The importance of rest

Attorney and church mediator Blake Coffee (great name) recently blogged

“Nobody wants a surgeon operating on them when that surgeon is in a state of exhaustion.  Nobody wants a pilot flying their airplane when that pilot is sleep deprived.  Nobody wants truck drivers operating 18-wheelers on our highways when they are falling asleep at the wheel.  When none of us in our right minds would trust our physical well-being to an exhausted person, why do we trust our Spiritual well-being in the hands of an exhausted minister?  More importantly, why, when we are the minister, would we think we can minister effectively when we are at the end of our rope physically?”

He advises that we listen to the words of Jesus to the disciples to come away and rest and warns against the dangers of not doing it. Obviously I was stupid enough not to heed the words of Jesus because I overworked, burned myself and others, developed severe depression and anxiety and finally as I became suicidal stepped down to seek treatment. Knowing that R&R is important isn’t enough. As I responded to Blake, there are some really good reasons why we don’t rest and they run very deep.

Part of it is due to the our “philosophy of ministry” and part of it is to do with the kinds of churches we run, some is due to congregations expectations and some is what we put on ourselves.

For example, we demand extremely high volunteer commitment and attendance levels, so some pastor’s I know of, continued to attend their church even while they were on leave. Stupid I know – but we’ve got to walk the talk right?

Others take little of their leave because they feel like God is promising them a “breakthrough” and that they’re in a season of sowing etc. and to take a break would somehow be unfaithful, or faithless and result in not getting the “miracle” they’re expecting. In other words they “spiritualize” their over-work and thus deceive themselves. Self deception is really difficult to self diagnose!!

Our business-styled contemporary churches run off the CEO charismatic pastor model. The senior pastor is the Steve Jobs of his little patch. Everything revolves around him. He is the vision caster, the primary voice – the lynch pin if you like. We don’t like to admit it but it’s true (we like to teach that Jesus is the center). But when the pastor’s out of the picture the church is just in a holding pattern. No-one likes to work hard to build, then take time off and see things possibly decline. It’s a function of the model we’ve chosen.

Another reason I didn’t take enough time out was because I knew work would be piled up when I got back. There are just some things you can’t delegate. Things were piled up enough as it was so my mindset was one of “work hard to get the monkey off my back then rest”. Unfortunately, I never cleared my inbox before becoming too ill to do it despite some nights sleeping under my desk.

So I guess I’m saying, it’s good to know that we need time off, but there are very deep reasons why pastor’s are expiring at a rate of 1500 each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure according to New York Times (August 2010) and it’s not for a lack of knowledge about rest.

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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.

Confession: I Manipulated and Controlled People

I’m pretty ashamed to say it, but it’s true. And I regret it. If it was for freedom that Christ set us free, pastors don’t have any right to take away that freedom, and yet we so often do. Very subtly of course, and mostly unintentionally (our motives are usually pretty good). I mean we don’t actually see it as manipulation and control, it’s just what it ends up being in the cold light of day.

When it comes to outcomes (taking the church where God wants it to go – as if we have this nailed down) pastors don’t really have to many levers, but the ones we do have, are very powerful. We can’t pay people to do what we want, so therefore we can fire them. Of course some churches opt for firing people anyway under the guise of church discipline, but in larger churches this is very rare. And we can’t make people think or believe what we think or believe. Nor can we make people turn up or volunteer or give when we want them to. This kills us of course and we spend a lot of time thinking about this dilemma. We have this amazing (overrated word, please stop using it pastors) vision from God, we have incredible (also a word beaten to death) “God-given” strategies and plans and of course we know time is short, Jesus’ return is imminent and souls need to be saved – yesterday. So mobilising people to get our goals achieved (ahem, I mean God’s goals of course) without the levers we would like is tough.

But the one lever I did swing off quite a bit was to control people’s words and actions, by forming a culture which defines what is and isn’t acceptable. It’s not dissimilar to the army where if one soldier or recruit screwed up, all would be punished, such that in the future, the platoon or section would monitor and control their own to save from being disciplined. Saves the brass from doing it and they don’t have to have eyes and ears everywhere, all the time! The goal is to build a culture of control. Great solution.

Why are we trying to control people? Well we need them to attend (remember we’re going for numbers, because numbers matter, because Jesus counted the sheep and realised one was missing, so therefore the more the better), we need them to give, we need them to find somewhere to serve, we need them to bring their friends (so they can add to the numbers), we need them to be on board with the building fund and missions giving (all separate from tithing of course) and we need them to do all this enthusiastically with a cheerful spirit and an attitude of servant hood. That’s a tough ask without any control! This is why Bill Hybels said to George Bush, that it’s easier to be the president of the USA than a pastor, because at least Bush could fire someone’s ass and if push came to shove, he had the world’s biggest firepower at his disposal. That’s a pretty good lever right there!

How does it happen? (remember it’s usually inadvertent, otherwise I would have said “How do we do it?”). It happens through our words and actions. I’ll try and unpack this in a future post, but here it is in brief.

  • We use ideas of unity and oneness to get everyone to conform. Unity brings God’s blessing. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of that would you?
  • We somehow hold up an ideal of the Christian life so that everyone knows what to aim for, but also so everyone can see if someone else is failing and “help” them
  • We use “spiritual” religious language to describe what’s “in” and what’s “out”. The spiritual language makes it sound like God’s saying it.
  • We talk about having a positive attitude versus a “negative spirit”. We prime people not to listen to anyone who is “negative” i.e. anyone who disagrees with leadership. Sprinkle a dose of stuff about a root of bitterness here too.
  • We teach about the importance of leadership and following leadership and vision and following vision – incessantly
  • We teach about rebellion, having “another kind” of spirit, about the perils of “division” and “divisive” people.
  • We teach about servanthood (man I’ve seen some abuses of this one) and show people that Jesus was a servant, therefore they must serve….us… I mean the church
  • We drop huge hints from the pulpit and get people to draw the conclusions they want us to draw and we might even use jokes or joke about real issues or problems in order to make the group laugh at them, so the people with the real problems or issues won’t be able to raise them for fear of not being taken seriously.
  • We tend to isolate people who disagree. We talk about them in a negative light. We warn people not to listen to them. We take them off rosters and we make them unwelcome. We might even covertly preach AT them in sermons (they know who they are). Basically we want to freeze them out.
  • We can make a big deal and reward people who are getting it right. We can applaud them and lionize them.
  • The most extreme case of manipulation is reserved for the most insecure pastors and that is where they warn “Don’t touch the Lord’s anointed”

Well, I’ve bared my soul, but I don’t feel any better. I’m not proud of the fact I’ve done this even if I didn’t make it to the last one.

It doesn’t mean church is bad and it doesn’t mean pastors are bad. It means that if we push the envelope on the way we’re doing church and what we’re trying to achieve, these are the kinds of levers we will pull on when we get desperate. It’s not just a matter of naming this up and asking pastors not to do it. It’s a matter of looking deeper at what the pastor is trying to do in his role as a pastor and they way we run our churches and asking “should we be doing this, the way it’s being done?”

Control works to a great extent, but the collateral is huge. See how it worked in Elizabeth’s life and see if you can pick the dot points above in operation:

My church taught me that church and school were very different worlds, and that I should not associate with Non-christians at my school because they might influence me to do wrong and destructive things. Most of my friends at school did not go to church, but I kept this fact well hidden, living two very different lives. I was so involved at church that some of the pastors on staff there called me “the Calvary Chapel princess” but at the same time, I was getting into trouble at school with my friends, mostly by ditching classes.

When I was in high school, I had a Christian boyfriend. I tried to confide in my mom one day by telling her that I wanted to do more than just kiss him and hold his hand. My mom began to panic when she found out that we had kissed each other, and she told me that I needed to break up with him if I wanted to be a Christian. Since we were so in love, I argued with her about it. So she set up an appointment for me with the pastor of our church, who told me that I needed to obey my mom if I wanted to be a Christian. I cried for days and I finally broke up with my boyfriend, shattering his heart too. I thought that God had required me to make some very difficult and unhappy decisions.

After graduating from high school, I became a youth group counselor at my church. One night I went out with some of my friends from high school to a dance club. A “back-slidden” youth group student saw me there and the next day, she happened to mention it to another youth group counselor, who mentioned it to the youth pastor. He called me into his church office and explained that I could not be a Christian and go out dancing. I told him that I wanted to be a Christian but that dancing is fun and he became angry with me and told me I had an inferiority complex. I left his church office in tears. Finally, I made the decision to stop being friends with anyone who did not go to church so that I could be a Christian and also be a youth group counselor at my church. I think that this hurt my Non-christian friends very deeply.

After a while, I couldn’t stand the pressure of living up to the high standards of being a Christian so I moved away from home to go to college

Read Elizabeth’s Full Story here