Time to back pedal?

I was in a service station when I found out my former pastor had run of with a man he was mentoring. I was just building up to a big outreach event when I heard that my boss had resigned with immediate effect. Both were Christian high flyers. Both had a family. Both had a lot of pressure. Both had a lot of ambition. Both were seen as a success. Both left a trail of devastation in their wake. A decade and more on I still feel the pain.

meltdown
Meltdown: when there’s not much left to stand on…
I want to write an Ode to the Ordinary. To the unsung Christian pastoral heroes who march out their ministry in sync with the Spirit, but are jarringly discordant to the spirit of this age. Theirs is not the conference platform, the publicist nor the performance. Theirs is the relentless routine, the faithful fervour, the disciplined days. Theirs is the living for the audience of one.

Except there’s no such thing as someone immune to falling. Away from the heady temptations of fame and prestige parallel temptations rise up in even the most ordinary situations and leave us wanting to escape. A pensioner playing the organ in a small church context, may still face the same temptations as the megachurch pastor repenting into a media microphone a little too late.

But ‘success’ rarely helps you stay on an even keel. I think of Gideon at the end of his life. You’ll remember the story: The scared young man, hiding in a winepress. The insecurity as he repeatedly questioned the angel thinking he was the ‘least of the least’. The tests he laid before God even after God had sent him fire to devour his sacrifice. The timid way he carried out his commission to tear down his father’s baal. Then the astounding success: Routing the enemy with just 300 men, after God had reduced his army to almost nothing.

But do you remember what happened then?

The people see God’s great victory, achieved through a nobody, leading almost no-one. Yet they glorify the nobody rather than worshipping the Divine Somebody. It was always the way. We put on conferences where ordinary pastors can ask the superstars ‘how did you grow your church’. Back in Gideon’s day they ask him and his sons to be King. And he almost resists. He almost manages to avoid the extreme temptation. He says “no”. But he doesn’t just say “no”. He says “no, but….”

I wonder how he felt at that stage. Probably very good. He was a successful God-worshipper, resisting the temptation to make himself King. He knew what was right, even if these people did not, and he was going to stick to his guns. He knew it was God’s victory. He knew that God should be King… “but…”!

But… didn’t he deserve a little credit?

But didn’t he and his sons deserve a little security?

But didn’t the people need a leader who symbolised success and prosperity and power to make them secure?

ephodSo he asked for 20kg of gold from them in the form of earrings: That’s £506,000 in today’s currency. He also took ornaments, pendants purple garments, and gold chains from the plunder. Then he made the gold into a religious pilgrimage icon called an ephod and persuaded the whole of Israel to keep coming to his hometown to worship there. And as they worshipped the ephod ‘they prostituted themselves’. The ephod ‘became a snare to Gideon and his family’ [Judges 8:27], and despite peace in his lifetime, after his death there was no legacy at all, no honour for his family, and Israel reverted to worshipping the Baals.

The ephod thing seems to be such a massive trap for us today. How many conference centre churches have unwittingly become ephods to a pastor’s ego? Drawing vast financial resources in from the surrounding regions, and selling books with incredulous comments on the cover from people who then expect the same platitudes in return when they self-publish their own lightweight reflections.

Power and finance were Gideon’s undoing. Escapist sex and unresolved emotional deficits will bring others down. I tell all our new staff that my main ambition for myself and for them is for us to still be in the game we are 50 / 60 years of age. But even as we see car crashes played out in generation after generation of ministers is there any hope?

The answer is a definite yes – and perhaps we need to get better at celebrating that!

A month ago I was on retreat in Sussex listening to two outstanding leaders in their sixties.

oast houses

One listed a litany of all the crises that had effected his 20+ years in parish ministry. Dealing with early bereavements, financial headaches, family suffering, church structures, crippling parish share, etc, etc – they were all, he said, crises. But personal moral failings: alcohol addiction, beginning an affair; and leadership impasses: a wall of silence between a vicar and a staff member, the PCC passing a vote of no confidence in you – well that’s a meltdown.

The other, who has had extraordinary personal success, simply put his hand up and said, ‘I’ve got this key part of how we’ve done church wrong – so I’m going to change’.

These two prominent leaders have kept changing, growing and stayed humble and kept their heads – when all around were losing theirs. 

So what will stop a series of crises triggering a meltdown? It requires the ability to have ‘fierce conversations’, to push back hard against being isolated or elevated. To refuse to have areas of your life that are secret from everyone else. To avoid both fanaticism and faithlessness. To humbly make decisions as a group, but not succumb to flattery or yes-sayers. To admit when you have got it wrong (for years) and be prepared to change and start again.

back peddleSenior leaders like these in the church will rightly draw others to them. They will draw us not to worship at their ephod, but to receive shelter under their wings. As a younger leader I need these people around me to encourage me to glorify only God.

If you are a leader anywhere near a melt-down please, please back pedal now… there is a legacy that you can only leave if you stay in the game.

5 thoughts on “Time to back pedal?

  1. Hi Richard – I found your page via Cookies Day’s blog – Powerful and prophetic and personally deeply challenging – thankyou. simon

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      1. I think the best prophetic writing must be written to ourselves first if it is to be authentic and have any power and that is uncomfortable. Our motivations are often mixed – always creeping at the door is the desire for affirmation. But don’t let that stop you writing such truth with such insight: this was a powerful piece – a laser beam searching my soul, that brought tears to my eyes. It made me want to be a better man and minister.

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  2. As someone who found themselves as the other party in a minister’s ‘meltdown’, I read your piece with interest. Very sadly, in my situation the minister continues in ministry, with those around him covering up the reasons for his change in parish etc. It’s a horrible, horrible mess and 3 years on I am only just finding healing. What I wish ministers ( and all of us) could really believe, is that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. No moral failing, or abuse of position, or marriage mess. But we do need to be honest about it with God and with others, so that we can be restored. There is far too much sweeping things under the carpet because of a fear of what the alternative course of action will bring on the minister, the congregation, the denomination. In fact, honesty and genuine sorrow before God brings freedom and life. Yes, reputation may suffer, but that matters little compared to knowing God’s love and forgiveness. For what it’s worth, I told the leadership of the church what had happened ( all the time believing I was the one who had done all the wrong), I told my life group members, I have worked so hard with my husband to restore our marriage. It has been painful, and the most difficult work I’ve ever undertaken, but I have been met with love and forgiveness ( occasional shouting and anger too – it’s not been altogether pretty), and also the objective viewpoint of others, who helped me reluctantly realise, that I had been manipulated and used to fill the gaps in someone else’s life. I wish the church could talk about all of this much more honestly. I wish that we could accept that we are human and we mess up, and that as we always tell our children, when you’ve done something wrong it’s always best to tell the truth. Praying with you for back pedalling and grace.

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