Weaknesses, Résumés, and the Pastoral Search

In the last week or so, I’ve seen a couple posts/writings on “weakness.” Each of them encouraging because I’d been thinking about the subject. Not in a vacuum of course, but while also thinking about the necessity for God’s strength in life and ministry.

So yes, I think about doing ministry again. We pray about it. I’ve asked a few friends to pray about it for us. We fear it like we fear God. And think about it some more. And struggle to talk about it. So we pray a little more. (Please don’t read into this more than necessary, we are thinking and praying, not planning. We are very unsure but feel the need to consider returning, if only because we feel often like we are in the belly of a whale.)
Just the other day I looked at pastor job postings. Bethany did it first. Nearly all of them had their must-haves and their requirements and such. You know, some postings were admirable and a couple were actually moving.
But most were just like postings for insurance companies and banks in one particular way. They were interested only in how a person’s strengths could help the church. Don’t get me wrong, this is reasonable. I don’t even think its wrong.
But I can’t help but wonder about weakness.
Where does weakness fit in? Where does the weakness of a candidate and even the weakness of a church fit in? Is this even on anyone’s radar? And does anyone see the weakness as a way for God’s strength to be made manifest?
Maybe.
I confess I’ve imagined sending in a résumé of weakness. One that details all the reasons not to consider me. “Left the ministry and swore to never return. Has lived in the belly of a whale for about two years and smells like fish and seaweed. Has children the Vision Forum would be appalled at. Has most likely teetered on the edge of the dark chasm of depression. Has no money. Owns three vehicles, all have a check-engine light burning bright.” You know, things like that.
Every search committee and church knows every candidate for a position has weaknesses. They will even ask about them at some point. And discuss them. But will anyone see them the way Paul saw them?
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”(2 Corinthians 12:7–10 ESV)
Paul…and God, seemed to think the weakness he had, whatever it was – physical, emotional, spiritual – was something to boast in. And Paul did so, not to be contrary or to excuse behavior but so that “the power of Christ” would rest upon him.
Now I don’t know all the implications for this in ministry, but as I think about going forward and praying about pastoral work possibly one day in the future, it strikes me as being at odds with the prevailing wisdom.
The prevailing wisdom and practice is to treat résumés and interviews in the pastoral search process like a first date. On a first date you do everything you can to impress the other and you do everything you can to hide weakness. You borrow your parent’s Audi instead of picking a girl up in the ’79 Chevette with no reverse. You go to restaurants you would normally not go to. You spare no expense. You dress in clothes reserved for special occasions. You put your best foot-forward and keep all things negative at bay. It’s usually only later, you let your guard down and allow weaknesses to show.
College students do this in dating and churches and pastoral candidates do this in the search process. And it’s understandable. It’s reasonable. And we’ve all done it, in dating and in the search process.
But Paul’s words give us something to think about, don’t they? While all this first-date behavior and thinking is reasonable, Paul’s conviction about the place of weakness in his life and ministry may be a help.
Pretty much everywhere I went to work in ministry I soon found out that each congregation had glaring weaknesses no one felt the need to discuss with me but these weaknesses brought about constant issues that were at the forefront of the life of the congregation.
And my own weaknesses showed up pretty quickly too.

How do I go forward? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe you know.

My tendency is to be embarrassed of my weaknesses. I want to smooth over the craggy edges and obscure the dark valleys from view. But I also want to believe my weaknesses can deal a blow to my conceit and make it possible for the power of Christ to rest upon me. And if I ever return to the pastorate, is there any other power I’ll need?

More tomorrow in a few days…

The Confession of A Failing Pastor


(I wrote the following back in August of 2009, I was at my wit’s end emotionally. It was so bad, when we went on vacation to Birmingham to visit family, I was prepared to stay. Never to go back. I was right in the middle of despair. My guess is, a lot of guys in ministry get to that place and it is a terrible place to be. Accountants can experience despair and go do something else and it looks heroic. Pastors? No way. They are expected to rip open their shirts and reveal the S on the their chest. Bullets are supposed to bounce off and sermons just appear. All the while kryptonite is hurled at them through email, social media and meetings in coffee shops. I hope this is a help for other pastors.)

Whether I am failing as a student pastor or only perceived as failing is at this point moot. Well, maybe not entirely. But the effects are the same. Right? I mean, it is neither here nor there if the whispers are there, the discussions are going on behind your back and the arrows are flying. The truth of the matter is perhaps a very important thing for the Senior Pastor/Preacher/Lead Pastor and possibly for someone who oversees an adult ministry. 
Why? Because they trade in truth.

Me? I trade in bodies, numbers and pizza. And it is amazing that the decrease in that which I trade in is the reason I feel as if I am drowning. Usually, the abundance is the difficulty. Usually you drown in abundance. In my case it is the stark nature of the thing. There are not enough bodies. I am not doing enough. I do not care enough. When or what is enough? How would I know? When everyone is happy?
It’s like a hall of mirrors really. I went to one at the Alabama State Fair back in elementary school. To be honest, it freaked me out. You turn one way and you are fat. The other way shows you as remarkably short. Another turn and you are twisted beyond all recognition. And all the reflections make it very hard to actually get perspective on the distortions and see reality for what it is. Even when you find the exit…exhausted, have you escaped? Are you not still trying to catch your breath?
I vowed to never go back in.
Today I went to bed twice for short periods of time. Is this healthy? It felt healthy. When you are hungry, you eat. When you are cold, you put on more clothing. When you are tired – soul-tired – you lay down. 
Still.
Twice this week I am supposed to teach and for the first time in my ministerial life, I am not looking forward to it. This has never been the case before. I have always fed off the enjoyment of doing this. But right now I just want to hang out with Sam Adams and Billie Holiday. I just want to hang out with my wife in silence with small talk sprinkled clean by laughter. I want to watch my kids play and tickle them every now and then. Another nap would be welcome also.
Do I need a vacation? Am I burnt out? Maybe. The only path of sanity I can find is quitting. And I do not mean quitting this ‘job’. I am talking about quitting altogether. When you start envying the Fed-Ex delivery driver, something is not right. Can you quit for just a week or two? Perhaps I could start back then. But a few weeks of not being a “Pastor” (or at least what I am told that is) would be welcome indeed.
I used to talk about wanting to quit every week. That was very different. I knew I could not quit. The “call” was clear. Now not so much. Before, I could read something in the Scriptures or in a book that would drive me further in. Now what used to be fuel is retardant.
Not doubting my salvation is a great deal of help. The gospel is still good news. I don’t want to leave the “church”. I don’t want to leave my family. As a matter of fact these are the two things I want to run towards. Some may call it selfish but I want to be ministered to for a while. Emmylou Harris is singing My Baby Needs A Shepherd.
None of this is written for pity. There is cathartic help of course. But I really could find nothing like this anywhere. They are probably there somewhere. I did find some articles and essays about how pastors overcame their failures. Nowhere, though, did I find anything like a confession from a failing pastor in the midst of failure. 
“My name is Matt Redmond…not that Matt Redman…and I am a failing pastor.”

10 Thoughts On the Present Criticism of the American Dream

                                                                 American Gothic by Grant Wood

I’ve gotten some good feedback on my post, Rethinking the Criticism of the American Dream. But, I know, it is a little long. So I thought I would do a more limited SFN-reader-friendly-version. So the following is a top ten list of thoughts from that post:

1. I used to criticize the American Dream. And then I would drive home…to my 1900 square foot home with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. In other words I was criticizing the very thing I had already achieved.

2. The American Dream can be in opposition to the Christian faith. But so can any other dream.

3. You should not criticize the American Dream in high def video.

4. You should not criticize the American Dream from your iPhone or laptop. Or any smartphone or computer really.

5. Every pastor I have heard criticize the American Dream has achieved it already.

6. The American Dream is not the problem. The heart that wants it at the expense of everything else is the problem.

7. It is easy to point at the American Dream and criticize it. It takes work to diagnose the real problem.

8. Missionaries fly to distant lands on the backs of those who have achieved the American Dream.

9. There are countless people who have rejected the American Dream and have black hearts.

10. It is patently sinful to rail against the accoutrements of the American Dream while enjoying them. Just as it is sinful to rail against sex while enjoying it within the confines of marriage.

What do you think?

I Just finished Peterson’s Memoirs

I just finished Eugene Peterson’s memoirs which will be available next Tuesday. A review is coming…actually I hope to write a non-review review. I hate book reviews. Suffice it so say, for now, I loved every page. It was far better than I even could have imagined. Actually a lot of people will hate it. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing. And not doing.

It’s sad really. The young pastors in my world should be made to read it. But they won’t. They will read ‘how-to’ books and learn better how to sell Jesus. And update him. Make him cool. Palatable. Cool for a culture tyrannized by as much.

The non-review is coming next Tuesday. I’m about to read it again.

10 Lessons Learned From Eugene Peterson This Year About Pastoral Work

(Update: For obvious reasons, this is a very popular post. So popular, I have become a Peterson reference for dozens and dozens of men, mostly pastors. Most want to know where to start with his works because they are exasperated with what they have been sold as pastoral work. I used to tell them to start with The Contemplative Pastor since it is the book in most direct opposition to everything other way of thinking about the pastorate that is popular today. It is a quiet manifesto of insurrection. But now it may be good to start with his memoir – The Pastor I still get emails thanking me for the review I posted on amazon. Usually, it’s because a pastor thought his was alone. Now he knows he is not.

A word to young pastors…Read Peterson now. Eventually you will most likely thirst for his sanity and long to get off the hamster-wheel. I know most of you will not do it, you are drunk on trends and excitement.)

I’ve been slowly reading through Eugene Peterson’s books this year. I’ve learned a lot about being a pastor that is in direct opposition to the way I naturally think…and most people think, I would hazard. The following are ten of those lessons.

1. Pastoral Work does not look “busy.”

2. The hard work of a pastor is done in the quiet of study and prayer.

3. Most pastors are pragmatists because they have never seen any other kind of pastoral work done.

4. You will never get the job of pastoral work down to a science.

5. Read novels as a part of your ministry.

6. How-to sermons are rarely – if ever –  helpful.

7. Don’t listen to the conventional wisdom.

8. It is so normal for bullies to fill our pulpits we can no longer recognize the problem.

9. Pastors should not seek to be part of the super-spiritual crowd but seek to be normal – only more so.

10. God and his work in Christ are our subject.

Novels are for Pastors

My parents did not always buy me the toys I wanted. Dad was a pastor and we never had tons of money, though I never really knew it. But they did buy me books. I went through a period where I was going through Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books like most kids go through video games. I have this one memory of my parents driving me around to various little local bookstores to find one I had not read. This is a precious memory to me because we were on the way to their friend's house and I wanted...needed something to do while the adults talked. I had no siblings near my age. Books like these were my friends. I would pore over them again and again and again. The stories still stand dust-covered in the shadows of days long gone.

Things have not changed much. I still read novels; many of them over and over, year after year. I have added a memoir or two and I always read stories new to me. These stories have become familiar friends, very familiar, for many have been read more than a dozen times. The stories are never knew but it does not matter, I read them anyway, expecting something new. Never disappointed, though the story never changes, I see glimmers unfamiliar, each time.
But there was a time I had an uneasy relationship with novels. I did not stop reading them, but I started feeling guilty about it. Not the kind of guilt which leaves you up at night. But the kind of guilt which keeps you from talking about what you are reading with others. We pastors (and really spiritual people) are supposed to read “spiritual books” you know…not fiction.
Like I said, the relationship was ‘uneasy.’ Mainly because I was listening to some voices which made me think, as a pastor, I had neither the time nor the freedom to enjoy fiction on a regular basis. The responsibility was too great. The urgency was too real. Hell is burning. And you want to read Dumas? But then I would enjoy the warm comfort of a paragraph written by Austen or O’Connor’s ragged Southern wit. The joy of Dillard’s The Maytrees is without equal. And I am always in the mood for a murder of Agatha Christie’s making. Needless to say, the guilt lost out to the beauty and the profound weight of all I had learned about life and writing from so much fiction. Stories have been good to me since my earliest days, where memories run slow and shallow.
But I want to go out on a limb and suggest novels are ‘good.’ They are not just OK. They are good and not just as sermon illustration fodder. They are stories. And stories I assume are good things. We know this because the Bible is a story. Though it has instructions, it is not an instruction book. It is not a “game plan” for your life. It is not a mere roadmap. It is nothing if not a story, the story of what God is doing. Has done. Will do.
And Jesus told stories. Yes, they are parables. But they are wonderful stories nonetheless – full of life and wonder and excitement and reality and fiction and tears and blood and heaven and hell and violence and passion and sin and beauty. All are works of fiction meant to arrest the listener and now the reader.
The Gospel is a story. And we are justified by faith in this story. We have lost sight of the fact that the facts and truths we espouse as believers are of the kind which belong to a story. It isn’t fiction, mind you. But is has more in common with fiction than a religion of lists and propositions alone.
And every life is a story. The rich and poor alike are stories lived, whether told or untold. And if told would be worthy reads. James Joyce taught us this. No one is an abstraction. Our social security numbers and long lines at airports try to convince us differently. But we, ourselves are the stuff of epic tales…every moment worthy of a memoir.
Novels, though fiction, when they ring true, are full of truth. The kind of truth which makes us sit up in bed, underline sentences and read them to your spouse out loud. The label ‘fiction’ only plays at the edges of what it often is.
All of the above begins to give us a glimpse into the help novels and stories can afford pastors (and those who are more spiritual than everyone else). But also, novels can help pastors in the way they write and teach. Most theology books are not distinguished because of how well they are written. No, they are set apart from books on matters doctrinal because of their ability to impart the themes they have set out to communicate. Novels are often set apart (not always) because they have been written well. The novels usually distinguished are those which have the feel of craft.
We, pastors as a vocational set, could use a little instruction in craft. We could use some informal training in how to craft sentences worth remembering and the subtle wielding of words. Our ability to communicate the truths we love and are convinced of, can…will be strengthened by reading fictional stories.
We are not mere information producers for consumers of religious goods and services. We are story-tellers. We tell our story. We tell the old, old story – the story which gives all other stories depth and significance. We are not solely educators instructing students from whom we expect regurgitation of information. We are in the line of those who crafted those 4 marvelous edifices of Gospel. No one who has looked into the well of the original languages can walk away without seeing they did not just write out information they remembered. They crafted. Our sermons, letters, emails, lectures and for God’s sake, our blog posts could stand some more craft in them.
This is not to say all fiction is created equal. But if I have any ability to write, I owe much to Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis. If I can turn a phrase at all I credit Tolkein and Annie Dillard. Certainly some fiction may be not so helpful as others. But this is no reason to not pick up a novel and read some fiction.
Someone will read this and suggest I am telling pastors they should put down their theology texts and pick up Twilight. Let me say with a resounding voice, “Maybe.” Certainly I am saying, we should see novelists and storytellers as gifts from God, who can add much to our ministry. At the least I am pleading for a desire to create a pastoral environment where works of fiction are not relegated to the sidelines of afterthought and leftover pieces of time but are seen as fresh help as we must craft messages of hope and grace.