Embracing Downward Mobility

Throughout my working life, I have often borne the title of “Assistant.” I’ve been a medical assistant, an administrative assistant, a loan assistant and a ministry assistant. My current title is “Associate Pastor,” which means I serve as assistant to the pastor, among other things. I am also an ordained deacon and, as such, one of my functions is assisting priests and bishops.

I came of age during a time when assistants were often thought of as second-class workers, people who couldn’t quite “make the grade” for anything more. Yet I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school, and made the dean’s list in college. Being an assistant has always been more about my personality than about my abilities. My natural dispostion is to help and to encourage; my spiritual gifts align with my dispostion, as do my learned skills and natural abilities.

There have been seasons in my life when I objected to the assistant title. I didn’t necessarily object to what I was doing, just to what I was being called.It felt like I was being relegated to a lesser role, to second chair. It precluded recognition as any kind of leader. I preferred to identify with Jesus the King rather than Jesus the Suffering Servant.downward mobility

What about Jesus? He certainly practiced downward mobility. God became man–Jesus–and came down to earth, where He willingly stepped into the role of  Suffering Servant. From God to man, to servant washing feet, to criminal nailed to a cross, to death. Downward mobility…in order that He could lead us out of death into eternal life.

I am reminded of the wisdom of two Anglican bishops. In commenting on his role as bishop, one said that it appears to the world that he is climbing the ladder of success. “In reality,” he said, “becoming a bishop has nothing to do with upward mobility but, rather, just the opposite. It’s about downward mobility, becoming more and more a servant.”  In the Anglican tradition, one is first ordained a deacon before he/she can become a priest; one must be a priest for years before being considered for consecration as bishop. Deacon means “to serve.” Which brings me to the wisdom of the second bishop. As he was preparing to ordain a priest, he said to the ordinand, “Remember, once a deacon, always a deacon.”

It has taken most of my life to embrace downward mobility, to realize that being an assistant is a good thing, and that I can indeed lead from “second chair.” This is who God created me to be; it is what God created me to do. And it is where I find true joy.

 

Don’t forget the blueberries!

In his book The Healing Reawakening, Francis MacNutt notes that people rarely come asking for the fruit of the Spirit. Rather, they come asking for the gifts of the Spirit. He writes–

…many people ask for us to pray for them to receive the charismatic gifts, such as, “Please pray for me to receive the gift of healing.” Relatively few ask for the fruits of the Spirit, saying something like, “I have trouble loving other people. Would you pray that I receive the gift of loving and caring?”

Francis MacNutt wrote about me. I have often asked for God to give me a particular spiritual gift. I rarely have intentionally asked for the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, I have joked for years about not asking for patience because the lessons to learn it are painful!

I am all about doing. I have long prided myself on keeping busy. I certainly identify with Martha in the biblical story of Mary and Martha found in Luke 10. I’ve read countless books and heard countless talks about the importance of being over doing, only to think to myself that if it weren’t for those of us who do, nothing would ever get done. (Seriously, there’s a certain amount of truth in that, right?!)

The point is not to separate the doing from the being. The point is that the gifts without the fruit lead to pride and self-aggrandizement. Asking for the gifts of the Spirit and not for the fruit of the Spirit is rooted in selfishness, even when it is born out of misunderstanding.

When I ask for the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–I’m asking God to form in me particular qualities of character. That means it’s who I am all the time. When I ask for Spiritual gifts, I’m asking for something I can use, something I can do when and if I choose.

I often teach that ministry is not just what we do, but it is who we are. That’s only true when we pray for the fruit of the Spirit in conjunction with the gifts of the Spirit. When I have the character of Christ, the spiritual gifts become tools which I selflessly use to bless others. The fruit of the Spirit informs me how to use the gifts of the Spirit for God’s glory rather than my own.

No doubt about it, I need more fruit.

summer-fruit-bowl-02So, God, may I please have some raspberries…and strawberries…and peaches? Maybe a banana and some kiwi? And please don’t forget the blueberries. I need them all!

Back to the Basics: It’s All About Love

Trust me, this not a sappy Valentine’s Day post! Actually it’s somewhat of a response to my last post. To be honest, there was something about that post that felt a little off the mark. Not because I wrote anything untrue. Not because it was direct. No, there was just something missing…something very important. Motivation.

The danger of throwing out scripture verses out of context is that they can be misunderstood. One could interpret that post in light of the scriptures I employed as me contending that we should serve others out of a sense of obligation to Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth! Obligation has little to do with it. It’s really all about love.

Know that you are loved by God.

The first step in serving others is to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves me, that I am his beloved child and that nothing can change that. I can do nothing to make him love me more or love me less. And because of God’s love for me, Christ gave up his life for me. Judging by my behavior, I wasn’t worth that. But God sees me differently, and loves me unconditionally.

Know what is an appropriate response to that love.

Because God loves me–because Christ gave up his life for me–I am motivated to respond. This is not a matter of somehow earning this love. It was already mine, long before I was aware of it! No, this is a visceral response to a love that I really can’t comprehend, but for which I am beyond grateful. I want to respond, I want to return at least a small measure of that love. Not out of obligation, but out of this deep fountain of gratitude that wells up within me. Anticipating this response, Jesus left instructions about how I might express my gratitude and my love for him.

Know how to love others.

Jesus simply said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) The way that Jesus loves me is that he gave up his life for me, and now walks with me every day. He points out the people he wants to serve through me. He provides everything I need to do what he asks me to do: the gift of the Holy Spirit, friends who have complimentary talents and abilities so that I do not serve alone, spiritual directors who are willing to share their God-given wisdom to encourage me to become more and more like Christ. All I need do is make myself available to him.proof

And that is what I do, as best as I am able. I make myself available to Jesus Christ. Not out of a sense of obligation. Not because I think I can somehow earn what has been freely given. Neither of these are adequate motivation to go the distance in the way that Jesus calls me to serve. No, what motivates me is love–God’s love for me, understanding the appropriate response, and loving others as Christ loved me.

Something old may just be something new!

I haven’t blogged in well over a month. I haven’t felt like I had anything new to say. Maybe I don’t. But in the past two weeks I’ve had two conversations with ministry leaders from two churches in two states, each of whom sharing with me something that set off my equipping alarm! I have been reminded that each person learns at their own speed, implementing what they can, when they can. In other words, when someone attends a training or reads a book or blog, there may be only one or two points that grab their attention and around which they take action.

Case in point: in the first conversation, the ministry leader shared that their church had enthusiastically encouraged gifts discovery, providing curriculum and a class for those who were interested in learning. Many of their members went through the class and were excited to learn their spiritual gift. However, there was no follow through. No follow up. No process for helping those folks find a serving opportunity that would utilize their gift in fruitful ministry.

This reminds me of the first Christmas we gave our son an electronic toy. He squealed with excitement when he opened his gift, then cried with equal fervor when it wouldn’t work because we had neglected to purchase the necessary batteries. I saw the same frustrated disappointment on the face of my grandson just a few weeks ago when, after gleefully ripping the wrapping paper off a Christmas present, he was told he couldn’t open the box to play with the toy because his momma was concerned that the small parts would be lost in all the empty boxes and wrapping paper. What’s the fun of opening a gift that you can’t use?

In the second conversation, a ministry leader shared that they had at one time offered a discovery process, but it had now been years since spiritual gifts was a topic of conversation around the church. New folks who had come since that time had not been provided an opportunity to discover their unique design for ministry, and those who had participated previously had not been encouraged to re-visit the process to see what new thing the Holy Spirit might be doing in their lives to birth new ministry.

In each of these cases, a discovery process was implemented–probably in response to a new idea gleaned from a book or a training–but the process was incomplete in the first instance, and relegated to a program (with a predictable end) in the second. I’ve no doubt that the intention of each of these ministry leaders was to encourage their congregation to serve, but they had only a partial understanding and implementation of what is necessary to equip their people for fruitful and fulfilling ministry.

These conversations lead me to believe that I may not have anything new to say, but the stuff I’ve said before bears repeating. With that said, I will focus the next few posts on casting the vision for what is necessary to create and sustain an equipping culture. For those of you who have heard it all before, I hope you will share your thoughts, experiences, and suggestions to make that which is old (to you) into something new for others…and perhaps for yourself, too!

something old made new

One Body

Becoming the Mystical Body of Christ

As we gather around the Eucharistic table and make the death and resurrection of Jesus our own by sharing in the “bread of life” and the “cup of salvation,” we become together the living body of Christ.

The Eucharist is the sacrament by which we become one body.  Becoming one body is not becoming a team or a group or even a fellowship.  Becoming one body is becoming the body of Christ.  It is becoming the living Lord, visibly present in the world.  It is – as often has been said – becoming the mystical Body of Christ.   But mystical and real are the same in the realm of the Spirit.

Henri Nouwen Society’s Daily Meditations, October 13, 2013

More and more I sense the Spirit impressing upon me the importance of understanding what it means to be the living body of Christ. For years I’ve thought of Paul’s use of body language in 1 Corinthians 12 as a metaphor–an apt metaphor, to be sure. But he doesn’t say that we are like the body of Christ. No, he says we are the body of Christ.

In light of Paul’s teaching, Nouwen’s meditation lends understanding to how we become one body…the living body of Christ.

communion

An exercise in frustration

frustrationIf you are leading a small church and have designed even the most excellent equipping structure, rolling it out to a congregation that’s not big enough to support it and expecting great results is an exercise in frustration.

I have heard this time and again from pastors and ministry leaders in smaller congregations. They have preached and taught about serving, they have developed ministry descriptions for all their serving opportunities, they have a put a system in place to guide people through discovery and placement…yet they are still struggling to have enough volunteer ministers who are sure of their calling to lead ministry.

The values and principles are the same, so why doesn’t it work in a smaller church? What is missing???

Frankly, I was puzzled, too. But a recent conversation led me to a seemingly important insight. In a nutshell, it’s the institutional approach vs. organic approach.  I know those over-played words may trigger a fight or flight response in you, but resist it! Hear me out…

I spent 10 years in a large, well-established church. I learned and applied equipping principles and practices in that context. For the most part, they worked. Then I moved to a very small parish. Applying those same tried and true equipping principles and practices in this smaller context has been far less successful. On my bad days, dismal failure expressed my feelings perfectly!

For example: In the larger church, I could offer a gifts discovery class and have at least 20-25 folks sign up. I’ve offered the same class in my small parish (more than once) and had not one person express interest. See what I mean about dismal failure? Within the equipping process, gifts discovery is an integral first step. How do I move people through the process if they are unwilling to take the first step?

In a large church–say 1000 regular attenders–there may be 10-20% who have been discipled and are ready and willing to serve. Taking 100 to 200 people through the process makes it worth all the effort that went into that carefully designed equipping structure! And the odds of discovering a few folks in that crowd who are gifted and ready to lead are certainly in your favor.

In a small church of 100 regular attenders, that same 10-20% would amount to 10 to 20 volunteer ministers. Guiding only 10 people through a detailed equipping process can look like overkill! The structure overwhelms the number of participants (picture two people living alone in a mansion!). And you may not find one ready leader among those ten.

It seems to me that the institutional approach is to carefully design the equipping structure and processes first, then guide the potential volunteer ministers through them. It’s more likely to be effective for larger congregations.

However, it’s overwhelming for the small church. A more organic approach is to work with a few people at a time, discipling them personally. Discipling is more than Bible study. True discipling includes calling and gifts discovery, leadership development, and serving in a ministry. A lot is learned through your conversations that will enable you to skip some of the steps in the institutional approach (e.g., matching someone to a serving opportunity is much easier when you know them well, resulting in less trial and error). And while you are engaged in discipling, you are at the same time modeling leadership so that “leadership development” isn’t another step in the process.

Tired of the frustration? Investing in this personal discipling will help you design your equipping structure in a way that is congruent with your church. As your people grow, your processes will develop to fit the number of folks participating in them. Your structure will, in effect, be “under construction” as you are growing people into fully mature and devoted followers of Jesus Christ, willing to serve and lead as Christ served and led.

Seasons of Ministry

question markIt’s been over a month since I’ve blogged. There has been much going on in my corner of the world over the past several months, leading me to consider whether the Holy Spirit might be pointing me towards a new season of ministry. Let me say that it’s much easier for me to articulate that today than it was two weeks ago! I’ve prayed, journaled, met with my spiritual director. Of course, I’ve been true to my behavioral style and processed with trusted friends and my pastor! At last, I think I’ve found a few answers and a lot of peace.

“What’s your theology on seasons of ministry?”

This question posed to me by my spiritual director has been critical to my process of discernment. As an equipper, I often find myself encouraging my volunteer ministers to be aware that the Spirit is continually equipping them, sometimes even for a new ministry. So, when asked this question, the response came easily: The Holy Spirit gives gifts according to His good pleasure. There are a variety of gifts and a variety of services and, when we make ourselves available, He will use us whenever and however He chooses. Hmmm…could it be that this applies to me as well?!

In early October I was ordained to the vocational diaconate of the Anglican Church in North America. At my ordination, the bishop laid hands on me and spoke these words: “A new day, a new anointing. Don’t just do what you have always done, what you’ve been doing. Watch for the signs.”  I am grateful that I’ve developed a  habit of journaling, because the bishop’s words were almost lost in the ensuing busyness of a life enveloped in ministry! But as I found myself in a place of confusion and doubt at the dawn of 2013, I sensed the Spirit drawing me back to my ordination. I pulled out my journal to refresh my memory and pondered the bishop’s prophetic words.

There have indeed been signs that I’m being led back into a season of being equipped for new aspects of ministry. My ordination was an acknowledgment by the Church of my true vocation as a servant of the Church. And while I have the spiritual gift of shepherding and believe I am a pastor at heart, I need to improve my skill set for this new season of ministry. In addition, several of our lay leaders are transitioning out of leadership, providing an opportunity for me to invest in new leaders and further build our equipping culture. I’ve said before that implementing equipping systems in a small church is far different than doing it in a large church (the context where I gained the most experience), so I have an opportunity to hone my leadership skills as I experiment with new approaches to equipping the intentionally small congregation.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?                -Isaiah 43:19

I could easily have missed it. How about you? What’s your theology on seasons of ministry? Have you considered that the Holy Spirit may be doing a new thing in your life and ministry? Look for the signs!