Denial and the Perfect Storm

April 18, 2010 at 12:42 pm (Musings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Many companies and organizations have policies and procedures for dealing with the hazards of the job. If a firefighter is injured in the line of duty, and is unable to work, the agency will usually find a place for that employee to serve. Sometimes the tasks can be clerical or administrative, but the “light-duty” assignment allows the firefighter to maintain an income, even after the disability insurance runs out. Fire and police organizations have a long history of taking care of their front line warriors.

The Church, on the other-hand, hasn’t quite figured out how to do this. I believe this is mostly because we’ve forgotten the metaphors of front-line spiritual warfare, and have settled into a more comfortable existence of the religious social club. Often, a pastor is nothing more than the curator of a religious institution that exists for the comfort and safety of its members and not much thought for the “blind and naked and poor.” This isn’t universally true, but many congregations have lost the original missional attitude. However, there are many congregations that have sprouted to fill the void.

I never worked harder, or found greater rewards, then when I was starting a church from scratch. But make no mistake, this was dangerous work. In addition to being sucked into a dysfunctional cycle of workaholism (80+ hrs/week), there were very real risks to me and my family. We were subjected to physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and financial dangers. We were called to serve on the front lines, and we did – with our whole lives. Looking back on it now, I realize that about three or four years into our planting project, I was burned out. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it so well then.

I think I knew I was burned out, but without adequate organizational policies in place, I didn’t dare allow my mind to linger there too long. Both of us worked equally hard on the Common Ground project, but the payroll check was written in my name. If I asked for a leave of absence, my family would be left without an income. With a two-year old, and a new baby soon to arrive, The Wife was not in a position to take up her career as a nurse. We were essentially trapped.

Recently, a church planter friend of mine announced that he was going to take a six-12 month leave of absence. On the one hand, I praised him for recognizing the need. On the other, it made me angry that the organization would stop paying him during this time of recovery. He and his family have put themselves on the front-lines for several years, doesn’t it make sense that the organization would recognize that and take care of them – just like we would a firefighter who is injured – or a soldier who suffers PTSD?

Paul tells us that our battle is “not against flesh and blood,” yet all of our policies seem to be written for the “flesh and blood” realities – not the spiritual ones.

My friend has other advantages that we didn’t. (I’m not complaining, I’m celebrating! I’m glad he does.):

  • First, we were advised to not attempt a church start-up without a team. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have any say in that. My friend has an awesome team and I imagine the church plant will continue to thrive in his absence. Our project has essentially died since our departure. It is a mere shell of it’s former self.
  • Second, from what I can tell, my friends have a two-income household. This will soften the blow if they have to pare back to one salary. Granted, it will still be a challenge, but at least they’ll have some income.
  • And the third advantage is that my friend recognizes his burnout and is taking active steps to deal with it. I kept my burnout in the “denial” portion of my brain – “knowing” that neither I, my family, nor the church plant could survive if I admitted it.

In the Fall of 2005, my daughter was almost two years-old, and I realized that I couldn’t keep working 80+ hour days. The Conference offered to let me stay in a retreat cabin for a week and to reorder our priorities. Unfortunately, they ended up cutting that week down to three nights. It wasn’t enough time to recuperate, but it was enough time to make a change in priorities. In short (pun intended), it wasn’t enough.

The following Spring, we had an abundance of unused vacation time – plus a conference to attend in California. By pulling some strings, coordinating schedules, and the generous loan of a 5th-wheel RV and pick-up, we were able to spend five weeks on the road. It was one of the most awesome vacations of my life. Just me, my pregnant wife, and my two and a half year-old Darling Daughter. I didn’t ever want to come home!

I knew our absence would be a strain on the church plant, but we had to leave. Shortly after our return, despite my pleas for an extension, we were informed that full-time pastoral support was not going to be continued. Not only did we not make our never-clear financial and attendance goals, my leadership was also being called into question. Looking back on it, I understand it. At the time, I/we were greatly frustrated. I couldn’t afford to be burned out!

We had a baby due in just a few weeks, we loved our church, and we couldn’t afford to take a leave of absence. Financially we couldn’t afford to not work, and we loved our community to much to walk away. So, my friends in administration made the choice for me. I do wish they’d been a little more upfront about it. I also wish they had a light-duty option for pastors fresh from the front lines – but that’s another story for another blog.

Long story short, we were offered a position in another hurch, with another smaller church on the side. Within six-weeks of my son’s birth, we found ourselves settling into a new home, a new climate, and a whole new ministry. Although we remain convinced that God’s hand was in this, it was arguably the hardest challenge we have faced as a family. Not only did we leave some very dear friends behind – people that loved us, supported us, and treated our children like family – but moving, shortly after giving birth (especially to dreary, gray, Oregon), is not to be undertaken by the faint of heart.

The combination of church planting stressors, giving birth, a gray, Oregon Winter, and a cross-country move, plunged my beautiful wife into a terrible postpartum depression. For the next year, I was seriously concerned about the survival of my family. Unfortunately we had no immediate family to support us and we had left our very caring church family behind. Some at our new church tried to help, but there wasn’t the bond of deep friendship that we needed. We weren’t just struggling as a family, but we were greatly disappointed in the lack of support – we needed more.

Unfortunately, we’d been told that our new church was a progressive church. It became apparent early on that this wasn’t true. Although they did some things to make the service a little less old-fashioned, the church still possessed a traditional mindset – coupled with a fairly liberal theology. It was apparent to us that this church was not a good fit. We are theologically conservative and methodologically progressive, but the church is theologically liberal and methodologically traditional. Now what!?

If I felt trapped before we left our last church, I definitely felt trapped now. Not only could I not afford to take a leave of absence, but I was in a new Conference that was treating me like a rookie. I definitely didn’t believe I could talk about burnout now. But to add to my burnout recovery, we now had the postpartum issue to deal with. I didn’t dare admit to myself or others that I was burned out – I see this as a mistake.  It was not a safe environment.

Typical to my strengths, giftedness, nature, and pathology, I plunged into my work. Although I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the house, for the sake of my family, I performed a lot of tasks that set the stage for the future of the church. They told me that they wanted to grow, and I told them that would require significant, and painful change. Although they didn’t believe me, they said OK. I now understand that I didn’t set that stage very well and they didn’t understand what they were agreeing to.

I also told them, before I took the position, that I wouldn’t be doing the “typical” pastoral duties. I would be focused on leadership. Again, we probably needed to have more discussion in this arena, because I don’t believe they understood what they were agreeing to. I focused on discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development. Some of that includes leaving a vacuum in those areas and letting the church – especially the leadership – feel the pain when the pastor doesn’t fill those voids.

By not doing visitation, I was asking the elders to live up to their promise of taking on that task. I was asking the church to be The Church. Unfortunately, the members in the pew were not aware of this agreement and when they begin to complain, the elders blamed me for not doing my job. In talking this over with the Head Elder and Board Chair, we decided it would be unwise for me to change course and set a precedence of pastoral visitation. A year later, they seemed to have forgotten that advice.

I also refused to get bogged down in administrivia. We reformatted the leadership team and began working on a system that would allow various ministry directors to make decisions, empower their teams, and move forward without bringing every $5-10 item to the Board. While I knew this process would take years to actually catch hold, the stage was being set. But still, when leaders tried to push administrative tasks onto my desk, I pushed back.

The one thing I’ve noticed most in the Church is the lack of discipleship and spiritual formation. This was the issue Willow Creek noticed a few years ago and began a massive analysis and retooling of their methods. This is the issue Paul Borden is trying to address in his Hit the Bullseye books. This is the issue I saw being addressed by the Seminary when I was there 11 years ago. This is the issue I noticed when I first started attending church 35 years ago.

And this is the issue I most noticed when I arrived in this Conference. We had just arrived from a fresh, spiritually alive, and dynamic faith community.  It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but it was a breath of fresh air in a mostly spiritual wasteland. The man who recruited us led us to believe that the church was ready to do something significant. Either he doesn’t understand significance, or he lied to us. I don’t know which it is – but either way, he was wrong.

I remember talking to the leadership team about the early days of the Church and how I craved that kind of passion, unity, and commitment. I didn’t communicate it in very concrete terms. I had trouble boiling it down to a catch-phrase. I was asking them to get on the bus with me and take on a process of self-discovery – to see where God would take us. While a few were somewhat cognizant of what I was proposing, most were still caught up in the operations of the church – the administrivia.  I missed an opportunity to better cast vision, but I also didn’t have a very willing audience.

It was in the non-leaders of the church where I was experiencing the most buy-in. The people who were mostly ignored by the social and thought leaders, these were the people who understood a message of hope, change, and spiritual formation. It was exciting to see formerly disempowered people catch a vision of hope. We begin to see significant growth in these folks.  Many would give me quiet, behind-the-scenes affirmation.

While I knew I was on the right track – that is to speak to the brokenhearted, poor in spirit, and humble – I made a huge rookie mistake. In politics they call it “not speaking to your base.” The people that pay the bills, make the decisions, and have pull with my employer – some would consider this “my base.” I began to discount their opinions as narcissistic, uncaring, and irrelevant. And while I believe that to be true, this is not an approach that leads to sustainable employment.

I made some significant errors. I understand that. I’m not perfect. I wish I could do some things over – and I wish I could better communicate the vision God put on my heart. Unfortunately, I have to do battle in the armor I have – imperfect as it is. A more perfect church would be more forgiving of those errors, but this church didn’t want to forgive and I gave them plenty of reasons to feel that way.

The status quo leadership never likes to have their authority challenged. And believe me, I was challenging their moral authority. The system as it exists is based on social standing, power, and strength. I assert that spiritual health, humility, and character should be the determining factors of leadership. And while some of the leaders may not have “heard” me say this, I was saying it loud and clear!

In their defense, they accused me of being lazy (or, not working enough), being unloving/uncaring, and being disruptive to the church. Unfortunately, my employer accepted these accusations at face value and never sought my input. I can’t be too harsh on him, he was new in his position and was maybe a little too eager to appear strong enough to do the job. (While I have forgiven him intellectually, my heart still has a lot of healing to do.)  His actions didn’t demonstrate strength, but showed fear and weakness.

I tried to address these issues head-on, but in politics the straightforward approach rarely works. I sought compassion due to my family’s situation, but their refusal to understand that, only made me angrier (I crave Jesus’ example to the sleeping disciples). I tried to describe my work-life balance philosophy in light of how this ultimately benefits those I lead. I tried to describe how I filled the 60+ hours I work. All of this lead to a dead-end conversation.

The unloving/uncaring accusation was not a surprise to me. Due to my rough edges, introverted, and analytical ways – I’ve had this accusation leveled my way multiple times. I have room to improve in how I am perceived by others. The accusations of arrogance continue to haunt me.  However, I wouldn’t be engaged in the fight if I didn’t care. But recently, I figured it out. I cared more about the unchurched and barely churched, then I did about the solid members in good-standing. Especially when those good-standing members were being hurtful, and disempowering, to broken people.

But I still loved them. We were in the midst of a tough-love conflict that I wasn’t going to back down from. I cared about them too much to let them continue to wallow in this dysfunction. I know that conflict, handled well, will lead us all into greater community, intimacy, and spiritual health. When they fired me, I believe we all lost – but I grieve most for their loss. These power-players missed a great opportunity for greater understanding, stronger community, and deeper intimacy.

And by the way, I told them the changes we were going to make, in order to grow, would be disruptive. I told them the church would shrink before it would start growing. It’s like when my Dad had open-heart surgery. After the surgery he lost about 30-40% of his body weight and muscle-mass. He’s now back to his original weight, but he wouldn’t be alive today if he hadn’t endured the trauma and pain of that surgery. The church is in the same state. The church is dying. Unless we take some drastic steps, it will continue to grow more and more irrelevant.

Unfortunately, the pain of change was greater than the pain of remaining the same. They chose status quo over growth – and we have all paid a horrible price.

Recently, while having lunch with a pastor friend of mine, he mentioned that they just received their scores for the Natural Church Development Survey. While their highest characteristic was Functional Structures, their lowest was Passionate Spirituality. While this was really no surprise to me, I had an immediate light-bulb moment. This is the message I’ve been trying to convey. This is what I’ve been trying to say. This is the great need within the Church.

As a church, we do functional structures well, but unfortunately, we aren’t very passionate with our spirituality. And this is killing us. People don’t leave the church because the administrative structure is weak – they leave the church because it is irrelevant. People don’t leave the church because the budget is weak, they leave because the church doesn’t care. People leave because the church has the “form of godliness, but denies the power of God!

In fact, we are leaving more people disenchanted with the church, than we are losing through attrition.  People are staying away in droves!

I can get functional structures in my workplace. I can have loving relationships in my neighborhood, family, or civic club. I can have inspiring worship at a local mega-church, a traveling concert, or even in the car while playing awesome music. I’ve experienced holistic small groups at local 12-Step gatherings. I’ve had multiple opportunities to experience need-based outreach, and gift-oriented ministry through a number of secular organizations. Indeed, even empowering leadership can be found outside of the church.

But even though NCD will tell you that all eight are essential, and being low in just one area will hinder church growth, certainly the Church has certain areas where they should excel. To me, when The Church is low in passionate spirituality, it is dropping the ball. That’s why I belong to a community of faith. That is essential. If we are nothing more than a secular gathering of people, then what’s the point?

Ultimately, this was my beef with the church where I was assigned – and I now see that the lack of passionate spirituality goes deeper than just one or two congregations. It is systemic.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are individually passionate about their spirituality. And that’s not to say that there are not congregations who aren’t generally passionate in their spirituality. But I do understand now why I was being asked to preach the message of Jeremiah.  I also understand why the power-brokers at this particular church rejected this message.

At least they didn’t stone me, nail me to a cross, or saw me in to two pieces.

We’re still trying to shake the dust off – but we’re almost free.

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The Cost of Business

February 19, 2010 at 7:12 am (Leadership) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Shortly before I was terminated, we were in a regional staff meeting and were told that the denomination was bleeding $200k a month.  This would mean there would most likely need to be 10-12 FTEs cut from the budget.  A couple months later, my politically-motivated termination occurred.  One of my friends, who is skilled in the ways of the Church, explained it to me this way:  “You gave them a freebie,” he said.

In other words, because I’m a challenger of the status quo, they felt no emotional attachment to me, saw me as a threat to the organization, and had no qualms about pulling the plug.  The irony, of course, is that when things get tough, that is exactly when you want people who can see things differently and are passionate enough about the organization that they are willing to stand up to the establishment.

It isn’t hateful terrorism that motivates me.  It is passion to do the right thing – as opposed to doing (the wrong) things right.

Well, since last Spring, things have continued to get worse.  At a recent town hall meeting, the constituents were told that there would be approximately 25 additional FTEs cut.  Also, a $1,000,000 grant would not be paid to a local university – and some other budget cutting options, which include a 5% employee pay cut for.

(NOTE: Because pastors have not seen a cost-of-living pay raise in a couple of years, and now have had their pay cut by 5%, in effect they are making about 15% less than they were a few years ago.  However, the cost of living continued to increase during that same time.  This means that someone making $50k a few years ago, is essentially only making $43k now.)

During the course of this town hall meeting, it was made clear that the $1million grant obligation would be honored when the economy turned around.  This was probably due to the pressure put on the denomination by the president of the university, who upon receiving the news, immediately drove four hours to meet with the leadership and plead for that money.

One employee at the town hall meeting asked if the same salary obligations would be honored for employees?  In other words, would employees be reimbursed for the pay cuts they’ve endured over the past few years – including the recent 5% cut?  Though the president acknowledged the question, and though he didn’t actually answer the question, most were left with the impression that the answer was “no.”

Asked where the 25 FTEs would be cut, constituents were told that three or four would come from the approximately 50 administrative and support positions.  Five or six would be teachers.  The remaining 15 positions would be front-line pastoral positions.

If it’s true that “the resources are in the harvest (Matthew 17:27),” then one would wonder, “why cut front line personnel?”

Aren’t these pastors the very ones who will continue to grow the church?

Currently, 50-60% of operating budgets go to maintaining a parochial school system.  Teacher staffing levels are state-mandated – at least if the schools want to keep their accreditation.  Research has shown that there should be at least one FTE pastor for every 150 in attendance – and in order to grow the church, pastoral staff needs to be front-loaded and in place before the next 150 start attending.  Without excess pastoral capacity, the church is unlikely to grow.  Yet, in the past few years, most churches are not only not staffed for growth, they are understaffed for their current attendance levels.

I’m beginning to believe what George Barna, Frank Viola, Brian McLaren, and others have been saying for awhile.  We are witnessing the dismantling of the church.

I don’t believe this is an overt action on anyone’s part.  I don’t believe anyone has anything but the best of intentions.  It is merely a lack of courageous leadership and a willingness to do whatever it takes to push forward and not retreat into a state of irrelevance, impotence, and ineptitude.

What do you think?  Can the Church survive if we keep treating pastors like second-class employees (not only cutting their salaries and resources, but not taking their input when things get tough)?  What would you do if someone asked?

I’m asking…

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Shattered Living in Compromise

February 14, 2010 at 5:18 am (Introspection, Leadership, Musings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

So many thoughts flood my fragile soul.  Just when I think I have what it takes to step forward and conquer the challenges that lie before us, a light breeze blows across the landscape and smacks me to the ground.  Like a grocery bag in the wind, it doesn’t take much to toss me about.  Forget the storms of life, I can’t even get out of the harbor.

Too many tell me to move one, let it go, lay it down.  All of which are great suggestions – and I’m trying.  But it feels as if my soul is empty of any source, sauce, or sanity.

Tonight, I was awoken by my son crying in the other room.  My short two-hour nap left me now wide awake.  In the dark, as I contemplated my options, I wondered what I could do to stifle the voices tonight?  Often I’ll find release in some mindless Internet-fueled entertainment.  Other times I’ll peruse the news, finding solace in the plight of others and the reminder that I am not alone, yet even quite blessed.  Often, sleep is elusive and only in the dawn do I begin to succumb to the fatigue of another sleepless night.

Formal, verbalized prayers are uncommon from my lips during times of trouble.  These past few months have been no different.  I rely on the promise that the Spirit interprets my groanings and cries.  Sometimes, during our walk down the beach-heads of life, we have to be carried into battle.  The alternative is to lie wounded in the surf and wait for the waves of the incoming tide to engulf our soon-to-be, lifeless bodies.  I don’t mind being carried.

Tonight, I lifted my family in prayer.  Tears fill my eyes as I realize I haven’t had the energy, means, or cognition to extend my thoughts outside of my own embryonic isolation.  As I prayed for my wife, my daughter, and my son – I felt the assurance and strength of my God.  I know He has been carrying them too.

In many ways, we will all carry scars from these events – and I don’t mind the wounds.  I’ve been wounded before.  Ultimately, these scars will blend with the others I carry; but my family?  This is a different story entirely.  The innocence lost – as I watch it ebb from their hearts, I begin to feel some of the pain Jesus must have felt as He stood on that lonely hill overlooking Jerusalem, surrounded by the crowd, He wept.  He wept for the souls lost and the pain of the process.

I would have stopped attending church awhile ago – had it not been for the needs of my family.  The Church is broken and has lost it’s focus, mission, and vision.  People perishing within the walls of a superficial community, but there seems to be no recognition of the blood pooling in the Foyer.  My faith in God has not wavered, but I continue to seek a community who are equally faithful and passionate.  A community that can lead and carry a broken family forward.

A couple of weeks ago, as I sat here writing, I received a text message on my phone: “I’m done with that church.  Let’s take the kids to SS and then go to the beach – or hiking or something?

I finished what I was working on, and retired to our bedroom.  After crawling into bed, I asked her if she meant that?  My heart barely containing my glee.  We talked at length, and that following weekend after the kids spent time in their classes, we drove to the beach and had a great afternoon!

It felt as if the pressure had been lifted from my shoulders – it’s the best gift I’ve received in ages.  And yet, I’m not sure this is a survivable plan for us.  When she speaks of church, which is never far from our conversational topics, I’ve noticed an increasing cynicism in my wife’s words and tone.  While this, in and of itself isn’t bad – it does pain me to see the innocence lost.  I’m one who has always thought that a healthy dose of cynicism will protect us from untoward abuse – but we were created to live innocent lives.

It is the love of God that sustains us.  I need Him to fill me to overflowing.  I need the overflow, not for myself – mind you, but for the care and thirsts of my family.  They need me to be back in the game.  Pray for us.

Lyrics to Washed By The Water (Needtobreathe):

Even when the rain falls
Even when the flood starts rising
Even when the storm comes
I am washed by the water

Daddy was a preacher
She was his wife
Just tryin to make the world a little better
You know, shine a light
People started talking
Trying to hear their own voice
Those people tried to accuse my father
Said he made the wrong choice
Though it might be painful
You know that time will always tell
Those people have long since gone
My father never failed

Even if the Earth crumbles under my feet
Even if the ones I love turn around and crucify me
I won’t never ever let you down
I won’t fall
I won’t fall
I won’t fall as long as you’re around me

[ Washed By The Water Lyrics on http://www.lyricsmania.com/ ]

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