The Difficulty with Submission in Lent

By Joe LaGuardia

Several years ago–has to be nearly a decade by now–the Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to learn a thing or two about submission and obedience.  I had been a Christ-follower for some time, but I have always had a flavor for independence and strong-willed stubbornness.

In fact, I became a Baptist not 10 years earlier precisely because I did not want to answer to a bishop, pope, or diocese bureaucracy.  A Baptist minister only answers to his or her congregation, but that’s different: there is a relationship; things are contextual; there is room for understanding and dialogue.  Joe LaGuardia was not going to have to explain his philosophy of ministry to some fool who lives tens of hundreds of miles away.

You can see where my problem and attitude can get the best of me here.

So the Holy Spirit convicted me.  God was going to bend my will towards His own one way or another, and it was going to be during none other than the season of Lent.  I had practiced Lent before, but not as seriously as I should have or could have.

The Holy Spirit showed me the first steps: I felt led to go to a nearby monastery and seek out one of the fathers for spiritual direction.  The Holy Spirit did not give me much of anything else, but that’s the marching orders that I got, so I stuck with it.

When I made the appointment, I was assigned to Father Francis once a month.  His specialty (and the monks do have specialties) was centering prayer, and he wanted to instruct me on this ancient practice–a time of silence and solitude, of centering, of meeting with God for nothing more than to spend time with my beloved Creator–every time we met.

Father Francis gave me a card with instructions, and for the next four months he instructed me on various ways to pray.  I was the one seeking spiritual direction, but I did not get a word in edgewise.  Yet, every time I became frustrated with my sessions with the Father, the Holy Spirit jumped in and reminded me why I was meeting in the first place: this was not about me, it was about submission.  It was about obedience.

I was to obey all of the instructions that Father Frances gave me with no questions asked.

I did.  For the entire season of Lent and throughout that summer, I followed those instructions.  I sat in silence and prayer for about 15-20 minutes a day.  I practiced saying my “prayer word,” and sought to master the nuances of apophatic prayer (those of you who studied this stuff know what I mean).  I did my homework.

I was moved.  I was heart-broken (in a good, cathartic way). I was frustrated.  I was angry– all of the paradoxical feelings that confront us when we fast and submit to the kind of life in which God makes us step out of the throne of our hearts so that Jesus can take his place as Lord of our lives. This prayer-stuff was hard work.

I say all of that now because those feelings still arise in me every Lent.  Although I have done something serious and intentional for the season every year since that time–not to mention writing a dissertation on spiritual disciplines and spiritual direction, of which all of this prayer work and submission had been a part–it is still difficult for me to move over and let God direct my life.

It seems that this season is made more difficult because the Holy Spirit is reviving in me some old wounds that I have not faced in a long time–mostly surrounding some squabbles I had with Baptist clergy several years back.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I am not sure I forgave some fellow pastors who have hurt me during that time.  And, apparently, that hurt still abides; so God is bringing me back to the drawing board again–and its about submission.  It is always about submission.  How else are we to travel through Lent and to the cross of Christ, the very place where we crucify our old selves, false selves, ego, and pride that ensnare us and get in God’s way?

Its a terrible, terrible job (just being honest), but we have to do it.

This year, in order to teach me the full weight of obedience again, God pinned me down on my love for XM radio in the car, to which I’ve subscribed since 2008.  As a result, I will be…..(I can’t even write it but I will)……discontinuing….(oooh, ouch!)…..my subscription….(doh!)…..for a time, and that’s the one thing (the Holy Spirit ALWAYS finds the ONE thing!) that I don’t want to let go of most.  So that’s that.

Perhaps those old wounds–and that clergy battle from years ago–is merely a scapegoat.  I don’t want to cast my love for XM radio at the foot of the cross of Christ, so I’d rather put them there.

So here we go again…

 

 

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4 Easy Ways to Support Your Church Staff

By Joe LaGuardia

In the mid-1990s, G. Lloyd Rediger published Clergy Killers, which argued that some churches are so destructive and dysfunctional that they have actually persuaded some staff to give up ministry altogether.   Churches not adept in conflict management or basic communication skills run the risk of abusing staff or, in the least, draining staff energy to the point of burn-out.

Sometimes this happens when congregations wield power over staff with little risk to the parishioners’ own well-being.  Unlike employers who have shareholders and CEOs to answer to, parishioners try to call the shots aggressively or passive-aggressively without having to risk their own financial or personal resources.  It is an unfair advantage that congregations have over the staff they employ.

Many churches, however, are wonderful congregations to call home.  Many treat staff fairly, have appropriate policies that protect all parties involved, and are intentional in building healthy communities that minimize dysfunction and distrust.  How to do that?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are four easy ways to support your staff at church:

Understand the job.  Jobs at church–from administrator or accompanist to pastor or pastoral counselor–are not the same as jobs in the secular world.  Every staff position in a church is designed to achieve specific goals while creating a sacred space for people to meet Christ while on campus.

Consider the average job–a mechanic, say.  What if you were a mechanic, and someone “dropped in” on you to chat with you about a concern every five minutes?  You would not be a productive mechanic.  Dropping in on staff at a church, however, is a regular part of our jobs.  We make time for it because we know that ministry takes place most often in the interruptions of life rather than in the daily routines.  A mechanic’s time is valuable, and problems can be handled in specific ways.  Church staff is no different!

Understanding the job also means knowing what it takes to do a particular job.  For instance, a pastor may “hide” in her office for ten hours a week and some parishioners may feel slighted, but how else might a pastor preach a great sermon if she does not have time to prepare and write one?  Do not use your own experiences to tell a staff person how to do his or her job.

Build trust.  Church leaders learn that building trust with a congregation is the first step in effective ministry.  Trust is the catalyst for growth and the linchpin for getting things done for the Kingdom of God.

Trust must be earned, and trust goes both ways!  Parishioners must behave and communicate in a way that builds trust with staff–to be people of their word, to keep confidences, to pray for staff.

Trust comes by being interested in staff personally.  You don’t have to be a staff member’s best friend, but why not ask how his child is doing in school or about any new movies he has watched lately?  Talk about something other than church, and listen intently.  Be concerned.  It builds trust, and when you have an issue, your ability to handle it with staff will go much more smoothly if your previous interactions were positive, personal ones.

Think like an employer.  For all practical purposes, congregations employ staff.  That means that the staff at a church–even the senior pastor–does not have a traditional employer that can help negotiate the rigors of the job.  If you were to think like an employer, what would change about how you treat your staff?  Let me give a few suggestions:

Employers lean on policies to protect employees.  For church staff, that means encouraging staff to take their vacations, find time to spend with family, but also be held accountable for punctuality, professionalism, and preparedness in their job.

Employers work with employees to maximize strengths and curb weaknesses.  Church staff is no different–members have strengths and weaknesses that define who they are and how they work.  Do not micromanage staff, but work with each one in order to encourage professional development by having room for people to be who they are in all of their idiosyncrasies.  Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Employers celebrate employees.  Form a staff support team that handles all of the special holidays and birthdays of your church’s staff.  Shower the church administrator when its Administrator Appreciation Week, for instance.  Collect a few gift cards, balloons, and cupcakes when a staff member has a birthday.  Write cards of encouragement and let your staff know that you are praying for them.  It makes a difference!

Stay invested.  The worst thing that can happen is that a parishioner goes to another church when that parishioner does not get her way.  If you have an issue with a staff member, deal with it directly, immediately, and honestly; but, be prepared for the response.  If you want a specific outcome to a problem, help the staff member address it, but know that you may not always get your way!

In fact, the church does not revolve around you, your expectations, or your personal preferences.  But you are a part of the discerning community that makes the church a part of the Body of Christ.  Discern and pray with staff as things arise, don’t be antagonistic or petty.  Be patient and have an openness of heart.  You and your staff are on the same team, there is no room for hostility or animosity.

At the end of the day, church is supposed to be a source of joy and comfort, of fulfilling the Great Commission and of ministry not misery.  If something is not going well, it is usually not because God is not present or the Spirit is not at work.  It is likely because we have done something to railroad the human relationships that keep the wheels of the church going in a forward, harmonious and productive direction.  I hope that these four tips will make a difference!

5 Lessons I’ve learned as a Pastor

pewsBy Matt Sapp

This Sunday our church will celebrate its 22nd anniversary. I’ve been at Heritage for two of those twenty-two years, and in those two years I’ve learned a lot.

To celebrate our anniversary, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned as your pastor.

1.      Slow and steady wins the race. Our work as Christians is best described as a “long obedience in the same direction.” Our life’s work is just one link in a much larger chain. We pick up where others have left off and others will come along to advance the work when we’re no longer here to do it.

The work of the church is not a sprint. It won’t be accomplished in a few months, a few years or even a few generations. Our job is to push the ball forward just a few feet. It’s not flashy. It won’t usually make the news. But over time it will lead to great progress.

As easy as it sounds to just do our small part, there are a thousand ways to stay where you are and only one way to move forward: develop a plan and see it through with discipline, focus and patience.

The reward of discipline, focus and patience is progress. It’s easy to wander from one idea or one program or one vision to the next. The only way to stay the course is to firmly believe that God is leading in the process and to trust that God will be present in the results, too.

2.      People matter. Nothing else does. Programs, plans, buildings, worship styles, strategies—Jesus didn’t come to save any of them. In fact, God hasn’t brought eternal salvation to a church building yet. As far as I know, no electric guitars or pipe organs have professed their faith in Jesus Christ yet, either.

Our biggest assets as churches are the people who serve in them. So our greatest investments should be in our people. Our time and energy and resources ought to be invested in building up and encouraging and equipping people for ministry.  

We think of buildings and programs and worship traditions as legacies that we can leave as enduring monuments to our faithfulness. But here’s the truth. In Jesus Christ, we’ll outlive them all.

What we do to bring people into the presence of God and to turn them into fully-functioning followers of Christ is the only thing that matters.

3.      The circle of who is included in God’s kingdom is expanding. It always has been and it still is. There was a time when we were excluded from the faith, when people like us—Gentiles—were universally considered to be beyond the scope of God’s love and salvation. But our understanding of God’s love and God’s kingdom has expanded over time so that we now understand that God had intended to include us all along.

One of the best ways to understand scripture is as a record of our expanding understanding of who God is and as a record of our growing awareness of the scope of God’s love.

One of the best ways to understand the incarnation is as God’s ultimate effort to explode every boundary we’d put up to contain and limit God’s love, and Christ still works among us to do the same.

We don’t have to wonder where Christ is at work in the world. Just like on nearly every page of scripture, God is at work among the people we’ve overlooked or excluded. I become more convinced of that truth—and it gains more power in my life—every day.

4.      What local churches choose to do in the next few years will be EXTREMELY important. The future of the church in the United States–its effectiveness, its impact, it size, and what it looks like to future generations—depends entirely on the independent, individual decisions of thousands of churches like ours. If most of us choose faithful, God-inspired paths forward in the next few years, the sky’s the limit.

But, if we choose to carry on with business as usual, doing the same things we’ve always done, the church in America is undeniably in real trouble. The statistics about the decline of the church in America are staggering. If we don’t do something new, then we’re facing a spiritual dark age in the near future in the United States.

The choice is real. The stakes are high. But here’s what’s so exciting. What we choose to do really matters!!! We have a real chance to make a real kingdom difference from right where we are. We can be one of the churches that tips the balance and turns the tide.

We could be on the leading edge of America’s next great spiritual revival.

5.      We serve a remarkable God. God is guiding the church. God is guiding Heritage. I honestly believe that. In the fleeting moments when I fully grasp that truth, it is genuinely awe-inspiring.

I’ll be honest. It can be disheartening at times to serve what is a shrinking—some say dying—institution. But in my best moments, I see a future for the church that is better and more completely God-revealing and God-inspired than anything we’ve experienced yet.

I believe God is moving among us, preparing us to do something amazing. And when I say us, I mean us at HERITAGE, but not just us. I mean little pockets of people like us all over the nation and all over the world. I’m not sure we even glimpse the possibilities yet.

Our tendency is always toward a smaller vision of what is possible. But God’s vision tends toward resurrection, toward new life where once there was only death.

So whenever you’re gripped by a small vision or find yourself with a deficit of courage, remember that you serve a remarkable God whose vision for you and for the kingdom is grander than anything we’ve yet imagined.