The Discipline of Rest

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This past week, my wife and I took our annual spring trip away – just the two of us. We’ve been fleeing the pressures of life and ministry every spring for the last 10+ years. This year the destination was Santa Fe. Just a “short” 11 hour drive from our home in Northwest Arkansas. We spent four days hiking the wonderful trail system around Santa Fe. Atalaya Mountain kicked our collective rear ends. Bandalier we’ve been to in the past, but this year we trekked the upper falls trail – spectacular. We even tried our hand at some mountain biking for the first time. In the past, we’ve spent time at a dude ranch in Colorado, the high desert of Moab, Utah, the beaches of the Florida panhandle, and one year we even hit the NASCAR races at Talladega!

But the destination is not what’s important. It’s the simple act of getting away with my spouse.

Ministry has it’s own particular stress points. I’ve seen too many of my brothers in ministry fall out because they lost their family. They lost because they committed adultery. They lost because they could not balance ministry and family. They lost because their kids grew up to hate the church. They lost because they did not take care of themselves and they hit a wall of burnout. Loss of ministry can come in many forms.

While not claiming perfection, I’ve been very intentional about taking care of my family while taking care of my ministry. I have an operating principle that guides me in this…

 If you lose you family, you lose your ministry. Period.

I’ve taught this for years to young pastors and those aspiring to ministry. Yes, it is true. If you don’t have your family, then you don’t have your ministry. In order to practice this in my own marriage and family, I’ve made the following a priority…

  1. “My kids come before ministry.” Here’s what this means: If I have to choose between a game or even a practice that my son/daughter is participating in and a deacon’s meeting, I choose my kid. My ministry will endure beyond the season I raise my kids, but my kids will grow up and eventually leave (hopefully). I’ve never known a pastor who wished he spent less time with his kids.
  1. “I take my day off.” It sounds simple but it has not always been that simple. Early in my ministry I worked for pastors who never took a day off. They said it was fine for the rest of the staff to take their day off, but I noticed quickly that my peers followed the example of the pastor. So the pressure to just work and never take a Sabbath was real. Friday is my day off right now in my life. And I take my day off. Period. My wife counts on it and we plan our day around each other. I tell people that on Friday, “Julie owns me!”
  1. “My wife and I indulge in a spring fling.” As mentioned above, we take 4-6 days every spring just to get away. No kids. Just us. It’s marriage-building time. Wherever we may end up, it’s about living life together and adding memories to our life-vault. Let me say that this week away never “just happens.” It has to be intentionally planned for. Put on the calendar, usually 6 or more months out. If it’s not calendared it won’t happen.
  1. “Family vacation is a staple.” Every year, we load up the ol’ family vehicle, pack more stuff than will fit (thus the car-topper), pile in, and hit the road. This is the family version of the spring fling mentioned in #3, except the kids come along. It’s “our time.”  Family time.  After 23 years of marriage, we have hundreds of pics of family vacations, chronicling our lives together.

A couple of notes regarding the above. As much as possible, I endeavor to NOT check my email on my day off, and our get-aways. This is hard for me. I have to really work to unplug and get away from the digital tether. But it is SO important that this happens, especially on family and spousal getaways…or it’s not a getaway. Nothing is worse than my kids seeing Daddy consumed with church issues while trying to hang out on a beach.

And finally, when it is not my day off or I am not away on a family outing…I work as hard as I can.

This needs to me said. There can be a lot of laziness in ministry. As easily as it is to slip into workaholic mode in ministry, it is just as easy to swing to the other end of the spectrum and for a guy to use his family as an excuse to not work hard or consistently. So, I work when it’s time to work. And when it’s time to be off, I am off. This is what is called balance. And it is critical in the life of a pastor. And for that matter, all of us!

Same-Sex Marriage: The New Litmus Test

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In the wake of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that has dominated the news cycle the last two weeks, the “side” story of Memories Pizza has sent a chilling signal to anyone who holds to the traditional and biblical view of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Chances are you’ve heard the story. A news reporter from nearby South Bend walked into family-owned Memories Pizza in the rural town of Walkerton, Indiana – population 2,144. In questioning co-owner Crystal O’Connor regarding the RFRA law recently passed and the source of so much controversy, O’Connor was clear that Memories Pizza is open to and welcomes all people, regardless of race, economics, sexual preference, etc. But then came THE QUESTION: Would you cater a same-sex wedding?

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It doesn’t matter that Memories has never catered a wedding of any kind and is unlikely to ever cater any wedding.   The question was asked, effectively cornering the Christian owners. And so they answered the only way they could answer given their religious convictions. No, they could not cater a same-sex wedding.

Well that was enough.

The full fury of the extreme left was unloaded on this Christian family, who were doing nothing more than running their family business, trying to make ends meet, and live their lives in peace. Within 24 hours, this tiny restaurant went from having just two reviews on Yelp to over 1,200 reviews, nearly all scathing and negative, from people who have never even eaten at the pizzeria. The owners were forced to close their doors because there were so many calls for pizza orders, they could not discern the real orders from the fake orders. Then came the “hate” via social media. One Twitter user even called for the burning down of the restaurant. As of the writing of this post, the family has gone into hiding.

All of this over a hypothetical.

A “what if.”

An “academic exercise” not based in real life.

And THAT is the scariest part of the equation.

It’s clear. Same-sex marriage is not even legal in all 50 states yet, but the litmus test is in place. It does not matter who you are or what kind of business you own. What you do may not even touch the wedding industry. It doesn’t matter. This is the line in the sand.

It is equally clear that no matter where you live, there will come a point when you must face the line and answer the question.

Where do you stand regarding same-sex marriage?

That’s the unavoidable question for all US Americans. And if you answer incorrectly, no effort will be spared to destroy you. Lest you think I exaggerate, just ask the O’Connor family today what they think… if you can find them.

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The other side of the coin looks like this.   A GoFundMe.com account was established for the family by those sympathetic to their plight. Their supporters don’t have loud voices, they don’t lob hate bombs, and they aren’t seeking to shut anybody down. They just don’t like what has been done to this family. And apparently there are a lot of them…enough to have donated over $840,000 to the fund.

But something tells me that if you asked the O’Connor’s whether they would rather have the nearly million dollars or have their lives back, they’d choose their lives and their pizzeria.

Replacement Church

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Christianity Today recently reported that nearly half of polled senior pastors believe that in the future some people will experience their faith exclusively via the Internet. The results were culled from a recent Barna Group survey.

The report goes on to dissect whether or not this is problematic. I would say that it is, YES, very problematic. Not seeking faith assistance via the web, but seeking it exclusively. I use the Internet all the time to supplement my religious experience. I listen to podcasts, read articles and blogs, engage in social media, etc. In fact, I believe most Christians do. But the Internet becomes theologically void when it replaces rather than compliments the faith experience of the believer in a local church.

Why?

Because the Internet, social media, podcasts of your favorite preacher or whatever cannot duplicate an irreplaceable tenant of the faith…

“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:25

At this point we see that the problem is not the Internet, but rather the problem is one of the heart. And we also see that the temptation to “neglect” going to church to meet together with other believers is not something new to our USAmerican culture but has plagued the heart of believers since the earliest days of the church.

So the question that should be asked is this:

Why would a Christian not want to be a part of a local church?

And by implication, replace the local church experience with a virtual experience or something else?

The answer to that question could take us in many directions, but here are a few that come to mind.

  1. “I love Jesus, I just don’t like the church.” I’ve heard this through the years ad nauseam. If you dig on this you will typically find additional comments like “church people are hypocrites,” and “church is boring,” and on and on. While not discounting the hurt many people feel from bad church experiences (I have some stories of my own to tell), the whole “I love Jesus but not church” thing smacks of arrogance to me. Basically, an “I’m too good for you” attitude. Theologically, such a statement is offensive to God. How can you say you love Jesus but hate His bride? If you said you liked me but not my wife, I’d say “See ya!”
  1. “We have a game on Sunday.” Or a gymnastics competition, or swim, or cheer, or whatever. Just pick the sport and insert. Sunday used to be sacred. No group or organization or anything dared tread on Sunday because of a thing called church. That was so long ago, though, that most people outside the church don’t link the two together anymore. And sadly, too many inside the church no longer link them together either. Fall ball, spring ball, summer ball, travel ball. The culture of travel sports is dominating the mindset of parents. Yes, I put this squarely on the shoulders of parents. Most of who don’t have a clue how often they really are out of church. In their mind, church will always be there (next Sunday) but baseball is only for a season. And kids are only kids once, right? Yes, that’s right. And once again, I put this to the parents who, as I said above, don’t have a clue what they are actually modeling and teaching their kids. Do we really think it’s going to become easier for the next generation to say “Yes” to Jesus and “Yes” to church? My great fear is that once ball season is over, and kids grow up, and Mom and Dad come back to church (maybe) and the kids don’t, Mom and Dad will look at each other with puzzled expressions and cry out to their pastor, “I don’t understand why my son isn’t interested in church?! After all we raised him in church!” And that’s the point…. You didn’t.
  1. “We have church with just us.” This form of neglecting the gathering together with other believers sort of flows from the above two excuses. I’ve heard folks talk about how they “have church” at the ball field, or how a group of buddies will “have church” on the golf course, or how a family with a spiritual control freak father will “have church” in their house. So there is one major problem in how all these groups “have church”… it’s not CHURCH. Yes, where two or more are gathered, God is in the midst of them. And that is all good and well, and I’m not saying there’s no benefit in this, but just like the Internet, what can be a good supplement makes a poor replacement. A church has a pastor. A church functions to draw people in. A church functions to evangelize the lost. A church brings in the tithe. A church sends missionaries to foreign lands. A church worships as a whole, not in parts. But that group of buddies on the golf course, or that huddle of parents sharing a devotion before the first pitch, or that dad surrounded by his wife and kids (and maybe even another family) in his living room does none of these things. So call it what you will, but it’s not a church.

I could go on and on. But I suppose in the end, it’s all about what you give your life to. Christ calls us to give our lives to him and to live out our faith in a community of believers called the church. The church is God’s instrument to change the world. Travel tournaments, holy huddles, and the Internet just can’t do that.

Casting Your Net(work)

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One of the great regrets of my early years in ministry were missed opportunities to develop and grow my personal network of friends and mentors in ministry. Most particularly while I was in seminary. For three years I wandered the halls and grounds of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I completed 96 hours and a Master of Divinity degree. I was exposed to some of the best and brightest minds in theological education. And while I worked very hard in seminary getting good grades and starting a family (Julie and I had two of our four kids while we were there), I missed the golden opportunity to cultivate relationships with professors, administrators, and other students.

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I remember very clearly not wanting to be “that guy” in seminary. By “that guy,” I mean that guy who, after class, rushes up to the professor and hangs out sucking up and schmoozing him. Or the guy who was always prowling the campus, looking for Dr. So-and-So to saunter by just so he could pounce and try to make some kind of memorable impression. So instead, I was the guy who left class immediately when it was over. If I saw profs walking the campus grounds, I might say “hello” if I passed close by, but otherwise, I left them to their business.

In all of this I was wrong. Woefully, and ashamedly wrong.

Looking back, I know that the problem was never the “brown-nosing” student (as I saw them) but the insecurity and pride within me. And because of that insecurity and pride, I missed a golden opportunity to meet and develop close relationships with numerous men who could have really and truly helped me along in the formative years of my ministry.

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I viewed the whole notion of “networking” in ministry as worldly, secular, and ungodly. “God will direct my path and open any door He wants for me in ministry.” That was my attitude. And while true, I will be the first to admit that I have never ended up in any ministry position based on my resume alone. It has AWALYS been because SOMEBODY who knew me, recommended me to SOMEONE at some church that was looking.

That, my friends, is called networking.

And, yes, the Holy Spirit can and does use networking to move his people around and position them for Kingdom impact.

Oh, how I wish I had understood this early on in ministry. As the president of the Cross Church School of Ministry, our goal is to mentor and connect young men and women called to ministry. I spend a year pouring into them. We promise that a year with us will forever tie them into the “network” of Cross Church. We will be with them along the way in ministry to help them.

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In my current role, I have the privilege of visiting numerous college and seminary campuses each year. I constantly network with faculty and administration. Many of these have become good friends in the past two years. In my 23 years of ministry I have developed collegial friendships in churches and institutions all across the United States and the world. What a joy it is to run into one of these brothers or sisters at a conference or convention or just in passing.

For those who still doubt the spiritual nature of networking, I would ask you to consider Paul. How many times in one of his letters to a church did he send greetings to certain individuals by name? Or how many times does he speak of sending someone by name to a church, asking the church to greet and take care of them? We even see examples of churches gathering offerings for another church in financial crisis and sending the gift to them. Why? Because Paul wants us to know that we are all in the same “network.”

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The reality is that what the world calls networking, the church calls the fellowship of the brethren. So my encouragement to any young leader in ministry is this: Go and cast your net(work)….

Manhood and Manna

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Let me tell you a story…

In 2007, I accepted a call to pastor my home church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. This was a “turn around” situation. What had been a major church in the region a generation ago had become a church in steep decline. I remember being overwhelmed as I considered that nearly every facet of church life needed to be addressed.

About a year into my pastorate, I became extremely burdened for the men of the church. To be more specific, I felt a deep conviction that what was missing was a distinct culture of manhood that included ministry to, disciplining of, and mentoring over men. I was convinced that if this once great church was going to rise up and recover its former splendor for the glory of God, then the men of the church needed to rise up and, well, to put it plainly…lead.

But how to kick start a masculine movement? That was my barrier. I’m a pretty simple guy. And when in doubt, I just try to keep it simple. For me, it does not get any simpler than to go back to Jesus. It struck me one day that Jesus preached to the crowd, hung out with a cluster, and went deep with a core group. I also took note as I studied Jesus’ ministry of how so much of what he did was built around one very simple “thing.” What was that one thing?

Food.

Yep. Food. Being a man I am certain of this: Men are busy. Men are burdened. Men are overwhelmed at times. A lot of men don’t like church for whatever reason. But listen to me – ALL men are hungry (in more ways than one).

If there is one thing men will prioritize, one thing they will find time to do…make time to do, it is eat

So this became my starting point for biblical mentorship of men.

I know… it doesn’t sound very spiritual, but hang with me. Remember, this is all a part of the story.

So I decided to try something. I issued a call to all the men of the church to come eat lunch with me on Thursdays. I promised two things: ribs and no women. There’s got to be a spiritual tie to Genesis in there somewhere but I will move on!

As I reflected, I took note that we don’t really have much of anything left in the church anymore that is “men only” except for the restroom. We have gender integrated nearly every aspect of church life. Except that the women are REALLY good at having conferences, events, Bible studies, Mom’s Day Out, etc. just for them. Women only. Guys aren’t so good at that. And like I said, men are busy and we tend to isolate ourselves. But…men LOVE to eat.

So what happened? Very quickly and very easily, our Thursdays, men-only lunch exploded. We had men from our church and from outside our church that came each week for great food and a message from some guest that was explicitly man driven. The room was packed with testosterone. It was great!

That became my crowd event.

We then began a Saturday breakfast event. Now breakfast on Saturday is a trickier deal. Men like to sleep if they have a day off, and they really don’t want to miss family time on the weekends either. So we did it, not too early and it did not go long. We would start at 8:00 am and be gone by 9:15 am. I also knew that men who really were seeking “something more” would be the ones that would come. And that’s what we got. Not hundreds, but around 50-70. I would lead a pretty pointed challenge to the guys. A little more “preachy” and in your face.

This was my cluster event.

But now I needed to go really deep. To the core. That was my ultimate goal. But not every man is ready for that. So I didn’t push but just let it happen naturally. I will tell you that out of the two food events above, I began to organically mesh with a smaller group of men. A group where true biblical mentoring could take place.

I targeted these men in two ways. First, one-on-one regular lunch meetings. At this point it was not about the food anymore, but much more about Jesus, discipleship, and manhood, fatherhood, husbandhood, etc. Second, mission experiences. I have a tremendous heart for the Great Commission and missions. My goal was to always go on two trips per year, one international and one national. I would invite those men in my core group to join me. There is something about being “on mission” with another man that takes your walk with Christ and their walk with Christ to a whole new level.

And that’s it. That’s my story. This became the model for how I invested in men. How I mentored and brought men along. Oh, I could tell you of a few other things we did, like our informal men’s only Inferno Club (involving eating a REALLY hot hamburger in order to join), and the Men’s Only Adventure Quest I led to through the canyonlands of Utah, but I think you get the point.

My Bible tells me that Jesus fed 5,000. At another time he fed 4,000. It tells me that he broke bread with sinners and saints alike. That one of the holiest ordinances of the church is based around the breaking of bread, the Lord’s Supper. Jesus used food to break the ice, to meet a fleshy need so that he could meet a spiritual need. He spent three years with 12 men. Three years of breakfasts, lunches, and suppers.

You may not be a pastor with access to hundreds of men. You may be just one man with a few friends. But you are one man with a stomach.

So, go ye therefore and feast!

Back From Africa

 

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After four years I was able to return to Tanzania leading a mission team from the Cross Church School of Ministry.

And now we are back…

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Returning from Africa is always harderthan the trip over. I suppose it’s a combination of fatigue from the mission and jet lag. I find myself waking up at about 2:00 in the morning for a few days. It usually takes about 5-6 days to feel completely “normal.” But this trip, like the others I have led, was a massive blessing and so worth time, expense, and effort.

The fledgling church in the Pare Mountains of Chome is flourishing.

Pastor Fanuel is leading well and the church has purchased land and in the process fashioning and firing hundreds of mud bricks to build the church’s first real building (they’ve been meeting under a tent for the past five years). Pastor Fanuel also has BIG plans. Plans that include building a second structure – a Bible training school.

He wants the Pare Mountains to be ground zero for pastoral training for next generation leaders. And he launched this vision with the arrival of our mission team. Pastor Fanuel planned the timing of our mission trip to coincide with his first ever pastoral training seminar.

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When we arrived we discovered he had invited other pastors across other evangelical denominations to come to the Pare Mountains for a week of encouragement and training on leadership. There were even two brothers from as far away as Zambia who had come to help him teach as well.

I marvel at God’s design and mind.

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The Cross Church School of Ministry is all about leadership training for next gen leaders. As such, our team was more than prepared to step into this task. So our days were dominated with worship, preaching, and teaching over 40 people. The two women on our team were able to provide encouragement to the women, children, and teenage girls of the community and church.

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As with all mission trips, there is more to say than can be written. We had our share of fun and inside stories (what happens in Africa, stays in Africa!). But one of the greatest personal joys of this particular trip was that my 18-year-old daughter was able to join us. God has a call on Madison’s life to missions. She has had some extraordinary opportunities for a young lady her age to work out that calling, but a trip to Africa was a penult mum experience. It’s a hard trip. Not for the faint at heart. The travel is LONG. The food is different. The living conditions third world (we had two days with no running water at all and one day with no power). But my “little girl” (can I still call her that?) rose to the occasion and went far beyond pulling her own weight as a team member. I sat in pride as she shared publically with the church her calling and encouraged them. Yes, I am a proud father.

And so we are back home now.

Back from Africa.

But my thoughts, prayers, and a portion of my heart remain with Pastor Fanuel and the brothers and sisters of the Pare.

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Back to Africa

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I’m going back to Africa.

I had the remarkable privilege to lead two mission trips to Tanzania in the summers of 2009 and 2010. My good friend, Scott Ward, served as an IMB missionary in Tanzania for three years and was the first person to connect me to what God is doing among the people group known as the Pare (pronounced “par-ay”). During the three years that Scott lived in Tanzania with his family, he worked with the Pare people through an indigenous pastor named Fanuel Kiroka. Fanuel is one of the most remarkable brothers I have ever met. He knows multiple languages, is trained theologically, and had prayed for over 20 years that God would send someone to help him reach his people who live in the remote Pare Mountains of Tanzania.

Then God sent Scott Ward. And through a series of divine leadings, I made my own trip to Tanzania. During those years, I was able to witness (from a distance and up close) the explosion of a church planting movement in the Pare. Pastor Fanuel began to seed multiple preaching points throughout the mountain region and to place in each one a pastor who Fanuel had personally discipled.

I had the distinct honor of preaching in two of these churches and doing numerous evangelical presentations as we hiked the mountains, going from one mud-brick home to another. We prayed for the sick and demon possessed (yes, I said demon-possessed), and even interacted with the local witch doctor. We saw people saved and baptized. These were two amazing mission experiences that have fundamentally shaped my theology as a pastor and missionary.

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I remember when I flew away from Tanzania in 2010 that I might never go back.

It was just a feeling I had. After going two years in a row I just knew that God was saying, “It’s time to go to some other places now.” And so I have. Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, plus several North American cities, all focusing on Great Commission expansion.

But now I am going back. God has opened the door. Through the Cross Church School of Ministry, of which I am co-founder and president, we will be taking a group of seven (including myself) back to the Pare Mountains of Tanzania and back to Pastor Fanuel. What a joy it was to reconnect with him via text messaging, if you can believe that. What a thrill it was to tell him I was going to be able to return and for him to embrace us with enthusiasm. And so next week we are off.

I would covet your prayers. Each of my last two trips were unique, one from another. And while on one level I know what to expect, I also know this trip will be wholly its own.

I invite you to come along for the journey. I will be attempting (if cell phone service allows) to upload Twitter updates…and maybe a few pics as well.

Fanuel

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