On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

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Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.

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On Family and Church (Part 2)

I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!

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So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.

I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.

Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.

Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.

Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.

Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith[1]. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.

One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service[2] is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:

For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.

There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.

Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?

I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.

“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)

 

[1]. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
[2]. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!

 

On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda (Part 2)

Some of you probably noticed a few writing errors on my last post shortly after it was published (I know I did!). As I was going through and making some minor edits on misspelled words, I began to sift through it and add hyperlinks to various parts that I thought were relevant – parts where I thought, “you know, maybe someone wants to know more about what I just said. I’ll include hyperlinks to show where I’m getting my information.”

But then I encountered a problem… About 2/3rds the way through my last post, I began saying things like, “Read YouTube comments, and you’ll see the strong opposition to anyone who would seek to promote Christianity as a respectable religion in our culture’s Scientism-based ideology.” Here’s the problem I encountered: I couldn’t find a demonstration of this. Sure, as I looked through YouTube videos discussion religion/faith there were a few spots where things got a bit heated in the comments section. But, for every post I found that belittled Christianity I found another that belittled non-Christians. Overall, for all the vitriol that YouTube comments hold (“cesspools,” as some people describe them), there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong leaning one way or the other. In fact, there are some good conversations that take place, albeit rarely.

As I scoured the videos I watched in days-gone-by where I thought I was getting a hint of anti-Christianity, I soon began to question myself… Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda?

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I began to search the internet even more, looking beyond YouTube into Reddit, Facebook, and even 4Chan to see what kinds of anti-Christianity existed. What I found was that there certainly is an anti-Christian presence on these sites, but there is also a pro-Christian presence. In fact, most of the views held by both sides of the conversation tend to stay within their own circles, like different cliques of people sitting together in their own section of the bleachers during a school event; having their own in-house meeting while occasionally slinging mud at one another, but having no real engagement between the two.

Then, I began to think through my personal interactions with those I’ve met who are atheists and agnostics. Interestingly enough, I cannot recall one hostile conversation I’ve had with such people throughout my life. Maybe one or two heated discussions during my Middle and High School days between classmates, but even then it was more a conversation of exploration and testing than persecution-levels of animosity. And, in my adult years, I have actually been frustrated more by Christians than non-Christians (but this is probably due to my high exposure to Christians compared to the latter).

In fact, I recently attended my 10-year High School reunion. I admit I was a bit nervous about the fact that I am now a pastor, and wasn’t sure what to expect from my classmates if/when they discovered that fact. To my surprise, they were perfectly fine with it and a couple of them even opened up to me about their lives and some of what they are going through (this happens even with strangers – more often than you’d think). My being a Christian, and a pastor, actually allowed for genuine conversations rather than creating a hostile environment between people of different religious perspectives.

As I thought through this, I juxtaposed my personal experiences and ‘research’ with what I have been presented by Christian media. I grew up inundated with Left Behind ideas of a stark contrast between peace loving Christians and war mongering atheists who love to trip-up believers and knock them down as the inferior species. As I entered college, Christian media started to actually gain some real production value (they actually felt like movies instead of made-for-T.V. specials). Yet, for all the developments in technology, the underlying themes remained the same: Christians = good, atheists = bad; Christians = smart, unbelievers = stupid; Christians = victims, non-Christians = persecutors. You can imagine how such consistent messages can influence one’s perception of reality. And, that is exactly what propaganda is designed to do – influence one’s perception of reality.

I asked myself again: Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda? By assuming, without solid references to back it up, that Christians and Christianity are attacked and belittled, I was promoting these notions that Christians are a discriminated group worthy of pity and able to claim victimhood of near 1st century levels of persecution.

But is this true? Are Christians in America really being lambasted for their beliefs? Are we being persecuted for wanting to worship in relative safety or being open about our faith? I submit that we are not. Perhaps we can claim particular instances where it seems we have been mistreated for our faith, but a look beneath the surface of what is going on will show that most (if not all) of these instances rely almost entirely on our subjective interpretation of what is going on instead of what is actually going on. “SayGoodnightKevin” does a good job of going through some of these particular instances at the end of his review of ‘God’s Not Dead.’

We have been groomed to think we are the persecuted minority. We have been taught to see strangers as Christian haters, worthy of neither our engagement nor our love (though we may throw them a tract or two, because – you know – John 3:16). But what ultimately happens is we end up sitting in our own circle of friends, the “Christian Club,” in our own section of the bleachers. We become hopelessly unaware of what life is like outside of our own bubble and construct faulty understandings of reality, but do not challenge them because they empower us. Victim mentality does that.

Once that happens – once a victim mentality is established – then engagement ceases to matter. “They” hate us because of what we believe, and so there is no reason to mingle with the likes of them. “They” become the enemy, and should be proven they are in the wrong. “They” should be attacked in order to preserve our way of life and to protect our rights. Our way of life is, after all, the superior one.

And then Christianity becomes a hermit kingdom, with the Great Commission being reduced to a bumper sticker on the back of a rusted out Hummer in an abandoned lot somewhere in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.

On Ministers and Patience (Part 4)

I was in the sanctuary not long ago reading the Scripture passages for this coming Sunday. I use the Lectionary, so those of you who are more liturgical will know what I was reading.

The Old Testament passage was from Genesis 15, where God is speaking to Abraham, and Abraham is aggravated with his being told promises that he has yet to see fulfilled.  The Gospel passage was from Luke 13 detailing a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees who wanted him to leave Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus told them that he would stay and goes on to lament Jerusalem’s continued actions against prophets and expresses his desire to “gather [their] children together,” and ends with him telling Jerusalem that he will return again and they will say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The last passage, the New Testament passage, is from Philippians 3. Here, Paul is telling the church in Philippi to remain diligent in their focus, and tells them that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I couldn’t help but notice the common theme of “waiting” in these passages. Abraham had to wait on the promise God had given him, Jerusalem had to wait for Christ to fulfill his purpose, and Paul was telling the church that, as Christians, it is in our nature to be waiting in anticipation for Christ’s return.

What was also surprising to me was the Lectionary passage from last Sunday… The Gospel reading (and the focus of many a sermon) was on Jesus’ temptation in the dessert after his baptism. Here, and I am sure many of us are familiar with the story, Jesus is tempted by the Devil with three things: Food for his stomach, the authority to rule over all kingdoms, and the chance to showcase his power and authority as God’s Son. Now, none of these things are all that bad. In fact, they all satisfy a need for Jesus. He was fasting for 40 days, so he needed to eat (no harm in that – his time of fasting had ended anyway!). He came to proclaim His kingdom and his reclamation of all peoples from Sin, so taking ownership would have immediately accomplished that goal. And he struggled to show some people that he was, in fact, the son of God, so throwing himself from the top of the Temple to be rescued by angels would have proven once and for all who he truly is.

However, he did not give in to any of those temptations. Instead, he resisted. And, he waited.  In fact, you could argue that because he did not give in to two of those temptations we are still waiting for him to accomplish the tasks that could have been accomplished 2,000 years ago!

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As I was meditating on these passages, I couldn’t help but think back on my time spent in the ‘waiting room.’  In some respects, I am still there. I am currently an associate pastor, but I am also still searching for work because I am a pastor on a volunteer basis. So I’ve been transferred to the ’employment waiting room.’

It is so incredibly easy to lose patience while waiting for a ministry position to open up. You spend years of your life dedicated to the study of God’s word, the practice of ministry, and have invested so much of your time and resources to the Call that it feels almost criminal to not be serving in the capacity of a pastor immediately following graduation. And, unless you have developed other vocational skills, you would be hard-pressed to find a job doing anything else.

And yet, the Christian life is not spent running from one idea to the next. Yes, other people may seem so fortunate. They got the ideal internship that developed into the ideal placement, making the ideal amount of money, and met the ideal spouse, and are raising the ideal family. Those things happen, but I am encouraged by the fact that God does not allow us to sit any longer than what we can bear (and if my history has taught me anything, my behind is 100% grade A sit-able!).

Similar to Jesus’ temptation, rather than to become impatient and jump at the first open opportunity that comes our way, we would do well to wait patiently on the Lord for him to guide us to the right opportunity. In a world so full of “make yourself” career paths, it is increasingly difficult for young ministers to rely on a power they cannot control or even predict. As such, we need to be reminding ourselves frequently that our task is not to open doors, but to wait patiently for God to do his work.  For myself, I have to continually remind myself of this truth daily. I am not sure if that will ever change.

The one who has called you is faithful, and he will do it.

On Ministers and Marriage (Part 2)

Ever since I accepted the call to ministry I have had this creeping suspicion. I only mentioned it a few times while I was attending school, and it never came up in classroom discussions that I know of, but I have always had this nagging sense about ministry.  My time spent travelling across the Midwest (and East Africa) served to make my suspicions grow.  In fact, it wasn’t until this last year, while I have been searching and waiting for a pastoral position, that my suspicions were confirmed.

I was on the phone with one of my mentors talking about life. In the midst of him offering insight into what I should do with my time now that I’m in a waiting period, he began to talk about my finding a good woman to marry. This isn’t the first time this topic has come up. I’m a single minister, so marriage comes up fairly often. This time was different, however, because he segued the conversation into an informational talk about how church leaders and even church members are not comfortable with single pastors.

And with that, my suspicions were confirmed: being a single minister has a negative effect on one’s qualifications for ministry. At least, in the eyes of others… who you depend on for getting into a ministry position.

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At first I had a feeling that it may be just this one mentor of mine, and he was sharing some personal angst with how he perceived single ministers had been treated in his eyes. But, not too long ago, I met with another mentor of mine who said the same thing: most church leaders and church boards aren’t comfortable with single pastors leading congregations.  Even though this is mostly true of a senior/lead pastor position (staff pastors who are single are generally treated very differently), there is still a negative stigma attached to ministers who are single.

I have had several people explain to me their thoughts on single vs. married pastors. Some people don’t mind a single pastor, citing the more flexible personal schedule, more time to spend caring for the local church, an acute ability to relate to younger people, and a smaller financial need. Some of them point to how being married shows a sense of maturity, wisdom, and stability that most churches want in their leaders. Others get more specific and say that married men are better at counseling, work better with church boards, are better preachers, etc.  In fact, I was interviewed for a pastoral position earlier this year and one of the two main reasons the interviewers were not very confident in me and my ability to lead was because I am single.

Now, I could make all kinds of arguments against that mentality while gleaning from my years of visiting both married and single pastors and saying that marriage doesn’t inherently make someone more mature, wise, stable, or better at counseling, preaching, or whatever. I could talk about how the apostle Paul was single, or that Jesus himself was single. I could weave in church history that involved the fact that Paul was trying to convince Christians to not divorce (because they thought marriage limited their ability to serve the Lord), or talk about how the church ought to rely on the work of the Holy Spirit instead of relying on the pastor. I am sure you have heard these same arguments, but frankly they do not matter. The truth is simple: being a single minister limits your opportunities in ministry.

Some may argue against this point, but I have been informed by trustworthy people and have experienced my share of unmarried prejudice to know that this is, in fact, true. Even those who are single and currently serving as pastors feel this burden… People in the church consistently referencing marriage, or trying to set you up with their relatives or hinting that you should date so-and-so, or refusing to respect your leadership because you’re not ‘grown-up’ enough… all of these indicate how single minister simply aren’t “good enough” for many churches and /or many people within the church.

There are certainly exceptions to this, and I myself have been blessed with a church family that does not treat me as less significant of a minister because of my relationship status. In my travels, however, I have had to realize that I am an exception. And an exception is just that: an exception; not something to be expected in the majority of encounters.

This reality does have an effect on how one dates, or if they date. Now that I think of it, how many careers withhold advancement if someone isn’t married? I mean, wouldn’t this kind of conversation change the way you view your relationships:

“You’re single!? Well, we aren’t comfortable with you being the manager in that case. We’ll give the position to this other person over here.”

“But.. she has less experience than me.”

“Yes. But she’s married. Therefore, she’s more qualified to be the manager.”

It is too bad that these interactions – while not always verbal – happen quite often in ministry. When they do, there is this added pressure to hurry up and get married to someone. That kind of pressure really sucks, too. Because then it’s like you can’t afford to take your time with a romantic relationship. You need to marry someone, and quickly! Otherwise, you’ll never get into a ministry position and live out God’s call upon your life (after all, the reality is that when it comes to ministry you aren’t subject exclusively to God’s will, but the will of the Church as well).

Sometimes the most helpful thing one can do is gain an awareness for their situation. However, if you’re looking for something positive then maybe I can end with some advice that my mentor – the one who originally told me about this de facto – gave me: If being single is bothering you, and you are feeling the pressure, then go out there and start meeting new people! Find a good godly man/woman. Get married. take your time with it, but sulking and complaining about how no one wants you because you’re single isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Or, get over the fact that it sucks that you’re being held back. You can’t do anything about it anyway. People are always going to be picky, and there will always be chances for someone to nitpick something about that makes you feel unacceptable.

Or, get creative! If you feel like you can’t do anything because you’re not married, then try something new with ministry. If you make a mistake, big deal! People may already look down on you for being single, so why not experiment a little bit while your bar is set low? Embrace the low standards – it makes it easier to impress.

I wish I could say that things will change, but I can’t say that with any real confidence. In the end, we all have to come to grips with the fact that, in the eyes of many people, single ministers don’t make good pastors.

 

On Minsters and Flying Solo (part 1)

When I was a freshmen at Olivet Nazarene University, I took a senior-level ministry class in my Spring Semester (long story). I remember on one of the final days we had a time for questions and discussion with the professor. I forgot what happened in the vast majority of that course, but I’ll never forget a question asked by one of the students…

“What do I do in order to get a minister’s license?”

My reaction was one of shock. I was thinking, “What!?  You’re about to graduate and begin looking for positions of ministry within a church, and you don’t even have a minister’s license? What have you been doing the last 4 years? Hasn’t anyone explained this process to you?”

In retrospect, it’s obvious that the answer to that question was “No. No one explained this to you.” Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this is a common occurrence with young ministers. While they are attending school, it is not that big of an issue since you have professors, fellow classmates, and other avenues through which you can glean insights and gain knowledge and awareness. However, once you are out of school but not yet in a church, that kind of support system is no longer there.

Lonely-Man

I have been very fortunate in my experience. I have had many people help me through this “waiting room” period by giving me advice, offering suggestions on what to do, and some have even given my resume to pastors and superintendents (those who oversee several local churches in a geographic area) that resulted in interviews. But, I feel that I am the exception to the rule.

The truth is, once you graduate from school you’re on your own. In the business world this is normal, and is expected by almost everyone. You graduate, and then you go to work finding a job that you enjoy or at least utilizes your skillset. You distribute resumes and follow-up for interviews. In ministry, this process is a bit different because you have almost no control. Yes, you can distribute your resume to multiple people, but the hiring process from church to church or district to district is so unique to their local context that you truly have no idea what to expect or how to approach even looking for a pastoral position.

Along with other factors, this leads to a potentially long segment of time where ministers (especially young ministers) are caught in a limbo between finishing school and becoming established as a pastor in a local church. By itself, this isn’t that big of a deal. It’s just the way it is. The issue here is that these ministers find themselves all alone during this time. They have little to no support from other church leaders besides generic advice (“hang in there,” “be patient,” “trust God,” etc.), which may be good, but it simply doesn’t help us navigate through this season. Obviously we’re trying to hang in there, be patient, and trust God, but we also need to know what on earth we should be doing! Are there networks and/or support systems we can plug in to?  Are there ministry opportunities available to ministers-in-limbo we can take advantage of? Are there certain traits and/or experience church leaders are looking for that we can use this time to acquire?

These are just some questions that young ministers ask. I know, because I’ve asked them myself. But, as I said before, many young ministers don’t even know where to turn or who to ask in order to find answers to these questions. If I can be more honest, it took me months to even realize that these are questions I should be asking. Why? Because being out of school meant that I no longer had that support system to rely on. Sure, I had people trying to help, but I had to search them out for myself and only did so out of desperation and frustration because I had no idea what I should be doing.

I’m sure other young ministers are in a similar position or will be soon. If I could give any advice it would be this: Find a mentor. Look for someone who has served in ministry who is older, godly, and respected and ask if they would be willing to help you navigate these waters. Someone to whom you can look for wisdom and help during this time. Unfortunately, mentors for ministry are not handed out. You have to look for one yourself. Unless, of course, you are lucky and someone comes to you wanting to mentor you, but that can be a hit-or-miss in terms of if they will be a good mentor for you. Sometimes people just want to feel like they’re helping instead of actually helping.

Also, find people in similar positions as you or at least people whom you can go to and vent. Sometimes all you need is someone to share your agitation with. Find people who can support and encourage you, and if you can try to find people who stand in your corner with you, who even get frustrated for you when difficult times come. One of the greatest things that has helped me through this season of life is having people who don’t look down on me, who give more than generic advice or bland motivation, and who even get upset on my behalf that I’m still in the waiting room. They truly listen to me, and they even allow me to speak into their lives as well.

For the sake of your own mental health, and for the sake of your calling, it would be wise to invest time into building strong connections with people who can help you through this time. People who can speak truth into your life, and who can reveal some tricks and tips for getting plugged in to pastoral ministry.

This can certainly be a lonely time for many young ministers. Don’t let yourself be alone. God gave us the Church for a reason. Take advantage of this great community of believers!