The Lion, the Sheep and the Bathrobe

18 11 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

I have a sort of recurring day dream about my first appearance before God at Judgment time. It’s probably horrible theology on a number of levels, but I just can’t seem to shake the picture, and it is all because of a cool little comment Jesus makes in John 17:12… While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

I am haunted by those words, “…none has been lost”. I have this embarrassing picture in mind of my standing in my bath robe in front of God and Him asking me about all the people He placed under my influence in the church and who left the church at one time or another and I never heard from them again. I’m talking about members of Sunday School classes, choir members, committee members, etc. for whom I had some leadership responsibility (or at least a friendship) and who have disappeared from the church’s radar screen. Oh, how I wish I could look up and say (with Jesus) “None has been lost.” But I cannot. Can you?

It is what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 18 in his parable of the lost sheep. The context in which Matthew recalls that parable is a very different context from how Luke uses it. Maybe Jesus told the parable more than once. In Matthew, Jesus is clearly talking about the church and “sheep” who wander off. Jesus poses this question: what kind of shepherd would not leave the entire flock in order to go after the one lamb who wanders away? Of course, it makes perfect sense in that scenario that any of us would do that. So, why don’t we do likewise in the church? When one of our flock begins to make decisions that pull him/her away from the Lord and away from God’s people, leaving him/her vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy, why don’t we drop everything to go after that wandering sheep?

A herd animal’s vulnerability when it gets away from the herd is a scary thing. It is an image Peter has in mind in I Peter 5:8 when he refers to our enemy as “…a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”. Did you know that a lioness will follow a herd for weeks watching and waiting, studying the herd and looking for the weakest members? She patiently waits for that moment when one of the weak members pulls away from the herd and becomes vulnerable. Similarly, our enemy watches and waits, like a lion on the prowl.

One of our jobs as leaders in the church is to go after those sheep who have wandered away, and to find whatever creative means necessary to turn them back toward the flock. I know that is a tall order. I know it raises lots of questions about exactly what that confrontation looks like and how it works (that, of course, is for future posts). But surely it is our responsibility, if we take Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 seriously. Welcome to the Body of Christ!

So, if you look as silly in your bath robe as I do in mine, you better get to work, because there is an embarrassing accounting waiting for us. There are wandering sheep to be found…

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Leader’s Problem with Pretense

2 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Hebrews 4:15

transparencyMy friend Scott is a gifted teacher.  I remember one of his illustrations using a bunch of unmarked tea bags.  He had everyone pass them around and smell them to see if we could tell what kind of tea each one held.  Then he said something really profound: “Tea bags are a lot like people…you don’t know for sure what’s inside them until you put them in hot water.”  It was a beautiful illustration about integrity and transparency.  Together, those are the currency of leadership in the church.

What was truly transformative about Jesus (and what has been transformative about Christianity for over 2,000 years now) is not the power nor the persuasion nor the perfection of Jesus.  Rather, it was the almost spellbinding “connection” he had with everyone he met.  He connected with the Samaritan woman at the well.  He connected with the Pharisee, Nicodemus.  He connected with fishermen and tax collectors and soldiers and prostitutes.  What changed people was his ability to see right into their souls, and at the same time allow them to see right into Him.

That was the founder of this revolution for which you and I are contending.  And we should reflect that same level of transparency and connectability.  It is important to our mission.  In fact, the revolution depends on it.

But in our efforts to work harder to do all the things good Christians should do, and in our efforts to manage our people’s perception of us, we often tend to lose the transparency.  In our churches’ efforts to elevate our leaders to praiseworthy heights, we create an environment where it is no longer safe for them to be truly transparent, lest they lose the very popularity which placed them there.  We want heroes for our leaders, so we “create” them, leaving little or no room for their humanity.  And as leaders, we fall in line with this very system, as it often seems like the only opportunity to lead.  The very pretense which lifts us up eventually becomes our downfall.

But here is the magnified effect of that pretense: Leaders who pretend to be something they are not end up building organizations which pretend to be something they are not.  An entire culture of pretense and shallow relationships results.  And, more times than any of us want to admit it, we call it “church”.

As I reflect on Hebrews 4-5 and its description of our “great High Priest”, I am reminded that it is transparency and “connection” which are the real stuff of which Christ-like leaders are made.  Our ability to relate to our people and their ability to relate to us…to connect with us…is what really matters.  That’s what our founder taught us.  I just need a reminder a few times each day.  Because, in the end, when you put me in hot water, all I really want you to see coming out of me is Jesus.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Church Leaders and Our Hard Hearts

26 08 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”  Hebrews 3:7-11; Psalm 95:7-11

heart of stoneAs it turns out, hard hearts come in a pretty large variety of shapes and forms…even among church leaders.  It is rarely as overt as Israel’s rebellion at Meribah.  More often, it is a mild arrogance or self-reliance or pride at the heart of our hard-heartedness.  So, as I study the above passage, I am reflecting on some of the less obvious (but more common) ways I have seen leaders “harden their hearts”…including me and my own heart.

Hardening our hearts to the power of God’s Word.  Every time we catch ourselves thinking, “what this text needs is a little more of me…a little of my flash and polish will go a long way in helping it hit home in this sermon…” our faith in the power of God’s Word diminishes just a little more.  Every time we receive a compliment for a lesson well-taught and we fail to acknowledge that it was God’s Word and not our communication skills that caused the real transformation, we steal God’s glory, and our heart hardens just a little more to the miracle of His living word.

Hardening our hearts to the power of prayer.  When the priority we give gathered prayer meetings falls somewhere between  repairing the hems of the choir robes and making sure there is toilet paper in the women’s restroom, we miss the mark as spiritual leaders.  When our public prayers reveal just how little time we have spent in private prayer, we set an example of a heart hardened to prayer.  Jesus said his church would be a house of prayer…what type of house are you and your leadership building?

Hardening our hearts to Christ in our brother.  Finding Christ in our people…ALL our people…may be the most critical difference between good leaders and great leaders.  When we respond to criticism by saying to ourselves, “God is not gong to speak to me through THAT ignorant person…” our heart grows a little colder. When we refuse to hear a brother because of some sin in his life or because his choices are not like ours or because he votes differently than we vote or watches a different news outlet than we do…we harden our hearts not only to that brother, but to Christ in that brother…and in doing so, we forsake the single most significant “help” God has for us as leaders: His Spirit living in His people.

Do you see, then, that (especially for leaders who live in the accountability of the lime light) a hardening heart does not necessarily begin with a sense of rebellion nor outright rejection of God. Rather, it more often begins with these much less obvious moments of shrunken faith or heightened sense of self.  Unfortunately, there are many roads that lead to the hardening of the heart…many dangerous paths from which to choose.  They just don’t seem all that dangerous in the beginning.

God has a “groove” of His perfect will for His church and for its shepherds…a “rest” for the weary leader.  But it is not there for the hard-hearted.  It is for the humble leader whose heart remains pliable and moldable and whose faith is strong.  It is for the leader who trusts entirely in the Lord and in His Word and in prayer and in God’s people.  As leaders, we can choose whether or not that rest is ours.  Do not harden your heart.  Enter into the rest that is yours.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Letting Your People Mess Up

24 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.  Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” 1 Samuel 8:7-9

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  C.S. Lewis

Here is a fundamental truth for church leaders (including pastors): the church is not for you (not really), nor is it about you.  If you think about it, that is actually a rather freeing reality.  That means it is not your responsibility to manipulate every outcome.  Rather, it is your responsibility to speak God’s truth to the best of your ability and to love your people well…and love often means letting them mess up royally.

Asleep in ClassMost of my own best illustrations of this leadership principle come from parenting.  If you are a parent, you already know the phenomenon well.  There are times when a parent can see a wrong direction a child is headed and the very best way to teach this lesson is to simply warn them and then let them make their own decision (and live with the consequences).  Take bedtimes, for example.  Toddlers are simply told when they will go to bed.  But, as they grow older, we eventually get to a point where they must learn to use their own judgment about sleep time.  The first time we lift the bedtime requirement, we simply explain to them, “Go to bed whenever you like…but if you stay awake too late, you’ll be awfully tired tomorrow at school.”  Then, that first night we find them playing on X-box at Midnight, we warn them again: “You’re gonna be awfully tired tomorrow if you don’t go to bed soon.”  Well, you know how this one plays out.

That illustration is harmless enough.  The worst outcome for that student is a little humiliation in class and perhaps a bad grade or two.  But the more mature our student becomes, the bigger the consequences.  We begin allowing them to make really big decisions with really big consequences.  It is all a part of growing up.

Shepherding God’s people is no different.  As leaders, there really is no other effective way to lead than to allow God’s people to make decisions as a people, even when those decisions are sometimes horribly wrong.  You can give them the benefit of your own spiritual discernment, you can warn them about the consequences of their wrong direction, you can even ask them to please reconsider.  But in the end, more times than not, it is their decision to make and not yours.  You cannot make it for them.  You cannot even make it for yourself.  Most importantly, you cannot take it personally when they decide not to take your counsel.  They will make their decision, and you and they together will live with the consequences of it, and you will just keep loving them as well as you know how.

God’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 echo in so many of your church’s important decisions today.  You can see the majority forming and you can see the damaging consequences of that direction.  They are about to make a decision exactly contrary to how you have counseled them.  This is when God’s whisper comes: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king…Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what [their decision will mean].” That is what leadership looks like.  That is what love looks like.  Swallow your pride, listen to your people, counsel them as best you know how, and then walk with them…even through the muck and mire of wrong decisions.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Seeing Through the Flaws in Your Shepherd

17 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.  1 Samuel 16:7b

Most of the church conflicts into which I get called are swirling (at one level or another) around a pastor.  And most of the opposition parties I meet eventually get to a point in the conflict where they are saying, “We never should have called him as our pastor…we made a terrible mistake.”  And that conclusion is always based upon a (sometimes very long) list of flaws which, in their eyes, disqualify him/her as their shepherd.

finding flawsIt always reminds me of the life of Israel’s most effective King…King David, the “man after God’s own heart”.  So much of God’s story in this world was written through David’s life…so much scripture…so much poetry…so much history…it is hard to imagine anyone being used more profoundly by God.  His passion was extraordinary, his love for God immeasurable.  His leadership was undeniable, and his lineage would produce the Savior of the world.  Not a bad spiritual resume, if you ask me.

Did I mention his poligamy?  His adultery?  The murder?  The “divorce” from his first wife (she apparently had a problem with his dancing in the streets in his underwear), the attempts by his father-in-law to kill him, and the subsequent re-marriage to her?  Did I mention his eight other marriages (and that number is just the number of wives whose names we know…there were apparently many others whose names are not mentioned in scripture)?  How about David’s first son’s rape of his half-sister…followed by her brother’s murder of that same son in retaliation?  How about the attempt by that second son to overthrow David’s reign as king?  Did I mention that David’s own men would subsequently kill that second son as well?

In short…David’s house was a mess!  His life was a mess.  And his “kingdom” was as conflict-ridden as any imaginable.  So, as I am reading through this muck and mire which David called a life, I could not help but wonder…how do you think David’s resume would fair in your church’s next pastor search process?  For that matter, how about Peter’s resume?  Or Hosea’s?  I think you get the picture.

At some point, we as Christ-followers have to come to grips with the fact that God’s ways of testing the heart of a leader are pretty different from ours.  We have to embrace the sheer magnitude of God’s grace and His ability to write His story through the lives of horribly flawed people with horribly flawed lives and horribly flawed families.  Indeed, we must acknowledge that God’s purposes for his/her leadership may well be served best in our situation BECAUSE of those “flaws”, and not just in spite of them.  Those “flaws” may bring exactly the perspective God wants in his/her leadership for a specific place at a specific time.  I have said often that I never want to be pastored by a shepherd who does not know personal turmoil or tragedy.  It has a way of bringing “perspective” to my own turmoil.

So, does that mean we must rejoice in all our leaders’ flaws?  No, not necessarily.  But it does mean we do not have the privilege of writing them off merely because of those flaws.  We must learn to recognize that, when God calls a leader to a task, He does so with full knowledge of that leader’s “flaws”.  In short, we must learn true spiritual discernment…and not just some worldly version of measuring leaders.

Tall order, I know.  Then again, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it already. Right?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Confession and Your Leadership

3 06 2014

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you…
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:13, 16-17

confession

I have often said I could not fully invest in a pastor who has never suffered deep loss. “Grieving with those who grieve” is a critical part of the pastoral responsibility, and how can a church leader who has never grieved before possibly know how to start doing so now, over somebody else’s pain?

Similarly, I think I would have a difficult time listening to a pastor or teacher or spiritual leader call me to repentance and to confession unless I first know that he/she knows the humiliation of being laid bare before God in a moment of confession. That, it seems to me, is what gives a leader the credibility to “teach transgressors [God’s] ways” and to cause us sinners to return to God.

David expresses this brokenness so very well in Psalm 51, after his sin with Bathsheba. In this Psalm, he shared with all of God’s people his heart broken before the Lord. “Against you and you only have I sinned…” “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” It is a confession filled with remorse and humiliation. And it calls us to have that same contrite heart before God.

Moreover, Psalm 51 cries out to God for the very type of forgiveness which would later become the earmark of Christ’s church and of Christ-followers around the world. As a leader of other Christians, we must therefore have experienced this very intimate level of confession before we can call others to it. Indeed, it becomes awfully challenging for us to express forgiveness to others if we have not truly experienced and embraced the mercy, grace, and forgiveness we have from God. I have met church leaders (even pastors) who struggled with forgiving others, and it always makes me wonder whether their own confession before the Lord is all it should be. Maybe you know a church leader like that.

David was not like that. David was a strong (even bloody) leader, but David also had a deep understanding of what it means to experience God’s mercy and forgiveness. His credibility as a “man after God’s own heart” was very much tied to his failure and to his confession.

They say confession is good for the soul…even critical. But I say it is good for your leadership as well. Even critical.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Creating a Culture of Bible Study

27 05 2014

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  2 Timothy 3:16-17

Bible StudyAfter some 40 years of studying the Bible and some 25 (or so) years of teaching it, I can safely say I am more thirsty for it today than ever before. My prayer is that God will keep me ever more thirsty for it my whole life. So far, so good.

Today’s post begins a Summer Tuesday series on Spiritual disciplines which church leaders should be practicing and fostering. These are valuable habits in making and growing disciples…routines about which the church should be intentional. You should be teaching these disciplines and, in some cases, you should have a system in place for insuring their practice in the lives of your congregants. The first of these disciplines is Bible Study.

At my church, we call it our Re:Verse system. We all study the same passage all week long, meditating on it each morning, reading our pastors’ daily devotional thoughts on it. We study it again in our Sunday morning Bible Study groups, and we hear a sermon on the same passage in any of our Sunday morning worship services. Lastly, in the following week, we look back at the passage in our small accountability groups, gently pressing the truths from that passage into one another. Of course, the details of the system are not the point. Having the system in the first place is the point. It is important that a church’s structure and programming and culture all hold Bible study as a high value. Few spiritual disciplines will have a bigger impact on our people.

But getting our people to study the Bible is not the biggest challenge. In most cases, getting them to WANT to make Bible study a regular discipline in their weekly routine is the bigger challenge. It requires a culture shift…and that, in turn, always begins with leadership. My pastor reminds the congregation often of the importance of Bible study. He tells the children of our church how much he loves the Bible and its stories and lessons. He casts a vision over and over again of the life change which comes from pursuing a Biblical worldview. Our Associate Pastors and second and third tiers of leadership (lay and clergy) follow suit in their lives and in their conversation.

Again, I don’t share this testimony as if to say everyone else should do this just like my church does it. I only mean to illustrate that creating a culture of Bible study in a church requires intentionality. It requires a strong system of training teachers. It requires a genuine love for God’s Word. And, most importantly, it requires leadership who really do believe that all scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

So, what about your church? What ways have you found to raise the standards of Bible Study for your people?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com