Messiah complex and conventional wisdom: a marriage made in hell

trying to do everything everyone wants is killing us

Two books found their way into my world this spring, and their convergence has helped me understand why so many pastors are suffering short tenures  (3-5 year average) and physical problems, and the battle each of us in professional ministry must face.  The books are The Time Bomb in the Church and Ignore Everybody.  The former is about pastors who have heart attacks because they’re doing too much; the latter is about creativity, which is a big umbrella under which many subjects can find cover, including “life management.”   Taken together, the two books have helped realign me, and though I’ve still some distance to before I can say I’ve achieved these things, these are truths that have risen to the surface to challenge me and most of my pastoral peers:

Truth #1: Notoriety is overrated. It saddens me when I read about “rising stars” in Christendom, because I’m fairly well convinced that the people who do the very best job representing Christ in this world aren’t doing it for notoriety, but simply, like Brother Lawrence, out of love for God.  I’ll be the first to share that challenges come about precisely when, for whatever reason, we’re granted a measure of exposure in the broader culture, because the temptation is to equate it with worth, even with wisdom.  That’s what our world does – but what our world does is wrong.  My favorite pastor leads a church that doesn’t even have a website. He loves his community and his congregation.  He teaches well.  And he’s been there for over 15 years!  In God’s economy, the man’s work is golden.

The important thing is to find one’s worth in faithfulness, not sphere of influence, even when our world tells us otherwise in so many ways.  Whatever sphere of influence happens because of that happens.  But don’t tie it to your worth.

Truth #2: Conventional wisdom is overrated. The web is overflowing with material for pastors, telling them how to build churches.  It’s bursting with advice for authors regarding how to increase readership.  There are seminars, webinars, newsletters, and oh so many purveyors of “Pathways” which, if followed, will lead to the promised land of bigger churches, more sales, and “increased influence.”

Pardon me while I throw up.  This “need for more” is what is killing pastors, not only in body, but in soul.  As they walk the path offered by the purveyors, the 7-minute path to church growth leads to both unrealistic expectations and new demands on one’s time.  And now, having embraced this path, along with the herd of others doing the same, we find ourselves shaped by techniques, rather than our own creativity.  We plow through our new ‘to do list’, not even sure if we believe in it, but convinced it’s right because the herd is plowing too.  This is not living, at least not the life Christ called us to pursue.

Truth #3: Intimacy with Christ is underrated.  Jesus promises that those who abide in Christ will bring forth lots of fruit.  It’s clear though, that fruit in ministry and life, like fruit in the vineyard, is a by-product of other things, like tending the soil of our hearts, our bodies, our significant relationships.  It’s also clear that the scope of the fruit is God’s prerogative, not ours.  Big church or small church?  It’s the wrong question, and surely not a determinant of significance.  More important is the abiding, as Paul would later articulate here.

Of course there are resource questions, and sustainability when it comes to church life.  Of course publishers need to sell books to pay for work of publishing.  Of course these aren’t questions to be ignored.  But as objectives, they remind me of the story in The Great Divorce about the guy who once enjoyed nature for nature, but now only sees nature as a potential work of art for sales. When we view our craft as pastors, writers, whatever, as a means to an end, it’s the kiss of death, at least for me.

Truth #4: We are whole people. When the to do list is longer than the day, the first thing to disappear is exercise.  The second thing is prayer and meditation.  The to-do list has been long lately, and I’m sad to confess that these pieces of life have turned up missing as much as they’ve been present.  Lately I’ve been feeling it – in ways described in that Ticking Time Bomb book.

It’s liberating to realize that if I’m neglecting the life giving disciplines that are central to my health, I’m doing something wrong.  God’s not called me (at least not in this environment of abundance and freedom) to neglect a decent workout, and some moments of intimacy with Jesus.  So, starting just recently (OK – yesterday) I made some changes as means of recovery.  I made taking care of myself and intimacy inviolable, and have started considering what needs to be amputated from my day if I’m to save these important priorities.  We’ll see how it goes, but I have a sense it will go well.

I hope there’s application here for people other than pastors, but I know there’s application for me.   I welcome your thoughts.

Blog Tour update:  If you missed it, Relevant Magazine and Burnside Writers Collective both offered reviews of The Colors of Hope this week.  Thanks to Ian, and Penny for their great writing.  Tell a friend, please.  Thanks!

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Lynn

    I try to live this way too, which means I’m usually going against the flow. And swimming upstream is hard work! Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Lynn

    I try to live this way too, which means I’m usually going against the flow. And swimming upstream is hard work! Thanks for the encouragement.

  • http://www.timthurmansblog.blogspot.com Tim Thurman

    I think you pastors have just about the most difficult jobs in the world. I do not envy you. Your post made me think of another blog (Mark D. Robert’s blog) that I read recently about the struggles of being a pastor. Dr. Roberts talked about one of the most difficult things is loneliness / accountability. When you are leading a community, you need a different “community” to support you and keep you in line.
    You are not my pastor (although I wish you were), but I will be praying for you in addition to my pastor.
    I especially liked what you had to say about having the wrong priorities. It is something I have to guard against in my own life a lot — when are we truly successful? Should I be frustrated when I am not seeing the results that I had hoped for? Or should I understand that I am not called to results, only to be faithful?

  • http://www.timthurmansblog.blogspot.com Tim Thurman

    I think you pastors have just about the most difficult jobs in the world. I do not envy you. Your post made me think of another blog (Mark D. Robert’s blog) that I read recently about the struggles of being a pastor. Dr. Roberts talked about one of the most difficult things is loneliness / accountability. When you are leading a community, you need a different “community” to support you and keep you in line.
    You are not my pastor (although I wish you were), but I will be praying for you in addition to my pastor.
    I especially liked what you had to say about having the wrong priorities. It is something I have to guard against in my own life a lot — when are we truly successful? Should I be frustrated when I am not seeing the results that I had hoped for? Or should I understand that I am not called to results, only to be faithful?

  • Bob

    Sometimes it is good for your own health and your own family to come first, above your church, especially if you are a pastor. Thanks, Richard.

    • Renee Sproull

      I hear ya…just working on intimacy with dear friends by not texting…I refuse to up my text messages though it’s only “$20 moer a month plus a data plan unlimited.” It’s not a better deal I think! I’ve had to really think through and choose what thinks I pay for, do they bring the value I desire in my life, that Christ can bring fruit from? Thank you Richard for reminder of the “intimacy nonvoliables! :)

  • Bob

    Sometimes it is good for your own health and your own family to come first, above your church, especially if you are a pastor. Thanks, Richard.

    • Renee Sproull

      I hear ya…just working on intimacy with dear friends by not texting…I refuse to up my text messages though it’s only “$20 moer a month plus a data plan unlimited.” It’s not a better deal I think! I’ve had to really think through and choose what thinks I pay for, do they bring the value I desire in my life, that Christ can bring fruit from? Thank you Richard for reminder of the “intimacy nonvoliables! :)

  • Renee Sproull

    sorry to followup-texting takes away the heart to heart intimacy-the inflection of voice, the feelings/emotions you hear as you talk and discuss. I get so lazy with straight forward text, I miss the journey of growing with a freind through a “live” conversation…I realize thats how I can work on the close friends in my life which deepens my intimacy with Jesus.

  • Sonya

    For me, it isn’t about the bells and whistles. I attended small churches and very large churches in the past. And I stopped going because I didn’t feel a solid connection with the heart of the message. In these days of marketing plans, twitter, talk shows, and showy campaigns, more people are getting superficial spirituality and thinking that’s all there is to it. They wonder why they’re still so dissatisfied with life and don’t make any progress on their spiritual path.

    Richard, BCC is the first church where I feel completely at peace. I can bring whatever burdens I have into the space and let them go for a while. Maybe even leave a few bags behind. Your relaxed, confident, unpretentious style allows me the space to look at myself… really take a good look and laugh or cry without condemnation. You are real with yourself, so I can be real with myself. You speak from the heart and help the room stay anchored there, from a place of love, instead of intellectualizing everything. Your willingness to be vulnerable shows others that intimacy is ok, even if it’s just for an hour.

    If there were any books that pastors, or future pastors, should be reading it should be something along the lines of: ‘true intimacy’, ‘acknowledging your own baggage and being real with it’, ‘preach without being preachy’, ‘speaking and acting from the heart’, and ‘empathy’. Ask, and God will answer if you’re listening.
    Leave the marketing plans, focus groups, and advertising campaigns to the Marketing dept. Oh, and don’t go searching for flaws that aren’t really there.

  • Sonya

    For me, it isn’t about the bells and whistles. I attended small churches and very large churches in the past. And I stopped going because I didn’t feel a solid connection with the heart of the message. In these days of marketing plans, twitter, talk shows, and showy campaigns, more people are getting superficial spirituality and thinking that’s all there is to it. They wonder why they’re still so dissatisfied with life and don’t make any progress on their spiritual path.

    Richard, BCC is the first church where I feel completely at peace. I can bring whatever burdens I have into the space and let them go for a while. Maybe even leave a few bags behind. Your relaxed, confident, unpretentious style allows me the space to look at myself… really take a good look and laugh or cry without condemnation. You are real with yourself, so I can be real with myself. You speak from the heart and help the room stay anchored there, from a place of love, instead of intellectualizing everything. Your willingness to be vulnerable shows others that intimacy is ok, even if it’s just for an hour.

    If there were any books that pastors, or future pastors, should be reading it should be something along the lines of: ‘true intimacy’, ‘acknowledging your own baggage and being real with it’, ‘preach without being preachy’, ‘speaking and acting from the heart’, and ‘empathy’. Ask, and God will answer if you’re listening.
    Leave the marketing plans, focus groups, and advertising campaigns to the Marketing dept. Oh, and don’t go searching for flaws that aren’t really there.

  • Nate Collins

    Hey Richard. Thanks for the reminder. I was passionately convinced of the truth of what you are saying last semester, but the conviction faded a bit as opportunities to achieve continued to present themselves. Nothing like reading books about theologians who generally had great (or not so great) contributions to doctrine, but never left their offices to help me forget that changing the world with my pen is pretty low on the list of “best things to do with my life”. Especially since my chances of success would also be pretty low!

  • Pastor Brian

    Brother Richard. Thank you for re-centering so much of my world. Perspective is everything and too often I as a pastor, lose it amidst all the “stuff” of life! If anyone is reading this who is NOT a pastor please hear these words: Pastor’s need community and need people to take responsibility for their personal growth in Christ! Pastor’s are called to come alongside and NOT to carry the burdened, broken and hurting person. That is the role of the Holy Spirit. Please, please, please be an encourager “OF” and a prayer warrior “FOR” YOUR pastor! Thanks again for helping me to better align my priorities with those of Jesus Christ!

    • raincitypastor

      Thanks Brian… living near the ocean, I’m privileged to see continual reminders of the danger of drifting. Logs are washed up along the beach simply because they were carried along by the tides. The tides of my fallen nature and the fallen world will always carry me away from God’s purposes. In contrast, ships are intent on a course, and have a power to head towards the destination. In Christ we have both a destination and power. May we find Him to be, in a real sense, our compass and power and, when storms arise, our anchor.

  • Pastor Brian

    Brother Richard. Thank you for re-centering so much of my world. Perspective is everything and too often I as a pastor, lose it amidst all the “stuff” of life! If anyone is reading this who is NOT a pastor please hear these words: Pastor’s need community and need people to take responsibility for their personal growth in Christ! Pastor’s are called to come alongside and NOT to carry the burdened, broken and hurting person. That is the role of the Holy Spirit. Please, please, please be an encourager “OF” and a prayer warrior “FOR” YOUR pastor! Thanks again for helping me to better align my priorities with those of Jesus Christ!

  • Mark

    Thanks for the timely post. I’m entering my 7th year of full-time ministry and too often am finding myself dreaming about what it would be like to do something else. Those are usually moments when I find myself frustrated and overwhelmed by the apparent success of others around me in ministry and my own selfish desire to do something that others will take note of. God has recently been reminding me of the need for spiritual formation in my life and the importance of remaining in him and walking in the Spirit.

  • Mark

    Thanks for the timely post. I’m entering my 7th year of full-time ministry and too often am finding myself dreaming about what it would be like to do something else. Those are usually moments when I find myself frustrated and overwhelmed by the apparent success of others around me in ministry and my own selfish desire to do something that others will take note of. God has recently been reminding me of the need for spiritual formation in my life and the importance of remaining in him and walking in the Spirit.


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