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Eldership Catch-22

2015 May 30
by Mike

“I thought elders were supposed to lead! This isn’t a democracy where they take a congregational poll!”

“They seem to have no regard for the opinions of the church. They just decide and move on without considering the church!”

Used with permission

Used with permission

It isn’t easy being an elder. So often, they just can’t win. I’ve heard the above comments from the same members—at different times over different issues. The position they express (Lead more! or Listen more!) depends on which side they’re on.

If it looks like the elders are going to make a decision that I agree with but that many in the church disagree with, then I’m leaning into their responsibility to lead. Shepherds lead the sheep!

If it looks like the elders are going to press forward with something I don’t like, then I’m going to squawk about how they aren’t dictators. Shepherds don’t trample over the sheep!

Alas, it’s hard to win this one as elders.

The truth is that elderships must do both: they must stay in close touch with the church. They must listen to the voices of all the sisters and brothers in a church. Discernment is an important part of the process of decision-making. AND they must eventually decide. And it seems increasingly (as with American politics) that there is fall-out with every decision. It’s too much. Or it isn’t enough.

This is the point in a great blog where a seasoned minister gives the answer to this dilemma.

I don’t have one. If I did, I’d open a consulting business and get rich.

I’m only pleading with people to see the challenge. And perhaps be a bit more compassionate. Press hard. Pray hard. Make your case. But do your very best to make the hard work of leading a joyful one.

And I know: it can’t always be.

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Anonymous Letters

2015 May 27
by Mike

A popular Metroplex minister’s rant about an anonymous note he got has become infamous. One professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has pointed to it as a model of how to deal with such critics. The preacher leads into it with these words about the challenging life of a pastor:

“The Shepherd rarely gets to play in the middle of all the healthy sheep when they’re having a bar-b-que and playing a volleyball game. He’s on the fringes where the wolves and the sheep with rabies are. So a great deal of my week is spent walking through the tragedies, heartaches, and sins of other men and women.”

I’ve been to a lot of bar-b-ques and volleyball games as a minister, but I digress. The big problem is that he has to deal with “sniper shots from those who disagree.” Specifically, he mentions: “I got this real hateful little spiteful email this week.”

Then in a voice that builds to Driscollesque screaming (because screaming carries more pastoral authority), he says:

“We have not created a system here that hides from you. We’ll receive any bit of rebuke and any bit of critique. But you sign your name when you send stuff in, you immature, weak little cowards! You sign your name, you silly, pathetic little boy! You don’t take jabs behind an alias. Who does that? So in any realm we’re not above reproach. In any realm you can question, you can come in and have your questions an——Don’t take jabs at us behind some alias where you sit in the crowd and do nothing, you narcissistic zero! Sign your name!”
Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 3.48.53 PM
I get it. Anonymous notes are frustrating. I remember as a young minister that I took a good bit of pride in refusing to read anything that wasn’t signed.

And then, one year, I decided to get well. I decided to deal with my anger.

A spiritual guide told me that my attitude toward anonymous notes was problematic. Those notes said less about the people sending them than they said about me. Why did people feel like they couldn’t sign their name? Why did they think I wasn’t approachable? How had I sent signals that it wasn’t safe to come to me (despite what I might have said)?

Oh, sure. It probably feels good to scream. And all the other angry young guys will high five and give an “attaboy.”

But I think the old schoolground taunt may be right: “What you say is what you are!”

In my own life, if there was an immature, weak little coward, it was me. I wasn’t brave enough to hold onto myself emotionally and spiritually to have respectful conversations with critics. If there was a silly, pathetic little boy, that was me, too. Too pathetic to grow up and handle conflict like an adult.

It’s more fun ministering after getting well. No ranting is necessary. No cheap shots. While I don’t welcome anonymous notes, I now read them carefully and prayerfully, looking for insight and wondering if I’m still sending signals that I’m not safe.

The truth, however, is that as I’ve learned to welcome criticism, the anonymous notes have pretty much stopped.

Interview With Dr. Kent Brantly

2015 May 16
by Mike

Bibliography on Hell (not the bibliography from hell)

2015 April 21
by Mike

Recently I taught a Bible class at our congregation on hell. Many were unaware that the Christian tradition has—faithfully, scripturally, prayerfully—come to various understandings of that topic. They know only the version that I heard a dozen times from the infamous Jimmy Allen sermon:

“Suppose this old world were made of solid steel. Put an ant on the equator and start him walking. He travels at the rapid pace of 1/17 of a mile an hour. This solid steel ball is 25,000 miles in circumference. How long would it take that ant to wear down a path a half inch deep? How long to completely wear the earth in half? Well, that’s not eternity. . . .”

When this message on “fire! fire! fire!” was over, well, no wonder so many of us lost sleep for months—all the words about grace notwithstanding.

But there are other ways faithful believers have thought of hell besides just “eternal, conscious torment.”

Here is the bibliography I gave the class for those who may be interested:

Baker, Sharon. Razing Hell.

Bell, Rob. Love Wins.

Butler, Joshua Ryan. The Skeletons in God’s Closet.

Fudge, Edward. The Fire That Consumes.

Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce.

Middleton, J. Richard. A New Heaven and a New Earth.

Parry, Robin. The Evangelical Universalist.

Parry, Robin. Universal Salvation? The Current Debate.

Talbott, Thomas. The Inescapable Love of God.

Walls, Jerry. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 8.08.02 AM

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope.

As an introduction, I’d suggest the 2012 documentary “Hellbound?” which is currently streaming on Netflix.

PBL 2015 Guests

2015 March 27
by Mike

I’m thrilled with the “guests” (translation: Christians who aren’t from our particular tribe) who will be presenting at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Here are a few of them—and why I wanted them to join us.

GENE APPEL is the senior pastor of the Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim. When we met in 1998, Gene was the minister for the Central Christian Church in Las Vegas. Out of his own personal brokenness, a dream was formed and Central became one of the fastest growing churches in America. From there, Gene moved to Willowcreek Community Church for several years before moving to Anaheim. He’ll be speaking at our leadership session on Tuesday afternoon.maxresdefault

NADIA BOLZ-WEBER grew up at the Eastside Church of Christ in Colorado Springs before becoming a student at Pepperdine. When I read her book Pastrix and after hearing her on NPR, I wanted to know more. So I asked if I could hang out a bit when I went to Denver. I joined a small group for morning prayers that she led, and then we went to a coffee house. This was not Starbucks in Abilene, however! As she says, people may think she’s “out there,” but in her world she’s considered a soccer mom. How true! Our quick visit turned into three hours. During this time I realized that she was the de facto pastor of most of the people in the coffee shop, whether they attend any church or not. She is a powerful communicator of the gospel, and I’m so thankful that she’ll be returning to Pepperdine to present on Thursday morning.

CHAP CLARK, one of the authors of Sticky Faith, is professor and chair of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He’ll be presenting as part of the Boone Center for the Family track. (What a great partnership I’ve enjoyed with Sharon Hargrave, the executive director of the center!)

DAVID KINNAMAN is the president and majority owner of the Barna Group, based just up the coast from us in Ventura. In his 19 years at Barna, he has supervised or directed interviews with more than 400,000 people. Many will be familiar with his books unChristian and You Lost Me.

MARK AND DEBBIE LAASER have blessed the Christian community as leaders on the subject of sexual addition. Their session on “Sexual Integrity in a Fallen World,” will also be in the Boone Center track.

SCOT MCKNIGHT has been a good friend ever since he spoke at one of our Zoe conferences in Lubbock. “We” (in Churches of Christ) have been blessed by his user-friendly New Testament scholarship. And he has felt a special affinity to our heritage. I’m hoping to baptize him before the week is over. Ok, not really. But I might at least give him some kind of honorary membership. (Actually, now that I think about it, who is in charge of giving those in our tribe? Randy Harris maybe?) He’s our lead scholar as we study through James. It was a great blessing last fall when he Skyped in with our keynote speakers to lead us through the book.

Kent Brantly

Kent Brantly

JASON RUSSELL is one of the cofounders of Invisible Children. While in Africa many years ago, he promised a boy named Jacob that he’d help end that decade-long war; and when he returned home he launched the now infamous film. He’ll be one of the guests in a session hosted by Mana Nutrition.

DAVE STONE is the senior pastor of the Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. Dave, a popular speaker all over the country, will be joining Jeff Walling in a morning session at Firestone Fieldhouse.

Finally, I want to mention how glad I am that KENT BRANTLY is going to join us (though he’s certainly not a “guest” as defined above). I was his minister when he was a college student, and the spiritual passion that people all over the world now know about was there even then.

We’d love to have you join us in Malibu on May 5-8. Registration is here.

Amy (and Emma) Bringing the Word of God

2015 March 23
by Mike

I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this picture. It’s truly worth a thousand words, a thousand sermons, a thousand books. Amy Bost Henegar is preaching at the Manhattan Church of Christ while baby Emma sleeps away. Amy said she followed the rule “never wake a sleeping baby.” I love that behind her on the communion table are the words “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Indeed!

I cannot wait to show this to my granddaughters.

Amy Bost Henegar

Universities and Challenging Economics

2015 March 12
by Mike

We all know that many universities have been stressed since the economic downturn of 2008. Many face declining enrollment, high debt, deferred maintenance, and inadequate endowments.

But shockwaves went through the university academic world recently when Sweet Briar College announced that it will shut its doors at the end of this academic year. Despite an endowment of around $90 million, they recognized that they were headed the wrong way.

Sweet Briar College

Sweet Briar College

Paul G. Rice, the chairman of the board, said he knew some would question their decision. But he responded: “We have moral and legal obligations to our students and faculties and to our staff and to our alumnae. If you take up this decision too late, you won’t be able to meet those obligations. People will carve up what’s left—and it will not be orderly, nor fair.”

One person commented about the closing of this 700-student college: “As higher education analyst Kenny Rogers once remarked, ‘You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.'”

It’s a challenging time to be at the helm of any university; but I’m thinking especially of the challenges of those schools associated with Churches of Christ. Imagine the challenge of maintaining student enrollment and raising funds among a group that is in long, slow decline.

Here are the current (2013) endowments as listed on Wikipedia or on the US News & World Report university website:

Pepperdine – $716 million
Abilene Christian – $331 million
Harding – $105 million
Lipscomb – $62 million
Oklahoma Christian – $59 million
Freed-Hardeman – $43 million
Faulkner – $15 million (2012)
Lubbock Christian – $14 million
York – $10 million
Ohio Valley – $1.4 million
Rochester College – not listed
Southwestern Christian – not listed

Historically, these universities—along with amazing campus ministries at many other schools—have been so important to Churches of Christ. But the challenges facing them are huge! (Keep in mind that these aren’t the only numbers that matter when predicting future viability. E.g., endowment-per-student is probably more important than endowment size itself.)

This is the place in a blog where a solution would be really nice. Of course, this is above my pay grade. But given the challenges facing universities everywhere, it would be good to invest prayer, encouragement, and $$ in their work.

Invitation to the 2015 Pepperdine Bible Lectures

2015 February 3
by Mike

Moses: Drawn From the Garage

2014 December 12
by Mike

Beware: sentimental reflections to follow. You’ve been warned.

He came to us in our grief. Grief over the loss of our daughter, our nephew, and—on a much different level, of course—our beloved dog.

I say “he came to us.” I stepped out to our garage for my morning run in 2001, shortly before 9/11, and there was a puppy in the garage. It was clear that he was wounded. Abandoned, I guess. He was hungry and thirsty.

I brought him in thinking, “We’ve got to call the animal shelter and tell them he’s here.” The reaction of my eight-year-old son was different. “He’s our dog!!” He explained to me that he’d been praying for a new dog and God brought one.

So rather than create an early faith crisis (life has plenty of time for those I’ve learned), we claimed the puppy. A mutt. Eventually, a big mutt. Best we can tell a mixture of boxer and shepherd with who knows what else thrown in.

Chris’s friend Emily suggested we name him Moses, since he was “drawn from” the garage. (If the biblical reference alludes you, check Exodus 2:10.)

Before long, Moses became my running companion until I returned from Africa with a weird virus that struck my muscular system and kept me from running for a couple years. By the time I recovered fully, he was untrained and way too strong to jog beside me. But he was our loyal pet.

He watched over Chris as he recovered after a horrible wreck. He paroled the back yard during my many trips out of town. He even had a cameo role in a silly video we shot—adding his voice as I “sang the classics.”
Chris and Moses . . . April 2011
Today we had to put Moses down. Too weak to face another winter. Too much pain. It was the right thing to do, confirmed by our trusted vet, Dr. Mark.

So today, as the epic movie about another Moses opens “in theaters everywhere,” I’d like to say to Pope Francis: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Catholic.” Or at least I’d like to thank him for hinting to a small child who’d just lost his dog that perhaps it’s true: all dogs go to heaven.

Who knows? (That’s my response to many things about God’s future.)

But today I find some comfort in the thought. And I give thanks for this loyal pet.

Launching a Ministry for Families With Special Needs Kids

2014 October 28
by Mike