Lessons On The Way 10: On Confusing God’s People with God

Church can be bad for your spiritual health. It’s easy as an attendee to get all comfy and cosy, and to forget that there’s a whole other six and a half days a week for you to live out what you say and sing in those 90 minutes on a Sunday. It’s easy to get cossetted into a holy huddle of false sacred/secular divide, and keep the world firmly out there and us comfortably in here. These, and more, are the dangers of being part of the strange and beautiful bride that is the church.

What’s on my mind today is how easy it can be to allow the actions of Christians to harden my receptivity towards God. It seems to me that this a danger especially for those of paid to lead churches – not that it isn’t a danger for all of us, just that the space of ‘professional’ (much as we might hate what that word might be seen to imply) church leader is where I find myself, and I’m increasingly and acutely aware of the dangers of the job.

In this role I find myself in the centre of a number of odd dynamics. There’s the sense that despite being the one with training and experience and who is paid to do what I do, I have a roomful of ‘amateurs’ (in the best sense of that word – the root of it is ‘love’) who have no training and little experience in what I do but plenty of strong opinions. Like the fans of a flailing football team, there’s plenty of passion, some insight and some ignorance directed at the one full-time manager who’s around. Or there’s the way you become a focus for the projection of issues people have – with other church leaders from their past, father or mother issues, authority figure issues, God issues, other Christians issues and the like. Sometimes one finds that these can be challenged or called out; sometimes they can’t be because the person’s distress is too great or need too urgent. Then there’s the hours you work that aren’t seen, the prayers you pray that the one prayed for never hears about, the casual complaints and the tired jokes about working a day a week and your ‘one busy day a week’. I could go on.

All of that and more stacks up. I suit up my armour – on a good day, that God’s armour – and wade into the world ready for what it brings. However it’s easy for that armour to be a hard carapace that may protect me from hurt but also keeps God on the outside. If I’m not careful I’ve started to confuse God’s people with God; I know we say that I’m here to serve God’s people, but really I’m here to serve God. It’s a crucial distinction. You can’t serve two masters, and if you hang around church long enough (especially as a leader) it’s easy to confuse God with His people, my feelings towards them with my feelings towards Him.

I’d done that. It’s been a tough season in a tough job. I’d put a shell around my heart and soul. It gradually crumbled over the course of a week’s retreat and a good weekend at the church I lead until I attended another church on the Sunday evening (which we do often). I asked someone to pray with me, the shell shattered, exposing me to the loving, burning gaze of God in a way that used to happen regularly but hadn’t happened in years. God looked into me, I blinked back at Him, and the shell was no more. Well, maybe it’s still there a little – maybe it’s a symptom of our default sinful state that we always seek to hide in the garden just a bit; but I’m now graciously, freeingly exposed. Not healed, not sorted, not perfect. Just open.

How many masters do I serve? How many are in the audience? The answer should only and always be: one.


Also In This Series

  1. I don’t have to do it all
  2. How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath
  3. The dangers and offensiveness of grace
  4. Tables and chairs are spiritual
  5. I’m (a bit) like St Paul
  6. Nothing’s that important
  7. It’s probably me
  8. The hero trap – what if I’m Goliath?
  9. The beginning and ending of spiritual warfare

Lessons On The Way 9: The Beginning and Ending of Spiritual Warfare

I just spent a few minutes praying. That’s what I’m paid to do, right? Isn’t at least part of the point of a church pastor that he prays? I mean, if the pastor doesn’t, then what hope for the rest of us?

If only it were so simple. One of the most important lessons you learn when you’re in ‘the ministry’, leading a church, is that work is never done. There’s always another person you could be calling or visiting to see how they’re doing; there’s always emails you could be answering or composing; there’s always administration that could be being done. Church work is done at the interaction between the eternal and the temporal, so it’s never, ever finished. (Which is why I like cooking. Because it always reaches an end point.)

Add to that the fact that people always have an opinion on what you should be doing. More of the admin that you’re trying to hand-off to others (note: the fact that you’ve handed off admin to others doesn’t mean you have less admin to do as pastor, it just means you have different admin to do as pastor); serving; visiting; preparing a talk; cleaning; listening to someone; talking to someone; solving a problem; educating yourself about something. So virulent is this that one clergy person I worked with once told me that taking time out to pray and retreat regularly was a lazy excuse for non-productivity.

There are so many voices insisting on air time, so many of them claiming, usually not unreasonably, that what they have to say is good and important. That clergy person to whom I just referred was  – and despite the fact that it’s years since I’ve spoken with him, still is  – a loud and haunting voice in my ear. I get so much – I’m paid more than some in the congregation, I get a house with the job; I get a sabbatical; and other things I could (should?) mention. I should show I’m worth it. I should be a servant. I should produce. I should have something to justify it all. One of the areas I’m really wrestling with this in regard to is my upcoming sabbatical. It’s my first one, and it’s a hard battle to push back at the tide of inward noise that shouts I must having something to show for it at its end. No matter that by this stage of ordained life I should be onto at least my second, or possibly third. I should show I’m worth it and that it’s worthwhile.

Some of that is true. Much of it isn’t. But allowing those voices to be mastered, controlled and where necessary muted, is one of the most important tasks of Christian leadership. As a great writer once said, ‘my people’s [I don’t like that phrase, but you get the point] greatest need is my personal holiness’.

The demons of productivity and worthiness and proving myself are insistent ones. They will only come out through their opposite – prayer and fasting, about which you say little and to which you draw no attention. The problem is that they keep coming back to see if the house is empty.

Is there a more demonic voice than that – one that would draw me away from conversation with God to activity with a sheen of goodness?

Spiritual warfare starts, and (if it ever does) ends in my soul.

Also in this series:

1: I don’t have to do it all

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

7: It’s probably me

8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

Lessons on the Way 8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

The Old Testament is a pesky document. For a start it’s often blamed for many of Christianity’s PR problems – it’s claimed by its critics to present a picture of God that’s all smiting, vengeance and wrath as opposed to the fluffier, grace-filled God of the New Testament. Anyone who’s spent any serious time studying the Bible knows that this is a woefully simplistic misreading of very complex texts but it’s still easy to see why people do tend to fall into this all too obvious trap. In an instant age it’s easy to avoid some hard theological work and take the headline-grabbing response.

That doesn’t really concern me, though. There’s a more insidious type of trap that Christians of my flavour are in danger of falling into. It plays to my flawed vision of myself, appeals to my sin-ravaged self-esteem and is especially toxic to someone who’s paid to lead Christian communities. I call it The Hero Trap.

The Old Testament is full of derring-do, of larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things in ways which give lessons for life and insights into the way God deals with people. There’s a Promised Land (I know that in itself is problematic to many, but that’s a subject for another day) to take, and it’s occupied by an army so fearsome that they look like giants. There are people who fight lions, there’s visitations from angels, there’s vengeance and there’s war. It’s all exciting stuff, and preachers of my tradition often like to use it to draw parallels: we too have land to take, we too face opposition that appears to be over-whelming and we all know that we’re in a battle against powers and principalities too much for us by ourselves. There’s truth in there, but it’s not the whole truth.

Consider one of the most famous stories of them all; David and Goliath. We know it well from Sunday School and sermons galore; young David is the only one brave enough to stand up to the overwhelming and overbearing Philistine champion. Armed only with a sling and stones he takes out the enemy with one shot (incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell’s take on this story in his book David and Goliath should be essential reading). We know, I’m sure, how we’re to read this story: we’re all puny in front of our enemy, but in the power of God we can overcome any opposition.

There’s truth in there, but not the whole truth. You see, as much as I may be a David, I could also be a Goliath. The Hero Trap is appealing because it casts we in a heroic role that will stir the blood in film adaptations and sunday school stories. My ego is fragile and it needs to be rubbed and nurtured.

The trouble is that my ego also needs to be kept in check. The Bible’s actually quite good at that, reminding me that without God I’m dead; I can do nothing and I need Him if I’m to do or be anything, if I’m to have a life worthy of the name from an eternal perspective. So this should give me pause; might I not, sometimes at least, be the giant in the land, the one who causes fear and who needs to be opposed? What if I don’t need to conquer, but need to be conquered? What if I’m learning the lines of the wrong character in the script?

It’s a slightly less inspiring thought and somewhat harder to preacher appealingly. However the reality is that I’m more naturally capable of opposing God’s purposes than I am of being the one through whom they come about ; I’m more likely to stand in the way than I am to be used to remove problems. That’s not going to change anything eternally – to be blunt, God will still win – but it should at the very least make me less eager to cast myself as the hero in the story.

Peter is often said to be one of the characters in the Bible to whom it is easiest to relate. There’s good reason for that:  he may end up as a formative figure in the life of the early church, but he gets there by way of denial, being called Satan by Jesus and a brush with a watery grave. He’s a funny sort of hero, one whose weaknesses are appealingly real. At my best I’m Peter flirting with disaster. I, and we, would do well to remember that next time there’s ground to take. It may just be that we’re already occupying the ground; and we may need to vacate it.

Put that in a Sunday school lesson.

Also In This Series:

1: I Don’t Have To Do It All

2: How To Make Sure Your Church Leader Doesn’t Turn Into A Psychopath

3: The Dangers And Offensiveness of Grace

4: Tables and Chairs are Spiritual

5: I’m (a bit) Like St Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

7: It’s Probably Me

Lessons On The Way 7: It’s Probably Me

The answer is ‘me’.

Typical church leader, making himself (and would be himself, wouldn’t it?) the centre of it all. The world has to revolve around him.

That was this morning’s revelation. At this stage it may help to know what the question was that prompted such an egotistical answer. So here it comes.


The question was this: who or what is holding the church back?

By church in this case, I mean not the denomination or the world-wide body of believers; I mean the local expression I’m called and paid to lead.

Not quite as egotistical as it first looked, perhaps. Actually, it probably is because now I’m writing a post about on my blog in which I use the word ‘I’ a lot.

Oh dear. If this carries on any longer I’m going to spontaneously combust in a haze of self-referential introspection, like a character in an aside in a Douglas Adams novel.

I’ll plough on regardless. I meant it like this. Not that there’s a specific problem in our church; it’s just that it’s always good to ask the question … ‘what could be stopping this church from being all it could be?’.

I have a rhythm about which I am very protective. On Monday mornings I detox from Sunday with a trip to the gym and then sitting in a coffee shop with a coffee, a Bible and other reading material, earphones and something to jot some thoughts on. I find this rhythm essential for my physical and mental health; it’s not time off. It’s part of my working week. This morning I was reflecting on what had been a vibrant and positive church service the day before (it hadn’t been me preaching, which made it easier for me to really see how it all was). The question bubbled through my mind: why aren’t there more like this?

Part of the answer is, of course, that you can’t live on a perpetual high; you need some average services, and because we’re human there’ll be some pretty poor ones. Factor in the Holy Spirit too; He, of course, is capable of taking a shoddy, poorly prepared and delivered effort and weaving something significant in the heart of some present. That’s not an excuse for poor work; it’s grace and a fact of the way God always seems to be.

Part of the answer is also that I get in the way. I get in the way, because 4 and a half years into this post and with no expectation of leaving, my desires, habits, personality and ways become increasingly part of the shaping of what’s going on. That’s just inevitable. So who I am and how I am matters; not in an egotistical way (though there’s a real danger that it becomes that), but in the sense that I’m the full-time, paid leader so … it just does, matter. Which is good in some respects. I believe God’s behind this sort of thing, so He must want to use my strengths and abilities and interests.

It cuts both ways, though. My blind spots, my foibles and failings, my mistakes, will impact more, get in the way more and people (including myself) will generally need to clear up after me. So I really do need to be ruthless with myself; which is why I was thankful this morning when the penny dropped that certain variants of my reactions to certain types of things cause problems in the development of the church; that my fears and limits are most likely to be holding things back. I need to be aware of them, account for them and as far as it lies with me, work around them (or at least enable others to work around them and make up for them).

We all know the truths about God’s will being made perfect in our weaknesses; and we know that it’s all about grace so it doesn’t depend on us leaders, it depends on God and God alone. All that’s true and important.

None of that negates the truth that the longer I’m in one place the more likely it is that my faults and weaknesses will create blockages and bottlenecks in the life of this expression of church. So I need to be aware of them, able to be challenged on them and working to do something about them.

In a way, then, it really is all about me. And God. Him most of all. But me too.

Also In This Series:

1: I Don’t Have To Do It All

2: How To Make Sure Your Church Leader Doesn’t Turn Into A Psychopath

3: The Dangers And Offensiveness Of Grace

4: Tables And Chairs Are Spiritual

5: I’m (A Bit) Like St. Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important