Category Archives: Pastoral

When Are You Gonna Be a Pastor Again?

I get this question just about every week, and I never quite know how to answer it.

Or rather, I don’t know how to answer it in under 10 seconds, which is the time frame most people are looking for when they ask a question.

The 10-or-fewer-second answers I have are: (1) “I don’t know,” which is actually true, but not particularly informative; (2) “When God tells me to,” which is also true, but comes off as flippant—like I don’t really want to answer the question, so I’m punting to God; (3) “Maybe next year. Maybe in five years,” which may or may not be true, for all I know; and worst of all, (4) “Well… it’s a good question, but it’s a really complicated answer” (followed by no explanation whatsoever).

If you’ve had lunch or coffee with me and received answer #4, you know it’s the worst one because once you’ve received it you have to make the uncomfortable choice of either saying, “Oh, okay. Nevermind,” and risk making me feel like you don’t really care enough to hear the long answer, or you have to commit to buckling up and listening to an attention-span-testing monologue.

There may be an easy solution to this problem. From now on I’m just going to say, “Well… it’s a good question, but it’s a really complicated answer. So, I wrote a blog post about it, if you’re interested in the long version.” I already know that people are going to say, “Oh. Well, give me the short version.” (Insert answer #1, #2 or #3 here) But it’s worth a shot.

Q: So… When do you think you’re gonna be a pastor again?

A: Man… Thank you for asking that. I guess I don’t know for sure why you’re asking it, but I think I know why, and I really appreciate it. Being a pastor was an unbelievable honor, and the fact that people wanted me to be their pastor and were actually sad when I wasn’t anymore is mind-blowing to me. And I don’t say that with any kind of obligatory faux humility. It’s… I honestly don’t how to wrap my mind around that. So, thank you.

Here are the things that come to mind when I try to formulate an answer to that question (in no particular order):

First of all, I really like my job. And I’m good at it. Which is a very rare combination that I don’t want to take for granted for a second. I love my team. I love working with very high-caliber people. I love my bosses. I love their vision for doing real good in the lives of people. I love my clients. I love that I get to employ a large swath of my skill set in this role. I love the rewards that come from doing this job well. I love being welcomed into people’s homes. I love helping people make wise decisions. I love being trusted as a guide and advisor. No one in their right mind would leave this job and this team.

Is this job the purpose of my life? Of course not. But I don’t know too many guys whose purpose in life is their job. My best friends—the best guys I know—are all among the best in their field in sales, finance and music. None of them have made their job their purpose in life. Their purpose in life is clearly to know Christ and make him known. And that can be done well without getting paid for doing it.

I might be made to be a pastor. That might be what I’m supposed to do. I guess that remains to be seen. But my purpose in life is to know Christ and make him known. And I don’t need to get paid to do that in order to do that well.

Second, being a pastor sucks. And it’s the sweetest vocational calling imaginable. And it sucks.

Maybe I should unpack “it sucks” a little bit…

Earlier this week someone on my team at work asked me whether being a real estate agent—especially this time of year, in a booming market, on a very driven team, when 60+ hour weeks are common, and I’m away from home several nights a week on appointments— is harder, or whether being a pastor is harder. My response was that it’s a very different kind of hard. For the most part, I can deal with my current vocational fatigue with one full day off. If between Friday night and Sunday night I get in a date night with my wife, a good run, some time in the Word, play time with my kids, and a few pages of a novel, I’m pretty much good to go for the five days that follow. In other words, there are distinct times in my life right now when I’m not a real estate agent. I’m much more clearly a husband, or a dad, or a Bible student, or a runner, or a reader, or a House of Cards fan.

That was never really the case when I was a pastor. When I wasn’t at the office, I was a pastor-husband (“Is my marriage a good example to my congregation?”), a pastor-dad (“Am I raising my kids to be example-setters for my congregation?”), a pastor-Bible-student (“How would I preach this text?”), a pastor-runner (“God, I need you to download a sermon outline into my brain by the time this 5-miler is done”), a pastor-reader (“Are there any good anecdotes in this novel that I could use as sermon illustrations?”), and a pastor-House of Cardsfan (“I probably should watch this show if I’m going to be able to engage with real people, not just squared-away church-goers”).

It’s exhausting. The spiritual, mental and emotional fatigue of being a pastor is staggering. To never really turn off being a pastor is an enormous struggle for most pastors. And not just for pastors. Also for pastors’ wifes and pastors’ kids. And certainly, a lot of that is pastors’ own fault. I certainly should have worked harder to create margin, to shut my pastor-brain off, and to say “no” to more ministry opportunities and responsibilities. But some of it is inevitable. It’s just part of what you sign up for when you say ‘yes’ to being a pastor. And, what’s more, the devil knows it. He makes a living out of shredding tired pastors.

All of that to say, I want to make sure I’m ready for that, and that my family is ready for that. Don’t get me wrong. Being a pastor is an amazing vocation. “You’re going to pay me to read the Bible and help people understand what it means and live it out?! You’re going to pay me to have coffee with hurting people? You’re going to pay me to help people become the best, most God-saturated version of themselves? You’re serious?!” It’s almost unbelievable. It’s an incredible privilege. I can’t describe how happy it made me.

But I want to make sure I’m ready for the spiritual, mental and emotional onslaught as well. I’ve spent the last 21 months with my heart and soul plugged into a monitor to assess my health, get rid of disease, heal, and make sure that I’m as strong and robust as possible if I’m called to head back into the fray. I think I’m there. God’s redemptive and renovating power is as advertized, I’m happy to say. But I want to see a clean bill of health from people who are in a position to give it. Which leads me to…

The third thing that comes to mind is this: It’s not really up to me. I’m only one of the people who has a significant say in whether I become a pastor again or not. I’ve invited at least a dozen people in on that decision, and I take them all very seriously. Some of them are friends. Some are pastors and church leaders. Several of them are people who know me, my heart, my tendencies and struggles, my strengths and virtues, and my character better than anyone else in the world. The most significant one, of course, is my bride. Leslie has absolute veto power over any plan I devise, any opportunity I want to pursue, any interview I want to take, or any church plant I create in my mind. If she’s not a million percent on board, it’s just not happening. So… ask her.

Fourth, and most importantly, I’m not going to be a pastor again until I have a very clear sense of a callI had an undeniable sense of calling to be a pastor for almost six years, and it came with two crucial elements: A group of people asked me to come be their pastor, and God said, “Yes, I want you to go do that,” in a way that I couldn’t possibly ignore or deny.

A calling to the pastorate doesn’t come with a guaranteed lifetime appointment. This isn’t the Supreme Court. There’s no tenure track in pastoral ministry. Maybe I was supposed to be a pastor for a season of life, and now I’m supposed to be a real estate agent for the rest of my life, pastoring my family, loving my neighborhood toward Jesus, and offering my gifts in service to a local church as a layperson. I spent six years urging men and women who weren’t pastors to do pretty much exactly that.

I can’t deny that I’m a dreamer. I make plans in my mind, and scrap them, and revise them, and scrap them again, and start over…. I doubt I’ll ever be able to turn that off. But none of it will ever take shape unless there is a clear sense of calling. I’m not telling God how he has to do it. He can do what he wants. I’m just anticipating that when and if it happens, it will be because a group of people said, “Would you come do this?” and God says, “Yes, I want you to go do that.”

So, there’s the long answer. What can I say? I’ve never been good at short answers. I never had a problem figuring out what I was going to talk about for 35 minutes on a Sunday. My problem was always figuring out how to cut out 25 minutes worth of material to get it down to 35.

Maybe I should be a pastor.

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Pastoral Cases of the Mondays

case-of-the-mondays-1.jpg

“Sounds like someone has a case of the Mondays.”

That line has obtained legendary movie quote status. And rightfully so. And while I have no doubt that Peter Gibbons (and many men like him) gets cases of the Mondays, almost all pastors get them.

Generally speaking, pastors take a day off sometime during the week to compensate for their obligations on Sundays. And for a long time the accepted wisdom has been that Monday is the best day to take off, though many pastors take Friday instead. In my doctoral class today, Leith Anderson (recently retired longtime pastor of Wooddale Church in Edina, Minnesota) made this comment, which I then posted on Facebook:

“Taking Monday as your day off is crazy if you feel like most pastors feel on Monday. On Monday you feel depressed. You feel like a failure. You want to quit. You feel semi-suicidal. So… You should get paid for that day. Why would you want to feel like that on your day off?”

A person in our church who I know loves her pastors very much responded to the post with heartbreak, wondering why this is the case. I thought I’d explain a bit more what was behind Leith’s comment.

First of all, Leith was definitely using a bit of hyperbole to make his point. But there are a number of factors that make Mondays a significant drag on pastors. A few of them are as follows: First, preaching inevitably comes with an adrenaline surge in pastors. It’s completely natural. I think it’s one of the physiological processes God desires to use for the good of his church on Sunday mornings. It focuses your mind. It gives you energy and vigor. It makes you precise. It helps you articulate. It gives you visual acuity that allows you to see facial expressions from 100 feet away that you couldn’t normally see, so that you know how the guy in the back is responding to what you’re saying. It’s a great thing God does for us on Sunday morning.

But coming down off an adrenaline surge, as most people know, has a certain effect on your body. The adrenaline is gone fairly quickly, but your body feels worn out from the surge for much longer than that. So, for example, in February and March I’m preaching in all four worship gatherings at New Hope Church. I’ll have adrenaline surges for about an hour four times on Sunday. In between each surge, my body will come back down a little bit for 10-15 minutes before it surges again in anticipation of the next sermon. It’s a very relieving and relaxing 10-15 minutes. But then the next surge comes. And so on…

Needless to say, it’s super hard on the body. As far as your body chemistry and the constriction of your blood vessels and heart goes it’s like enduring four intense exercise sessions in one day. Your muscles aren’t tired like they are after a workout, and you’re not out of breath, but everything that controls your body chemistry is worn out just the same as if you had just worked out hard for 45 minutes (four times). It takes me three and a half hours to run a marathon. So, on Monday mornings in February and March my heart and blood vessels will feel like I just about ran a marathon the day before. I’m not complaining. I love preaching. And I love preaching four times more than I love preaching once (If I’m going to spend so much time preparing a message it’s nice to employ all that work more than once!). But that’s just the reality of how the human body works.

Second, pastors tend to be enormously self-critical. Every sermon I’ve ever given SUCKS on Monday morning (at least in my own mind). I might feel good about it early on Sunday morning, and I might feel good about it on Tuesday morning. But on Monday morning it was the worst sermon ever preached. It always feels like it could have–and should have–been better. Pastors always think of something they could have said. Something they should have said. They over-analyze how forcefully they said something. Did they nail the tone at that point? Did they go too hard? Too soft? They focus on jokes that bombed. Illustrations that didn’t connect. Points that accidentally got skipped. They focus on the looks they got from people when they didn’t understand something that was said. They think about the comments people made afterward, and usually don’t focus on the good comment. They focus on the critical. Again–just human nature. Which leads to another “pastoral case-of-the-Mondays” generator…

Third, Monday is when emails from the congregation about the sermon are sent. 99% of emails having to do with what you said on Sunday come on Monday before noon. And because pastors tend to be so self-critical already, they tend to pay more attention to the five people who hated the sermon and emailed you about it, rather than the two hundred people who were really helped by the sermon, but who don’t email about it. Which is normal. Mature pastors get that. It’s the same reason that most of us don’t call for the manager of a restaurant when our server did a good job. We call for them when the server botched it. Which is one of the reasons why, as a matter of fact, I always call for the manager when servers do a really good job. I rarely call for the manager when the server blows it. Unless the server’s work was just absolutely inexcusable. I’d guess that I call for the manager to compliment the server ten times for every time I call for the manager to talk about a problem with the server, because I get how they feel. But human nature is to say something only when we’re upset.

So… The moral of the story: You can’t do much about the first and second factors. They’re inevitable. They’re built into what it means to be a pastor. So, pray for your pastor. That is absolutely the best thing to do for him or her. And God loves to answer prayers for tired, self-critical pastors. As far as the third factor: Don’t email your pastor on Monday. If you really have a serious gripe, Wednesday or Thursday is a good day for that email. You might not even see it as quite as big of a deal on Thursday as you did on Monday, right?

And the moral of the story for pastors: Don’t quit on a Monday.

The Perfect Church

frustrated1.jpgNo such thing.

I am more convinced than ever.  Despite the claims of this place (which seem to be grossly exaggerated), I am more sure than ever that there’s no perfect church.

While I’m at it, let me go a step further—because I doubt that many will dispute that there are no perfect churches.  I’ve actually become fairly sure that most churches that are “successful” (whatever that means) aren’t even really sure why they’re successful and, conversely, most churches that aren’t successful can’t really be sure why they’re not.

Obviously, there are some sure-fire “church killers.” If you stop focusing on Scripture and the biblical gospel, your church is gonna die.  Maybe not soon.  But it eventually will.  The biggest church in America is going to die.  Even huge churches that stop focusing on Scripture and the biblical gospel are not immune.  Whole denominations are not immune.

I was part of a conversation at lunch today that focused mainly on how to “do church” well.  What does “success” mean?  Is there one thing that is biblical success, or do different churches have different and valid meanings of “success”?  What do “numbers” mean?  How do you measure what’s really going on when you have lots of people at your church or have few people at your church? (Hint: You can’t.) What is “church”?  Do programs work?  Always?  Never?  Sometimes?  What about these churches that have a charismatic (not that kind) speaker and a rockin’ band and they get thousands of people?  Is that necessarily good or bad?  Are huge churches doing something right or something wrong?  Are small churches doing something wrong or something right?  Is it possible to know?

Every week there is a new article or program or book that promises huge results and has promising people promising huge results from it.  Just this morning there was another oneThis one was all the rage not long ago.  There’s also this one and this one and this one and everything from this guy. They all have good ideas.  They all make valid points.  And none of them will necessarily do much to help your church. That’s the truth that is never spoken. Sometimes you’re faithful and you get sawn in two anyway (Heb. 11:37).

Here’s what I’m (close to) convinced of: No one understands our culture perfectly.  Therefore no one understands the subculture/demographic they’re trying to reach perfectly.  And no one understands what reaches that subculture/demographic perfectly.  And no one implements perfectly what reaches the subculture/demographic they’re trying to reach.  And no one has a perfect grasp on what “reach” means.

So… where is this rant going?

Here’s what I think: I think church leaders need not be so frustrated.  I think we need to think carefully about what we want to do.  We need to come up with an imperfectly conceived, imperfectly thought-out, imperfectly implemented plan and then pray, submit ourselves to God, and see what the Holy Spirit does with it.

I deeply appreciate the humility of people like Matt Chandler, whose church has grown to 6,000+ in six years and he admits that he doesn’t know why.  He’s actually surprised.  And he admits that there are both a lot of committed followers of Christ as well as a lot of uncommitted “Christians” at his church.  And he doesn’t like it (the latter, that is).  I suspect that he’ll never try to write a book on how to “do ministry” because he and his staff don’t know what happened.  Matt started preaching, he hired his friends, and the church blew up.  He accepts conference speaking invitations with a certain amount of disdain because he knows he’s doing nothing differently than a thousand other pastors whose churches aren’t going as well. But no one asks pastors of churches of 200 people to speak at conferences—even if they are doing exactly what Chandler is doing.

On the other hand, I think it’s hilarious that so many pastors with big churches think they know why their church is big.  I don’t think they do.  I really don’t.  Not fully. There are too many factors involved – some known and some unknown.

So, am I saying that “how to do church” books are worthless?  Of course not.  Am I saying that Ed Stetzer isn’t a genius. Of course not.  Am I saying that the numerical “success” of megachurches is always hollow?  Of course not.  Am I saying that the smallness of small churches is always virtuous? Of course not.  I’m saying that “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8).

The Wisdom of God and the Death of Infants

prostrate1.jpgAt one time or another, whether on this blog or in person, a number of you have asked about my understanding of child mortality and salvation.

I doubt whether there is a question I would like to answer less, and that for at least three reasons: First, I know for a fact that more than one of you has lost a child. I know that some of you have lost a nephew or a niece. I know that many of you have lost children to miscarriage. I know that some of you have lost children to abortion.  And while these realities, perhaps, should provide an impulse for me to answer this question (and, to a certain extent they do), it also makes me tremble with hesitancy because I would be presuming to speak about something incredibly personal and painful that I have not personally experienced.

Second, no one can answer this question with certainty. In God’s good and faithful providence, he did not make this a topic that is ever clearly addressed in his Word.  What we have in Scripture are only hints and pointers.  More on that below.

Third, for those of you who have experienced the death of a child: I have not cried and held and prayed with many of you. Some of you I have.  But many of you I have not.  And I am extremely hesitant to say biblical, theological and philosophical things to people about such agonizing experiences without first having said tender, comforting and strengthening things mingled with hugs and tears and broken silence.

That hesitance will translate into at least three things in this post: First, I have disabled the comments section for this post.  If you would like to respond, you are welcome to e-mail me personally at bryanmcwhite@gmail.com.  This is not something I desire to have public debate and discussion on.  Perhaps I’ll post a follow-up with excerpts from e-mails I receive if it seems appropriate. (You can let me know if you don’t want your e-mails quoted.)  Second, I will do my best to speak very pastorally and not in cold, academic tones, as though this topic were like any other theological issue. Third, I will not say anything with more certainty than I think the statement warrants.  No hurting person I’ve ever spoken to is interested in false assurances.

Father, I urgently pray for your wisdom and guidance as I write.  I pray for people who have had to walk through the pain of the death of a child.  Please continue to bring them comfort, strength, trust in you, healing grief, and the sustaining nourishment and truth of your word.  Give us all an unshakable faith in your goodness, wisdom, and mercy.  Make me helpful, now, and consistent with your Word, which is entirely sufficient for our knowledge, faith, and joy.  Amen.

I feel like I’m making a lot of lists here, but here’s one more—three precursory comments: First, I feel no impulse or obligation, in answering this question, to exonerate God. God is not on trial.  He is the one and only entirely good, just, innocent and faithful being in the universe.  In other words, I am not answering this question in an attempt to demonstrate that God is just and good.  He is just and good no matter how he deals with the death of children—even if I’m wrong in how I answer this.  Whatever he does defines what is right.  But, with that given in mind, it is worth asking how he does deal with the death of children.

Second, and related to the first, I feel no impulse or obligation to try to find a way to justify a belief that all (or even many) children go to heaven and not to hell. I believe that the doctrine of original sin is entirely biblical, and that on the basis of Rom. 5:12-21, etc., sin and death reign in all people and condemn them to hell from conception unless God in Christ intervenes to rescue them from their guilt in Adam.  So, if God were to send all children who die to hell (though I do not think he does), I believe he would be entirely just, right, and good in doing so.

Third, as I mentioned above, in God’s providence he has deemed it wise not to answer this question clearly and comprehensively, as he did others. What is more: He knew that many, many people would ask it, and in his wisdom he thought it best not to give a clear and unambiguous answer.  I don’t know why.  I have some guesses, but I don’t know for sure.  So, within that reality, we have to be careful only to say what his word does seem to say, and preserve a degree of uncertainty that God apparently intended.

Okay. I think I’ve said everything I need to say by way of introduction.  Here’s my thesis, and if you aren’t interesting in my reasoning, then now you’ll have my answer and you can stop reading:

I believe that there is sufficient evidence in Scripture to warrant confidence that God saves the children of believers who die before they have the mental and physical ability to express saving faith in Jesus in ways that we can observe. Let me explain.

There are one or two pieces of my argument that I am convinced are biblically indisputable.  First, I take it to be biblically indisputable that God can regenerate (that is, make a “new creation,” or “cause to be born again”) people even within the womb if he so chooses. I’m not yet arguing that he does do it with any regularity.  I’m simply arguing that God can and has done so.  I believe this on the basis of such texts as Ps. 22:9-10, Ps. 71:6, Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:15, Luke 1:39-45, among others.

Regeneration is a sovereign and unilateral act of God that comes before, or is prior, to faith (Eph. 2:4-5; Col. 2:13).  Faith is a result of God making us new (=regeneration).  Regeneration is not a result of faith, which means that God can certainly regenerate a person before they are able to express faith in ways that we would be able to perceive.

Therefore, I believe that infants or even unborn children can be “new creations”; that they can be “regenerate” or “born again.”  And the way that they express their saving faith, which flows from God’s regeneration of them, will probably be imperceptable to us because they cannot form complex thoughts and express them in speech.  In that way, I believe that infants can express faith in ways similar to an adult who is severely mentally handicapped.  God may cause a severely mentally handicapped person to be born again as a new creation, even if the manifestation or expression of this faith that flows from their regeneration is very simple and imperceptible to us.  A severely mentally handicapped person may not be able to “confess with [her] mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9), but they will express regenerate faith in whatever way they are capable.

So, the question is not whether God can save infants, but whether he does.  And if so, which ones or how many does he save?

I can’t think of any biblical evidence that would lead me to believe that God saves all infants who die before they can understand the gospel.  Here is where I do not think it is wise to give false assurances.  As far as I can tell, there is nothing in Scripture that suggests that this is the case.  So, on that issue we need to be content with God’s silence and trust that whatever he does, it is good and just.  But I do think that there are several pointers to the fact that he does save some.

First, there is the text in 2 Samuel 12 in which David is grieving the death of his firstborn child who came as a result of his adultery with Bathsheba.  In this midst of his grief, David laments: “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” This is, no doubt, a much-disputed text.  Some argue that all that David is saying is that his son has gone “to the grave,” which is where David also will go eventually.  But I find this reading very unlikely for at least two reasons:

(1) David says that he will go to him.  He does not say he will go to the same place as him.  He says, “I will go to him,” which leads me to believe that David thinks that there will be personal interaction between he and his son one day—presumably in heaven.  (2) David seems to take comfort from what he’s saying.  This doesn’t sound like a cold, objective statement about the ultimate destiny of every human being; a mere observation along the lines of, “Hey, we all gotta go sometime….”  Rather, David seems to be comforting himself in the knowledge that he will see his son again, confident as he is that God will bring both he (Ps. 23:6) and his son into his presence.

Second, there is 1 Corinthians 7:13-14: “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

This is a notoriously difficult text and is acutely subject to abusive interpretations, but I am inclined to read the phrase de hagia estin (“…but they are holy”) much in the way that John Calvin read it: “The passage…teaches that the children of the pious are set apart from others by a sort of exclusive priviledge, so as to be reckoned holy in the Church.  …This flows from the blessing of the covenant….” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 243).  I do not take this to the same conclusion that Calvin does, claiming that these covenant blessings for the children of believers include a removal of the curse.  But I do agree with him that this passage makes some distinction between the children of believers and the children of unbelievers.  I think it probable that this distinction includes the saving election and regeneration of infants whom God ordained would not live until they could understand the gospel and respond in perceptible faith.

In the end, I don’t think I can improve on Wayne Grudem’s hopeful but careful conclusion on the matter:

“We should recognize that it is God’s frequent pattern throughout Scripture to save the children of those who believe in him (see Gen. 7:1; cf. Heb. 11:7; Josh. 2:18; Ps. 103:17; John 4:53; Acts 2:39; 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 7:14; Titus 1:6; cf. Matt. 18:10, 14). These passages do not show that God automatically saves the children of all believers…, but they do indicate that God’s ordinary pattern, the ‘normal’ or expected way in which he acts, is to bring the children of believers to himself.  With regard to believers’ children who die very young, we have no reason to think that it would be otherwise” (ST, 500).