Family Matters and the Frustrating Church

famfightFamily reunions are a funny thing.  They create this bizarre mix of emotions that only occur in a family setting.  It is this tumultuous emotional churning of happiness and frustration, anger and joy that induces both laughter and temple rubbing.  Families make us feel the full spectrum of emotions, and they do so for one simple reason.

They matter to us.

The things we feel the deepest are felt so deeply because they matter.  The things that cause us the most joy and the things that cause us the most sorrow matter.  The things that cause us to soar to the heights of happiness and the things that make our bodies vibrate with anger do so because they are important to us.  If they did not matter, we would never – we could never – feel them on this same level.

For me that perfectly describes my feelings about my church at this moment.

I write this for those of you who go to church with me and for those of you may feel the same way about your own church at this very moment.  The single greatest source of concern, stress, and frustration in my life at this very moment is my church.  To be honest, there are moments that it is so frustrating and stress inducing to think about, that I wish I could just give it up and walk away from it all.

But I never could – it matters too much to me.

In the past couple of years our church has hemorrhaged people – going from a church pushing 150 to a church that struggles to break 60-70 each week.  It has cost me my career and changed the direction of my life.  It has affected me greatly, and I feel it deeply.  As our church dies, I feel like I die along with it.  The reasons people give for leaving have covered not liking the music, not liking the children’s ministry, not liking the preaching, personal conflicts, and wide variety of others.  The issues are hard to specify, making them hard to address – and it eats my lunch every time I think about it.  It stresses me, depresses me, frustrates me, and, at times, enrages me. But here is the funny thing, when I think of all of those negative things that the state of my own church makes me feel – it makes me think of one thing:

Family reunions and the turbulent landslide of emotions that can accompany them.

Do you know why what is happening in my church makes me feel that way?  I think it is because it matters so much to me.  It has to be, because only things that matter so deeply can make us feel so deeply.  What is the church if it is not family?  What is a family if it is not willing to stick it out in the toughest of times?  How can either survive if we so easily forsake them, so quickly give up on them, so rarely practice forgiveness, so often shy away from reconciliation, and so rarely pitch in?

I have to ask myself this question about my relationship with my own church – If it truly matters to me, then what kind of commitment am I willing to make to help this relationship work?  If I am truly being honest, I have to admit that there are definitely times when I have allowed those emotions to hinder my ability to lead and to worship.  I have utilized them as excuses for not serving.  In doing those things, I have become a part of the problem.

To my church, I say I am sorry; but I also say – you matter to me.  Even in the midst of the dizzying array of things I feel about you right now – you matter so immensely to me. You are my family even when I feel distant from you. You are kin to me.  It seems strange to say, but I am grateful for the frustration, the heartache, and the fear.  Those are all evidences of this strangely deep and beautiful connection I have with you.

I think it is a tragedy that so many people experience these feelings and so easily leave a church.  It is, I think a horrible precedent and so far from what the church is meant to be.If only we could open our eyes to the reality that these things we feel – good and bad combined – are all normal things for a family.  They are, in fact, symptoms of the reality that we matter to one another. We should not fear or flee these feelings.  We should embrace them, face them, and let them serve as a reminder of the deep deep connection we share with one another.

You are all my family – crazy aunts, obnoxious uncles, boisterous brothers, and all the rest.  It is a bond that I could not break if I tried, and I wouldn’t want to.

You matter to me.

My Job Is Harder Than Yours

I'm more stressed than you... na na na na boo boo!

I’m more stressed than you… na na na na boo boo!

I was a full-time pastor for the past 15-years.  Within the last 2-months I dropped to part-time at the church and accepted a full-time position at a small business owned by a good friend.  As a full-time pastor, I remember many a days when I longed for one of those easy secular jobs that didn’t come with the stress of full-time pastoral ministry.  I remember thinking how no one understood just how hard my job was and how mentally and emotionally draining it could be at times.  Recently, I have seen many a post and/or links to posts from pastoral friends of mine referencing how little respect or understanding people have for how hard  their pastor(s) work and just how much stress there is on them and their families.  I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with these posts – but I fear that, in some way, they show how disconnected the pastoral office can (at times) be from their parishioners.

Funny how a little perspective changes everything.

In the past 2-months, I have learned something about jobs that I had forgotten.  Be it pastoral ministry, neurosurgery, emergency services, or flipping burgers – every job has its blessings and its curses.  My fear is that when we, as pastors, begin to believe that our job is somehow harder, more stressful, more time-consuming than those of the people we pastor, we distance ourselves from both reality and the people.  Pastors, we are not the only people who lose sleep over our jobs.  Even worse is when we begin to believe the lie that somehow our job is more important.  Pastoring from a position of power and exceptionalism is a dangerous, scary thing.  As a pastor, I am not better than you.  My job is not harder than yours.  My life is not more stressful than yours.

I truly believe every pastor should take a 6-8 week sabbatical to work a “secular” job and gain a little perspective.

The other thing I have heard and read a lot of lately is just how undedicated many pastors feel their church members are to their local church.  We preach and write about how people’s lives have become too busy with jobs, sports, school events, PTA meetings, and other extracurriculars and how all these things are a sign of spiritual weakness and lack of religious fervor.  Of course, we do this after making announcements about the fellowship supper, mid-week prayer meeting, planning committee, youth fundraiser, trunk-or-treat, small groups, Sunday school, and missions rally that we want you all to attend.  I think you see the problem with that.

Apparently church busy-ness is a different and better thing than our regular busy-ness.  (Read my thoughts on simplifying church)

(I wonder how Pharisitical it is to demand such dedication to the thing we call “church”.  Has “church” become the new “law” – the new legalism in some way? Do this or be labeled a heretic/blasphemer/insert insult here) – Just thinking out loud as I write.

It just seems to me that it is very easy, as a pastor to be out of touch with the reality of people’s lives.

I know I will offend quite a few pastor friends who read this – but I am writing this from a place of conviction myself.  I want to be a better pastor – and for me that means opening my eyes to realities.  It is REAL that my stress is not more real than that of the people I pastor.  It is REAL that church can often be the biggest time drain for people.  It is REAL that it is H.A.R.D. to make it to a 7:00pm church event when you don’t get home until 6:00pm.  It is REAL that choosing to be at a kid’s soccer game over the church work day is not a sign of spiritual deficiency.

For me a large part of being an effective pastor is keeping in touch with those realities.  It is respecting the lives of the people I pastor – the difficulties they face, the decisions they have to struggle with, the sacrifices they regularly make.  I can’t do that when my view of myself is elevated and out of whack.  I can’t do that when my definition of church is out of line with scripture.  I want to lead from a place of humility and vulnerability – walking amongst the people I pastor as one of them.  Really, that’s all I am –  a fellow disciple journeying with them.  My job just happens to be as a pastor.

Well, at least one of my jobs…

I Am Not A Wonderful Counselor

You can keep the hats… and the tie

Pastors wear multiple hats, many of which we aren’t thoroughly qualified to wear.  People come to me for advice and/or guidance on parenting, addictions, relationships, and much more.  How in the world I completed my ordination requirements with only a minimal amount of training in counseling baffles me.  The only real advice every given to me on the matter of counseling was, “Don’t get in over your head, and always know when to refer someone to an expert.”  While I understand the importance of this advice, it has its own problems.  First, people are often (wrongly) looking to me to be the expert.  I think most pastors feel and succumb to that pressure at some time or another. Secondly, I am almost always “in over my head”.  I am not an expert on parenting, relationships, emotional disorders, addictions, marriage, or really anything else.  I find this to be especially true when it comes to premarital counseling.

There are tons of resources out there for pastors engaging in premarital counseling – and they are helpful.  They guide a couple in discussion on everything from goals and finances, to sex, parenting, and communication.  While I am grateful for these helps – I often go into these counseling sessions, just hoping the couple doesn’t want to veer too away from the topics and guidance of the book, lest the ill fit of my counselor hat be exposed.  Fortunately, in the couple of dozen weddings I have done this far in my ministry, everyone has pretty much stayed the course.

Until now…

I recently started premarital counseling for an older couple who have lived together for the past 8-years.  I know everyone brings their own baggage into relationships – but let’s just say, this couple’s baggage is more like freight on an ocean-going cargo ship.  I knew from the first words out of their mouths that I was in over my head.  After a couple of sessions, I had no doubt that they truly loved each other, but was completely perplexed as to how I could best help them prepare for marriage.  I quickly discerned that on top of problems with communication,they were dealing with deeply rooted issues.

Blame

Selfishness

Anger

Holding on to past hurts

Of course these are some of the real problems they were facing – but they had them so wrapped up in singular issues that they couldn’t really distinguish them.  They wanted to solve issues and incidents instead of digging deep into the real heart of the matter.  Even more troubling was their unwillingness to be introspective.  Each wanted only to deal with how to fix the other person.  When I would confront one of them on a matter, they would feel like I was taking sides, while the other would feel victorious – and vice versa.  I felt stymied and like we were talking in circles – and I left each session well beyond frustrated.  The prep for these weekly sessions had taken up the bulk of my thoughts:

Was there some magic speech I could give that would turn a light on for them?

Was there some poignant exercise we could do together that would make it all click?

Was there a book or aid I could get into their hands that would solve all their problems?

I stressed over this.  I thought long and hard, and researched for hours on end.  I read through countless resource books on counseling and relationships, sifted through dozens of websites, and listened to more than a few podcasts from relational counselors.  What I found out was what I already knew – I was ill equipped to help them deal with their junk.

Everything I told them, they questioned.  Every piece of advice I would give made them feel like I was taking sides, or that I just didn’t understand their point of view.   One party even sought out another counselor for themselves – telling him that I “didn’t have their back.” I truly feared going into our latest session together – so much so that last night I did something that may shock you…

I prayed.

And God answered.

His answer was so simple, I was ashamed of myself for not thinking of it.  Use the Word.  The phrase that rolled in my mind all night was, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” It hit me, I didn’t have to be an expert on any counseling issue – I just had to present them with the model for relationships that God has given us, and allow the Word of God to work in their lives.  They could argue with me and throw my inadequacy as a counselor in my face.  They could say I didn’t understand or that I was biased for or against either of them.  But they couldn’t dispute the truth of the Word of God.

So in our last session, all we did was read the Word together.

We read from Luke 6:37-42 and talked about the importance of living by the standard of expectation we set for our spouse and about the importance of examining our own heart and motives before we identify what is wrong in the other person.

We read from 1 Corinthians 13 (the Love chapter) – and talked about the model of real. unfailing love, and how we are required to live that out NO MATTER WHAT – NO EXCUSES.

It was like a light turned on for both of them.  This wasn’t some young inexperienced counselor trying to psychoanalyze them into relational health. This was THE Word of God speaking light into the darkness of their relationship.  For the first time, we had conversations where each of them truly listened to what the other was saying – and even if they didn’t agree, they reacted in a way that was respectful, controlled, and striving to understand.  One of them even stated, “Man, there’s just no way around this is there?  No excuses left.”

Most importantly, we all came to the agreement that none of this was about solving issues; but that it is all about personal spiritual transformation.  Solving issues only solves things until the next issue comes along; but spiritual transformation makes dealing with each issue in a Spirit directed, love-filled way possible, and ultimately creates the healthy relationships we all strive for.  We have a long way to go together – but we are moving forward – not through the latest and greatest counseling resource – but solely through the power and guidance of God’s Word.

ALL of this because of the power of God’s Word.

I am not a wonderful counselor, but today I learned that I don’t have to be. My job  is to introduce couples to the Wonderful Counselor through the power of the Word.  I can do nothing on my on – my words are empty and powerless; but God, through His Word, changes lives.  Never again will I don the hat of the counselor – it doesn’t really suit me.  BUT – I will keep wearing the one that says Pastor – and I will shepherd people towards Him.

Lord, I am sorry for forgetting

How truly powerful Your Word is,

How it speaks to us

How it guides us

How it challenges us

How it transforms us

Thank You Father

For Your life-giving Word

That is a lamp unto our feet

And a light unto our path.