I’ve known and appreciated Terry Francis for a number of years now, but his recent series of posts on preachers and churches may well prove to be more valuable to the Lord’s work than anything else he’s done. In them, Terry has confronted some hard truths about elders, about churches, and, yes, about preachers.
In his most recent post, he highlighted the propensity of the latter to get trapped in a Rick Warren church-growth mindset, with a resultant focus on numbers and neglect of brethren. Ouch. Caught me right between the eyes with that one, Terry. Like him, I can look back with sorrow at times in my work when I cared more about number of baptisms per year than I did about fostering relationships with those who were already members of the congregation.
Don’t get me wrong. Saving souls is wonderful, but so too is dwelling with other Christians in unity and peace. We must do the first, but emphasizing the first at the expense of the second is a perversion of Scripture.
I think this is another one of the areas in which the church has taken its lead from wider American society. Society teaches us that the preacher is an employee and the church leadership is his employer. So too, society teaches us that if you want to evaluate the usefulness of your employee, you need data. You need metrics, even if useful metrics really don’t exist. Another one of those American illusions is that only the measurable is important.
According to this way of thinking, the preacher’s job is to keep the church in the black. As long as the attendance and contribution keep rising, all is well. If either starts declining, hmmm. It might be time to “look for a new direction”.
Preachers, at least the ones who think they can “grow the church”, like this metrical method too. It gives them job security (they think), and it gives them justification to become puffed up and proud. How dare any member get crossways with them??? They’re growing the church!
As Terry points out, this is a dangerous delusion. When it comes to the Lord’s work, no man can give the increase. Both preachers and churches must acknowledge this. The data that offer the appearance of objectivity end up distorting the truth instead, either about our preachers or about ourselves.
If we want to test the quality of a man’s work, we have to use Scriptures, not spreadsheets. Three whole books of the Bible are devoted to a discussion of the work of the evangelist, and there is much other material besides. The word reveals quite clearly what questions we ought to be asking.
Among them are these: Does a man work hard? Does he accurately handle the word of truth? Is his conduct an example for other believers? Does he preach the word, in season and out of season? Is he humble and patient in his dealings with others, especially when they’re wrong? Above all, does he love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength?
These things cannot be measured, but their value is immeasurable. A man who is and does these things, regardless of the number on the attendance board, has won the approval of God. Preachers need to rest themselves in this truth; church leaders need to honor it.
If, conversely, numbers begin to matter to us more than godliness, surely ungodliness will not be far behind.
Last week, my friend and brother Kent Berman shared some of his spiritual reflections on Facebook. He observed that the crush of worship services and church activities on Sunday, and indeed through the rest of the week, left him and his family feeling rushed and stressed out. He suggested that many churches would be better off in thinning out their calendars, leaving more time for Christians to spend on prayer, Bible study, family activity, and getting to know their neighbors.
I thought this was an intriguing idea, and I both partially agreed and partially disagreed with it. On the “agreement” side, I think it’s easy for American churches to follow the pattern of American culture, which tends toward stress and excess. To the American mind, the answer to every problem is a program. Young people leaving the church? More youth devotions! Christians with marriage problems? Let’s have a series of studies!
I don’t mean to suggest that any of these things, or other things like them, are ungodly. Individually, they may even be wise. In the aggregate, however, they result in a calendar so cluttered with worship services and small-group activities and special events that you basically have to be the preacher to show up to all of them. When many Christians are already leading lives that are overheating with stress, this may well push them to apathy rather than spiritual excellence.
It’s good, then, for church leaders to reflect long and hard before throwing a program at the problem. That extra teen devo may well be coming out of the few hours a week that teens have to spend with their families, and time with parents is (or at least ought to be) more spiritually influential than anything the devo leader might say. If parents aren’t spending significant time on spiritual interaction with their kids, well, we’ve found the real problem, haven’t we? No program can overcome that.
Fundamentally, though, the reason why Christian families are stressed out and don’t have time for spiritual growth and each other isn’t the church. It’s the culture. Three assemblies and a small-group meeting aren’t going to stress you out if you aren’t doing anything else with your week (which is why retired Christians show up to things like that and gripe about how younger Christians aren’t). However, if both husband and wife are working 50 hours a week to make the payments on a 3000-square-foot house, two late-model SUV’s, and $10K in credit-card debt, then yeah, those extra five hours will push you over the edge. In fact, you may already be over the edge because of little Johnny and Jane and their 50 million extracurricular activities that you have to take them to or be a Bad Parent.
It’s good to question whether the church is trying to do too much. It’s better to question whether in our personal lives, we are trying to do too much. In many cases, we have drunk too deeply of our society’s assumptions about prosperity and success, and they’re causing us to wreck our lives. We careen through life screaming at our loved ones, and we blame the church and its five-hours-a-week drain on our time because those materialistic assumptions are too deeply ingrained to question.
I’m all for churches being respectful of their members’ busy schedules. However, if our lives are crazy and out-of-control, we need to be honest about where the problem really lies.
‘Tis the season for funerals. Over the past few weeks, my family and I have been to three visitations/funerals: two for relatives of Jackson Heights members, one for the infant daughter of some friends of ours. The two men who died were not Christians; our friends are Christians, very much so.
The differences between the first two and the last one were striking. What, after all, does one say at the funeral of an irreligious man? You look backward. You have to. You talk about what a good friend and coworker he was. You talk about the memories his children have of him. The songs you play are half religious (like that country & western song about going to heaven and petting a lion, which I had never heard before moving to Tennessee and now have heard quite a bit), half not. Then the funeral is over, and you are left with your memories. That’s it.
It’s different if you’re a Christian. Admittedly, these were folks we knew better than we knew the others, but we talked to them for nearly an hour. We certainly talked about memories, but we also talked about meaning. We grappled, as Christians do, with understanding the work of God in a fallen world. We talked about what it means to be a person of faith in a time of despair.
We talked too about their daughter in the present tense. From her perspective, now is much better than a month ago was. We anticipated a tomorrow that would be better for all of us, not least because we will see her again. We will.
Between these two spiritual landscapes, a great chasm is fixed. Mourning with hope is no fun. I’ve grieved for my parents and my daughter that way. However, it is infinitely preferable to mourning without hope. It is much better to grapple with the meaning of tragedy than to be forced to admit that tragedy has no more meaning than anything else.
I know that my friends will grieve incessantly for months and periodically for as long as they live. Some wounds do not completely heal this side of Jordan, and we should not expect them to (or worse, expect the wounds of others to). Our society’s discomfort with sorrow is part and parcel of its refusal to confront the grim realities of life under the sun. We know better, and we should be wiser than that.
Neither, though, should we deny or disparage the comfort that we have been given. Christians are blessed with many gifts. The right to mourn with hope is one of the most precious.
Let me give you a list of some of the men in the brotherhood whom I most admire. Max Dawson. L. A. Stauffer. Mark Russell. David Maravilla. Andy Diestelkamp. These men (and others like them), in addition to having a blameless character, are also preachers who have worked with the same congregation for several decades. Max, for instance, began with the Dowlen Rd. church in Beaumont, TX, in 1978, the same year I was born.
I don’t have to know anything else about you. If you’ve been in the same work for 40-plus years, you’ve been doing something right.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve continued to reflect on Terry Francis’s series of posts about preachers being treated as hirelings. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if part of the problem is that preachers act like hirelings.
Recently, I ran across a quotation that urged, “Work like you own the place.” Obviously, no man can own a church belonging to Christ, but there is still a difference between a hireling, even a hard-working hireling, and an owner (or, to use the John 10 language, a good shepherd). Back when I worked for Wal-Mart, I worked hard until the managers told me I could go home, but I didn’t stick around to lock up. Hirelings don’t do that. Owners do.
In the same way, I suspect there are subtle differences in the behavior of a preacher who is determined to remain with a congregation, come what may, as opposed to the preacher who says in his heart, “If worse comes to worst, I can always find someplace else to preach.” If you know you are going down with the ship, you’re going to work a lot harder to keep the ship from going down.
I think this is particularly true when it comes to relationships with brethren. Most preachers who have been preaching very long have accumulated their share of stories about shoddy treatment by members of their congregations. However, none of these stories occur in isolation.
Sure, there are so-called brethren out there who are eaten up entirely with malice. However, I don’t think that most Christians who sin against preachers are like that. Instead, I think they are generally good people whose relationship with the preacher somehow gets caught in a death spiral. Those situations give the devil an opportunity.
Yes, ordinary Christians bear their share of responsibility for failed relationships with preachers, but preachers often do too. It’s easy for preachers to focus on the sin, and get all righteoused up about being sinned against, while overlooking the years of folly and neglect that allowed sin to flourish. Complaining, “It’s not my job to cater to everybody in the church,” is simply another way of admitting, “I am a hireling and act like it.”
I do not mean to suggest that preachers who leave their congregations for another work have sinned. Far from it! However, if we don’t want to be treated like hirelings, we need to quit thinking and behaving like hirelings. If we want commitment and genuine relationships from the leadership and the congregation, we first must show that commitment and build those relationships ourselves.
In the Lord’s church, there are many workers who toil in obscurity, never getting the recognition they deserve for their efforts and faithfulness. Of them all, though, the wives of preachers may well be the most neglected and overlooked.
This begins with the higher standard to which preachers’ wives are held. In theory, they are no different from any other sister in the congregation. In practice, there are as many expectations for their conduct as there are for the conduct of their husbands.
These expectations first appear during the preacher-interview process. I’ve never had a discussion with a congregation in which my wife didn’t come up. In the secular world, questions about a prospective employee’s spouse are irrelevant and possibly illegal. In the church, they’re central to a congregation’s assessment of a man.
Additionally, an eldership or men’s meeting may well want to interview the preacher’s wife before they make a decision (the elders at Jackson Heights certainly interviewed Lauren before hiring me). At the least, the women of the congregation will want to get to know her before the church brings her husband on.
During a preacher’s tenure with a congregation, the relationship between the church and the preacher’s wife is as much employer-employee as it is familial. Other women can get away with not teaching Bible classes and otherwise being active in the work. Just let the preacher’s wife try that! The other members of the congregation often feel at liberty to comment on the way the preacher’s wife spends her money, styles her hair, and trains her children. What’s she going to do, get mad and leave?
Outside the assembly, she is expected to be warm, hospitable, and everybody’s best friend on demand. Woe betide the preacher whose wife gets the reputation of being stuck up! Frankly, in a lot of ways, the work of the evangelist’s wife is more difficult than the work of the evangelist.
Some women have the right blend of gifts and determination to meet the demands of this quasi-job with cheerfulness and grace. Both Shawn and I are blessed with wives who fit naturally into this challenging situation. We freely acknowledge that Genesia and Lauren make us twice as effective as we would otherwise be.
Other women, though, find that they have married into a position that they neither desired nor are suited for. Some of them become embittered by the expectations. I can think of more than a few preachers’ wives who, as the saying goes, look like they were weaned on a sour pickle. Though I don’t think that bitterness is appropriate for any Christian, I can certainly understand how they got there.
Perhaps more common are the preachers’ wives who gamely soldier on, who play the part of the bubbly extrovert at tremendous emotional cost. They love their husbands and love the Lord, but each passing week adds to their burden of psychological stress. In many instances, this stress eventually manifests itself in serious illness. Such women deserve our sympathies and prayers.
Indeed, all preachers’ wives deserve our consideration. It certainly would help if we remembered to treat them as sisters rather than employees. If we wouldn’t make a comment to another woman in the congregation, we probably shouldn’t make it to her either. What’s more, we don’t have the right to expect more from her than we do from anyone else. If she’s an employee, give her a job description and put her on the payroll. If not, don’t treat her like one!
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of optimism on this score. I think the double standard for preachers’ wives in the church is so deeply rooted that a stick of dynamite wouldn’t blast it out. However, it will help if we at least acknowledge the double standard and extend grace to women who don’t live up to it.
Let’s hear it for preachers’ wives, then, who bear up nobly under the burdens of a thankless and demanding work! Whether they excel or struggle, we ought to pray for them. For that matter, we ought to pause to encourage and thank them. They’re human beings too, and they universally appreciate a kind word. I’m certain that on the day of judgment, their sacrifices will be remembered and honored. The least we can do is to remember and honor them too.