Category Archives: Leadership
I’m sad. I don’t have any groupies. Not even one. No one wears my “Marc Cortez” t-shirts, even though the logos are pretty cool. And I still have several boxes of Marc Cortez bobble-head dolls in my office. It’s distressing. (Though I have to admit that the dolls are a tad creepy when they all start nodding in unison.)
I’d even settle for some flunkies. Or, better yet, minions! Just think what I could do with a minion or two.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard quite a few criticisms of how our “celebrity” culture has infected the church. The concern seems to be that “fame” is a virus, or maybe a parasite. And, Christian leaders who seem to be pursuing fame are necessarily headed down a fatal path.
You can’t have a humble celebrity.
But, is that really the case? What about people like John Stott or Billy Graham? They certainly attained a level of stature that most would associate with being a “celebrity.” At least, no one can deny their fame. And, they weathered the storm reasonably well.
Now, I’ve heard some argue that the problem isn’t necessarily with being famous but with pursuing fame. If you’re highlighting yourself and intentionally increasing your own visibility, then you’ve fallen prey to celebrity-ism.
But, that doesn’t seem quite right either. If you have a cause worth agitating for, an agenda worth promoting, or a soapbox worth standing on, shouldn’t you seek to maximize your opportunities? And, if this means branding, marketing, and (heaven forbid) networking, shouldn’t you do precisely that? To do otherwise seems irresponsible.
In a fame-driven culture, can fame itself be used as a tool for getting your message out? Or, more accurately, can it be used without destroying the one who uses it?
I wonder at times whether our critique of “celebrities” stems from the fact that we aren’t famous. Resting comfortably in obscurity, it’s easy to throw darts at the famous faces. It may even make us feel better to argue that obscurity is actually a better, holier, and more responsible place to be anyway.
None of this is to dismiss the significant problems and challenges of living in a fame-driven culture. We’ve seen too many celebrity Christians fall to ignore the real dangers. If fame is a tool, it’s a dangerous one.
But, so is my lawnmower. And I still use it.
If I had to pick, I’d say that the problem isn’t necessarily with being a celebrity, but with being a groupy. Once you’ve become someone’s groupy, you’re much more likely to follow along with whatever they say/do, often defending them against all criticism, despite how reasonable such criticism might sometimes be. But, is that their fault? Maybe we should stop critiquing celebrity-ism and pay more attention to groupy-ism.
Upon further reflection, I don’t think I want any groupies.
Does anyone want to be my sidekick?
I love it when the Bible is clear. “Jesus is the Son of God.” Nice.
It’s a little more frustrating when the Bible is not clear: the nature of communion, precise forms of church government, whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But, at least when it’s not clear, I can admit that there’s plenty of room for disagreement. If the Bible’s not clear, let’s talk.
But, what if I’m not clear about whether or not the Bible is clear?
This came up recently in a discussion on the question of gender roles in the church. According one perspective, the Bible is really clear on this issue: the role of elder/pastor is for men only. Since the Bible is clear, we simply need to affirm what it says regardless of our personal or cultural perspectives. And, given the Bible’s clarity, those who chose to have women serve as elders/pastors are being either intentionally or unintentionally disobedient to scripture.
The other perspective in the discussion actually agreed with the complementation position, but disagreed with respect to the Bible’s clarity on this issue. According to this view, there is enough ambiguity in the biblical texts that faithful, biblical Christians can legitimately come to different conclusions. So, interestingly, the resulting discussion wasn’t about the question of gender roles itself – everyone agreed on that – but on the clarity of the Bible at this point and what that means for how we assess contrary perspectives.
And, lest you think that this is just a complementarian thing, I’ve had exactly the same discussion with egalitarians – some of whom argue that the Bible clearly supports their view and see complementarians as being disobedience to Scripture, and others who disagree with complementarianism but still see the issue through the lens of legitimate diversity.
So, the issue really comes down to a question of how you determine when you think the Bible speaks with sufficient clarity on an issue for you to take a clear stance in opposition to other perspectives, or when you think that the Bible is ambiguous enough to leave room for legitimately different perspectives.
I’d be very curious to hear what you all think about this. Whether you’re a complementation or an egalitarian, where does this fall on your scale of biblical clarity? Is it something that you think is clear and that Christians can and should take a stand on? Or is it something that you think is rather opaque – you may have personal convictions, but you’re not troubled when other evangelicals disagree?
Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a debate on complementarianism/egalitarianism itself. But, I would like to hear how you rate the debate itself. Is it central and clear, or somewhat peripheral and murky?
There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But, seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.
I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what they do best.
This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So, pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.
I have at least three problems with that argument.
1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them, but the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.
2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And, they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So, why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?
3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.
Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But, simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.
I’ve never really met anyone that enjoys criticism, especially when it is of the unspiritual and unkind type. I realized early on in ministry that to preach the gospel faithfully you have to have thick skin, unwavering convictions to biblical truth, and a kind and humble heart. I’ll never forget the first phone call I received from an angry parent. I felt defensive, attacked, and discouraged. Luckily it all worked out and I learned a great deal about working with people. Now, imagine you’re Martin Luther. It’s not an angry parent that is calling but the head of the Church, and he’s essentially calling you and your teaching heretical. This does not just mean the possible end of your ministry, but perhaps your life as well. In Luther’s day you did not cross the church. Fortunately for the Church, Luther had the conviction to honor God above men and posted his 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg. Thus on June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued his papal bull demanding that Luther retract a major portion of his teaching, writing, and section of his 95 Theses. (If you’ve never read it, it’s a fascinating read.) He cited 41 errors in Luther’s teaching, which included such things as that purgatory was not in the Bible, that indulgences were not necessary to obtain grace, and that the baptism of infants did not cleanse them from sin. Pope Leo went on to write
“Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic with the full severity of each and all of the above penalties and censures. Yet, with the advice of our brothers, imitating the mercy of almighty God who does not wish the death of a sinner but rather that he be converted and live, and forgetting all the injuries inflicted on us and the Apostolic See, we have decided to use all the compassion we are capable of. It is our hope, so far as in us lies, that he will experience a change of heart by taking the road of mildness we have proposed, return, and turn away from his errors. We will receive him kindly as the prodigal son returning to the embrace of the Church.
Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us. If they really will obey, and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity, and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.”
So what did Martin Luther do? He had a book burning party in which he burned the Papal Bull in front of his students at Wittenberg. He is reported as saying “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!” So on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther issuing another bull, the Decet Romanum Pontificem. Needless to say, the Reformation was fully underway.
[This is a slightly altered version of a devotional I recently presented at a dean’s conference (yes, there are conferences for deans) on why the task of raising future leaders for the church is impossible.]
Course evaluations can be fun to read. You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. Every now and then, you run across a student with something particularly insightful to say. For example, I recently saw one that read something like, “This professor is brilliant. I’m just not sure what he’s talking about.”
Oops. Obviously, there’s a disconnect here between the brilliant insights of the professor and the practical issue of making sure people can actually do something with them.
The same thing can happen with our “core values” and “mission statements.” They sound good, but what exactly do they mean? For example, one of the core values of Western Seminary is “truth.” (I’m pretty sure that was put in there to distinguish us from all those other seminaries who are committed to “deceit.”) That’s nice, but what do you do with it? How does that guide the everyday life and behavior of the institution beyond a minimal commitment not to lie to our students—unless we can present it creatively enough to call it “marketing”.
Sometimes we find ourselves flying at 30,000 feet when the people and issues we’re trying to address are down at sea level.
There are times when I feel like Paul could use some help landing the plane too.
2 TIMOTHY 2:2
I have always loved 1 Timothy 2:2. It’s a classic verse for Christian ministry and a great description of what we’re trying to do as theological educators.
And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
What a fabulous verse with a clear principle for effective leadership development: pass along what you have received to others who will do the same. That’s great. But, how do you do this? How will you actualize this? What are your specific learning outcomes? Where’s your strategic plan?
If we continue for a bit in the passage, we’ll find that Paul really never answers these questions.
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. (vv. 3-6)
These are all terrific images for Christian ministry. I’ve used all of them in my teaching and preaching many times. But, when it comes to specifics, they’re still not very helpful. Doesn’t Paul have anything more to offer?
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (v. 7)
Gee, thanks. So now I’m either stupid because I haven’t bothered to think about what Paul was saying, or Jesus doesn’t like me and hasn’t given me understanding. Neither of these options is terribly encouraging.
Come on Paul. What’s the plan? Where’s the blueprint? How exactly do you do this thing we call “developing leaders”?
Instead of answering the question, we’re left with this grand vision of preparing the next generation for effectively leading God’s people with little in the way of specific guidance.
OUR CHAOTIC CONTEXT
And, that becomes a real problem when you consider the chaotic context in which we find ourselves trying to carry out this tremendous responsibility.
Look at the challenges that seminaries face: limited finances, increased competition, contrary constituencies, nosy accreditation agencies, and governmental regulation, among other things. And, that’s not even counting issues that arise from our broader cultural context: new technologies, changing educational paradigms, increasingly diverse communities, decreasing biblical literacy for incoming students, and more.
It may just be me, but these all seem pretty daunting. Many times I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness of theological education. Paul has shown us the promised land—just entrust this message to godly men and women who will take up the mantle of leadership for the next generation. See, the promised land is right there. But I don’t know how to get there. For all my planning, plotting, striving, and strategizing, I still find myself wandering in the chaos and confusion of the wilderness.
I feel like one of the ten spies who have gone into the land and have come back saying that it can’t be done. The obstacles are too great. Go home.
THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE
And then I pause and consider what it must have been like for those who have gone before.
Consider poor Timothy as he reads these words. He’s in a hostile cultural context with no books, no schools, very little money, few churches, and leaders who are still fairly young spiritually themselves. What is he supposed to do with this?
Consider the early church it expanded into new worlds: Greece, Rome, Africa, Gaul, Asia. Imagine how they must have wrestled with what it takes to raise godly leaders in these new contexts with all of their cultural diversity, religious plurality, and philosophical complexity. How hard must that have been?
Consider the church of the Constantinian era as it struggled with training the next generation from a posture of relative affluence and influence, along with growing nominalism and institutionalism. Now how do you raise godly leaders?
Consider the medieval church as they tried to develop new institutional educational structures called “universities” to accomplish this daunting task of training new leaders. Imagine the uncertainty. Will this work? Or, will it just turn pastors into professors, leaders into lecturers?
I could go on. God’s people have always struggled with understanding precisely how to raise the next generation of leaders in the midst of many difficult and daunting circumstances.
And, none of them have gotten it “right.” Although every generation approached the task of leadership development differently, each produced more than its share of broken leaders who led broken churches in a broken world.
There’s a vision, but no blueprint. There’s a plan, but there are always problems.
Apparently the wilderness of theological education has been with us for a while now.
OUR IMPOSSIBLE TASK
So, my happy thought for today is:
1. We’ve been given a grand task with almost no instruction for how to carry it out.
2. Every prior generation found this task to be nearly impossible.
Thanks Paul. Don’t you have anything to offer that might be a little more helpful?
To be fair, I probably should have started in verse 1.
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
Ah, there it is. That’s what my reflection has been missing. Grace.
For this to work, we need to realize that this story is not about us. If it was, this story would have ended a long time ago. Every generation of Christian leaders laments the difficulties of raising godly leaders in their context. And every generation is right. We’ve been given a seemingly impossible task with no blueprint for success.
And that’s okay because it’s not about us anyway.
We will never build perfect seminaries that produce perfect leaders to lead perfect churches. If that’s your promised land, I hope you enjoy wilderness.
That’s not what we’ve been called to do. Perfection is not our goal, faithfulness is. We will always build broken schools that produce broken people to lead broken churches. But, we serve a glorious God who will always be gracious to his people and faithful to his plans.
Our task may be impossible, but that’s not a problem for God.
This isn’t a call to quietism. The fact that we can’t be perfect doesn’t mean that we stop striving to be as creatively faithful as possible. Maybe Paul didn’t give us a blueprint because there isn’t one. Maybe each generation has to be willing to put its models of leadership development on the table and ask afresh if this is the best way to be faithful to the task in this time, with this people, facing these challenges.
Will we fail? Yes. At least, we will fail at being flawless. But, we need not fail at being faithful – if we can rest in the grace and goodness of God and remember that this is his church, these are his people, this is his story, and he will ensure that our efforts are not in vain.
In the face of our impossible task, Paul invites us to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
And, to that we can only say a humble “amen.”