Wednesday, August 17, 2011



Most mainline Christian denominations now insist that their pastors undergo continuing education, or submit 'Personal Development Programs.' This is good: all the professions where people interact with other human beings are expected to sustain a high quality of professional competence. These are reviewed every five years, usually. And, human nature being what it is, we need inducements (usually a re-accreditation of some sort) to follow the path of pursuing excellence.


Fred, a Pentecostal pastor who had 'successfully' planted half a dozen churches (successful, in that they all survived for at least another ten years!) was sent to me for counselling by his superintendent. Fred was unfit physically - he'd rarely watched his diet or got enough sleep. He'd sometimes 'pray' with people for half the night, in a ministry of 'deliverance/healing'. His worth, he told me, was geared to his 'success' as a church planter. Whereas some of his colleagues could boast about numbers in one congregation, he felt good about the total combined attendances in all the churches he'd planted. But he was now burned out.

I ran my 'burnout check-list' by him, including these questions:

* How rigorous is your weekly sabbath? (Almost never)

* How often have you had four weeks' holiday in a calendar-year? (Ditto)

* Who's your mentor / spiritual director? (Didn't have one, though he talked about problems when they 'got too much' with a senior colleague)

* Do you have an outside hobby/interest? (No)

* Do you have a habit of reading stimulating books? (No, 'I only need the Bible!')

* Were either of your parents addicted to anything? (Yes, 'my father to ministry, and his father to alcohol')

* What were the issues between you and your father? (There were plenty. His father was too busy ministering to others to attend to his family. He was brought up by his mother and elder sister)

* What gives you a buzz? (Fifty people asking for prayer at the front of the meeting)

* What do you believe about healing? ('God would heal everything, instantly, if only I had
enough faith.' He had no knowledge that the Bible he read every day also had a theology of redemptive suffering in it)

* What is your definition of 'right doctrine'? (A very narrow 'end-time' fundamentalism which did not cope with any 'errors' by his people)

* Have you ever changed your mind about anything? (Once. He'd accepted the 'Toronto Blessing' theology and practice, but later rejected it)

* How does the devil get to you? (Internet porn in the small hours when his wife was asleep).

* And so on.

Fred was a 'classic'. I want to pick up on the theological issues at this point.

One of Charles de Gaulle's most famous questions was his comment on French politics in 1962: 'How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?'

Well, how do we lead/teach a church with varieties of theological beliefs and religious experiences? First, let us affirm both that individuals may be guided differently in their quest to understand and relate to a mysterious God; and that 'God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.' So we respect the varying faith-journeys of our people. We do not have to be insecure/sectarian, nailing down everything. Orthodox Christianity affirms ambiguity and mystery; the sectarian groups can't cope with ambiguity - or diversity. That said, if a church is not, at its core, 'evangelical', history teaches us it will die! The mainline churches around the world that have lost touch with their evangelical roots are all declining. People want to know that there are biblical answers to the issues of their lives!

Life is also to be accepted as paradox, which is simply to acknowledge the depth and complexity of reality. The risk-taker expects life to be this way, and responds not in despair (we can know nothing) nor in arrogance (what we don't know isn't important), but in enquiring humility (we know something, but there is yet more and more to know). The challenge for the fundamentalist is to move beyond 'simplicity this side of complexity'. For the liberal it's to move to 'simplicity the other side of complexity'. To be absolutely conservative is to deny the possibility of growth, and reality's being a moving, flowing process. But conversely, to ignore tradition and history altogether is just as immature. We are to be 'polytemporal' - not living only in the past (with the nostalgics) or the future (with the idealists), nor even (with the hippies) only in the present. 'We must not wander in times not our own' as Helmut Thielicke warns, but learn from them and act with courage and insight.

The last thing the church and our nation needs at this time are simple-minded conformists or estranged antagonists. Both conformity and alienation are somewhat childish/immature. Rather we are called to accept mystery, to live with paradox, to take risks, to opt for redemption, to be faithful to him who commissions us to go into the world and make disciples.

As the world gets more pluralistic/secularistic and complicated, fundamentalisms of all kinds will continue to proliferate. More and more people, in all religions (and indeed in all ideologies) will find refuge in 'simplicity this side of complexity'. So we must encourage people to read, learn, grow, think. Does your church have a well-stocked bookstall, with regular book reviews from the pastors/leaders? Who was the church leader who said, when asked whether he was conservative or liberal: 'On matters I've thought about, I'm liberal; on other matters I'm conservative'. Fundamentalists may think too little, liberals too much! Both may lose the plot, in different ways. But to be fair to both, they are answering different questions. Fundamentalists want to know what, put in basic language, is to be our authority for faith and practice, assuming our God has revealed some absolutes for us? Liberals are asking: how can God's truth be applied in shifting cultural circumstances, consonant with Jesus' ethic of love? So how can we provide forums for conservatives and moderates/liberals to talk/pray together?

This also touches on the issue of 'double-binds' in the practice (as well as the theology) of ministry. 'Double binds' consist of two or more contradictory expectations placed on a person. All these expectations cannot be met; it's impossible. When faced with a double bind, no matter what you do, you are inevitably wrong. 'When you're wrong, you're wrong, and when you're right, you're wrong.'

Most ministry double-binds can be hard to detect, because some of the contradictory expectations are unspoken. You discover you were in an impossible situation when you fail.

Here's one list of Double Binds for Pastors (from the viewpoint of churchgoers):

* We want you to guide us and help us grow, but don't change anything substantial in the church because we like it the way it is.

* You should have a model family, but we also want you to pick up when we call and be present at evening meetings.

* Be intimate, caring, compassionate. Hold a hand, put an arm around a shoulder, meet with people alone to hear their deepest concerns. But don't put yourself in a compromising situation, and you can't have sexual desires or drives.

* We can get angry with you, but you can't get angry with us. The farthest you can go is to be 'concerned.'

* I can move away to take a better job, but if you do, Pastor, you have to couch it as God's leading you - against your will. (These last two are 'double standards').

You can list more. Ambiguity is not only theological, it's very practical - or impractical!


Effective pastors like thinking! They love new ideas and hang around people who challenge them! They follow their curiosity; they ask questions; they keep files of useful material and ideas, and tend to study for advanced degrees. They read editorial/ background articles in newspapers and on the Internet; subscribe to a scholarly journal that is 'outside' their field; they're interested in management and leadership trends. They listen to books on tape (many video stores now rent audio books) - both professional and literary. When we stop growing intellectually, we die!

So we will affirm change (and wonder why we ever sang so piously 'Change and decay in all around I see'!!). George Bernard Shaw used to talk about those who were 'dead at thirty and buried at sixty'. Surely this tragic approach to change, when the young stop seeing visions and the old stop dreaming dreams, is nothing short of a 'living death'. People have always had a horror of being buried alive, but what of the tragedy of dying long before you are buried? The only constant thing is change, so the only authentic lesson in life is 'learning never to stop learning'. For the disciple of Christ all of life must be seen as a process of growth. We remain students forever.

There ought to be bookstalls, audio- book- and video-libraries, printed sermon outlines, study-guides, etc., to supplement the spoken word. And you can pick a preacher who isn't doing careful study and reflection in the first three minutes. Our people deserve better. An hour in the study for each minute in the pulpit was Fosdick's suggestion!

9-3 PREACHING. Did you hear the story about the pastor who when he shook hands with the congregation leaving the church, a little boy looked up with a closed fist said, 'Here, I have something for you.' The pastor opened his hand and the little boy dropped a small coin into it. Not wanting to hurt the boy's feeling he simply smiled and said, 'Thank you.' Well, it did not end -- the next Sunday and the next -- the same thing. Finally, the pastor couldn't take it any more; he had to know what was up. He called the boy aside and talked with him, 'I really appreciate the gifts but why are you doing it?' 'Well,' said the boy, 'I just wanted to help you --- my dad says you are the poorest preacher we have ever had.'

Christianity is 'the religion of the Word'. When we speak, we disclose ourselves: so does God. God has spoken in various ways - nature, history, conscience, prophets and ultimately in his Son (Hebrews 1:1,2).

'Going to worship', of course, is more than 'going to preaching'. The question we Protestants hear from someone who missed church was, 'What did the preacher say?'

Preaching is not done well in many churches. Homilies in many 'liturgical' churches are polite sermonic essays which won't offend - or change - anybody. Well-educated preachers in some mainline churches fill their sermons with theological abstractions. Pentecostal preaching is sometimes a loud reiteration of exhortations lacking theological substance. And other churches which may have better preaching often don't know how to be 'lost in wonder, love and praise' in their worship.

Good preaching on its own will not fill churches any more, but bad preaching will still empty them. The preacher stands between heaven and earth, speaking for God to us, and strengthening our faith, hope and love. Good preaching is inspired and inspiring, bringing the Bible to life, and life to the Bible: it is rooted in the biblical text but relevant to our needs. It is interesting, warm, humble (the preacher is a sinner needing grace too), dialogical and interactive. Preaching, according to Phillips Brooks' famous dictum is 'communicating truth through personality'. The best preachers are 'bilingual', understanding the terminology of theology, but also communicating plainly in the language of the people.

The era of preaching is by no means over - I believe it never will be. In a better-educated church a declamatory style ought to give way to what John Claypool (The Preaching Event) calls 'confessional' preaching. Again, good preaching is evangelical (people won't follow an uncertain sound) and the best method, I believe, is expository (though it's a great challenge to make expository preaching interesting and life-related).

May I suggest four essential characteristics of authentic preaching:


As we said before, Baby Boomers and GenX'ers are the first adults in history to be raised on the mass media. Television, radio, rock music and computers have shaped the way they view reality. But they don't feel at home in the traditional church; it's boring, quite frankly.

So preaching to Baby Boomers and young people will have to be relevant and interesting - and dramatic. Study Tony Campolo's 'sermons' for an example of superb communication to these groups.

One way to reach these generations is through stories. Parables, stories, are good preaching in any culture and to any age-group. They appeal to the imagination. More than half of the Bible - both Old and New Testaments - is narrative.

Try something different sometimes. How about a sermon preached from behind the congregation, or from the middle of a row, or with a child in your arms? If preaching about the prodigal son, maybe interview the various people in the prodigal's family (including a neighbour and the family's pastor!). I heard of one re-enactment of this story which ended with the elder brother hitting his father: quite unforgettable! But don't be 'gimmicky' for its own sake: always explain the reason for changes. Does the sermon always have to come 'after half-time'? Can it be broken up sometimes, and interspersed with other worship-activities to reinforce the main points made?


That is, it must have a teaching component. But good preaching is not simply imparting information. It aims at 'transformation'.

How do we mature in our faith and life? How do we develop a sensitive Christian conscience, a strong desire to live obediently to the word of God, a love for Bible study and prayer, a dedicated commitment to ministries of evangelism, mercy and justice? A discussion of teaching must work backwards from these questions.

When asked 'What or who were the formative influences in your life?' most people name a parent or teacher. 'I teach' says US professor of the year 1983, Peter Beidler, 'because I see people grow and change in front of my eyes. Being a teacher is being present at the creation, when the clay begins to breathe. Nothing is more exciting than being nearby when the breathing begins... I teach because, being around people who are beginning to breathe, I occasionally find myself catching my breath with them.'

In the church at Antioch Paul and Barnabas majored on teaching (Acts 11:26). This church had a list of their teachers (Acts 13:1: does yours?). The religion of Israel was a teaching religion (see eg. Exodus 18:20, Deuteronomy 6:1): the law of Moses was first a lesson, then a command. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher (eg Mark 1:38), and commanded his followers to go into the world and teach all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). The early Christian churches took seriously the function of teaching (Acts 13:1, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11). The purpose of Timothy's teaching, Paul says, was to 'arouse the love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith' (1 Timothy 1:5). Christian leaders should be able, or apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). 'Bible teaching' is therefore much more than a 'jug to mug' approach: it's meant to produce better-behaved rather than merely better-informed Christians.

Preaching without teaching can be propaganda: by-passing people's minds to get them to make a commitment they don't fully understand. And teaching without persuasion can be dry, sterile dogma.

Use drama, dance, mime, and audio-visuals to assist in 'sitting where the readers first sat'. God wants his word understood; the Scriptures were written in the common languages of their day, so use a translation closest to the language we speak (eg. the New Revised Standard Version). After Scripture is read, let us be silent to listen with the heart.


This is hardest for pastors. I recently re-read Reinhold Niebuhr's Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic. If ever there was a twentieth century prophet par excellence it was Niebuhr. About prophets he writes that they're likely to be itinerants ('we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of the church' p.74). And 'the church does not seem to realise how unethical a conventionally respectable life may be' (p.118). So it's easier for pastors to preach about charity than justice. It's also difficult for a pastor to be prophetic without being cynical ('I don't want anyone to be more cynical than I am' p.158). If you have to choose between bitterness and blandness, choose the former; but 'speaking the truth in love' is always our aim...

Prophets are always radical. There's the rub. Remember Woody Allen's movie about Leonard Zelig? Filmed in documentary style, Zelig purportedly recounts the life and times of a 'chameleon man' who was so completely compliant than his physical appearance changed to accommodate his companions. Talking to some Orthodox rabbis, he sprouts a beard and side curls. In a Chinese laundry his features become Asian. To psychiatrists he utters a lot of psychobabble...

Good preaching contains both heat and light: heat without light leaves us scorched and brittle; light may help us 'see' (and as Horace Bushnell once said, there can be no preaching worth the name if there is no thinking), but knowledge without faith won't save anybody. W B Yeats in his poem 'The Second Coming' says 'the best lack all conviction' while 'the worst are full of passionate intensity.' We must search for the dividing line between enthusiasm and fanaticism...


Good preaching touches mind and heart and will: we learn, we love, and we change. It goes without saying that good preaching is not constantly negative, opposing anything and everything. We shepherds sometimes spend too much time mending fences rather than feeding sheep. A truly 'prophetic' dimension to our preaching calls us to repentance, to 'own our stuff', to grow, to be 'converted'.

Alfred North Whitehead perceptively stated, 'Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas'. Christianity is essentially relational, so preaching must 'relate' too. Some clergy seem to believe they 'supply religion' to people in their homilies. A once-a-week sermon is a very thin diet for a growing Christian: many people 'attend Church' regularly but can't say what God is doing in their lives.

Evangelist Michael Green asks clergy: 'When was the last time you told your congregation what Jesus means to you?' The question haunted one pastor. So he told his people, on the last day of his ministry with them. 'At the conclusion of that sermon I stood at the door and shook hands with the congregation. One woman, a beloved saint of the church, came to the head of the line but was so overcome with emotion that she could not speak and went to the back of the line. I assumed that she simply did not know how to say goodbye. But when she finally reached me again, her voice cracked slightly as she asked, "Why didn't you tell us this before?"'

And let us never forget the purpose of our preaching: to glorify God and edify people, not to extol ourselves. Descending from the pulpit one day, the great Scottish preacher Dr. Thomas Guthrie heard two ladies say to each other, 'What a charming discourse and what a delightful preacher!' As Guthrie turned away sadly, one of his elders overheard him say, 'Oh, my Saviour! My preaching is a failure if I can only charm but not change!'


First, a note about plagiarism. From a recent news item: 'The rector of a prominent Detroit-area church returned to the pulpit and apologised to his congregation yesterday after being on forced leave on allegations of plagiarism. "Let me, as your rector, start this period of reconciliation and say I'm sorry," he told parishioners at Christ Church Cranbrook Episcopal Church in Bloomfield Hills, The Detroit Free Press reported.

'The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan prohibited Mullins from serving or attending the church for 90 days, while they investigated complaints from eight parishioners, including allegations that Mullins used others' sermons and articles written by others on the Internet.

'But members gave Mullins two standing ovations yesterday, some extending their hands or giving him the thumbs-up as he strolled down the aisle. He also drew laughs with his promise to use "three primary sources and God knows how many secondary sources."'

And a few notes about pastoral COUNSELLING ETHICS:

* No one - not even the pastor's spouse should have access to confidential matters raised in counselling sessions, without the permission of the counsellee.

* Integrity: as a counsellor I should regularly debrief with a supervisor - at least once a month for an hour. This is becoming a legal requirement in some Western countries. Peer consultancy and support and professional courses help to 'hone' therapeutic, diagnostic, communication, record-keeping and referral skills. The role of 'touch' is touchy: the wisest counsel is 'don't' (unless in situations like holding someone's hand for prayer in a hospital-visit). Yes, some people are 'huggers' - but others aren't! It is also important that pastoral counsellors know the boundaries of their competency, and have good referral networks.

* Never counsel anyone in a context of absolute privacy - particularly members of the opposite sex.

9-5 MINISTRY DESCRIPTIONS. I believe pastors, (and perhaps all leaders), ought to be invited to write their own 'ministry description' within the broad guidelines of their invited calling.

This document (one-page, ideally) would
then be submitted to the call committee, and to the church for their approval. Let's not be too legalistic - either as pastors, or as churches: hopefully pastors grow in their experience and may be redirected to a new field of ministry after a time. Such ministry descriptions ought to include a statement about ministry at home (my own view is that no pastor needs to be out of his or her home more than 3-4 evenings per week); and also time for study and preparation, as well as, say, two-weeks' study leave each year in addition to four weeks' leave. Job/ Ministry Descriptions will also contain mutual expectations relating to legal considerations, ethics (e.g. code of ethics, confidentiality and professional boundaries: unfortunately some clergy feel threatened by a perceived loss of authority or access to parishioners' 'secrets'), and financial considerations (eg, salary, fringe benefits, house allowance etc.)

9-6 TRANSITIONS. The little book Mastering Transitions (Multnomah) is brilliant. It begins with the assumption that pastoral moves are 'difficult, even scary' for pastors, their families, and for churches. Transitions aren't easy. There are chapters on topics like The Forced Termination (there's a burgeoning literature on this painful subject), Harnessing Your Church's History, and The Shadow of Your Predecessor etc. The questions a prospective pastor may ask the search committee is the best list I've seen.

Some samples from its store of practical wisdom:

# Don't leave just because a larger church is interested in you. Most pastors are not going to end up in a large church.

# Have an hour's questions to ask the search committee

# One way to determine the pastor's salary: find the mean or median salary in the congregation (this may assume a situation in which the denomination doesn't offer recommended salary guidelines)

# Have a performance review with the leaders annually, asking (1) what had been most meaningful to them in the church in the past year, and (2) what they would like to see happen in the church.

# Don't let the search committee dissolve until you've been in the church a year. 'These people were my first and most significant contacts with the church. I've known pastors who felt abandoned in the new church after the search committee disbanded.'

# When called to leave a church, offer multiple reasons: members will understand at least one of the reasons and so better accept the decision to move.

# Recognise the needs of the pastor's family to engage in the experience of closure.

# Before moving, ask members of the future church to jot down how they felt when they first arrived in the church and district, and share favourite places or pieces of information.

# Draw up a Ministry Description or covenant/contract so that no one will be able to say later 'But we never agreed to that!'

# 'In each parish I have served I have planted a tree as a sign of our beginning.' [In the planting ceremony I say] '... My prayer is that this tree will bloom for many years, and that even after I'm gone, you will think of this time, as I will, with grateful hearts.'

# 'Before I ever preach I try to worship first in the pews of the sanctuary... As I sit, I notice how the service sounds from the pew...'

# Invite parishioners over to your home in groups of four or five couples (but include only one disgruntled couple each occasion!).

# After you announce your resignation, work like a healthy duck, not a lame one!


Discipline ought to be the sine qua non of discipleship. The soldier, the farmer, the athlete, Paul says, work hard to fulfil their callings. Timothy ought to 'watch himself', devote himself to spiritual exercises, and thus save both himself and those to whom he ministers (I Timothy 4). A religion that sits lightly to discipline is worse than useless: it is blasphemous. Discipline is the prelude to spiritual and behavioural victory. (Two helpful books, one in each respective area - are Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and David Watson and Roland Tharp's Self-Directed Behaviour: Self Modification for Personal Adjustment.) A mature leader will set an example to others by taking pains, working hard, renouncing addictions. But Jesus did not glorify either asceticism or workaholism. We are not here talking about mere ceaseless activity. Sometimes getting on a treadmill can be a substitute for a balanced discipline! As Eugene Peterson says in many of his books: some pastors are busy because they're lazy!


Rowland Croucher

July 2002
A Pastoral Survival Guide [10] -

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