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A “Surgical Sabbatical”

In 38 years of ministry, I have never had a sabbatical. In my younger days, I wore that fact as a badge of honor, as some kind of symbol of working hard and of being committed to my call. Looking back, I realize how unwise and unhealthy that was. Now, instead of seeing it as something laudable, it is something I regret. Fatigue, spiritual dryness, reduced ministry effectiveness, and hardship on my family were among the many consequences of my misguided thinking.

Recently, I was caught off guard by necessary but unexpected surgery. Something else also caught me off guard. Rather than dreading surgery, I found myself actually looking forward to the 6-8 weeks of forced rest I would be getting. There has to be something wrong with that!

During my recovery period, I had plenty of time to rest. Much of that time was spent reflecting on and praying about different aspects of my life and ministry. I was compelled to grapple with the weirdness of the fact that I welcomed the time off, even though it took surgery to get it.

Here are some of the key lessons from my “surgical sabbatical.”

I am not indispensable. As with most who are in ministry, I often fight with this notion that if I don’t do something, it won’t get done; that if I am unavailable, everything will fall apart. It amazes me how common that view is among pastors and ministry leaders. But I discovered during my time off that I am not indispensable. Nothing bad happened. Ministry went on. The sun came up. The news cycle continued.  I realized that not everything I was connected to hinged on my constant presence. I discovered that my role was crucial, but that effectiveness in ministry means establishing things solidly enough that they don’t depend on me to run. The fact is that I need God far more than God needs me.

I can easily confuse busyness with effectiveness. Who in ministry hasn’t looked at their full calendar and thought that the busyness seen there meant effective ministry, important things, were taking place? One of the great insights in the days of recovery for me was that being busy, something else I formerly wore as a badge of honor, does not imply that I am being effective or having impact. I learned that I can say no, that I don’t have to over-fill my calendar to appropriately live out my call, and that sometimes busyness actually can be the enemy of effectiveness. I have to guard against the need to be busy, and instead appropriate my time in healthy ways and for maximum impact.

I sometimes feel guilty when I rest. Like many others, I sometimes find myself driven by guilt. The reality is that for those in ministry, the work is never finished. There is always an unfinished project or an undone task. It’s been hard to learn, and even harder to admit, that guilt sometimes drives us. But the truth is that the guilt that accompanies rest from those tasks is an unhealthy motivation. There is something about forced rest that makes one realize that choosing to rest has great value.  God rested, Jesus modeled rest, and I can rest, too, without guilt.

Those with whom I serve expect me to be wise enough to take care of myself. Often, ministers sit back and wait for a caring elder, a sensitive parishioner, or a good friend to take the initiative in noticing when we are tired, stressed, or spiritually drained. But the fact is that most often, we experience the impact of those things either before others notice or at least before they are willing to address it with us. People expect us to be able to articulate our needs and to live out an appropriate self-care. The biblical principle of the Sabbath indicates that God expects the same thing. I confess, and I doubt I am alone, that asking for support, letting others in on our tiredness or our sense of being depleted is a difficult thing to do. We are grown ups and must develop the self-awareness we need to take care of our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.

In looking back on what I learned, I realize that there no new breaktrhough lessons, nothing earthshaking, and certainly nothing we haven’t heard before. The breakthrough for me was that these things, and others as well, became more than words or bullet points in a leadership blog post. They are now life-giving pieces of my journey.

My desire, and my prayer, is that someone else could would be confronted by the personal lessons I learned and be free from the pieces that have hindered me through the years. You are not indispensable nor do you have to have your calendar filled to excess in order to please God and live out your call. It is okay, even essential, that you rest. It is mandatory that you take care of yourself – spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and physically. These things will actually please the Father in the way our unhealthy attempts to please him can’t.

I am thankful for the lessons I learned from my “surgical sabbatical.”

 

Dr. Carl Addison
EVM, Inc.

 

 

 

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Wisdom for a New Day

It is certainly stating the obvious to say that the issues of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have been in the forefront of the news and much of the discussion we’ve been having as a culture. It’s almost as if we get up in the morning and read the news to see who the next person is to be in the public spotlight for such behavior.

While issues of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have been around forever, it has rarely, if ever, been so thoroughly and openly discussed. The news media are saturated with reports of those in power exploiting others in such a humiliating and dehumanizing way. The list of offenders continues to grow, with no indication it will stop in the immediate future.

Those who have been victimized by sexual misconduct or sexual harassment have, without a doubt, been subjected to behavior that is immoral, painful, and sinful. Can it be said that those in ministry positions have been guilty of such behavior at times?

What follows is in no way an attempt to cast doubt on the truthfulness of those who have been victimized. Those individuals have been ignored, disbelieved, humiliated, and silenced far too long. Yet, it seems that given the current cultural climate, some common-sense strategies for avoiding those behaviors that could be misunderstood, or for avoiding false accusations of unwanted sexual behaviors, ought to be on the radar of everyone in ministry. And, we should not be naïve, female ministers are vulnerable to misperceptions and false accusations as well as males.

Those guilty of sexual misconduct should be held accountable. Their victims should be heard, cared for, and find a place of healing in the church. And those in ministry should guard themselves from any such behavior, but also from being misunderstood or falsely accused. Lest we make the assumption that it could never happen to us, consider the ordeal faced by teacher and apologist, Ravi Zecharias. It was his lot to deal with false accusations, and he recognized how his own behavior contributed to the situation. You can read his story at https://churchleaders.com/news/314379-ravi-zacharias-pulls-lawsuit-responds-sexting-allegations.html.

So, how do we minimize the possibilities of misperceptions or even false allegations? What follows is not an exhaustive list but rather something that is intended to encourage thoughtful reflection, re-examination of boundaries, and behavioral change when necessary. Consider the following:

  • Guard your reputation. Integrity, transparency, and honesty cultivate a reputation of holiness that can serve to protect the minister. In many ways, one in ministry can only be as effective as reputation permits. It is the authenticity of one’s faith and the character formed by it that build trust, create a visible integrity, and deter the misperceptions of behavior. Walk with Christ, strive to live in a relationship with him that would make others initial reaction to any accusation one of doubt rather than one of questions about character.
  • By that, it is not implied that one puts forth a persona that is not real. Rather, live out your convictions that people of the opposite sex are valuable, of great worth, and have the right to never be treated as an object of another’s pleasure, especially at the hands of one who has a position of power or respect.
  • If married, diligently strive for a healthy marriage, one that others see as exemplary. This is not to say that ministers must have perfect marriages, but that they should model the lifestyle that honors one’s spouse, one’s vows, and endeavors to continue to grow in that relationship. This can make misperceptions much less likely and false accusations much less believable in the eyes of others.
  • Recognize your own vulnerability to behavior that compromises integrity. We all know the Proverb that reminds us that if we think we stand, we may well fall. Our human weakness, our unmet needs, or our desire for ego strokes can push us very close to the lines that become blurred, opening the door for misunderstandings and accusations.
  • Know what behaviors constitutes sexual harassment, and stay as far away from those behaviors as you possibly can. There are tons of resources that delineate that information. In this era, there is no excuse for not knowing.
  • Establish boundaries that are healthy and that guard against temptation, the appearance of availability, and that guard against communicating any type of sexual intent. Ironically, most in ministry know what boundaries need to be in place, yet some feel invincible enough to make continual exceptions. For those, danger lurks around the corner.
  • Keep your spouse in the loop regarding your schedule. For example, counseling sessions with members of the opposite sex should never come as a surprise to your spouse, and it is often wise to make sure that person you are meeting with knows that your spouse is aware of the appointment.
  • Learn to recognize the signs of transference. Both male and female ministers can be victimized here. Know when to refer. It would be wise to read material by Archibald Hart and others regarding this issue.
  • Be kind, be gracious, communicate caring, but do so with wisdom. Avoid situations that enable those emotions to be misunderstood.
  • The so-called “Mike Pence” rule is nothing new. Until recently, it was better known as Billy Graham’s rule. As ministry contexts change, the challenge remains the same. Guard against those times when the setting creates the opportunity for a “he said, she said” situation. Avoiding times of being alone with the opposite sex honors that person, it honors your spouse, and eliminates much of the danger and temptation that can destroy a ministry.
  • Consider the consequences. Even if accusations are unfounded in fact, the damage can be catastrophic. Marriages can be threatened, ministry can be damaged, the church can be harmed, and families can be damaged or even shattered, even when actions have been misunderstood or accusations are patently false.
  • Be wise. Don’t let culture determine your boundaries in this area, but rather allow them to be formed by biblical principles. Be willing to be seen as overly cautious, and don’t expect everyone to understand the limits that serve you best. Find ways to minister to those of the opposite sex with dignity, honor, and love. Just do it with boundaries that work, respect that is appropriate, and a desire to guard your reputation and bring honor to God.

Easier Said Than Done

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:18).” Wow, that’s easier said than done! No one is immune from the hard circumstances of life. Nor are we exempt from the tendency to focus on them or even be consumed by them. Yet, Paul has the audacity to write such words. And, frankly, it is a great way to find greater faith and joy in our journey with Christ. Yet, is it possible? How can we do it?

  • Remember where you’ve been.

It’s often not until we look back on all we’ve been through, all the difficulties we’ve faced, that we remember that while there may still be some challenges ahead, God has indeed been at work. Many times, it is only in looking back at where we’ve been that we realize how much he has done for us and how blessed we are. Remembering the journey we’ve been on can help us be thankful people even when life is not perfect.

  • Focus on that with which you’ve been blessed.

In those times when gratitude seems so elusive, we tend to lose our focus on the goodness of God. From forgiveness and peace, to family and friends, to our material possessions, we tend to have much more than we think.  Take a walk through your home, look at what’s there, and thank your Father not only for what you see, but for what many of those things mean to you. Thank him for those special people in the photos displayed, for those things that were gifts to you that hold special meaning, for a place to call home, and for countless other things as you take your “walk of thanks.” It’s a great way to focus on what you have, not on what you don’t have.

  • Be a blessing.

We need each other. Jesus talked about dying to live, serving instead of being served, and demonstrating our discipleship by our love for others. So, find someone who needs a reason to be thankful. You may be the very one whose touch in the life of another enables them to get even a glimpse of him.  Helping someone else find gratitude can certainly help us be grateful.

  • Allow thankfulness to become central to your thoughts.

We often neglect the fact that we can choose what we think about. Paul, in writing to the Philippians (4:6-9), reminds us of the kinds of things that dominate the thoughts of thankful people.  There he encourages us to focus on those things that are good. He calls those things excellent and praiseworthy. He reminds us to pray with thanksgiving, telling God our needs without forgetting his goodness. And then his admonition ends with an exclamation point, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It cannot be denied that it is sometimes difficult to feel thankful. Life can be hard, sometimes very hard. Yet, our focus, what we choose to think about, can transform our hearts and minds. And that transformation results in gratitude because it compels us to remember that God is good, his grace is amazing, and his love for us is extravagant.

Why a Pastor Needs a Coach

With the growing proliferation of various types of coaching for pastors today, many are asking if a coaching relationship is something to consider. With already full schedules creating the questions of whether to add yet another item to the calendar, with outstanding conferences and webinars readily available, and with so many excellent resources available in books and online, it is definitely a reasonable question.

Yet, a coach can be extremely beneficial to those in ministry, regardless of experience, expertise, or time constraints. Here are some things to consider in answering the question, “should I consider getting a coach?” The following items assume that the coach is one who is qualified, capable, and effective.

  1. A coach can be an excellent sounding board. Often, a fresh set of eyes on one’s life and ministry can bring a perspective one cannot find among peers, trusted friends, or leaders in one’s congregation.
  2. A coach can help clarify mission, vision, and goals. Meaningful discussion with an effective coach can bring about a fresh awareness of the nature of one’s call, how to implement that call and pursue vision in one’s ministry context, and the capacity to clearly delineate goals designed to fulfill one’s unique sense of call and purpose. in this context, it could be said that a coaching relationship follows a biblical model for ministry.  Consider the relationship between Paul and Timothy.
  3. A coach can help those in ministry find an appropriate balance between family, personal growth, and ministry demands. Many in ministry find this difficult, and without this balance, stress can become overwhelming and vital relationships can be damaged.
  4. A coach can be instrumental in enabling one to cultivate a healthy focus on one’s spiritual formation. Many in ministry struggle to maintain a vital prayer life and a growing relationship with Christ in the midst of the hectic pace of life with which many in ministry live.
  5. A coach can be a cost-effective resource for one’s continued learning and growth. Consider the expense of attending just one major conference. Airfare, hotel and food costs, and registration alone can often exceed $1000, and seldom do those events offer ongoing relationships that facilitate continued implementation of what is learned. Please note, this is not an argument against attending excellent events, they can be extremely valuable. It is instead an encouragement to use one’s resources in ways that maximize the value of dollars spent.
  6. A coach can help facilitate growing self-awareness. One of the bigger issues those in ministry face is that focus is so much on what other’s need. Effective coaching can help one grow in self-awareness and the ability to understand how one’s behavior impacts others in ways that enhance ministry leadership ability.

This list, of course, is not exhaustive. Instead, it is an attempt to offer a place to start as one attempts to answer the question, “should I consider getting a coach?”

Version 3

We often attribute the “near misses” in our lives to the hand of God.  We barely avoid an auto accident, and we breath a prayer of thanks, sensing God has intervened. We get a good report about tests our doctor has ordered, and we thank him that we are not sick. We narrowly avoid losing our job, dodge the bullet when we miss a deadline , or even escape jury duty and we feel like God has been working behind the scenes to keep our lives free of trouble.

But what about those times when, instead of the “near miss,” we take a “direct hit”? The biopsy is malignant, the phone call in the middle of the night changes our lives, the other driver slides on the ice across the center line and crashes into us, what then? What about when we get the pink slip, or someone we dearly love finds themselves in a deep, dark place? Are we to assume that God was nowhere present in those moments?

If there is one thing that is true it is that God is always at work. He will always be true to his word. He promised throughout scripture that he would never leave us to live or fight life’s battles alone. Even when our lives are not free of trouble, even when we experience the hard things we longed to avoid, he is there, faithfully loving us and working for our good.

While this might not be eloquently stated, one of the great lessons in life is that very often, God reveals himself to us not so much in the near misses but in the direct hits. This is not to say that he doesn’t intervene, that he doesn’t protect. It is instead to say that when we take that direct hit, when the troubles or heartaches come, we are drawn to him out of a great sense of need.

So many times, the direct hit causes us to realize how much we need God. That sense of desperation drives us to him, and as James said, when we draw near him, he will draw near us. When the biopsy is positive, the pink slip is in the mailbox, or the prodigal in our lives drift away, we often discover in the midst of it all that God is there, right in the midst of it all, and that without him we would be lost.

The direct hit, the times when bad things happen to us, are not caused by God. But his power and love is so amazing that those times are often the times when we see his hand of provision, experience the wonder of his presence, and stand in awe at the peace we cannot understand. We learn, in the midst of the direct hit, that he is faithful and that we are not alone.

On a personal note, let me add that my household has taken a couple of direct hits lately. In the midst of them, we have never sensed God more clearly, or felt loved by him more deeply. Would we have rather had a near miss or two? You bet! But in the place we find ourselves now, we know that in the hard times, in the times we have been desperate for him, he has been incredibly faithful.  Without the direct hits, we may not be in the place we are with him. We have learned about prayer, about God’s provision, and about his faithfulness in ways that we could never have learned from a near miss.

Have you taken a “direct hit” lately? I am “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6 NIV).

More than a Volunteer

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One of the commonly used terms around many churches today is “volunteer.”  Usually the term is used in reference to those who serve in various lay, unpaid capacities in the local church.  It is not uncommon to hear volunteers thanked for their service or  recognized for their contributions.

Dictionary.com defines a volunteer as one who performs a service willingly and without pay, one who offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking. For the most part, that definition pretty well describes the role of one who serves in the life of the church.  However, it is what is not said in that definition that creates a desire in me to want to remove the word from the vocabulary we use in church life. Let me explain.

First of all, nowhere in the New Testament Church did people volunteer to serve in the church.  Elders were appointed and given ministry responsibility, and those who were part of the body of believers were expected to use their spiritual gifts for the common good, for the building up of the church.

Further, the word “volunteer” carries with it certain cultural implications.  To volunteer is often seen as doing something as time allows.  There seems to be, at least to me, an underlying lack of commitment to the task for which one volunteers. When we do not clearly define the way we are using the term, it may sound as if we are giving people permission to serve when it’s convenient, or that their keeping their commitment to serve is optional, that they leave no vacancy when such commitments are not kept.

To call using ones musical abilities to enable others to worship an act of volunteerism diminishes the value of the service.  Describing that one as a volunteer  who leads a small group of teens into a deeper walk with Christ, in the face of the challenges today’s students face,  is to undervalue that role significantly.  Those who lovingly and patiently nurture our children in faith are going far beyond the scope of volunteering. When that hospitality leader enables a hurting person who found their way into the church building during a time of crisis find a sense of belonging, something more than volunteerism is happening.

In those cases above, and countless others, those we call volunteers are doing ministry.  Those called to vocational ministry are charged with equipping the people of God to do ministry, not volunteer.  In our culture, volunteering is easy, and it is something we do when we feel like it.

Ministry, on the other hand, calls us to give ourselves away, to do what costs us something personally, to put the needs of others ahead of our calendars, our feelings, or our wishes. That is beyond merely volunteering.

To recognize those who work and sacrifice, who  touch lives with love, who share Christ, who serve food to those in need, or care for infants in a nursery so parents can worship without distraction as ministry partners and teammates seems to be a more biblical and accurate approach.  After all, aren’t we all called to ministry?

It is true that none of us intentionally imply that the work of those who serve in our churches is not significant.  It’s just that words matter.  Volunteerism takes place in social organizations, ministry happens in the church. So, what if we talked about ministry partners, team members, or teammates instead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Color-12Many churches consider themselves praying churches, and even advertise themselves as such.  They talk about prayer during services, they offer classes in prayer, and solicit prayer requests by various means.  As laudable as that sounds, those things may not mean that the church is really a place of prayer.  James tells us that the urgent prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, calling the church to pray for those in need.  Jesus, as he cleansed the temple, lamented that it had become a den of thieves rather than a house of prayer.  Clearly, God’s desire is that churches are praying churches.  And yet, so many often pray so little.

So, how does a congregation move from being a church that talks, and even teaches, on prayer, to a church that prays?  Here are five things necessary for the change to occur.

  1. The pastors pray.  There is so much research done that validates the idea that churches take on the personality and characteristics of its pastoral leadership that it doesn’t even need to be cited.  Suffice it to say that those in positions of pastoral leadership set the tone here. If they pray, the church is more likely to do so.  From private times alone with God to public times in worship, as pastoral leadership cries out to God, the tone is set.  And, one should not forget, God hears and responds.  Things happen in ministry that can only be explained by prayer.
  2. Leaders pray.  One of the qualifications those we choose to provide lay leadership in the church is that those persons must be people of prayer.  Elder boards, and other leadership teams, should learn that prayer should not simply be an item on their meeting agenda, praying about the church’s business.  It should be seen as doing the church’s business, and not something to be marked of the task completed list. These leaders also pray with urgency outside of meetings.  For them, it is something integrated into their whole life, not a simple piece of the daily routine.
  3. The church prays.  Prayer is natural and participatory rather than tangential or forced in worship.  Members meet to pray, rather than to talk about prayer or to exchange the latest information about what is happening in other peoples’ lives. Crying out to God replaces lengthy discussions about prayer needs followed by an abbreviated session of prayer.
  4. Members pray.  When a church becomes a praying church, prayer becomes contagious.  As stories begin to circulate throughout the church about how God has moved in response to prayer, members begin to pray. They pray for their prodigals, their pastors, their enemies, their marriages, their church’s capacity to accomplish its mission, and a hundred other things.  And God begins to do what he did not do when the church merely talked about prayer.
  5. Pray until prayer is part of the DNA, or the culture, of the church. The DNA of a church is its essence, its soul.  It begins to develop with the birth of the church, and becomes embedded in the heart and soul of the congregation as its culture develops.  While we cannot change our biological DNA, it is possible to change a church’s as we intentionally work at changing its culture.  So, we pray.  We join hearts in prayer in worship, rather than just listen to someone verbalize a prayer.  We meet at times just to pray.  We make prayer a core part of doing the church’s business.  As members, when someone asks us to pray for them, not only do we say the obligatory yes, but we pray right then.  We learn the difference between crying out to God and saying words to him.  And we begin to see him act.  As we recognize that he is hearing us, we are driven to our knees even more. And then, we are becoming a praying church.

How about your congregation? Does it need to become a praying church?  Prayer was a part of the DNA of the church in Acts that turned the world upside down, and it must be in the DNA of the church of the 21st century for the church to change the world.  Here’s the best part – it starts with you  and it starts with me, and not with one more sermon or class about prayer!

 

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