The Too Accessible Pastor Article

Oh man… this article hurts more than I can even describe. It’s not so much that it’s true as it is that I recognize how much I’ve struggled and lost as a result of what this author is talking about. Here you go…



Written by Jeremy Farley

The Too Accessible Pastor: The Danger of 21st Century Ministry


I have been involved in Christian ministry for over twenty years and have over the course of this time, pastored three separate churches and ministered in hundreds more.  I am a far cry from being a seasoned professional and would hardly claim to be an expert; however, I have been in this thing long enough to make a few observations.

In recent years, a string of high-profile ministry suicides have captivated the nation and left several people asking the same question my wife asked me last week, “Why does it seem that so many pastors are suddenly struggling with their mental health than in previous years?”

Though I have no statistical evidence to promote my case, I can speak from my own experience.

As of now, I have never once contemplated suicide and I certainly don’t have any feelings of depression, so I may not be an ideal candidate to speak on this subject; however, being someone who does have a little ministry experience, I am qualified to provide my opinion… in fact, I’m very good at doing this!

Though I am not depressed, I am constantly stressed and to put it frankly, I often feel pulled.  I love ministry and would never be happy doing anything else, but being a younger pastor in 2019, with a younger congregation means that this shepherd is far more accessible to the sheep than any other pastor from any other era in human history — and I am not alone. Part of pastoring in the modern era means that you are more accessible than ever before.

My heroes of the faith are the old circuit riding preachers who literally pastored dozens of churches days apart from each other and yet they somehow kept their sanity.  Men like Robert Sheffey would conclude a preaching service, dine with his congregation, visit an ailing parishioner, then set out across a mountain ridge all alone, on his horse, never to be contacted again until he circled back through, sometimes weeks later.

Fast-forward to the typical pastor in the autumn of 2019 and the ministry is a far different experience: Prior to even waking from bed, I see that I have received a text message from a person in the church who stands in need of encouragement.

“Good morning, pastor, today is much better… I feel good about the decision I made last week.”

That’s wonderful to hear, you think to yourself as you rise from the bed and prepare the clothes you intend to wear for the day.

As you are about to take a shower, your phone again dings, though this time it is from another Christian and the news isn’t nearly as good.  “Pray for me, preacher. I struggled last night with that same temptation.”

You pause, heartbroken that someone who seems to love God so much is held captive to such a terrible stronghold.  Sitting back down on your bed, you find your fingers clicking away faster than any middle school aged girl in your community could possibly text — delivering what amounts to a four paragraph sermon that contains just the right amount of velvet and iron, and is both encouraging and honest.

By mid day, your phone has dinged no fewer than six times from a combination of people all wishing to share their victory or defeat with you, as well as a couple of folks who simply stand in need of a friend — they’ve sent a collection of random messages that are often hard to respond to correctly.

You have two lunch time meetings scheduled, one where you’ll simply drink a cup of coffee and visit with a longtime friend who has been with you from the beginning and over the past few months you feel like you have neglected this friendship; however, through the entire visit, you’re checking your watch because at 1 p.m. you’re meeting a new church member for lunch at the Cracker Barrell — he and his wife are struggling in their marriage and he’s reaching out to you for help.

Sometime that afternoon, a mysterious number on your telephone begins to ring: You answer to discover that it’s the lady you met at McDonalds the previous day, the one you left an invitation to the church with.

“Hey, preacher… Me and my o’le man is need’n our light bill paid… they’re coming today to cut it off and we got three babies and two dogs in this place — we can’t go without the air conditioner.  What can you do to help us?”

Those calls never end well.  You’re either a worthless, money grabbing preacher who doesn’t care about real people if you don’t give God’s money to a complete stranger who gives every indication that they feel like your church is nothing more than a free ATM.  On the other hand, if you do offer up some cash or even agree to pay the bill, it’s usually the beginning of a one-sided relationship that simply will not end until you grow a backbone and learn to say “No”… then, all the previous money you have given is instantly forgotten and you’re labeled the worthless, money grabbing preacher who doesn’t care about real people… to put it simply, you’re most always going to end up the bad guy with these calls.  You make the decision to simply get it over with and be the bad guy up front — besides, the church is struggling to pay its own bills this month.

After that call is ended and the voice on the other end of the phone has succeeded in making you feel guilty for guarding God’s money, yet you stood firm, the person who texted you first this morning, has sent a follow up text, “Hello… why are you not answering me? It’s been almost seven hours!”

“Sorry, been busy today,” you respond.  The next few minutes are followed by a back and forth interaction about nothing; however, it placates the person on the other end of the phone — and they’re standing in great need of an encouraging friend so you’re happy to do so.

You again check your Facebook messages to discover that the perspective church member whom you’ve been desiring to befriend in recent weeks is wanting to take you and your family to dinner the following evening.  His offer is extraordinarily gracious and you’re thrilled that they’re interested, but you already had plans with your family for the time he suggested. You respond that you can’t and he counters with a second available date, unfortunately, again, it’s not a good time, your daughter has a soccer game that evening.  You again respond that the date doesn’t work, to which he answers, “If you don’t want to meet with me, just come out and say it!”

You swear that’s not the case and offer up a random evening — you’re sure there’s something already scheduled that night, but you’ll make it work… you and your wife always do!

As you close out the work day, you realize that you weren’t able to get nearly as much done as you were hoping and wonder why… never realizing that you probably spent hours texting, messaging, and talking on the phone. You call it ministry and tell yourself that’s what you’re supposed to do.

That evening, as you’re preparing to eat dinner with your wife and children, your phone again dings, it’s a godly and wonderful church member, “Have you talked to Ralph lately? I’m worried about him.”

You respond that you have attempted to contact Ralph, a young man who has been attending your church on and off for over a year, but he won’t answer your calls or text messages.

Later that night, you find out that Ralph is mad because he claims to have texted you several weeks earlier and you never responded; however, for the life of you, you simply cannot recall ever receiving the text he claims to have sent.

His words are hurtful, angering, and heartbreaking.  You counted him as a friend, but because you did not answer him in the timeframe he felt certain you should have responded in — even though you don’t even believe you received the message — that friendship is over; and so is his church membership.

Do I pastor an immature church? Not at all.  I pastor a church that is a cross-section, of grey haired saints, middle aged members and dozens of young people seeking to live for God in the midst of a godless generation.  They’re serious about serving the King of Kings — and they love me and my family dearly and I love them.

I tell them weekly, “If you ever have something going on in your life, please don’t hesitate to call or text me.” I say this to them, because I mean it with all my heart.  I love them and am convinced that I have been placed on this earth specifically for the purpose of bringing them closer to the Lord and helping them in their time of need.

With this being said, I believe I am beginning to uncover an answer to my wife’s question, “What’s going on with the mental health of pastors these days?”

In short, we’re simply too accessible.  The days of riding off into the wilderness on the back of a horse, never to be interrupted until arriving in the next town are long gone — replaced by a rectangular shaped thin box that provides everyone in the congregation with instant access to their pastor, 24/7, as well as an expectation that if said thin box does not respond within an arbitrary time table, they are unloved or unimportant… No person can live under such stress.

Couple this with the reality that every pastor worth their salt is in the midst of a spiritual battle that has the very forces of hell pitted against them and it should come as no surprise that so many of us are struggling in our minds with feelings of stress, pressure, depression and for some, sadly, even thoughts of suicide.

To church members across the nation, I would offer this advice: Your pastor loves you dearly and desires to share in your life’s moments… that’s the whole reason why we’re in the ministry to begin with.  With this being said, you can play a part in protecting your pastor’s mental health: Don’t get mad if your pastor doesn’t respond to your “Good morning!” text message within an hour’s time… you have no idea what other text messages or calls they may be in the middle of at that very moment.

Until you have thirty separate people texting you daily, sharing their life’s every moment with you, don’t be upset if your pastor fails altogether to respond to a text message here and there.  A single shepherd tending to the needs of an entire flock of sheep is a tall order and truth be told, your under-shepherd would love to spend more time with you, or text or call you more, but you’re one of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of sheep they’ve been tasked by God to oversee and care for.

To pastors, I would offer this advice — Don’t be afraid to do what Jesus did quite regularly: Get away from his flock.  Jesus made a habit of going into the mountains, the wilderness, i.e., the places where he was inaccessible.  If Jesus had to guard his mental health and his spiritual standing by cutting the cords of connection from time to time, so do you.

Never be afraid to protect yourself and your own mental health, for in doing so, you are protecting the pastor of the people you love so dearly.

Sometimes its just a Pig Article

Here’s a link to an excellent and thought provoking article on the church. Perhaps we’ve made it into something that it never should have been. Perhaps it was perfect without our meddling…

Posted on by neighborhoodliturgy

So I’m sitting in a coffee shop, located in Powells bookstore, on Hawthorne in Southeast Portland watching a barista concoct a soy chai latte… for those of you unaware, you don’t get much more authentically Portland than that.  Certainly not everyone would agree with me on this, but do you have any idea what it’s like to be in a place where people just are as they are … so many in fact that it threatens the very idea of authenticity.  It’s hard to be unique when so many are trying to be unique right alongside of you.  I love Portland because its so ….. well its so undeniably Portland.  People aren’t really into relevance … unless of course relevance is to seem totally irrelevant … and irreverent at the same time. For so many years my life in the pastoral arts has revolved around an illusion of relevance, authenticity and the pursuit at all costs to cover up anything that didn’t lend itself to that.  It’s a never ending and futile pursuit that makes these moments in Portland shine like a diamond on the backdrop of a velvet Elvis print.  It’s not everyone’s cup of Chai to be sure, but for me it’s fresh and welcome.

Are you familiar with the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig”,  It make not make any sense to you unless you witness it first hand.  According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, the phrase  “is a rhetorical expression, used to convey the message that making superficial or cosmetic changes is a futile attempt to disguise the true nature of a product or person.”  I’ll give you an example … we’ve lived for the past two years next to a home owned by a slumlord and rented by 4 college guys.  For the two years of our proximity and countless year prior this property was allowed to deteriorate, complete with the mandatory blue tarp hopelessly tacked to the roof while water continues to pour through the ceiling in various places … a few months ago, without warning, work began on the house … or should I say around the house … as in some contractors were enclosing the yard with brand new wooden fence and gate … all the while the roof continues to act as the perfect catch all and conduit for every rainfall Seattle has experienced in recent years … yes this is Seattle.  I saw one of our college age neighbors outside while this was going on and asked him what was up … his response was, and I quote, “putting lipstick on a pig”.  In other words … a futile attempt to distract from the reality of what was going on inside the house.

I’ve been reflecting a great deal on this lately.  My wife and I have had numerous debrief sessions on our years in a culture where it wasn’t uncommon to go to great lengths to create an appearance that distracted from the reality of what was going on inside local congregations … including our own.  I can go back mentally through the years pursuing church growth and church planting … denying the real issues while putting lipstick on the places that we were trying to be relevant in … thinking that we needed to make it beautiful, not realizing that, as a pig, it was quite beautiful on its own. In fact, people like pigs … don’t believe me, just head over to your State Fair.  For years I was a slave to the lipstick. I was embarrassed by the flaws … I wanted us to look like we knew what we were doing.  I bought all of the latest in ministry related lipstick and went to all of the best conferences to learn how to apply it … so that no one would know our church for what it really was.  Freedom has finally come, I am hoping and praying, with the realization sometimes its just a pig … and there is indeed beauty in that.

So much energy is wasted on making sure that we have the coolest (fill in the blank).  Countless millions are spent on creating theme park environments that attract families with school age children because they provide stability and income and energy while volunteers flow through like the Niagara River over the precipice of exhaustion and discouragement and families are being crushed under the weight of expectation and over-commitment.  Sometimes its just a pig.  Brilliant sermon series are formulated on the 7 steps to successful and faithful living for people who come crawling in the doors, not sure if they can endure one more broken promise, relationship failure, or financial hurdle.  Sometimes its just a pig.  We recruit worship bands who look and dress a certain way “that reflects the culture” when many they are called to lead can’t even begin to imagine the glorious doubt free lives that their smiling faces convey.  Sometimes, it’s just a pig.   Discipleship is marketed as a Sunday attendance carrot without the cost of “sitting in the dust of the master”.  Sometimes its just a pig.  The irony here is that, in our sincere desire to follow Jesus, we seek to put lipstick on all of the broken and imperfect parts of the journey … all the while his mission is to relentlessly reveal the natural beauty in the pig,

If I thought that this was all some nefarious evil plot, I’d be angry.  If I thought it was all a devious ploy by the Christian marketing machine to gain market share in spiritual cosmetics I’d be angry.  I don’t believe that at all.  I think its a mix of Western marketing, honest yearning for the best, and Satan’s brilliant distraction.  I think this because it has been and still too often is me.  As it is, I’m just sad.  I’m sad for my part.  I’m sad when I fall into it.  I’m sad for those who are left behind on the makeup counter of “our best”.  I’m sad when I don’t always remember that, as embarrassing as it can be, and as counter intuitive to “success” as it may seem, underneath it all … the church was only ever really a pig… and that in fact as such, it’s quite beautiful.

 

Same Patterns

A friend shared this thought on Facebook and I thought it worth sharing. I found this to pattern to be true in my own context as well as the context that I’ve heard from other pastors. Here’s the thought:

I see the same pattern happen over and over.

New pastor comes in to a struggling church. Makes necessary changes to reach the community. People get saved. People get baptized. Church starts to grow. Glory hallelujah!

But then a handful of church people start to get worried about the traditions that they’ve lost. Not worried about right theology. Not worried about actual holy living. Worried about the lights, the carpet color, the musical instruments, their favorite church program, and who’s on the platform. Not worried about people’s souls. Not worried about the task at hand. More worried about the tools being used.

So they start a talking campaign against the pastor. They recruit folks to their side. They make sure that folks are vocal enough the pastor and the other leadership hear about it. They snipe and they gripe.

The pastor fights it for a while, but eventually gives up, or starts to give in. And the cycle of decline starts all over again. It’s like the cycle in the Book of Judges. Cycle, cycle, cycle. Same, same, same.

“God help us to be different, but just do it without changing anything.”

The Great Commission is not about preserving church traditions. It’s about reaching (cliche alert) a “lost and dying world” while there’s still time.

Here’s how strongly I feel about this. I literally pray that if I was ever going to be one of those people who holds back the move of God led by a person or people God has chosen, commissioned, and anointed, that God would remove me from this earth rather than to let that happen.

No wonder the church is losing ground in America. We care about stuff more than we care about souls.

 

1950 or 2050

Recently, a friend challenged me to think about the church and ministry differently then how I’ve been trained in the past. My friend asked me to consider this thought, was what I dreaming about aligned more with 1950 or with 2050? Where is my focus?

I found this line of questioning profound. I am certainly not interested in going back to the 1950’s, but to think about 2050 requires a significant amount of time and processing. It also requires some heavy lifting in regards to simply retraining your brain to think this way.

Thinking about things from 1950 are relatively easy. You can look at the historical data and then craft a newer, updated version of what had success in the past and use that as a catalyst to determine success in the future. It’s not perfect, but most times doing the same things that were successful in the past, tend to work out okay in the present simply because there’s a pattern of understanding that everyone is used to.

But choosing to think about 2050 is much more dangerous and stressful. You have nothing to build off of so how do you do think about 2050 well? What is the criteria that you establish to know if the dream is on track? Where do you go when you find yourself sidetracked? What happens if there really is no dream and you’re just some mindless psychopath that is ranting and raving about something that is not grounded in reality? Who determines what the reality for the future is?

These are scary and intimidating thoughts. But perhaps, these are the thoughts that need to occur if you’re going to be focused on 2050 rather than 1950.

Somebody or Nobody?

Moses spent forty years thinking he was somebody; forty years learning he was nobody; and forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody.

Credentials or Character?

The Raiders/Antonio Brown drama is a perfect example of an organization hiring someone who had the credentials to perform, but not the character.

I see this as a significant reminder for anyone who is hiring for a position – you have to know that whoever you are hiring can be trusted – and trust only comes from character, not competency.

If you don’t hire for character, then the individual’s competency doesn’t matter. They might be a perfect fit from their resume, but if you can’t trust their character, you should walk away. You can always train and develop an individual’s competency, but rewiring their character is an almost impossible task.

You have to hire with this criteria and in this order:
Character – Can you trust the individual?
Competency – Do they have the skills or do they have a history of being able to learn the skills necessary for the position?
Culture – Do they fit in the organizational culture?

IF they have the Character, and IF they have the competency potential, and IF they can connect with the culture – that’s who you hire for the position.