Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders

I’ve been thinking about how our understanding of elders and their roles as shepherds relates to the big picture, the story the church has been brought into by Jesus. With elders, as with many other parts of church life, it’s too easy to think about them in isolation, as though we can simply turn to the proper chapters of scripture that address them and retrieve the list of rules that will tell us what to do. A much healthier approach is to start with the larger story in which we live, and let our understanding of the church’s shepherds grow out of that context, out of that story.

That larger story announces the reality of God’s reign in the world and his willingness to love and redeem the world. It is the story of how the creator God remains concerned with his creation, and is active within it. It is the story of how that God made for himself a people, by making covenant with Abraham, and with his rescued descendants at Sinai. It tells of God’s pursuit of Israel even when the covenant was broken. It tells how, in Jesus, God has made a new covenant with his people and opened the door for men and women of all nations to join Israel in becoming the covenant people of God. That story offers a way for humans to live within God’s reign, and warns of judgment for those who continue to live in rebellion against God’s reign. That story brings humans into participation in God’s plan to fight the darkness that has corrupted the world, and announces that his victory is certain, and what is wrong will be made right.

The church exists because of that story. It exists in that story. And it exists as an expression of that story.

When we talk about shepherds and elders, we can’t jump out of that story and imagine that we’re just dealing with a simple fact of ordering religious life. The shepherds actually function, like the rest of the church, within the context of that larger story. Continue reading “Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders”

I Just Wanna be a Sheep (Baaaa)—A Sermon on Receiving Shepherding

A couple of years ago a movie was released that I suppose a few have seen, although I have not and hopefully presume that not many of you have either. Indeed, it is astonishing that there was a market at all for Black Sheep. The film is set on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and tells the story of a farm where a bit of genetic engineering goes terribly awry, creating a new breed of—wait for it—Zombie Sheep. Yes, Zombie Sheep. The generally docile creatures turn bloodthirsty, devouring whatever humans they can find, and in true Zombie film fashion, develop the ability to turn some of the bitten farmers into mutant were-sheep—hideous creatures covered with wool, frenzied and ready to join the attacking horde-flock in their quest to devour the remaining humans.

This may well be a parable of the church.

While much attention continues to be given (appropriately) to training leaders and discussing the evolving model of elderships within churches, but we need to talk more about the other side of the relationship—what we sheep bring to our relationship with our shepherds. Like any relationship, we can’t work on only one side of the equation. For our model of shepherding to become truly effective, it can’t just be about the shepherds. We have to also develop our sense of what it means to receive shepherding. You can’t have good healthy shepherds in a church full of bloodthirsty zombie sheep.

Continue reading “I Just Wanna be a Sheep (Baaaa)—A Sermon on Receiving Shepherding”

Elders Part 2: Making Decisions about Making Decisions

Most of the time, when men become elders, they have very little idea of what things are going to be like.  What should they expect in meetings? What’s expected from them outside of the meeting room? What kinds of questions are people going to start asking them that they never would have heard before? What do you do when your thoughts are on the fringe? It can all be shocking at first, and it takes a little while before it begins to feel somewhat normal.  I’ve heard a lot of men say it was at least six months or a year before it felt normal to them—even two years is common!

Typically, churches add elders in batches, and since a new batch can take a little while to adjust, they often assimilate into the way the group already does things, going with the flow while they learn to swim.  Commonly being a part of an eldership is a moderating force on individuals, bringing them towards a center of thought. That’s mainly healthy and appropriate, part of the way the Spirit runs the church, but there is at least one by product of that process which is potentially negative.

Continue reading “Elders Part 2: Making Decisions about Making Decisions”

Elders Part 1: The Value of Growing, Caring Shepherds

(Note: My faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, are organized into autonomous churches governed by multiple elders. In this series, I’m going to write some of my observations about how those elderships work, or don’t. If your faith tradition has another organizational practice, don’t let my language freak you out too much. I would imagine much of what is written here about our leadership structure would be useful across other church leadership structures.)

Elderships have a bad reputation, and sometimes for good reason. Churches with dysfunctional leadership teams get burned by terrible decision making, the failure to spiritually care for hurting people, and harsh judgments. Beyond that, there is a thick layer of communication problems that have built up over time, and elderships that have made good and wise decisions have often struggled to nail the follow-up and communication elements of leadership, intensifying distrust and creating distance between themselves and the congregations with which they have been entrusted.

One of the reasons leaving Little Rock was a tough decision for us was that Kelly and I were aware of how common those problems are, and also extremely comfortable with the leadership team at Pleasant Valley. Perfect they most certainly are not, but they are largely functional, and are committed to fulfilling their role in that body as well as they can.  They are extremely prayerful and wise.

That made it hard for us to leave, because we were afraid to trade in the blessings of that highly functional group of shepherds for the unknown element of wherever we would land! Frankly, it was terrifying to walk away from that group of shepherds who had shown us much love and blessed us with much wise counsel over the years. So far, those fears have been misplaced, and we’ve found the eldership here at Cedar Lane to be extremely supportive and helpful. I see in these men the same dedication to spiritual care that I loved and admired at PV, and a commitment to growing in all the various ways they show leadership throughout the church.

Leaders committed to their own personal growth and development into caring shepherds model these things for their churches. They foster two extremely important cultural climates within the church. The first is a culture of personal compassion, where people actively seek to care for other people. In a community dominated by this culture, people extend hospitality to their brothers and sisters, making space for them in their lives. They seek ways to help others carry their burdens, and take initiative to get involved with people on the level of their broken and hurting hearts.  When elders take compassion on as their primary job, it helps everybody else understand that this is really the church’s job. We create a culture of compassion.

Secondly, eldership have a unique opportunity to model a culture of growth for the church. When elders commit to  growing and demonstrate that they are in full pursuit of what it means for them to live as disciples, they foster those kinds of attitudes within the church. On the other hand, how many eldership out there are communicating, intentionally or not, that their own lives as disciples is a fixed entity? How many are communicating that discipleship is about being stable and static? Growth is essential to our lives as disciples, it is a fundamental part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—somebody that is learning from him what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Elders committed to their own growth as disciples create an expectation within the church that we are all growing, that discipleship is an active, ongoing process.

These two factors could make a tremendous difference in churches across the country. I’ve been in two churches where it already is making a difference. And I know that those two elderships are just getting started.

The Destructive Mentalities of a Disengaged Church

In this series of posts, I’ve been writing about the concept of church mentalities, and particularly the sorts of mentalities that need to be developed if the church is to be meaningfully engaged with the local community. As painful as it may be, we must recognize that we aren’t developing those mentalities in anything like a vacuum.  There is no truly clean slate.   Rather, we are simultaneously developing one set of mentalities while working to counter destructive mentalities already exerting influence.  Mentalities destructive to the church’s purposes are often thoroughly entrenched within the church for a variety of reasons in the personal histories of church members.  Any of the potential purposes the Church might take on faces this process of reconstructing the proper mentalities, but here I’m specifically interested in our particular purpose of engagement with the surrounding community and its problems, and what mentalities potentially exist that would be counterproductive to that purpose. Below is my initial list of these potential destructive mentalities that threaten to keep churches disengaged. Truthfully, some of them are foils, but I think others ring true and are closer to home than I like to admit.

1. Service is a painful discipline. You just have to suffer through it, and force yourself to get it done. If it was fun, it wouldn’t be service.

2. We serve because we get something out of it.  Service is great for the high school kids’ college applications, our personal resumes, our social lives, and our reputations (particularly in the church). Not to mention the fact that God will someday reward us if we serve!

3. We have what we have because of our hard work. It is God’s way of blessing us for doing things the right way, so that we can enjoy the things he gives us.  We don’t owe anything to anybody, really.

4. Evangelism is about helping people obtain forgiveness. Conversion is infinitely more important than “discipleship”. The first steps of the Christian journey are by far the most important, because they involve accepting God’s forgiveness—if people are motionless after that, at least they won’t be going to hell.

5. We are a peaceful and stable church. This is how we’ve grown! When we take new initiatives, we threaten what we’ve spent years building, and threaten the very peace which brought people to our church in the first place.

6. The church is primarily interested in saving souls. Everything else we might do is a vehicle towards that end. We can judge our success by the number of conversions, and if we don’t see many of those, that we can at least hope that we have planted the seed of the gospel in their mind so that it will eventually bear fruit.

7. Service is a special gift of some christians. It’s great that god has given some people such servant hearts.  It’s the job of the rest of the church to encourage and support those people.

8. We want to support our people in service. The best (or only) candidate for a partner is the one who thinks like we do, talks like we do, and practices like we do.

9. Most people’s problems are a result of their own sin. If they hadn’t made some bad decisions, they wouldn’t need our help.  In fact, most people asking for help are probably abusing the system. They’ll probably go to hell even more because of that.

10. Commonality leads to friendship. Our best friends are people with whom I have common interests, common ideas, and a similar background. In fact, we’ve probably already been friends for a while.

11. It’s us against the world. The world is full of so much corruption that it’s better to isolate ourselves from it, and make sure not to associate ourselves with evil of any kind.

In some ways these might stand as opposites of the mentalities that encourage community engagement, so that they constitute poles on the opposite side of a spectrum. Alternatively, we might understand these mentalities as threads within the tapestry that makes up our mindsets as individuals and as a group with a corporate identity. Within that tapestry are threads of many different hues, some of which are brighter, some are darker.  In other words, some of these darker threads might exists alongside lighter threads, and it is a blending of light and dark threads of many colors that influences our thoughts, actions, feelings, and words in particular moments and over time. Part of our work in creating a good “working” tapestry is developing positive mentalities, in other words, weaving lighter strands into the fabric.  On the other hand, there may be darker threads that need to be pulled, removed from the tapestry.

I suspect these destructive mentalities might be more controversial than the positive set.  I’m not sure I even agree with how negative a couple of them are. I would very much welcome your comments, whether in agreement or civil dissent.  Help me think.

Mentalities for a Church Engaging the Community

In part one of this series, I talked about how complicated it can be to develop a particular set of mentalities within the church.  That’s not all that helpful without some concrete examples of what we mean by mentalities.

The church here at Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) is working to become more engaged with the community, so here is a working set of mentalities that I’m teasing out as part of that transition.  They are not in any particular order yet.

1. We love to serve people. It’s not a burden to us, something we do reluctantly out of guilt.  We find joy in serving other people, and the more we do it, the more we love to do it.  We anticipate having a great time while we serve.

2. Service is a sacred duty. Although we could never repay the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, we receive his actions both as gift and lesson.  The cross is both the means and the purpose of our redemption, a binding path for us to follow if we are to honor our commitment as disciples of Jesus. The Lord bids us honor him by serving our neighbor.

3. Our lives are not our own. Everything that we are, do, and possess is conditioned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ over us. There is no question of convenience or desire.

4. Evangelism is the invitation to participate in the kingdom of God. This necessarily involves the invitation to serve. We don’t view ourselves as servants and others simply as recipients of our service, but everyone as having potential for service in the community.

5.  We are a “Servant” church. It is part of our corporate identity as a people.  Theologically, this is rooted in the idea that the church is the physical representation of Christ on earth today.  In as much as we recognize from scripture that Christ is “servant”, we work to fulfilling that identity in our body of believers.  It is part of who we are.

6.  Whenever we fight against darkness/brokenness, we fight with and for God. Darkness shows up in the world in thousands of different forms. Family failure, financial despair, emotional imbalance and the grief of life unfulfilled are all expressions of evil.  The mission of the church in the world is not just to get people to accept Jesus in order to gain forgiveness in preparation for their death.  Rather, the church exists to embody the God who works to restore and heal his broken creation.

7.  Everyone can serve. Everyone.  Absolutely everyone has a way of fighting darkness in the world.

8.  We want to help people help people. When we see someone taking initiative to push back against darkness somewhere, we don’t immediately suspect their motives, and we don’t jump into criticisms.  Our first reaction is to respect their initiative and passion.  What might they need in support?  Encouragement? Advice? Freedom or space?

9. We do not judge the people we serve. We recognize that before God we have our own problems, and our own sins.  We rely on the forgiveness of God, and are compelled to give what we expect to receive.  We relish opportunities to be gracious and merciful. We know we don’t occupy the high ground, we don’t have a status that allows us to stand in judgement over other people.

10. Service leads to friendship. Our normal thinking about status—that we are superior to others—is an illusion that stands as a fundamental barrier to relationships.  When we serve, he voluntarily dispel that illusion, and open up the possibilities for new relationships. We also deepen the friendships with the people we serve with, so that all the friendships of the church are built upon the identity of service and the practices of service.

11. We want to be great neighbors. Our church is planted within a particular community, and God calls us to be good neighbors to that community.  We are a part of our community, and don’t exist in isolation from the community and its problems.  Jesus teaches us how to be good neighbors, how to interact with the people with whom we share our city.

There’s my initial list.  I hope it’s useful in defining what I mean by strategic “mentalities”.  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below regarding what kinds of mentalities might additionally be helpful in making our transition, as well as how the ones I’ve listed strike you.  How present do you think these mentalities are? Are they sound theologically?

The next post in this series will address common destructive mentalities. I’d welcome comments ahead of that post as well!