Last week I got to attend a seminar on Mental Health, specifically about the integration of faith into counseling. I'm deeply indebted to the hard work that Samaritan is doing to serve people in our region who are battling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more issues that are much beyond the scope of what we as pastors can do to care for them.
But there was one thing that was shocking in the presentation: Florida ranks second nationally among adults with serious thoughts of suicide. The study found that 3.44% of adults in Florida have serious thoughts about suicide, which is over 500,000 people. That's staggering. And all I could do when I read that was ask "Why?"
On the surface when you're in Florida you're surrounded by beaches, Disney World, sunshine all year long, no cold (except those days when it dips below 60, and yes that is cold) weather, and tons of amenities and things to do. We've often commented that it's hard to have a bad day with palm trees in your yard. But behind that is a staggering number that over 500,000 of our neighbors and friends are seriously thinking of suicide. For so many around us, paradise is an illusion. It becomes a veneer they hide their pain and hurt behind.
I want to propose 4 ways to help us think about how to lead well in this:
1. In our preaching, don't gloss over the effects of the Fall - When we read Genesis 3 we see that sin (and with it death) entered and threw all of creation in a tailspin. The effects of the Fall are more than Adam & Eve's expulsion, it impacts our minds, our hearts, our relationships, and ultimately our souls. We cannot simply gloss over the fallenness of the world around us, which we rarely do with cancer but often do with our mind.
2. In our preaching, point to Jesus as the source of hope - The opposite of the cumulative effect of the Fall is the cumulative effect of the Gospel to bring hope and healing. When we are found in Christ, we're more than just saved for heaven, we're transformed from within. And with that transformation comes something we're all longing for: hope. The ultimate of that hope is that one day we'll spend eternity with Jesus, but the temporal of that hope is that we can face tomorrow because He lives.
3. In our pastoral care, be wise - I firmly believe that almost all pastors have the best of intentions when they meet with someone going through difficult times. They genuinely want to help, they want to offer hope and lead them to the peace found in Christ. But in our pastoral care, we must walk wisely with people. That wise walking means that we have to be honest about our limits of what we can do, both for schedule and for expertise. Typically that means having a set number of appointments before seeking additional care. It's hard to be rigid on that, but I would strongly discourage from having more than a few appointments so that you don't become overwhelmed with just doing pastoral care. But we also need to recognize our limits of expertise. In some cases, what someone is dealing with is chemical/biological, and we cannot assume that our pastoral care is enough for someone in need of medical treatment. Or someone may be dealing with issues beyond what we're able to delve into with our training and experience. These are times when we're best for their sake to seek a referral.
This week Starbucks announced that by 2020 they would eliminate use of plastic straws across the company. It's no surprise. The beach where we live has long abandoned using plastic straws, and other companies such as Hyatt, Royal Caribbean Cruises, major hotels and safari tours, and the city of Seattle have joined the pledge to remove plastic straws.
The reasons behind them are noble and worth celebrating - almost half a billion are used every day in America and many of them end up in water systems, where they're unable to decompose and end up eaten by marine life. They're not recyclable because of their light weight, which makes them difficult to dispose of completely. In a viral video, you can see marine biologists removing a straw from the nose of a sea turtle, which many credit for sparking the movement.
But like many of these kinds of initiatives, it isn't going to fix the real problems associated with environmental pollution. We're still going to be disposing of tons of plastic every year, we're still going to not recycle, and we're still going to treat God's creation like my 4 year old treats his room: conquer, destroy, repeat. Maybe it's a step in the right direction, but until we're willing to deal on a global scale with our over-dependence on single use plastic and our inability to recycle sustainably, we'll keep proposing solutions that don't solve the real problems.
A lot of times churches find themselves in a similar boat. A problem arises and a solution is proposed that doesn't do anything to fix the real problems, but people receive it and assume they've stumbled upon a golden key. Those kinds of solutions could be:
"If we could only get rid of <Insert ministry leader's name>...." - It sounds nice to say that if a church could move on from a staff member or pastor, everything would be fixed. But most of the time these comments are made in a church or ministry that has deeper underlying issues than an incompetent or ineffective leader. Also, what inevitably comes when a church dismisses a ministry leader is they set themselves back in terms of attracting and recruiting quality leaders.
"If we did <insert music style> rather than <what we're doing now>...." - Worship style should always be secondary to worship content. And worship style should be such that it brings people of different backgrounds together, rather than apart. Simply thinking that if you could change from what you're doing to something else will only work until the novelty of the newness wears off.
"If we had <insert new building or program> we'd be growing..." - Churches grow because they are infectious, contagious, and impacting their community. They can do that if they're meeting in a movie theater or a storefront, or if their carpet is lime green, or if they don't have lasers in their children's worship area. Facility, space, and physical layout issues must be given priority, but not assumed to be a magical fix for a lack of intentional engagement.
"If we did <insert former activity or idea> like we used to do..." - Sometimes longstanding practices, activities, or ministries are great unifiers and builders. They help foster an identity among a church that sparks them towards greater faithfulness, ministry, and mission in their communities. Unfortunately, even the best ideas have a shelf life. And when it's dead, it's time to let it go and move on. Look at our cell phones and how they've changed -- anyone want to go back to the Nokia with Snake on it?
What would you add to the list?
Recently some incredible research came out from Lifeway that addressed the cause for people leaving their current church. The biggest reason people leave: theology. We often hear that things like music, preaching style, or carpet color are the reasons people leave a church. But surprisingly (it shouldn't), theology matters. One quote jumps out: "Mess with the music and people may grumble. Mess with theology and they're out the door."
Our theology matters. People identify with what we believe, that's why they stay at our church. I had a conversation last year with a guy looking for a church, and it became quickly obvious that our theological convictions were much too far apart for us to enjoy fellowship. That's healthy. We want to be clear about what we believe, and as leaders we have a responsibility to lead our ministries theologically. I want to propose four ways we can do that:
1. We communicate clearly what we believe - Most of our churches have a Faith Statement buried on the website or in a file folder somewhere. But we have a responsibility to communicate clearly what we believe about God, the Bible, Jesus, humanity, marriage/sexuality, and more. Faith Statements (like the Baptist Faith & Message, or any number of other confessional statements) are able to do this in a narrative format. They clearly explain, with biblical reference, our convictions on a number of issues. We don't need to preach from our faith statements, but we must constantly work to ensure that what we say we believe is what we are telling people we believe and is what we're preaching that we believe.
2. We reinforce what we believe - It's one thing to state what we believe and teach it, but we must reinforce what we believe. This is where it's important to be clear that there is room, even among a local church, for a level of disagreement on minor issues--for a helpful article on understanding big deal vs. small deal issues, check out this article by Al Mohler. As leaders, we sometimes will find ourselves having to address issues of theology. This requires us to be students of what we believe, and to have the pastoral discernment to recognize issues of urgency vs. issues of tolerance. If there are issues of urgency, we have to wisely walk through the process of loving correction. With patience and humility, point back to Scripture as the base for our theology.
3. We love what we believe - My denomination is far from perfect. There are factions and ugly situations showing up in the news almost weekly. But she's where I call home. And with that comes its confessional statement. I love it. I love what we as Baptists hold dear. I love a clear and robust theology proper of the personhood of God. I love the clear picture of the two natures of Christ. I love the Baptist distinctive of a free church in a free society, the priesthood of the believer, the commitment to global missions and church planting, and our unapologetic stance on biblical morality. As leaders, we have to love what we believe where God has placed us. If you're serving somewhere and you don't love its theology, you need to ask if God has you there to lead them to a biblical theology or if you need to leave.
4. We hold fast to what we believe - One of the saddest stories in the 20th Century Church is that of Charles Templeton. He started out with Billy Graham, but within a few years had abandoned everything he had once held and became an agnostic. Leaders, we have to hold fast to what we believe. We cannot lead people faithfully if we're not secure in our own conviction and clarity about our theology. Sure we can always be searching and probing and poking to understand better. But in our probing, let us never fall away from what we hold dear. One of the best books on theology I've read is Dug Down Deep by Josh Harris. What an appropriate title: let our foundations be deeply rooted in the bedrock of the Gospel.
What would you add to the list?
Happy Independence Day! The 4th is an incredible time for us to celebrate the freedom of our country, the spirit of those who fought for our right to self-govern, or for us to sit in an airport waiting on a thunderstorm to pass so we can fly home.
If you've not done it yet, take time to check out the NPR reading of the Declaration of Independence. It's one of the best things they do all year. And it's a healthy reminder as citizens to not forget where we came from, and why Revolution was the only recourse against Britain.
So many phrases and sentences leap from the page when we read the Declaration. But one is worth mentioning--manly firmness. In the Declaration, it's used to describe the attitude of the colonists towards King George's dissolution of representative bodies for opposing his policies of "invasions on the rights of the people."
Why this phrase?
At the core, we as leaders have lost much of our resolve. Rather than lead on principle, virtue, and a steadiness of calling and conviction, we see many who lead with one finger testing the wind. Leaders who test the wind are always trying to make sure they're not going against the current, not ruffling feathers, not decisively leading change. Leaders who fail to exercise "manly firmness" are the ones who fail to effectively lead.
Manly firmness in ministry leadership looks like:
Conviction - More than just knowing something to be right, true, and good, manly firmness is driven by conviction, where the right/true/good punctures our hearts. Conviction is where every fiber of our soul is committed to what we believe God has called and entrusted us to.
Courage - Leadership isn't always easy or popular. It takes courage. You'll make decisions that are initially unpopular. You'll change things that need to be changed because they're in the way of what God has placed on your heart as the vision. And it takes courage to do that. To use the Declaration as an example, there is much written about the fate of the original signers. It took courage to put their names on the parchment, knowing that it would likely cost them their "lives, fortune, and sacred honor."
Clarity - It was unambiguous what the Declaration was doing, and what they were accusing King George of. There was no fog in the vision communicated. Leaders who exercise "manly firmness" must also lead with that clarity. There should be no doubt in communicating what you feel the vision is, how to get there, and what will be required. Wherever there is clarity, there is process. Wherever there is fog, there is chaos.
Character - This week another story broke of a ministry leader forced out because of immorality. The scope of our leadership is directly related to our character. If we are not who we claim to be, or who we say we are, then we have no credibility to lead the people God loves and has brought together.
Competency - Leaders cannot simply expect people to follow based on the office they hold. They must do something with their leadership. Are we actively serving those whom God has gifted us? Are we exercising our gifting to its best for the glory of God and the health of the church? Or are we just coasting because it's an inside job without a lot of heavy lifting? If we want to exercise manly firmness, we must be active in our leadership.
What would you add to the list?
My introvert really comes out on planes. I have trouble hearing sometimes, especially with a lot of background noise, so I'm that guy who reads on airplanes. On our flight for vacation I was able to read something by one of my favorite authors. Seriously, I don't ever read a book, blog, or article by Carey Nieuwhof where I don't have an assumption challenged or learn something incredibly useful.
His book Leading Change Without Losing It caught my attention at a conference last year so I grabbed a copy of it. It's personal because we're in the midst of what can best be described as a 5-7 year effort to lead our church into its next chapter of becoming multigenerational. So I wanted to draw out from Nieuwhof as much as I could to be a help.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough to pastors or ministry leaders who are gripped by a vision, a dream, an idea of what the future could hold if we could only get there. Those dreams are what keep us awake at night and going in the day. Those dreams are why week in and week out we pour our lives into people, because we have a sense of what is going to come.
Rather than give away everything, I want to emphasize two things that really stood out: doing math and not giving up.
One of the inevitable things about leadership and especially in leading change (which go hand in hand -- you're not truly leading unless you're making change) is that you'll get blowback. But Nieuwhof reminds us all that louder ≠ more. Jon Acuff famously called it "critics math" where we hear 1 insult + 1000 compliments = 1 insult. But the reality is, only a few are going to be against change -- it might require them to sacrifice, they may hold onto the past, they might rather be comfortable. And just because they may be loud doesn't mean they're many. In fact, Nieuwhof drops a bomb when he asks if we're willing to sacrifice reaching 10,000 people in the name of keeping 10 people happy?
The other thing is simple: don't give up. We're too influenced by our microwaves and Netflix, where we want what we want immediately because we've been socially conditioned to getting it. But any lasting, institutional, cultural change in a church is going to take time. And it's going to take time to reach the critical breakthrough moment where the momentum has shifted towards the healthy changes, processes, and culture. As one pastor I know said, it takes eating a lot of pie, time he spent talking with people about a needed change that would run up against significant pushback. It took much longer than he wanted, but it happened. The change we want to see happen to come back to the dream that we have is gong to be a marathon, not a sprint. And we can't simply jump ship when it gets hard or when we don't see immediate results week to week.
Thanks Carey for a great book. I hope others will find it as useful.
I was a huge fan of The Muppet Show as a kid. And two of the most memorable character are Statler and Waldorf, the two guys who sit in the balcony and rip on everything the show does. Nothing is ever good enough. The jokes aren't ever funny enough. And for some reason these guys keep showing up to every episode.
They were about as much fun as having wet socks. Think about the last time you got caught in a downpour and ended up with soggy feet. It's not much fun. Wet socks ruin your day. They make your shoes stink, they make every step squish, and they truly become a downer.
One of the hard struggles for ministry leaders is to avoid the trapping of becoming like Statler & Waldorf and becoming a wet sock. Leaders who are wet socks aren't any fun to be around, they stifle the joy of others around them, and in many cases they're blissfully unaware that they're even acting like a wet sock. Wet sock leaders miss their important role of being the chief storyteller because instead of framing and leading a narrative of joy, freedom and excitement, they frame a narrative of cynicism and one where no one is ever able to meet the standard.
Avoid Being a Wet Sock in Relationships - In 3 seconds you can see the impact a leader has on the others around them. Watch what happens when the leader walks in the room. If everyone gets quiet and looks sheepish, they'd rather have dental work. But if there's genuine delight in seeing a leader, you can see the beginning steps of true team chemistry. Leaders who are wet socks are leaders no one wants to be around unless they have to. Wet sock leaders suck the air out of the room. But healthy leaders are naturally contagious to be around.
Avoid Being a Wet Sock Through Encouragement - Wet sock leaders have a hard time building up others around them. Others' accomplishments aren't something easily celebrated or acknowledged. Wet sock leaders struggle with encouragement because of their own need for affirmation, and become like a vacuum for encouragement on a team. Healthy leaders are able to recognize others' accomplishments and enjoy them, and are able to be cheerleaders for others. Too many times leaders who are wet socks find themselves craving encouragement and are unable to give it to others. But a healthy leader is, as Ken Gosnell describes himself, Chief Encouragement Officer.
Avoid Being a Wet Sock by Patience - Unfortunately, wet sock leaders aren't willing to be patient with others around them. Just as Statler & Waldorf couldn't wait for the joke to develop or for Kermit to get the show started, wet sock leaders don't have the ability to, as the Bible describes, long suffer with others. They want immediate results. They get frustrated when people aren't as spiritual as they are or aren't as far along their discipleship journey. On the other hand, a healthy leader will be patient with people who ask if they've read the most recent book by <insert whackadoo author> about <insert whackadoo theory about the end times> which details <insert how somehow America is in the Bible>. Those things can be maddening. But a healthy leader recognizes that none of us are where we should be. And rather than beat people up or make them feel bad, they gently and patiently walk them through how their faith informs their thinking. Fruit of leadership happens over years, if not decades.
What else can a leader do to avoid being a wet sock?
Leaders have to be insatiable learners, or else they won't last. There's always more for a leader to know, more to read, more to study, more to soak in and appreciate. And so a leader cannot ever be satisfied with what they know or what they've studied.
But does that automatically translate into a tuition based formal degree track of education? I think it's important for a leader to get as much education as they can reasonably afford and that will help them achieve the goals they might have. Formal education isn't for every leader, no matter the context. Because of the considerations that have to go into it, let's ask a few questions:
1. Do I need to pursue formal education as part of my career development? I know we don't like the word "career" when it comes to ministry, but let's use the term without the baggage. All of us have a sense of what we've been called to, and we might even have a clear picture of what that is. Regardless, we all have an idea of what God wants us to do. So that begs the question, do I need the degree for that? A lot of leaders unnecessarily put themselves and their family in financial hardship or absent time to pursue a degree they don't need.
2. Is this something my wife (and kids) are supportive of? The thing is, when you're young and single, you don't have to answer to anyone or check a calendar with. That all changes when you get married, and changes again when you have kids. So that's where this comes in. If you decide to pursue a degree, a masters or a doctorate, it will require a lot of time, money, attention, and focus. And it will require that for an extended period of time. A lot of people fail to finish a degree program not because they're not smart enough, but because the constraints got to be too much.
3. Is this something we can afford right now? Tuition isn't cheap, no matter how gracious and generous your school might be with financial aid. Throw in books, fees, travel, printing (one of the joys of doctoral work, your dissertation has to be printed on the fanciest paper Dunder Mifflin sells!), and the obscene amount of coffee you'll drink, it can be an expensive proposition. And while we most often assume that a degree will give higher earning potential, it's doubtful. When I finished my doctorate I asked about a raise and was told that it didn't mean I deserved a raise just because I finished.
4. Do I have reasonable access to a program? The traditional model of in-person, on-campus learning is still the best in my opinion. You get time to interact with professors and students, you're immersed in the learning community, and you're surrounded by a very encouraging peer group. But you may not be able to get on campus. You may have to look at distance education or an online program. Are you ok with that? Do you have the ability to manage your time, to discipline yourself, to be intentional about logging in and doing the required coursework apart from a regular class lecture time?
5. Is my church on board? Along with your family, your church needs to be on board with your education pursuit. Many seminaries require a church endorsement for your admission and study, to show that you're part of a congregation that affirms your calling and is willing to support you in your education. But you may be in a church that isn't on board with you being gone 2-3 weeks a year for class, or who doesn't like the time commitment it takes to study. That can be tough. Have these honest conversations with your pastor, your deacons, your personnel team, or your elders.
6. What's my end goal? This question is one to ask to figure out what kind of program to go through. If you want to get into teaching, writing, and high-level leadership, think about a terminal degree (PhD or EdD) that will teach you the needed skills. If you want to be an effective ministry leader and grow in your practical application, pursue a professional degree (DMin, DEdMin). There's also other options to think about in terms of end goal outside of doctoral education. Some people want to pursue an MA program because they want the education and the access without necessarily doing the languages or pursuing the full MDiv program. Others have a desire to do doctoral work and gain a theological and philosophical grounding not available in an MA, so they pursue an MDiv or ThM. In terms of "prestige" between the degrees, it doesn't really matter, it's a difference in calling and giftedness. That's part of the body of Christ, it's unique.
For more about this, check out my podcast episode with Dr. John David Trentham from Southern Seminary on higher education.
One of my favorite monthly activities is a monthly pastors lunch. Not only is it free, but I get to spend time with other guys in the area who I otherwise wouldn't run into. We're not in the same denominational association, we're not really in the same communities, and in some cases we're not the same ethnicity. So it's a wonderful time of fellowship as we connect with one another and share about our ministries and families (and college football).
Over the last few years, I've noticed some trends in how we as leaders and our churches cooperate with one another. I think these are healthy for the most part. They foster greater connectivity, ministry, and help remind us that the Kingdom of God is bigger than our backyard.
1. A Willingness to Cross Denominational Lines - I love my denomination. I've been incredibly fortunate to have been part of one that is so supportive of its ministry leaders while in school (if you're part of an SBC church, your tuition in seminary is subsidized by 50%), and has a footprint around the world through missions and church planting. But the Kingdom is bigger than the SBC. And when I spend time with other leaders and churches outside the SBC, I'm refined and reminded about how big the Kingdom is. We do well to cooperate and partner outside our own circles not only for our own soul's sake but also for the sake of our neighbors who are impacted by churches working together.
2. A Desire to Have Older Leaders Involved - This is one of the best things about Millennials, their desire to have older mentors. And when we engage with older leaders who are established, experienced, and wise, we're all better for it. These older leaders have walked longer in our shoes than we've been alive in some cases. And to dismiss their influence is to our downfall.
3. Mission > Method - I wish it was as easy as buying a box set from a bookstore about how to transform our church into North Point, Saddleback, Village, Summit, etc. But it doesn't work like that. In fact it's more than not looking to a box set. In many cases we can't directly copy what others are doing around us, or expect them to fall in line with how we do it. Why? Because our contexts are vastly different, even if we're in the same area code. That's where Mission trumps Method. How we do things is less important than What we do. And what's encouraging is that this is something I see being embraced.
4. Theological Affinity > Tribal Loyalty - We're coming together less along tribal lines and more along lines of affinity for the Gospel. So we're seeing cross-denominational partnerships like NAMB and Acts 29 where church planting is multiplied because affinity for the Gospel is bigger than who gets credit for the plant. We attend conferences where we rub shoulders with people who share a common theological affinity even if we don't come from the same circles. We're willing to put aside our tribal loyalty and listen to, learn from, and engage with friends from different worlds because we've recognized our affinity for the Gospel.
5. Increased Access and Communication - More cooperation can happen because the channels of communication, networking, and access are better than before. We can engage on social media, through podcasts/blogs, through videoconferences, and because of the unceasing presence of our cell phones we have access to each other that once before was only during office hours or in person. Ideas can spark movements and leaders have the ability to cooperate together in ways that were unheard of a generation ago.
6. Humility With Success - I love it when leaders get together for a common mission and make it clear from the beginning "This isn't an XYZ Church thing, it's a Kingdom effort." Why? Because it doesn't matter who gets credit. It's back to the Mission > Method. Not only is the method secondary to the mission but even the success is second to the mission. A friend of mine pastors a larger church in our area and they've made it clear about their push to serve their neighborhoods that it's not about whether or not their church grows, they want to see others succeed.
7. Walls & Stagnant Water - The strange irony of how we're seeing leaders and churches cooperate is that it's just as much true as it is that we're seeing more engagement outside our tribal identity. It's kinda weird. But welcome to life with unending paradox! As much as it's true that we're engaging older leaders, we're crossing denominational lines, and we're putting Mission ahead of Method, I'm also seeing more than a few trends of people isolating themselves among their theological affinity, building divisions based on their theological identity, shutting off outside voices who can speak wisdom and clarity, and more. This is the trend that concerns me, because we quickly become stagnant water when nothing fresh comes in from the outside.
Just when we thought 2018 couldn't be more of a soap opera (or 2017, or 2016 for that matter) we get the news that an NBA executive is reported to have multiple Twitter accounts to pump himself up, leak medical information about players, and at times trash his own roster. What will happen with the 76ers, and the possibility of trying to land LeBron this summer in free agency is up for debate. But it exposes a hidden reality of leadership - putting our name with our words.
Let's face it. When you're in a public role, no matter the size of the church, you're going to face critics. There will be people who don't like your leadership style, your preaching, the vision you're pursuing, or any number of other things. True story: in a previous stop I was told by someone they voted against me coming because they didn't like my haircut.
With the rise of social media and its troll activity, one of the worst places for pastors to face criticism is online. Whether it comes from anonymous sources or watchdog sites or from disgruntled people with a keyboard, the instant magnification can blow up a critic's influence.
And that's where we as leaders have to avoid jumping in. Proverbs 26:4 reminds us to "not answer a fool according to his folly, or you'll be just like him." I loved how Ed Stetzer always described it, that getting into social media defenses or arguments is like wrestling a pig--you both get dirty, and the pig likes it. Sadly this is a lesson we often have to learn the hard way, and recent history is filled with stories of pastors logging in to community pages as someone else to engage critics or defend themselves, only for it to end catastrophically.
How can we maintain our pastoral integrity and avoid falling into the pit?
1. Unplug For A Season - Sometimes the best thing for your soul, and sanity, is to just stay off and delete the app. If you don't see it, you're not tempted to respond or reply. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. And if you take the time to stay away, you're not opening yourself to the toxicity and cancer that can form when you're immersed in social media.
*Side note - This also means that you don't need to respond or reply to every post or comment
2. Don't Hit Send - I get it, you want to fire off a response or an email. Who doesn't? But the problem is once it's out, you can't take it back. Even if you delete it. It's there. In another era, people were encouraged to write the letter and then throw it in the trash. This is the same concept: type it out. Let it fly. And then delete it.
3. Keep Perspective - A few months ago a passing comment by someone on our leadership team was taken super-seriously and led to a "meeting" where the concerned person shared the comment and how much it had bothered them. Needless to say, we had to think back to what was said because to us, it wasn't a big deal. That's the perspective you have to keep. 99% of the kerfuffle on social media is trivial. And if you engage every comment or critic on every point, you'll go crazy. But if you keep perspective it'll help you navigate. Some things do require a response and reply. Those are major issues. Answer those. Deal with them wisely and biblically. But for everything else, just ask a simple question "Will this matter tomorrow?"
I'm always curious how other people handle these kinds of moments. How do you respond on social media?
Earlier today for my podcast, I spent almost an hour and a half talking with one of my high school classmates about one of the most difficult and polarizing topics in our culture today: race. And it's been something I've not been able to shake in the hours since we hung up.
In the evangelical circles, my observation is we typically respond to the issue of race one of three ways:
1. We pretend it doesn't exist - It's well intentioned, but we might find ourselves saying "I don't see color," or "We're past this, slavery and the Civil Rights Era are long past."
2. We are apathetic - It's not our problem. It doesn't affect our kids. It doesn't matter what happens in other communities or "in that part of town."
3. We are hostile - Sadly, there are still pockets in Christian circles that hold on to prejudicial attitudes toward minorities. And so there's outrage at kneeling, violence directed at demonstrations, or fiery rhetoric from our pulpits about troublemakers.
Guys. We can't keep ignoring this problem. Our country is divided. We can blame whatever or whoever we want. It's not their fault. It's not Trump's fault. It's not the Alt-Right's fault. It's not Kaepernick's fault. It's not Obama's fault. It's not Black Lives Matters' fault. It's much deeper than blame, it's part of our fabric and history.
Let me put today's conversation in this context. My friend I spent time listening to grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class community, he played D-1 scholarship football, he spent time in an NFL training camp, is a law school graduate who worked in corporate litigation. And over and over again he kept using the term "survival tactic" to share his experience being black in America in 2018.
As pastors and ministry leaders, it must start with us. The division of race in America in 2018 is more than a social problem (although it is), more than an education problem (although it is), more than any of those. No, it's deeper. It's a Gospel problem. Here's how:
When we read Genesis we see Adam & Eve placed in the Garden, there reflecting the image and likeness of God. In some way, they demonstrate a reflection of deity. Fast forward to Genesis 3 and the Fall corrupts everything, creation itself along with our relationships and the way we look at our neighbor. Out of that sparked the godless "curse of Ham" which was used in an evil way to justify the enslavement of millions, the genocide of entire peoples, and the attitude of white superiority through much of our nation's history.
The Gospel message doesn't end with a Fall, it continues with Redemption. And Redemption isn't just where we get salvation in heaven. Redemption is where what was broken is restored. And that's where racial reconciliation becomes a Gospel issue. Our communities are broken. Our nation is broken. Every week it feels like another young black man loses his life in an unjust moment. The plight of our neighbors is ignored even when their blood on the sidewalk cries for hope. The answer is Christ. But we have a role in the redemption of our broken world.
We Listen With Empathy - One of the best things we can do is talk with, and listen with empathy, our neighbors. Guys, when was the last time we listened with empathy to the women in our churches who feel undervalued, who feel like second class citizens? When was the last time we invited an African-American couple into our homes to allow them to tell us what their experiences have been like? And truly listened. Listening with empathy is not listen to respond. We listen to truly try to understand someone else's perspective.
We Partner in the Gospel - It's been famously said "Sunday morning at 11 is the most segregated hour in America." And there's a lot of truth to that. Jeremiah reminds us to seek the welfare of the city. Lostness isn't a white problem or a black problem. Lostness is everywhere. Lostness is more than lostness of soul, but lostness of opportunity, of education, of benevolence and goodwill. We can partner in the Gospel with our neighbors for the sake of our communities that Jesus might get glory in everything.
Guys, I'm not trying to fix everything. I'm just wrestling with an issue we cannot afford to ignore anymore. And we can't pretend it will go away. So let's lead the way in reconciliation to our neighbors who may not look like us on the outside, but are beautifully in the image of God.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.