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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You Can’t Lead Your Employer, Can You?

January 13, 2010 at 2:55 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I was called to lead.  Every cell of my being has been honed from the same DNA.  The experiences of my past have taught me to ignore the bastards, damn the torpedoes, and to charge forward with fresh memories of the Nazis bombing Pearl Harbor!  It’s what I I’ve been called to do.

In the past several years I’ve been a part of a movement within Adventism to restructure the administrative, bureaucratic, and leadership systems of the church.  It has been fun, and challenging.  In a nutshell, this involved moving from a democratic system, to a leadership-driven system.  To move from an elected board that sees itself as the boss, to a board that provides accountability and boundaries to the leader.

Where this has been done, outside of Adventism, it has worked well – sometimes.  However it requires senior leadership to be well differentiated and to not have a failure of nerve.  Both of these are a lot to ask.  In fact, this is quite a battle, and those with whom I was working with have all suffered a lot of setbacks.  Our general was removed from his position and is now in exile in SE Asia.  His assistant is learning to keep her head down and not make eye-contact, while she continues to tweak the system from the sidelines.  Several of us field officers have either been removed, or voluntarily left our positions.  It doesn’t look like the battle is being won right now.

I was talking to a friend the other day and as we talked about and around these issues, he mentioned that the reason he left his previous church is because he didn’t see this “mixed system” working.  I paused a long time as I tried to absorb the import of what he just said.  “What did that mean?” I thought.

This morning, I awoke with a thought.  I think I figured it out.

You can’t lead the people who employ you.  You may have the illusion that you lead them, but as soon as you try to hold them accountable, they will turn on you and you’ll find yourself unemployed.

The New Testament model of church leadership is apostolic.  Christ, as the head of the church, which is His body.  Jesus left the 12 apostles in charge, and through their leadership, teaching, and spiritual discipling, they led the church forward.  Neither Old Testament, or New, the church has never operated on a democratic model.

If Christ gives the leader, or pastor, a vision of where He wants the church to go, it is up to the pastor to carry that out.  In most cases, as long as these ideas and the pastor’s leadership are not too radical, everything will be fine.  In fact, many church congregations will give the illusion that they are following.  Yet as soon as the pastor begins to lead differently, outside the normal channels, or even in a radical way – the members and lay board will have some tough choices to make.

Will they continue to follow, or will they stand up and exercise their power?

My experience this past year was just this.  Upon hiring me, they told me they wanted a leader and they agreed to my terms of leadership.  But when things got outside of their comfort zone, they wrested leadership away from me and scoffed and the very idea that a pastor would be their leader.  They asserted that it was their church and they are the leaders.

As this debated continued on over the next several months, some of these core lay leaders grew impatient with my unwillingness to surrender to their demands.  Not only was I not called to be a puppet, but I was called to correct the issues prevalent in this congregation.  It would be immoral for me to abandon the people I was fighting for – and leave them in the hands of this proud lot who were ignoring these invisible and discarded people.

I don’t mind a bit of conflict, in fact I know that healthy conflict can lead to better, more intimate relationships.  I was content working through the issues, but as I mentioned in a recent post, at some point the men I was in conflict with chose the nuclear option.  Instead of staying in the discussion, they went to my employer – and the employer, instead of working through healthy conflict mediation, chose to eliminate what they saw as the problem – me.

That’s really too bad, because no matter how badly Imy family and I were hurt by this, ultimately, the church we were leading suffers the most.  The people we were standing up for were hurt, but once we get our feet back under us, we can still serve and empower them.  It is those who missed the opportunity to grow, missed an opportunity to serve others, and missed an opportunity to see things differently – they are hurt the worst.  In their ignorance, they will continue to muddle along – but ultimately, and spiritually, they are the biggest losers.

It’s quite sad – and it helps me to understand why Jesus wept as He looked down on Jerusalem the week before He was crucified.

The wise person will listen to those they aren’t required to listen to – no matter how painful the message.

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Information, Gossip, or Just Voyeurism – (what about grace?)

January 4, 2010 at 11:47 am (change, First Impressions, Musings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Upon being ejected from our previous church, my wife stepped over my bleeding body and quickly transfered our membership to another church.  This was exactly the right thing to do.  It falls in line with the “women and children first” model of survival.  I would not only expect, but hope that she would do the same thing if our house caught on fire, or our car plunged into an icy river.  I had enough energy to take care of myself, but my mangled and bloodied pysche was too weak to look out for the family.

She was looking to maintain a platform of stability that would allow our children to feel safe, despite the storm raging around us.  In fact, to this day, one of my kids continues to cry about missing her former friends and prays regularly that we be allowed to return to that church.

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