit”. That means money in = money out. They spend whatever they get on growing the church and meeting needs. It’s not accumulating anywhere. Sure Brian and Bobby, and Darlene etc. are quite wealthy compared to the average Australian but that’s from royalties from songs – good luck to them. The reality is that the top echelon of Hillsong are extremely talented entrepreneurial individuals. If they weren’t working in the church arena, they’d probably be wealthier working in big business. They certainly have that X factor that organisations pay big bucks for. They give plenty of their blood, sweat and tears, so they do earn every dollar.

Personally I wouldn’t be part of Hillsong if I lived next door to it. It is a certain model of doing church that is very “successful”, but is fairly unique to Brian Houston and a small handful of others. I respect him for that – he’s built a church fairly and squarely on his gifts and talents. He’s been his own man and refused to listen to the naysayers and done what he’s felt God has called him to do…. that’s the lesson that other pastors should be learning – not trying to copy Hillsong (which usually results in fairly lame churches). I don’t think the Hillsong model is very reproducible because it’s built around Brian. Trying to replicate it is just that! Very trying. So many pastors out there are awkwardly staggering about like David wearing Saul’s armor. I don’t think even Brian’s top guys pull it off that well. Imitating Brian is quite painful to watch and it will be interesting to see what happens when he retires.

The model is too corporate for me, built on leadership principles transferred from the business world. I’m looking for something more organic, less directive, less top-down, more “ground up”, less pretentious, less structure, less like hard work. More freedom, less about buildings and appearances (Hillsong are notorious for their fashion). It’s quite an institutional model which I think has been taken to the limit and is a bit maxed out. It’s pretty hierarchical. There are important people there, and no so important ones. The important ones are very hard to even get to and seem to have a fairly privileged life (although they pay for it ultimately). I’m not sure that numbers or prominence or great music equals success, I guess everyone differs on how to define success in the church setting.

The ones to watch (if you want to watch at all) are Hillsong United (Joel Houston and his scruffy looking pals). I think Brian realises he’s taken the Hillsong paradigm to its limit (I secretly think he’s over it actually), and if the church in Australia is going to continue to engage grass-roots (non-sydney) Aussies in a more real, authentic “Australian” post-modern way, then the next generation are going to have to figure that out – just like he did 30 years ago. Hillsong United have been given a huge amount of freedom to basically reinvent church again. These guys seem to be respectful, non-conformists focused on music, media, social justice, and more into tapping into the psyche of Gen Y than Hillsong ever has. They’re becoming more a “movement” than a “church” – which is probably what church was always intended to be…. Watch this space!

Mark Tindall takes a dimmer view in his blog post after attending a morning service, and to be honest, I totally get where he’s coming from and can more than empathise with his perspective. I think his thoughts are fairly representative of those who aren’t fans of Hillsong. But then again, there are loads of stories of people who feel Hillsong has been great for them.