Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Doesn't God Choose the Leaders?"

Last week my boss was relieved of command.  He makes the fourth leader at my level or above who has been prematurely removed from authority since I took command 19 months ago.  Every one of the class of leaders I came in with has now departed early and under a cloud.  I feel very much like the last guy with his torch still burning in a game of "Survivor"--except there's no million dollar prize.

Those of us who are selected for command generally feel honored and privileged, but also confident that we have the leadership talent to succeed.  However, we serve at the pleasure of our superiors, and if we lose their confidence the "hook" can come quickly.  What's more, military units are large and diverse, and at any given time there is bound to be some activity going on which, if manifest, can reflect badly on the leader.  Too many of these at once can result in such a "loss of confidence".

If the leader is able to build up a track record of success, he can explain the bad news in the context of the good.  However, with the leaders above him constantly rotating as well, the need to re-prove his worth is a constant battle.  I experienced this last year about this time, when a series of incidents reflected poorly on my unit and my new wing commander was clearly very concerned about what was occurring in the Honor Guard.  Fortunately I was given the time and opportunity to prove that not every cluster of negatives is a "trend", and his confidence grew over time.

The team above me now is again almost entirely new, and I cannot assure them that there will not be some other negative news coming out of my squadron at any time.  That is the nature of things ... there are 270 Airmen in my unit, 80% of whom are very young, having come to me directly from Basic Training.  Though they are hand-picked for this assignment, their selection was based on a very minimal track record and some number of them will get in trouble ... a few in very visible ways.  Tomorrow may well surface some new devilry.

I have learned many lessons about this over the years, but one of the simplest and yet most profound came from a friend of mine when I was a 20-year-old Airman at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.  I'd wanted very much to become a "green rope", which Air Force enlisted members will recognize as a student leadership position.  It was a small step in a big world, but at that point in life it seemed very important.  When I talked to my friend about it, he saw my anxiety over the selection process and asked very simply:  "Doesn't God choose the leaders?"

As I said, a very simple question, but hardly simplistic, and I have never forgotten it. I serve at the pleasure of the Air Force, but even more so, I serve at the pleasure of the Lord.  By His help and according to His will, I will see this mission to the end and stand upon the Ceremonial Lawn this summer to hand the flag to my successor as a celebration of a successful 2-year command assignment.

If for any reason I do not, however,  I will yet trust and praise Him, for His ways are good.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What About the "Mean" God?

One thing about social networking is that deep theological discussions can emerge out of thin air. Such was the case yesterday, when a dear friend of mine posted a celebration of God's goodness:
"But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness." - Psalm 86:15
Now who could dispute such a wonderful, affirming statement? Well, actually, Ned could.  He did so by quoting what he believed was a contradictory passage ...
‎"While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was discovered gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who caught him at it brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly. But they kept him in custody, for there was no clear decision as to what should be done with him. Then the Lord said to Moses, "This man shall be put to death; let the whole community stone him outside the camp." So the whole community led him outside the camp and stoned him to death as the Lord had commanded Moses." Numbers 15:32-36 NAB
Ned intended to dispute my friend's assertion that our God is "compassionate and gracious", "slow to anger" and "abounding in love". Now before you respond with righteous indignation, consider that Ned has truly struck near the core of a basic theological argument against Biblical Christianity ... that the loving God whom we celebrate is essentially a bipolar dictator, capricious and arbitrary in judgment while dangling before us hopes of clemency dressed up as "mercy". Or, in Ned's words:
God (as portrayed in the Bible((which version?)) does not sound compassionate to me, or slow to anger, or loving. He actually exhibits several personality types. Sometimes he is loving, and sometimes he is very full of rage. I guess I draw issue with the cherry picking of the "nice" God and the forgetfulness of the "mean" God.
I wonder how many in the church know how to respond to this kind of criticism? I fear our inclination is rather to forget about the "mean" parts of the Old Testament (or even the New) and dodge such questions when they arise, for in fact we have not settled the problem in our own minds. To neglect them, however, not only makes us poor witnesses, it indicates a failure to come to know our God as He is.

Here I will quote from my own Facebook comments (directed at Ned):
The idea of a man facing the death penalty for a seemingly innocuous crime shocks our sensibilities because our perspective is a man-centered one, but consider an analogy ...
I am the commander of a military organization. I recently discharged a young man who told a lie. Actually, he committed perjury before a court-martial, but in his mind all he did was lie a little to protect his friend. In his "morality", what he did wasn't really so bad, and certainly not enough to lose his career over. From the military's perspective, he committed a felony offense and was unfit for continued service. He never really "got it" and left bitter and angry, because he never was able to grasp the larger context of his offence.
God is the largest context there is. He is the author, creator and sustainer of all things. As such, He is perfectly right to expect us to obey Him in all things, but we disobey Him flagrantly and constantly. Every such transgression is worthy of death, but instead in His mercy He sent Jesus to bear the sins of all men who follow Him. This is why those who do follow Jesus can say that God is both just (to punish sin) and merciful (to lay our sins upon His own son, who freely bore them for our sake). Hence:
"For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:2-3)
This explains our amazement over grace. For if our sins were not an offence to the God of heaven, there would be no need of grace. Instead, as those who have been delivered from certain death, we celebrate life everlasting by the grace and mercy of our God.
Ned proclaimed himself astonished: "I honestly did not believe anybody could defend killing somebody for picking up sticks." This makes sense, for in the context of his theology the two "personalities" of God are incompatible. He lacks the godly context. In his words: "God is still hardly compassionate, or loving if he holds us 'lesser beings' to an impossible standard, and sentences death to those who transgress."

From a man-centered perspective, his reasoning is understandable, though no less wrong. The church needs to relearn how to answer him, for his sake as well as our own:
Gathering wood on the Sabbath in OT Israel signified more than just a need for more firewood. It signified a blatant and public disregard for God's holy law ... The theme throughout Scripture is that the infinite, eternal, almighty God is holy, holy, holy! Our refusal to regard Him as such (for example, by flagrantly breaking His commandments) is a sign of our arrogance--very serious business indeed. The fact that we are so dismissive of His holiness is what makes his compassion so remarkable.
Grace is "amazing" only in light of our sin and God's holiness.  We proclaim a gospel of peace with God, which means little to a world -- and a church -- which doesn't recognize that absent Christ's interceding work, our sin has put us at war with Him.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Before You Fire Your Pastor ...

I spoke recently with an old friend whose church is struggling to reconcile with their pastor.  The pastor has become isolated from his congregation, and the church has now entered a period of decline.  My friend is one of two elders left.  He recently tried to talk privately about some concerns the church had, but the pastor immediately cut off the conversation, insisting he was not answerable to anyone but God.  My frustrated friend says he "exploded" at that point, and told the pastor he believed the pastor was telling him he had no need for him as an elder.

Now, knowing my very humble and godly friend, his "explosion" was probably not nearly as bad as he makes it sound. In fact, I found the fact it happened at all to be especially remarkable, given what a mature and even-tempered man he generally is. It also got me thinking afresh about what the "pastor" is in 21st century America.

Now, I'll leave to smarter people the question of how we got here, but I'd like to begin with a basic premise about the church today:  The entity which we currently refer to as "the local church" in America is substantially different that it was in the first century, in part because the environment in which it operates is so much changed. 

For example, the church is a legal entity under state oversight (think tax law, building codes, insurance requirements, etc.)  The pastor himself generally is not merely the shepherd of the flock, he is the flock's sole or primary employee.  While he is indeed ultimately responsible to God, he is judged tangibly and routinely by those he leads ... those whose commitment to him is only as high as the perceived cost of either leaving the church or of firing him and hiring a new leader.   

Moreover, the Reformation forever changed the local-church environment, in that there is no longer a single "local church", but an eclectic collection of local entities which alternately cooperate and compete for the hearts and minds and attention of the surrounding population.  One effect of this on the local congregant is to erode his or her commitment to any particular body of believers.  Switching churches is easy and makes a host of problems go away, rather like "no-fault" divorce.  Angry?  Disillusioned?  Frustrated?  Embarrassed?  Bored?  No problem!  There's another church in your neighborhood waiting with open arms to take you in with no questions asked!

These developments have a cumulative effect on the individual we call our "pastor".  Today's pastor is more than just the shepherd of the flock.  Because he has been hired into a full-time position, the church expects him to take a large share of the workload.  While Scripture may instruct us that "God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues", in reality we generally expect the pastor we've hired to be most or all of these things, as well as the church's chief administrator and errand-runner, and to deliver a relevant, timely and uplifting sermon every week. Oh, and of course to lead the church through disciplining the wayward member firmly and gently without offending anyone or dividing the church.  Good luck with that.

With such a daunting list of demands, what is the threshold for entry into the cadre of pastor candidates?  For most churches, it is a theological one; that is, graduation from an approved seminary and acceptance by the denomination's endorsing body.  Generally there has been some amount of training in counseling, administration, teaching, preaching, etc., at least in seminary.  However, actually possessing any of these gifts and talents is another matter.  For the congregation, however, it is assumed that anyone who is qualified to be pastor must have sufficient training to handle the job description, regardless of gifts.  After all, we're all very busy and the pastor is getting paid to be all things to all men (with God's help, amen?).

This brings me back to my friend's pastor, who declared himself "answerable to no one but God."  You might find it remarkable that anyone in this environment might fail to see the extent to which he is dependent on the warm feelings of his flock.  Well, insecurity takes many forms, and one common to pastors is to become isolated and defensive.  Because the pastor is expected to be all things to all members, the temptation to hide behind a facade can seem necessary to avoid being perceived as weak or flawed in any way. This is in addition to the role that arrogance plays in turning us from correction.

Ultimately, of course, the pastor is not just the leader but also a member of the church.  He faces the same temptations, some with greater frequency and intensity than the average congregant.  He will sometimes need help:  personal, financial, emotional, spiritual, etc.  He will also probably be more hesitant to ask for it, because he is both pastor and employee and therefore feels the pressure to keep up appearances and show himself fully capable.

A wise church will try to provide the pastor a zone in which he can feel safe in seeking the fellowship of the saints -- and can receive some accountability and honest feedback -- without the threat of rash judgment or gossip.  The church's elders should regularly meet and pray with the pastor, establishing an environment of openness, trust and confidence.  This is far from easy, and is why my friend felt so frustrated with his pastor; as an elder he had been trying to fulfill this role, but had been unable to penetrate the pastor's defenses.

Before you fire your pastor, consider that he is also a man.  Consider that he has been hired to fulfill a near-impossible set of demands.  Consider that while he is seldom alone, he may be the loneliest member of your congregation.  Most importantly, remember always that God has raised him up, for "Who can lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless?"