Appreciating Pastors

The religion editor of the Orlando Sentinel passed on the details from a press release he had received from a local church sponsoring a “Pastor Appreciation 5K Run/Walk”. Included in the release was the predictable content:

“A significant part of the health and strong culture of our community is built on the backs of hundreds of dedicated pastors, who week in and week out guide, nourish, counsel, comfort and challenge as many as 1,000,000 of our citizens. This is a tangible way for us to show that we are grateful,” said Patrick Morley, founder of Man in the Mirror ministries.

Wow. I know this is meant well, but it is a bit over the top. I like what I do, and I think what pastors do is important, but I also think what garbage collectors do is important (and dangerous – see #4!). Should we not have a “Garbage Collectors 5K Run/Walk”?

This run is timed with what has come to be known as ‘Pastor Appreciation Month’. Again, I know this is meant to encourage those engaged in pastoral ministry. I’m sure it arose from good people wanting to find a tangible way to thank those whose ministry has impacted them. But for me, a month in which people send cards or run races to show appreciation has just enough artificiality about it to make it just a bit distasteful.

I thrive on being appreciated. I just read appreciation differently. Assuming there are other pastors out there like me, may I make a few modest suggestions regarding how to appreciate him?

1. Faithful attendance at public worship.

2. Saying ‘yes’ when asked to take on a responsibility that relieves a burden from him.

3. Assuming a responsibility when NOT asked to do so.

4. Holding realistic expectations of his ministry. That is, not expecting him to be Jesus, Paul, Piper, or Spurgeon.

5. Inviting others to attend your church.

6. Praying for him frequently, and letting him know you are doing so.

I’m sure others can suggest other ways by which appreciation can be shown. Coming alongside of the pastor and supporting (with attendance and deeds) the ministry which means so much to his heart is the greatest encouragement.

I don’t disparage cards, and gift cards (especially when they say ‘Starbucks’ on the outside!). But they mean more when they come in, say, February.

And while we are at it, let’s buy a dozen donuts and a card and pass them on to your garbage collector to tell him thanks.

Presidents and Kingdoms

At the outset of one of the best expositions of the Bible’s teaching on the centrality of the Kingdom of God (which all Christians are to ‘seek first‘), Richard Lovelace in his wonderfully helpful and concise Renewal as a Way of Life: A Guidebook for Spiritual Growth has a healthy reminder for us during a presidential season.

One of the ruling passions of humanity is the search for a righteous government. The poor and the disadvantaged contend against “the system” with the conviction that another economic order will make the world livable. Every four years the American people elect a new president with the hope that somehow this will make things better. Economic downturns, crop failures, moral declines and worsening international conditions are all blamed on presidents — who in most cases have little control over events. In the hearts of the people is a groping, inarticulate conviction that if the right ruler would only come along, the world would be healed of all its wounds. Creation is headless and desperately searching for its head. (pages 40, 41)

The search is a proper one. To see the solution that Lovelace proposes, you should read the book, or at least its second chapter. His direction is wonderfully captured in this brief revelation:

Every time we come across the phrase “Jesus Christ,” instead of hearing “Jesus, the king who was promised to Israel,” all we hear is “Jesus” followed by a meaningless syllable. For most, probably, the phrase means “Jesus, who saves me from my sins.” This is certainly true, but it falls far short of saying “Jesus, the ruler of a whole new order of life, who has delivered me so that I can be a part of it.” (page 47)


A commenter to my post regarding my study leave said that she would pray that my study time would “lead to much future fruit for you and your flock.” I teasingly asked her to define such ‘fruit’ hoping thereby to know someday whether her prayer had been answered.

It was only a tease in a marginal way. In reality, that is the question that any pastor or teacher or parent is constantly asking. How do I know whether what I am doing makes any difference? How do I measure the harvest of my investment of time and energy?

It is very easy to opt for quantifiable measures. Decent Sunday attendance. Increasing FCAT scores. A trophy case full of a child’s accomplishments. But we all know that these metrics ring hollow over time.

By what fruit do we measure success in ministry? My correspondent is right in saying that fruit is produced by God, and is sometimes invisible to the gardener. And yet, at least, if we cannot force it and we cannot even adequately measure it, what is the goal toward which we should point ministry?

These questions support their own industry. Each year leads to a dozen new books on how one should ‘do’ church. One cannot keep up with all that is produced on the subject even if one was inclined to do so. There is really nothing new to be said.

The most profound book on these matters is Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life published first in 1979. Six years or so later he published Renewal as a Way of Life which he bills as an expansion and a condensation of the first book. Little more than these need to be within reach when thinking about what ministry is to aim for.

For my purposes here I simply want to note where Lovelace begins with his prescription for the church: Spiritual vitality arises in an environment in which God is being known and loved and in which those who know and love him are given over to Jesus as king. If we are finding ways in which we can move people in this direction, then we can take heart that we are doing well.

The challenge of all this, of course, is heavy upon the pastor, or elder, or teacher, or parent. That is, we can move no people, no church, no classroom, no family in this direction if we ourselves are not seeking to know and love God and seeking his kingdom first above all other things. The question must become a challenge which must lead to repentance and a cry for grace.

I once tried to give succinct expression to what I was seeking to accomplish in ministry, and this was the result:

a community of God’s people
where God’s glory is more important than their own,
where God’s righteous will has a greater attraction upon them than the neon attractiveness of sin,
where building God’s kingdom is a more exciting proposition than erecting personal palaces,
where dependence upon the providence and grace of God is commonplace and the source of uncommon joy.
a community which therefore cannot help but reach out, exercise justice, and love mercy.

That still seems adequate for the present, even if I might tweak the words here or there. It seems to aim at a community where God is known and loved, and his kingdom preeminent.

So, if you pray anything, pray that this will be formed ever more deeply in my heart and then in the heart of those I lead.

STUDY leave

I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter (@rg7878) my gratitude to the leadership of the church I pastor for granting me a week of study leave. That lead to a conversation with my sister last night in which she assumed that I was taking a week off relaxing at home.

Un, no. That’s not quite it.

Pastoral ministry happens in the course of life – through God’s work in my own life and through my day by day interaction and involvement in the lives and struggles and questions of others. Depth in pastoral ministry comes from study and reflection and prayer. I read recently of John Piper challenging pastors to get away and study, and suggesting that most congregations do not really understand the amount of emotional and mental and creative energy it requires to prepare sermons week after week after week. John Stott in his “Reflections of an Octogenarian” challenges pastors to set aside one hour/day, one day/month, and one week/year to isolate oneself for study. Bill Gates used a similar strategy to keep himself sharp when the head of Microsoft.

I like to joke with the seminary students who attend our church (Reformed Theological Seminary is two miles away) when they are complaining about writing a paper that they are pursuing a ‘career’ which will require writing a 4000-5000 word essay WEEKLY, due every Sunday at a particular hour, and there is no possibility for submitting it late. There is never enough time in a week to prepare a good sermon. Some of that preparation has to happen ahead of time. A week for study allows for some of that.

“Study” for the pastor, however, is not merely a book discipline. A congregation has a right to expect that the person who challenges them regarding the things of God is himself actively pursuing and nurturing a vital relationship with Him. That can get lost in the busy moment by moment pressure of ministry. A study leave provides some extended time to address one’s walk with God.

All of this is an argument for the idea of the pastoral sabbatical so eloquently plead by Eugene Petersonand others. But at the least it is an argument for pastors occasionally getting away from the routine to invest time in these valuable activities which are sometimes otherwise squeezed out or simply impossible.

So, no, Jeanne, I’m not spending the week at home. Rather, I’m holed up in a conference room at the hospitable Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center in Oviedo, Florida. I can invest three, six, nine hours of uninterrupted time on a single project if need be (yesterday, it was long range sermon planning). I have stripped my calendar of appointments and meetings, and I have someone else preaching for me on Sunday. This allows me to invest time in other things.

Still on the agenda are books to be read, worship services to be pondered, and even some software to learn to use better and more efficiently. And if I use the time correctly, there will be significant time spent talking to God and staring off into space thinking, reflecting, and dreaming.

So, if you will, pray that God would bless this week and give me the uninterrupted time I need.


“Most of our people have no idea what two or three new messages a week cost us in terms of intellectual and spiritual drain. Not to mention the depletions of family pain, church decisions, and imponderable theological and moral dilemmas. I, for one, am not a self-replenishing spring. My bucket leaks, even when it is not pouring. My spirit does not revive on the run. Without time of unhurried reading and reflection, beyond the press of sermon preparation, my soul shrinks, and the specter of ministerial death rises. Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.” (from Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper)

Thankful for Gospel Preaching

By virtue of his position, a preacher rarely gets to go to other churches. My own peculiarity is that I like familiarity and, honestly, I like the church I pastor, Covenant Presbyterian in Oviedo. So, even when on vacation, I’m likely to be found as a congregant there rather than anywhere else.

Today was the last Sunday of two restful vacation weeks and I uncharacteristically took the opportunity to visit a very popular local congregation. I attended their early service and so was still able to make it to my own church, albeit a few minutes late.

To attend another church is a dangerous thing for a pastor. It can bring out all kinds of unsavory responses – envy and judgmentalism among them. I genuinely try to fight these and to give glory to God for the way in which he is using us all in building his kingdom in this community.

And so I give thanks for this congregation. I really do. I know this church to be composed of men and women far more devoted to Christ than many. I know that God has given them a vision which is expansive and inclusive and worthy of praise.

The problem is that I heard two sermons today – one preached at this church to 4000 congregants and one preached at our church to 110. And only one of them pointed to Christ.

The first was a memorable and convicting message regarding the hardness of the human heart. The application directed us to dig deeply into the scriptures so that our hearts might be more receptive to the things of God.

The second was a memorable and convicting message about the blindness of the human heart. The application directed us to abandon all self-religion and to flee to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

The first, you see, identified a problem and then directed us how to fix it. The second identified a problem and and then directed us to the one who could fix it.

The first directed us to effort we must expend to find hope. The second offered us hope to which we could already cling. The first challenged us to make something more of ourselves. The second reminded us that we can make nothing of ourselves apart from Jesus.

The first was a message drawn from a story Jesus told, and that is as far as Jesus made it into the message. The second exposed the darkness of our hearts and pointed us to the Jesus who died for a heart as dark as mine that he might draw me out of that darkness.

The first left me wanting to do more. The second left me grateful for the more that Jesus has already done.

4000 people heard the first message. 110 heard the second.

I have faults that are legion. I have a heart that is corrupt and full of shame. I am so unworthy of the gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ, unworthy to be a recipient of it, and certainly unworthy to be a preacher of it.

But I’m grateful for those God has used to show me how for so many years I was one who preached the first type of message. I know how easy it is to do. And when I do, I grieve. And my prayer will be for me, and for this other church, and others building Christ’s kingdom in this community, that God will no longer let us preach a message of human effort, but will solely lead us to exalt the gospel of the grace of his Son.

Boycotts and Power

Getting older does give one a sense of historical perspective.

I’m old enough to remember when Christians were supposed to boycott Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ giving it well needed extra publicity but accomplishing little else.

Then there was the angst among those planning denominational meetings when Holiday Inn began allowing the purchase of pornographic movies in units which were to be inhabited by their attendees. Boycott’s were called for, which was tough for the planners to heed.

And I can remember a national assembly of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, meeting in Florida the year the Southern Baptists approved a boycott of Disney. As the PCA debated whether to support that boycott, one beleaguered delegate pleaded that if the assembly were to approve the measure that its effective date be put off a week, as he’d brought his whole family to Florida with the promise of a Disney treat.

I’ve seen boycotts come and go with no positive impact. And so when asked by a member of my church to respond to a current drive to hold Starbucks accountable for it’s position on marriage, I answered very quickly:

I tend to ignore such things for several reasons.

1. If I chose products based upon the political activities of the company, I’d have a pretty narrow range of products available to me. I’m pretty sure Apple would go, as would Disney, and probably the NYTimes, a primary news source for me, down to the products I buy in the grocery.

2. And then I’d have to determine which political causes would be worth opposing. SBUX perhaps for its liberal social views; but then perhaps WalMart for what it does to small town economies. Where would I draw the line? Amazon sells some pretty lousy stuff, as does Books-a-Million. It’s kind of hard to make all one’s economic choices in this way.

3. A strategy is only so good as its prospects for success. If one wants to fight SBUX’s political views, pulling out in protest will gain little. Bearing a case up the chain as a loyal and supportive customer is going to have, relatively, greater impact.

Anyway, I am taking the time to respond only because I, as have you, have seen dozens of these protests come down the pike over the years, and as well intended as they are, they have little success.

I see now that my response was very pragmatic, though I stick by it.

Crossing my desktop this morning, however, was a much more theologically perceptive and reflective response by Russell Moore. His post digs deeper into the reasons why boycotts are not a fit vehicle for the Christian message.

But we don’t persuade our neighbors by mimicking their angry power-protests. We persuade them by holding fast to the gospel, by explaining our increasingly odd view of marriage, and by serving the world and our neighbors around us, as our Lord does, with a towel and a foot-bucket.

We won’t win this argument by bringing corporations to the ground in surrender. We’ll engage this argument, first of all, by prompting our friends and neighbors to wonder why we don’t divorce each other, and why we don’t split up when a spouse loses his job or loses her health. We’ll engage this argument when we have a more exalted, and more mysterious, view of sexuality than those who see human persons as animals or machines. And, most of all, we’ll engage this argument when we proclaim the meaning behind marriage: the covenant union of Christ and his church.

I encourage your reading the whole.

The are occasions to make stands and to suffer the consequences. But an economic boycott aimed at strong-arming a position is not one of them.

Not a Recent Convert

This post may seem to come out of left field.

Well, technically it comes from the pitcher’s mound, the reflections of Dirk Hayhurst, a seasoned minor league baseball player, and the author of The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran.

He recently wrote an article for The Bleacher Report cracking a window on the world of professional baseball.

There is swearing in professional baseball, not to mention fighting, drinking, drugs, cheating, affairs, pornography, gambling, abuse, lying, stealing and just about everything else that would make your mother weep if she found out you were doing it.


For some players, professional baseball is the worst thing to ever happen to them.

And as much as I enjoyed this as a baseball fan, I wondered about what being thrust into church leadership, into church office, into the pulpit, can do to some of us. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul says that an elder is not to be a recent convert.

Farewell, Orion

The weekend has been one of deep emotion which, I hope, none will mind my sharing in this space.

One year ago, today, I had the unexpected privilege of being installed as the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida. This has been a wonderful placement for me, and I thank God repeatedly for the grace he has shown to me in giving me this call. It has been a wild year, one sprinkled with challenges, certainly, but as well one blessed with many precious new relationships.

The joy of this anniversary, though, is dampened by the somber reality that yesterday marked the final service of the congregation of Hope Presbyterian Church in Bradenton, Florida, the church I pastored for twenty-five years. My mind does not have a place for conceiving of Bradenton without HPC. And a lively debate could be held concerning the degree of my own culpability in its demise. I know. That debate rages in my mind often.

And yet I don’t want HPC to pass without a notice of its strength. The church was composed of men and women whose love for Jesus ran deep. Children were reared there who are continuing to serve Jesus around the world. Creative ways of bringing Jesus to the community were effected. The church had a genuine beauty that was an honor to Christ. The gospel was more than preached there, it was lived.

I am so grateful for the years that God gave me and my family there. Even now, the great longing of my ten-year old is for the friends and adult mentors he knew there. The impact, not just the memory, of Hope Church will live on in our lives and, we hope, in the lives of many others.

God in his mercy did not allow the impact of these corresponding events go without notice. On Saturday, as members of Covenant Church invested time in my son, playing basketball with him and forming new mentor relationships with him, we were blessed by a surprise visit from Andrea, a former member of Hope, now married and living in St. Louis, who through her years in Bradenton had been like a daughter to us. Both our worlds overlapped.

Then, on Sunday, we enjoyed a long and happy lunch with a few or our new friends from Covenant Church. Later that afternoon we headed off to help a friend from Bradenton, Doug, a med student moving to Orlando to finish his rotations, unload his U-Haul. We were joined in that by Tom and Sam and Pete and Sarah, all young people with Bradenton connections, some deep. Again, our worlds overlapped.

God was masterfully weaving the two parts of my life, the joy and the sorrow, the Bradenton and the Oviedo, together in a way designed to remind me that he is God and the he is good.

Each morning in Bradenton, while it was still dark, I would walk out of my east-facing front door to retrieve the newspaper. When the season was right and the sky was clear, I would look up and see bright and distinct the constellation Orion. That sight came to symbolize for me my life there, a life that has now past.

When I left, I saw it one last time from that place, and bid it farewell. It was hard, harder than I imagined.

I no longer see Orion on those clear and bright mornings. But what I cannot forget is that the God who put Orion in the sky is the God who put me in Bradenton for a time and and who has now put me in Oviedo. To grieve the past that is lost is normal and human. But I celebrate the God who is not lost, who is not past, who is ever present and loving and good, whose shepherdly instincts lead me, undeservedly, beside still waters and into green pastures, and has, beyond hope and imagination, placed me with another flock, who continue to bless me in ways that I will never completely understand.

My heart goes out to the now scattered flock that was Hope Presbyterian Church. I am comforted that we serve a God whose purposes never fail. Far more meaningful than greeting a constellation in the sky is this:

I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
my only trust and Savior of my heart,
who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.

Ordinary Disasters

At Covenant Presbyterian Church we recently were encouraged by two of our congregation who flew to Japan as soon as they could after the tsunami in order to serve in whatever way they could to bring calm and relief and restoration and hope to that land they love. They were sent with tremendous enthusiasm and overwhelming support and they have returned with great stories of God’s mercy and kindness.

I wonder how often we are blind to the ordinary disasters which sometimes silently befall the community around us.

A young woman in our neighborhood recently found out that another family in the subdivision was facing a relapse in their teenaged son’s cancer. Treatment involved daily five-hour round trips to a facility administering radiation. She on her own decided to respond to this more ordinary disaster in a wonderful way, recruiting many other neighbors to provide frozen meals for this family so that they did not need to worry about dinner for the duration.

I was really impressed, and we were delighted to be a part. I’m not likely to fly to Japan or to the location of the next geopolitical locus of need. But I pray that God would give me, my family, and our church, clarity in the ways we can reflect the compassion of God to our neighbors in the midst of their ordinary disasters.