Monday, June 11, 2007

Two Down, One to Go!

It is hard to believe that 2 years have already gone by. If I have learned one thing in my second year, it is this: three years is not enough time to learn everything you want to know about God and how to be an effective minister for Him; a lifetime is not enough time. Although I am told I am in one of the most academically rigorous M.Div programs and have spent the last two years doing little more than studying, I still feel like there is so much that I do not know. I have learned things that I did not know I did not know, and there is still so much to learn!

One of my prayers for this year was for God to give me some clarity about my future. Where should I focus my attention? Should I pursue a Ph.D. and teach, or work in the local church? I feel like God has sent me the message loud and clear: “I need you in the local church. That's where you belong.” As I think back over the events of the past year, I cannot help but think about a trip my wife and I made to Mepkin Abbey outside of Charleston, SC. During the visit, I began to envy the time the monks had to study. Wouldn't it be great to live a life that is fully devoted to the study of God and obtaining a deeper relationship with him. The monks did not have to worry about pleasing a board of deacons, interviewing with search committees, or keeping a congregation happy. What a life! As I sit here writing this letter, I can hear that still, small voice telling me, “That's not the life I have chosen for you. I need you to be out with my people, caring for them, loving them, and sharing what you have learned.” Like the old hymn says, “Wherever he leads, I'll go,” so the focus of my third year will be preparing for work in the local church and then looking for the place where God wants me to serve.

Those of you who know me well know what a hard decision this has been. My own experiences and the experiences of other Wake students help explain why there are so few students who plan to work full time in the local church. The church is broken. We have to do better. We have to do MUCH better. How do we do that? I think the best place to start is with a statement made by Dr. Frank Campbell, former pastor at FBC Statesville and former president of Gardner-Webb University, at the funeral of one of FBC Statesville's christian educators Leath Johnson. Campbell said that he gave all seminary students that there are 3 things they have to do if they want to be successful in church work. First, they have to work hard. While this is great advice for church work, it equally applies to secular jobs as well. Perhaps the biggest difference, however, between secular and church work is the amount of work and number of skills required of minister. The senior pastor is expected to be the CEO, the preacher, a counselor, and a chaplain just to name a few. It is nearly impossible for one person to do all of these things well, but we are expected to try.

Secondly, a minister has to love his congregation. This advice obviously mirror's Jesus' commandment that we love one another. Let's face it, there are some people who are pretty unlovable, but, as a minister or even just as a Christian, we are called to love them. This is why I believe this year's resolution by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina is wrong. I believe that removing congregations that allow homosexuals to become members is ignoring Jesus' commandment that we love one another. There are plenty of people who will probably disagree with me on that statement, but I believe they fail to take into account the second part of John 13:34. Jesus continues by saying, "as I have loved you." Jesus loved his disciples unconditionally. Jesus loved the adulterous woman in John 8 unconditionally. Notice there is nothing in that text that says the woman confessed her sin or stopped sinning, but Jesus showed compassion for her anyway. By not allowing homosexuals to become members of our churches are we not making them second class people? Are we not loving them a little bit (or maybe even a lot) less than we are loving everyone else? Is this what Jesus had in mind when he told us to love one another? He loved us so much he died for us? How many of us can say we love the unlovable that way?

Finally, Dr. Campbell said that a minister should always tell the truth. This is where the church can and should be very different from the secular world. The church is not all about the bottom line. The church is not about manipulating the data in such a way that it hides or distorts the truth. The truth is often not pretty, but that does not remove our obligation to tell the truth. Martin Luther is quoted as saying, "Peace if possible, but truth at all costs." When we make a decision, as a minister of the church, we should be able to stand up at the pulpit or in a business meeting and explain how and why we made the decision we did. If we have to hide behind lies, distortion, or secrecy, the wrong decision was probably made. Church health or church healing or protecting our jobs are not reasons to stray from the truth. "Peace if possible, but truth at all costs."

I believe the church is broken, but I also believe in a God that is more than able to transform brokenness into wholeness. But, He is only able to do that if his leaders are willing to follow him. That is what I hope to do in my ministry. It is my hope that a new generation of church leaders will be able to fix what is broken and help bring the church closer to what God wants it to be.

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