On Why I Left Church Leadership; and Why It Might Be a Good Thing

Sunday was my final day as the primary leader at my church. I stepped aside from that role, believing it was time for the church and for me to branch out in new directions.

One of the reasons I stepped down was because of all the things a church measures that are hard to measure up to (like: attendance, budget, baptisms, current mood, decision-making, evangelistic fervor). And that’s just A through E.

Now, it’s not that those aren’t important things; it’s just that no church ever perfectly matches up its calling with its reality. All churches have weak spots, blind spots, even dead spots. It’s not that this is ideal, or even ok. It’s just that, as long as the Church is made up of people, it will always be the fragile and fumbling Bride of Christ.

I am amazed how, when Paul writes letters to the churches he knows, he, almost without fail, calls them: saints, beloved, faithful brothers & sisters. The same people he chastises for getting drunk at communion (1 Corinthians 11.21), he calls saints (1 Cor 1.2). The same people who take each other to court with letters of complaint (1 Cor 6.4), Paul calls “a letter from Christ” (2 Cor 3.2).

What to make of this? Certainly, Paul is very concerned with how the church is Corinth is living. But he also is very convinced of the power and the purpose of that church. The power of any church isn’t in its systems, its plans, or (and this just amazes me) in the degree to which the church has it “together.” Instead, the power of the church is found in the One who calls us saints. As Paul also writes to the Corinthians: It is Jesus Christ “who will sustain you to the end,” for “God is faithful…” (1 Cor 1.8-9).

What encouragement! What hope! In times of strong leadership, mediocre leadership, or weak leadership, God is still the guide. It’s the power of Jesus that propels. It’s the leading of the Spirit that produces unity and mission.

So, in my final sermon at Fern Creek Christian, I closed by challenging the church to remember who they are. And I said: How cool would it be if, when the new leader begins, he looks around, and this is what he sees:

  • kids ministry humming along, because there are plenty of people who love kids without a paycheck;
  • middle school and high school students aren’t simply a part of the church, over in the corner somewhere; they are the church, right now;
  • life groups that are serious about gathering, but not just to eat and talk; but to be changed, and to take that change into the world;
  • a church that believes in strong, healthy, biblical marriages; but one that also values single folks, empowering them to step up, lead, and use their gifts.

At the same time, I hope he discovers a church:

  • that primarily speaks English; but also includes, as full brothers and sisters, those whose first language is Spanish;
  • that is mostly white, but is striving to truly be a church where people of all colors are welcomed and empowered;
  • where some come dressed in their Sunday snazziest, and others in their Sunday simplest;
  • where some drive up in a shiny new Ford, while others hitch a ride on a TARC bus.

And I think it would be both wonderful and biblical for the new leader to look around, and see a church:

  • where it’s not just men who are fully unleashed to use their gifts, but women, too;
  • less interested in planning a impactful Sunday morning, and more interested in impacting people’s lives Monday through Saturday;
  • that loves and values folks who prefer things to be more traditional; but those same folks are among some of the first to ask him: How can you help us reach the next generation?

In other words, I dream of a church that invites a new leader to step in and lead, finding that the church isn’t dependent on him — or any other person, for that matter; a church not waiting around for someone to tell them what to do; but a church, with all their flaws, failures, and foibles, simply being the church. Struggling saints, striving for godliness — but trusting that God’s power isn’t limited by their limitations. I think that’s a church that can make a difference. At least, that’s what Paul seemed to think. And with that thinking, he helped spark a revolution — a revolution that, by the grace of God, continues today.

Seeing Peter Jennings in NYC; Or, What the Nightly News Can Teach the Church

When I was in college, I spent the summer with my sister and her family in New York City. It was an amazing experience, as we lived right across the street from Central Park, and just a couple of blocks from the American Museum of Natural History, where I worked. I loved being in the middle of the action; it was a cool summer, full of unique and memorable experiences.

One sticks out, though it wasn’t all that exciting. It was the day I was walking to work and I happened by Peter Jennings, who was also heading to work. Maybe I remember it because he was the only “celebrity” I saw that summer. Or maybe it was memorable because that was the day when the work Jennings did — being the nightly news anchor — made him a well-known personality. Today, if my kids walked by David Muir (Peter Jennings’ current successor), they wouldn’t have a clue who he is. I’m guessing most people under 30 wouldn’t.

This week, my dad had some surgery, so I went to see him and my mom. One evening, while we were with my dad in his hospital room, my mom turned on the TV to watch the evening news. We were in St Louis, so 5:30 is the time when the nightly news comes on. And so, the TV came on, because my mom likes the news. I’m pretty sure she knows who David Muir is.

In fact, my 84-year-old mother plans her evening around the evening news. My 21-year-old daughter, however, does not. In fact, she likely has not, and probably never will, watch the evening news. How my child gets news is very different than how my mother gets news. Even so, they both have a need to know what’s going on. So, as the major networks search for ways to continue to connect to people like my mom, they also must search for new ways to connect to people like my daughter. (Good luck with that.)

But let’s expand the idea out even further. ABC, CBS, and NBC aren’t the only outlets struggling to remain relevant in the news business. Every newspaper and news magazine in America is facing the challenge of digital media, which is completely free of having to broadcast at a certain time or having to actually print the news once a day.

So, why do I bring all of this up? Not because I care that much how people get their news — but because I care how people approach change. Because, for all the lessons the news-delivery business can teach us, it sure can teach us about change.

For many, change is difficult. This is especially true for my mom. There is no wifi at her apartment. She has no smart phone. She talks about how “they don’t make things like they used to.”

My daughter, meanwhile, can’t imagine life without the internet. She will never not have a smart phone. She has very little appreciation of how they used to make things.

Who is right? My mom? My daughter? Or neither one?

Maybe the question isn’t about who is right, but about learning the lessons of communication in a world that is changing — whether we like it, or not. Just as both my mom and daughter want to get the news, but access it different ways, so also we who follow Jesus have to recognize that we have the news — and not just any news, but the Good News; the freedom-giving, hope-filling, life-changing transformation of God in Jesus Christ. And what matters more than how we get it to people, is that we do.

For the Church to be serious about loving people like my mom, we have to value the ways that they are used to hearing the Good News. But if the Church is going to be serious about loving people like my daughter, then we also have to value the ways she is most likely to hear the Good News. In fact, I’ll go a step further: We must never stop valuing and honoring those who already know the Good News, but we must choose ways for those who don’t know it — or who are just learning it — to hear it. We have got to stop worrying less about how we share the Good News, and spend more time considering actually sharing it in ways that clearly and consistently point people to Jesus.

Because here’s the thing: eventually, the Evening News will cease to exist as we know it. Or, at the very least, it will only reach a handful of folks. (In fact, that is already true: less than 10% of Americans currently watch any of the 3 major networks’ nightly news programs.) At the same time, print publications are falling by the wayside. There is no one in the news business who has any doubt that the news-delivery business is changing, and will continue to change. What won’t change, of course, is that there is news to deliver.

The Church must pay attention this reality. We have the Good News. That does not change; never has, never will. But what does change — and is changing, whether we like it or not — is how that news is delivered, and received. We who care about Jesus, and his mission, cannot miss this lesson.

In my next post, I’ll say more about this. Stay tuned….

Transitions

Last Thursday, my wife and I took our middle child two hours away … and left her there. It was the first time we had done something so drastic, but also so inevitable. For we took my daughter to college … and then came home without her.

Honestly, I was surprised at how well I handled it. I was pleased at how smoothly things went (well, except for the long line to drop off her stuff at the dorm). But even that was painless, with all the friendly faces that were there to help.

After everything was in the room (though hardly in its place), we dashed off for lunch before we said goodbye. Our farewell hugs were long and full of longing, but then it was time for her to go her way. And she did. And so did we.

As we headed home, I was glad that the day went so well. Not much stress, and not as much emotion as I expected. All in all, I’d give myself an “A-” for how I handled things.

But then we got home. And something about being home made it hit home. Being in the house with only 1/3 of my children proceeded to shatter the “I’m good” feeling I had felt all day. If the process of dropping-off was easier than I expected, the process of arriving-back was harder than I could have anticipated.

Emotions are a funny thing. They are a vital part of life, but they are so hard to predict. What seems simple sometimes hits hard. What seems signficant sometimes goes off without a hitch. But one thing is certain: when emotions do surface, they indicate not just the feeling of the moment; they also reflect something deeper down coming out.

I think about all of this not simply because of the transition my daughter faces as she begins college; I think about it myself as I transition from my current ministry. As I announced Sunday to the folks at Fern Creek Christian, I believe it is time for a change. For me. For the church. For what God wants to do through this congregation. And so, as of August 27, I will conclude my ministry at Fern Creek.

This church has been my family’s home for nearly 20 years. It’s been where I’ve pursued my career for 16 years, but now it’s time to start a new chapter. And I’m learning that saying goodbye is hard. But not always in the ways I expect.

I find that, just like taking my daughter to college, it’s not the obvious places where emotion reaches up and grabs me. It’s in a random thought, or a song that brings a thought to mind. It’s in a conversation with someone. It’s in the anticipation of what’s to come.

But even though emotions are challenging, and sometimes not welcome, they are necessary. For what I feel reveals something about what is going on inside of me. And what I feel tells me something about what matters. If I felt nothing, it might be a sign that I’m not fully measuring the weight of what I’m facing. Or that I’m simply leaving a job — as opposed to a calling. Instead, the feelings I face remind me that I love my church, and feel incredibly blessed to have done what I’ve done.

Let me put it this way: If leaving isn’t hard, then was I ever really, fully here

But I was. And I am a better man, and a better follower of Jesus, because of it. So, thank you, Fern Creek family, for 20 life-changing years. And even as we say ‘goodbye’, we can do so confident that God has more in store for us — in this age, and in the age to come.