Is It Mordor or Is It Ministry?

The Complexity of Church Culture

I’ve seen the happy, beaming faces. So happy for the opportunity to serve the Lord full time.

You can hear them gleefully telling their family, their friends, “I got a job at the church!

My uncle was Lutheran pastor. He felt stuck in an urban parish in Chicago. He and his wife couldn’t afford a home, so they lived in a flat on the upper floor of an aging brick building. A flat. That would be something less than an apartment.

Then he got a “call” to suburban church in Minneapolis, land o’ lakes and land o’ Lutherans. He literally jumped for joy. Lutherans, don’t ya know, shouldn’t do that. Pentecostals and African American Christians? Not a problem. But not white Lutherans.

When my uncle came down from his high flying moment with God, he broke his toe. Literally. Painfully.

What goes up must come down. Whoever enters ministry can expect a sense of extraordinary significance and joy–and the fight of their life.

I’ve been in ministry now for nearly forty years. Sometimes it’s magic. Sometimes it’s Mordor, a black, belching inferno of conflict and pain. Somebody, though, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, has to carry the ring and pitch it into the fire, even if it costs him his life.

The apostle Paul (with the help of Eugene Peterson) described ministry this way: This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels (Ephesians 6:12).

More familiar to most of us is the translation, ” For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” The word “wrestle” is a gladiator term which Peterson captures wonderfully with the phrase “a life and death fight to finish.” All the way to Mordor.

But I thought we were family?

The prevailing metaphor of the church in the church is family. Yet “family” is only one of many images of the church in the New Testament. The church is also a body, a building, a temple, a nation, a priesthood, and an army, to name a few.

But in the church, we’re family, and it’s this image that prevails.

We had a custodian, for example, who was consistently late for work. A sound tech who had a drinking problem and missed Sunday services a time or two. A full-time ministry leader who, because of a dreadful family tragedy, worked one or two days a week for a couple months.

In every case, when we insisted that these people had to make serious changes or lose their jobs, the response was the same: But isn’t the church a family? No family would treat their loved ones this way! We’re under grace, not the law.

Our facilities supervisor told our custodian that, because it was the church, we expected the highest level of commitment and performance, or we would have to replace him. He decided to come to work on time. The other two staff employees, though, were asked to resign.

But is that the way Jesus would treat people? Yes. A young man told Jesus he wanted to follow him but, he said, “My dad died, and I have to bury him first.” Jesus responded, coldly it seems, “Let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22).

What’s up with that? Was Jesus heartless? No. Sometimes life calls for tough love. Sometimes the mission trumps personal comfort and happiness. Sometime the mission calls us away from family and friends, and the cross calls us to die.

Years ago one of my key staff decided to step down, to take his life in a new direction. At a special meeting with our leadership community to announce his departure, he said all the right things right from his heart. “Have Gary and I had our differences? Yes, Have those difference been a factor in my decision? Yes. No! Are those difference the principle reason for my departure? No! Does that mean that Gary and I will not continue to be colleague and friends? No!

Years later we are still are very good friends, but it took his wife a while to deal with the changes in their lives. She asked me if she could come to my office and express her concerns and dismay. I agreed. She asked me, “My husband has worked under so much pressure here. Is that the way the church is supposed to be?”

Her question took me off guard, but after a moment of hesitation I replied, “Here at our church, yes, church has to be this way.” You see, we had thousands of members, and our expectations of our staff were very high. I will repeat what Jesus said: To whom much is given, much is required.

Where in any business outside the church would a supervisor meet with a spouse to address her concerns about her husband’s job? Oh, it might happen in a small business, but not in a large company.

Or where, outside the church, would an employee ask for special meeting with her supervisor–and if she could bring her husband to that meeting? Someone on my staff did that. I told her we could meet with our human resource consultant, but not with her husband.

But this is the church! It’s not a business. I thought we were family?

The army of God

Sometimes we are family. Other times we have to be “purpose driven.” It’s not about me.

Imagine how different it would be if the primary metaphor in the church was the army of God. My youngest son is in the Navy. His enlistment papers said something like this: “I understand that the penalty for desertion in a time of war or national crisis is death.” He signed it.

I thought to myself, we should have that statement in our membership application!

Some time ago I met an aging Australian veteran of World War II, also one of the most influential Christian leaders “down under” in the 60s and 70s. As one of the youngest captains in the Australian forces, he led a company of men fighting the Germans in sizzling hot sands of North Africa.

He had urgent orders to advance his men to a certain critical position. Not obeying them would risk the lives of hundreds of other Allied soldiers, but their map failed to show a massive minefield between them and their objective.

Gathering his men, Captain Oxley called for volunteers. “We need five of you,” he announced grimly, “to run through that minefield so the rest of our company can advance.”

Everyone in his command raised their hands. So Oxley randomly picked five men who promptly ran through the minefield. Several died in the explosions, others were seriously wounded, but the sacrifice of a few allowed the others to fulfill their mission.

Pastoral leadership is an oxymoron. People expect their pastor to be tender, tolerant, forgiving, safe. But leaders have to make decisions that make people feel uncomfortable, unsafe. A leader sees a different future, a better future, and challenges people to think and live differently, to grow, to improve, to change and, sometimes, to get out of the way.

To me, this is the most necessary and painful part of being a leader, but then Jesus himself said, ” From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

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