All posts from "July 2013"July 29, 2013
Experience has assured me that he uses social media—and we can do ministry there
The first day of the conference, I checked in on Facebook: "@Synergy Women’s Network Conference, Orlando! Keynote: Sheryl WuDunn of Half The Sky! Yah!" It’s what we leader-types do to get the word out for the organizations we support. (And in my case, a ton of obnoxious exclamation marks are needed.)
After I pressed “post,” I got the hoped-for 23 "likes,” the 6 or so coveted "So jealous," and even a few “I'm here too, let’s connect!"
Then I received an unexpected Facebook message from Kathy. She said she lived about two hours away and would love to drive in to have dinner. I hadn't seen Kathy in more than 30 years.
At the time of the conference, I was in a rough place spiritually—feeling like God was displeased with Leader-Type Lesa and so he had decided to be silent.
I was seeing a spiritual director who was exploring whether my view of God had gotten skewed back in my childhood. In our discussions, I shared how I was sure that my rebellious youth had caused my dad to step down as an elder in our church. The scene was cemented in my brain. I had shamed my family, and Kathy, a fellow pothead, was a part of that bad memory.
Reluctantly I said yes to Kathy's offer. “For heaven’s sake,” I thought, “I’m a workshop speaker at a Christian conference and I’m about to reminisce about sneaking out and getting high!”
And yet, my spiritual director advised, "Look for God in everything." So I had become open to the bizarre ways God might choose to reveal himself. Sitting across the table at Buca Di Beppo restaurant, Kathy and I began talking about the good old days. It was not at all what I had described to my spiritual director.
When I told Kathy that I was a preacher’s wife, she smiled and said she thought I would do something like that because my family had been so involved in church. Kathy was an elementary school art teacher; it was the perfect fit for her—I remember drawing together all the time. Kathy also reminded me that my “sweet dad” had come to visit her family when her father had passed away suddenly and how much that had meant to her even as a teenager.
Kathy and I talked and laughed for hours and yet the shaming drug days never came up. They didn’t seem important.
After my unexpected encounter with Kathy, I started viewing my “e-relationships” differently. I began to look for where God might be working and determined to be more intentional, especially when someone reached out to me.
It has been a redemptive and lively adventure! For example, I met a rapper friend of my son and started following her on Twitter. She writes, among other rapper-ish-type subjects, about the struggle to be heard, stage fright, and being a woman. I began tweeting encouraging messages to her, and now we lob back and forth #womanpower tweets.
A seminary student in California googled the word “mentor” and found my name from the women’s mentoring ministry I lead at my church. She sent me a message on Facebook but because we were not “friends,” it went to the Other pile—you know the one with the creepy messages, “Your smile is so beautiful…” So I did not see it for quite some time—but as I said, I look for God in the unusual now. From the California coast to Texas, we have discussed our mutual passion to mentor women.
I now keep up with an uber-talented poet coed I met randomly in Nicaragua on a mission trip. As we chatted in the hot Nicaraguan sun, she was interested in learning more about prose and I wanted to get my dormant poetry juices flowing. We have had fun e-tutoring one another on writing.
The craziest e-ministry experience came from an article I wrote in which I referenced Thomas Merton. A Virginian rose gardener, who was a former priest and was actually mentored by Merton, e-mailed me to thank me for continuing Merton’s legacy. I e-mailed back and asked how in the world he had found me. He said he has a Google Alert that tells him when something new pops up on Merton.
These natural connections over common interests feel like the kind of ministry God calls us to—and I wouldn’t have had these encounters without social media.
Shortly after the Synergy conference, my friend Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She messaged me to ask if I would pray for her and if I’d also ask my “sweet dad” to pray. The redemptive comedy of heaven: God is on Facebook.
Lesa Engelthaler is a senior associate for Victory Search Group, assisting nonprofit organizations to recruit executive leaders. She serves on the board of Synergy Women's Network. Friend her on Facebook: Lesa Shackelford Engelthaler or follow her on Twitter: @lengelthaler.
I found a way to reach out to young people who have drifted from the faith
Robin (name changed) posted on Facebook one day: “I am bored out of my mind. Someone please talk to me!” I didn’t know Robin that well. Her parents had been in a Bible study in our home when she was just a little girl. But that Bible study ended when Robin was about 10, and I hadn’t had much contact with her since then. During her middle school and high school years, I saw her occasionally at church and said hi, but beyond that we had no relationship. However, I “friended” her on Facebook at the same time that I friended her mother, so I saw her frequent posts. Mostly, I ignored them because they were full of teenage angst that, frankly, annoyed me.
However, this cry of boredom and the plea for someone to talk to her grabbed my attention. Now in her late teens, Robin had quit coming to church and seemed to have thrown off all ties to her Christian faith. Her Facebook posts revealed what a secular life she was living, complete with all the chaos that brings. I felt compassion and empathy for her and wanted to connect. I was pretty sure that when she was asking for someone to talk to her, she didn’t mean her mother’s middle-aged friend. She was looking for a response from friends her own age. But when no one commented on her post over the next hour, I took a plunge.
“Hi, Robin. I’m sorry you’re bored. Tell me what has been going on in your life.” To my surprise she did. And she seemed genuinely pleased that I’d asked. That gave me the freedom to start responding now and then to her posts—never judgmentally, but always truthfully. I also looked for ways to let her know I cared, so when she posted that she’d lost her iPod, I responded that I had one I could give her. She was delighted, which further cemented me as a “safe” person to correspond with.
Within a month of our correspondence, Robin’s best friend, who was also raised in our church, asked to be my Facebook friend. I knew her even less than I knew Robin, but I happily began responding to her posts too, and she is now one of the people I “talk” to most frequently on Facebook.
That led me to thinking about other girls who were raised in our church and who had walked away from Christ once they were out on their own. I looked up two more that I knew fairly well and asked them to be my Facebook friends. They both said yes, and I am often the most consistent person to respond to their posts.
Out of the four girls I chat with on Facebook, none are living the Christian life that I would want them to live. However, whenever I say anything about Christ, they respond positively. I’m convinced that I’m one of the few Christian voices they still hear. And my hope is that my simple comments will reawaken the truths they learned in their youth. But I’m very careful in what I say to them. Here are some ways I’ve approached it.
I Affirm Before I Instruct
Since all four of these girls were raised in our church and walked away, I knew they were wary of the Christian message. As a result, I was very careful in how I responded to each of them at first. I tried to affirm them and establish a relationship before I gave them any advice. That wasn’t always easy to do. Much of what these girls posted shocked me and brought me sorrow. My inclination was to point out how wrong they were, but I refrained, working on the relationship first.
For example, when Robin posted anything that was morally neutral, I responded as positively as I could. When she said she was going to the zoo with her friend, I said, “What fun! It’s a great day for it. Say hi to the monkeys for me.” I did this a lot so that I earned some cred when she posted something I couldn’t respond positively to. After a year of positive comments, I finally posted a warning when she said that she’d gotten engaged. I knew the guy was going to be a disaster from earlier posts, so while everyone else was saying, “Congrats,” I said, “I wish I could be excited for you, but his Facebook persona scares me.” She made no response to my comment, but later when she’d broken up with him because he was abusive, she seemed all the more eager to talk to me—and more willing to broach spiritual subjects.
I Try to Be Patient
I’ve been corresponding with these girls for almost four years now. Out of the four, only one has returned to church. And I know I’m not the only reason she has returned, but I have the joy of knowing that I at least helped make the church seem like a safe, attractive place when she was living in chaos.
I’m still waiting for the other three to return to faith. I see encouraging signs from two of them. Although they haven’t returned to church, they are at least more positive toward Christian thoughts and comments. And they have even begun to “like” some of my more overt Christian statements on Facebook. So I continue to wait patiently for Christ to do in them what I cannot.
One of the best things about “adopting” these girls on Facebook has been the reminder of things I can pray for them. I know intimate details about their daily lives because of their posts and am able to pray for specific things that concern me. I even let them know I am praying. When Robin broke up with her abusive boyfriend, I wrote in a private message, “I’m sorry that you had to go through this. I know it’s something you will carry for a long time. But I’m praying that God will mend your broken heart and heal the places deep inside that are hurting. Let him fold you in his loving arms and give you hope.”
So, my Facebook mentoring has been a rewarding ministry. God has guided me with his wisdom, gentleness, and truth to keep reaching out to some girls I never would have contact with otherwise. Perhaps he wants you to have a similar outreach. Ask him to place someone on your heart to connect with through a simple comment on Facebook now and then. It may have eternal impact.
An interview with Michelle Tessendorf, Executive Director of Orchard: Africa
What are some challenges the African church is facing now which we may not be facing in the Western church?
Africa is facing the greatest humanitarian crisis that the world has known. We see all these earthquakes and natural disasters, and clearly the church responds to that and should respond to that. But on a daily basis we having that disaster play out in Africa, and I think sometimes we become numb to those statistics but they’re very real. The church in Africa is truly suffering tremendously, especially rural churches. Rural churches in Africa have typically been poor and struggled with very little resources, but the church leaders are so full of the Holy Spirit and so determined to serve God even within that poverty that is a result of AIDS and the economically active adult population dying off. The Western church needs to be aware of that. The Western church needs to follow the book of Acts, where those who had plenty helped those who didn’t have. Mission trips were initiated, and the church truly helped each other and worked as a church worldwide. The Western church needs to be aware that this isn’t just the popular thing to get involved with right now and then move on in a year or two. We truly need a long-term solution and long-term partnerships from the Western church.
One of the issues that we have is that the Muslim imams are seeing the same death that we see at Orchard: Africa, this missing generation. And they see an entire generation that can be brought to Islam. sub-Saharan Africa has had hundreds of years of Christian missions, and we could lose all of the ground we’ve won in one generation if the church does not step up and see there are millions of orphans that are vulnerable. It is the church’s responsibility to maintain the Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s the church’s responsibility to strengthen the rural church in Africa, so that we do not lose this generation for Christ.
What problems and challenges do we have in common?
Human creatures that God created are the same intrinsically. The bottom line is we all just want to have good family lives. We want to see our children progress. And we have the same challenge as children grow up to maintain their relationship with the Lord as they become teenagers. Just making sure that people are truly connected to Christ and not being entertained in church. The church sometimes tries to compete with the world and sometimes our church services turn into entertainment. That can happen in the church in Africa as well, where we entertain our congregations rather than uplift them and challenge them and draw them closer to Christ. Church leaders struggle through how we get our message across in the way that people can relate to.
Regardless of where you live on the planet, we are still human. The same needs, the same desires, the same sinful nature, all those things are true regardless of what setting you’re in.
What is God doing in African churches?
There is a compassion in Africa in the churches. The Western world has so much. The Western church is so tremendously blessed, and there is so much available. Yet when I’m in an African church in a rural setting where they have absolutely nothing, perhaps they’re meeting under a tree or in a shack as a church, the enthusiasm and the love for Christ and the way in which they worship is just profound. Without any musical instruments, without anything but their voices and their hearts and their spirits, the worship is amazing. The love for Christ, the connection to Christ, because he is all they have, is something worth seeing. I believe that every Western church leader should visit a church in Africa just to feel the absolute love for Christ and dependence on Christ.
How can Western churches best come alongside churches in Africa to offer partnership and support? What’s the best thing we can do to offer support?
That depends on the church. At Orchard: Africa, we have specific projects in place and ask churches to come alongside. For example, they can sponsor a village. That basically means come alongside a village church as a Western church. They can help support the AIDS prevention program, the feeding projects, the orphan intervention programs, et cetera, obviously with financial support.
But my challenge to the Western church is not just to send money, not to have a kneejerk reaction and say, “Well, now we’ve got to build orphanages because there’s all these orphans.” But to find out what that community truly needs. Africa does not need orphanages. What we need are children to be cared for in a community setting, and that is a much more difficult thing to do than to build an orphanage. I’m not against orphanages, and sometimes one is needed. But I think the Western church sometimes has the kneejerk reaction; we go in and build something and we can take photographs and go back and show our congregation what we did. That’s not necessarily sustainable. And who’s going to maintain that orphanage? Community care for the orphans takes a little longer thinking, a longer commitment, a more intense commitment, but it certainly has a much more profound and long-term, sustainable outcome.
Church leaders need to truly do their homework, their research, get involved with an organization on the ground in Africa that has been working there for many years and understands all the nuances of what goes on in rural Africa and partner with an organization like that.
Three recent events that matter to your ministry
Consider these recent events and how they might affect your ministry.
Just Listen: Responding to the Trayvon Martin Case
This is the big one. Even if you haven’t been following the months of public trial, you couldn’t avoid the fallout from Saturday’s verdict on the very public and very contentious George Zimmerman trial. Since the jury found him “not guilty” of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, seemingly every TV station and Facebook post has voiced an opinion on what the decision says about the state of race relations in America, the legal system, and what justice really means. If one thing in this case is clear, it’s that it’s about so much more than one man and one boy and what really happened in the subdivision that night. Its implications touch so many people in deeply personal ways, and the cries of injustice cannot be ignored.
Now is a time to listen. Every person has experiences that have shaped who they are and how they view this world, and this week a lot of people are hurt. That is a very serious thing. By listening to other people’s stories of exclusion, prejudice, and profiling, we can acknowledge their pain and offer a safe space for healing. When we focus on being right, we lose the opportunity to show someone Christ’s love.
On the point of justice, we know we have a hope beyond the American legal system and its offer of a justice that is, really, determined by other fallible people. This hope is still real in the most hopeless situations, and we have the pleasure of sharing that hope with others who have seen the result of the alternative and have been left disappointed.
The End of Exodus
Just a few weeks ago, ex-gay ministry Exodus International announced it would be shutting its doors for good and reopening as a new ministry that will aim to “reduce fear (reducefear.org), and come alongside churches to become safe, welcoming, and mutually transforming communities." The ministry, which emphasized reparative theory, or gay-to-straight conversion, as the Christian response to homosexuality, publicly apologized to the gay community for years of suffering and judgment as a result of these methods via an open letter from organization president Alan Chambers.
This is a really big deal. It represents a shift in how the church communicates its message to the gay community, and models humility in a way that shocked many in and out of the church. Without apologizing for his own personal views on the issue, Chambers acknowledged the pain many have felt and demonstrated remorse and grief for his role in it. He said, “More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God's rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives. For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the Gospel, one of grace, mercy and open invitation to all to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God.”
With the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) coming just after this announcement, it’s been a big few weeks for gay marriage, which means it’s been a big few weeks for Christians trying to figure out how to respond with both love and conviction.
The JK Rowling Book We Didn’t Know We Had
On a lighter note…just this past weekend, reports surfaced that J.K. Rowling, the billionaire author of the Harry Potter series, published a mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Cloaking her identity behind that of a former member of the Special Investigative Branch of the Royal Military Police, she published the novel in April to little fanfare. After critics praised the “stellar debut,” the New York Times received a tip noting the connection of the new author to Rowling’s publisher, agent, and editor. And then her secret was out.
Basically, Rowling’s actual name is too successful and draws any work into inevitable comparisons with her now-classic series of novels about a boy wizard. What a problem to have! But as she said in a statement responding to the reveal, "It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.” It would be very nice not to have to worry about the actual sales of a book, but thanks to Harry, Rowling will never have to worry about money again. Her decision to publish under the Galbraith identity, however, touches on something most of us can relate to: the weight of expectations.
Sometimes too much success can be a difficult thing. Once people begin to expect things from us, the persistent pressure to avoid disappointing them can slowly chip away at our souls. Many of us don’t have the luxury, however, of stepping outside our identities to do what we love and feel called to do. So how do we manage the pressure? Burnout is one of the most common ministry killers, and avoiding this fate requires active prioritization of soul care: time alone with God, time spent in the Word, time to rest and recharge and refocus on the reason we do anything we do. Summer is a great time to step away for a few hours or a few days to prepare yourself for the year ahead.
Laura Leonard is the associate editor of Building Church Leaders at Christianity Today. You can find her on Twitter @lmarieleonard.
An interview with Michelle Tessendorf, Executive Director of Orchard: Africa
What’s the mission of Orchard: Africa, and what do you do?
The ministry work in Africa is to empower the church in the Western world and in Africa to respond to the AIDS and orphans crisis that is in Africa at the moment, and it’s a twofold ministry. On the one hand, we are empowering local, rural African church pastors to become community leaders and to speak up in their communities during this crisis with AIDS and the compounded poverty that’s resulted. At the same time, the Western church is wanting to respond and understands that the church in Africa needs assistance, but oftentimes the Western church doesn’t know how to respond or what the correct response is. So Orchard: Africa is that bridge between the Western world and the rural church in Africa, helping the churches to come up with a sustainable response in this time of crisis. We believe that the church community wants us to care for widows and orphans, and so it is the church’s role to step up to the plate.
What are some specific ways you pursue that mission, and in what countries are you working?
We’re currently working in South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana, and we are in the process of expanding to other countries. The whole of sub-Saharan Africa is reeling under the AIDS pandemic, and the church is struggling tremendously. And so we will go wherever God leads us and wherever we have resources to respond.
What we do is help pastors, empower them to actually respond to the needs of the orphans in the AIDS crisis. Some of the projects that we help to implement in their communities are feeding projects for children. Orphan intervention programs where pastors step in and help the extended family or help the grandmothers, who are typically caring for their orphaned grandchildren. We want to see an end to the AIDS pandemic and the HIV infection rate. So we very strongly help the pastors to implement AIDS prevention programs in the high schools.
For the Western church, we have materials that we make available to our partner churches in the United States, to help them explain the AIDS situation in Africa. Oftentimes people don’t really understand, so we have curriculum available and we help our partner churches to help their congregations fully understand what’s going on in Africa and to support a response that is sustainable. So we’re working on both sides, empowering church leaders.
What is your specific role with Orchard: Africa?
I am one of the founders, and currently the executive director. I’m also an ordained pastor. So my role is also senior missions pastor. I lead strategically and make sure that we’re planning ahead and that the programs we implement are sustainable and have great outcomes. And then, because I have a pastoral heart, I work pastorally with those we work with. We basically pastor other pastors more so than the congregations. It’s really a pastoral role to other church leaders.
What talents or spiritual gifts has God given you, that equip you for your role?
I think I’m really good at strategic planning, to put procedures and systems into place that produce positive outcomes in the communities where we work. My husband has the saying that I can see in the dark, and I suppose what that constitutes is where there is a lot of confusion and people don’t really know how to respond, somehow God gives me the light and I’m able to find a strategic plan and I’m able to put systems into place. And once we start working through that, the outcomes always seem to be positive. So I believe God uses me in that way.
How might other women exercise similar gifts in their own communities?
You know, I stumbled upon this ministry by accident. My husband and I were called to pastor a church in this particular city. Both being ordained pastors, he had been called to take on the senior pastor’s role and I was one of the pastors on staff. And we found out about children who were rummaging on the garbage dump for food. We just felt that was unacceptable. Our children at the time were in preschool, and we just felt, how could there be children eating garbage for food? So we stepped up to the plate and started a feeding project on the city garbage dump, and here we are 20 years later and Orchard: Africa is a multinational, multicultural ministry. Many times God puts something in front of you and you just do what you need to do and you find your ministry that way.
So for other women, it’s a case of what is in front of you. What has God brought to your attention? What is right there in your midst that perhaps needs some attention? Just step up to the plate in some small way. We had big pots of food and we took it to the garbage dump and fed the children, and I had no inkling that God was calling me to this ministry and where I would be 20 years later. But here I am, and I think that’s something I could say to other women. If they just open their eyes and their ears and watch how God uses something small. One small step. Before you know it, you find a ministry.
What have you seen God do through your work in Africa?
We have been working at this for over two decades now, and when we started working, the AIDS pandemic was just starting to rear its ugly head, and we pretty much were stumbling around in the dark. There were no models to follow. Nobody really knew what the response was. We were listening to the Holy Spirit and seeking the sustainable solution: What can continue? Because you can start something, but it’s not always easy to sustain it and continue it. What I have seen God do through our work is find those sustainable solutions, solutions that can be duplicated in other villages that are experiencing similar problems. Now, two decades later, we have children that we started working with 20 years ago who are adults and thriving in their community, and they’re alive when their peers have died. They are examples. They have changed their lifestyles. They’re living for Christ. And we’ve seen the outworking of that. But it wasn’t because we had any models to follow. We basically were spearheading. Today many of the practices and projects we started with when we felt God leading us have become basic best-practice models in other communities. They’re looking at these models and saying this is best practice. But we didn’t know that 20 years ago. I think that was just God leading us and being able to see in the dark.
We can either bless or curse people who need us
For some Christians, every problem—and every solution—is spiritual. In this environment, mental illness is obvious evidence of a lack of faith. Medical and psychiatric interventions are suspect, while more prayer and more faith are the prescriptions of choice. While nothing is wrong with more prayer or more faith—mental illness or not—there is not a lot of wisdom in treating illness exclusively with spiritual discipline.
Again, mental illness is called out for special treatment among maladies. A former pastor who now works as a therapist made this point: “I don’t hear anybody casting out demons for a heart ailment instead of having bypass surgery. Seldom do you have a pastor saying, ‘Well, I can cure that bypass issue with prayer.’ With a mental health issue, suddenly we think we can cure that, we can pray that out of a person.”
Another pastor and former social worker told me,
Someone asked me the other day, “Do you believe that a person can be healed of mental illness?” I said that’s a really hard question. I believe that they can receive healing. I’ve seen people get better through work and therapy and healing and prayer. I believe God can heal anything. But I don’t know exactly how that all works. Can he heal a bad back? Yes, but he might use medicine to heal or to help a person live a better life without all the pain.
Spiritual growth and discipline certainly play a role in healing mental illness and other ailments. One father of a son with bipolar disorder told me,
The heart and soul and mind, they’re all integrated. But it’s a medical problem, so it’s a very difficult thing for a lot of people to understand. It’s in the context of interpersonal dynamics that it looks like a spiritual problem. It looks like you could just pray for that person to spend more time in the Word or just pull himself up by the bootstraps and he’ll be fine, but that’s like telling a diabetic that you’ll pray for them when what they really need is insulin.
Another friend struggled with depression when her thyroid stopped functioning properly. Her Christian counselor recognized that she probably had a physiological root to her depression and advised her to see her doctor. Sure enough, she needed medical intervention for her thyroid, and after a long process of working with a doctor, her mood leveled out as her body got what it needed. She’s grateful that the counselor sent her to the right place, and she added, “Heaven forbid she would have said, ‘Pray harder; you’re too weak spiritually; there’s some kind of sin in your life that’s making this happen.’”
This friend also described the way she sees her ongoing need for counseling:
Long before any of this was a part of our journey, people said, “Therapists shouldn’t be necessary. If you pray hard enough and you seek God hard enough, you don’t need a counselor.” And now, having been in counseling for years myself, I realize a lot of things I wrestle with, they’re not spiritual issues as much as they are dysfunction that has been ingrained in me since birth. I need to unlearn those things. So I don’t see them as spiritual issues; I don’t see them as sin issues. I see them as things I need to learn how to do differently.
When “just have faith and pray more” doesn’t work, the mentally ill are shamed and alienated even further. They’re also discouraged from seeking treatment, convinced by their churches that their ailments must have a spiritual solution—which remains elusive. This is the work of Pharisees, about whom Jesus said, “Practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Mt 23:3-4).
This is not the work of Christ, who said, “My yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Mt 11:30). He does not hold himself out of our reach. He does not hide his peace and demand that we always work just a little harder to find it. He comes to us when we aren’t even looking for him, woos us with unconditional love and powers our lives with new strength and supernatural peace each day. He erases the past and gives us hope for the future. He deigns to use us—all riddled with sin and bleeding with shame—in his holy work. He gives us reason to live—the only reason actually worth living for. And all we have to do is come to him like children. May we grant this astounding truth to all suffering people.
I spoke with a NAMI educator whose job is to reach out to her community, helping people understand mental illness and providing the support they need. In nearly a decade of work, she has been discouraged at the lack of participation among churches, which has been a main area of focus for her because of her Christian faith. As she has reached out to churches and offered to help them better minister to people with mental illness within their congregations, most have been uninterested. She described her sadness over
people within the church, attending Bible study together, staying quiet because of fear. I know that a percentage of them experience depression or other illness, but they don’t know that about each other because nobody has decided to share that. If they did, they would probably feel so much comfort. But the church, I think, leans toward that perfection—everything’s fine, everything’s okay—instead of the real message of Christ: I show you my scars and you’re attracted.
In every city in this part of the world, people are working to end the stigmatization and marginalization of people with mental illness. Some of them have received healing or have learned to manage illnesses that affected them so profoundly the world told them their lives were effectively over. Others have seen family members and friends suffer from debilitating disorders and then suffer even more profoundly from the rejection of fellow human beings. Others simply refuse to stand by while people sick with treatable illnesses live in misery or take their own lives because they’re too afraid to get help.
Many of them are committed followers of Christ who believe we are all called to behave as Christ did among people in need. Your church can join them in big or small ways. You can start today.
Taken from Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson. Copyright(c) 2013 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com
A picture of healthy relationship between ministry spouses
Flipping through TV channels, we can see shows like The Housewives of Wherever, depicting women as backbiting, gossiping liars with a proclivity toward physical altercations. Now more than ever, women in church leadership have an opportunity to model healthy female relationships worth imitating.
Debbie Altman is one such woman. She works in a world that can be filled with both explosive relational land mines and pockets of gold: the world of church ministry. Debbie and her husband, Craig Altman, founded Grace Family Church 19 years ago. Currently, Grace Family has a weekend attendance of 6,000 people with Debbie and Craig leading a large staff, including 12 pastors. Although Debbie is not a paid staff member, she co-leads Grace with her husband and believes that part of her role as lead pastor’s wife is to minister to the other pastors’ wives.
As an observer of people, I was curious how Debbie creates healthy relationships with pastors’ wives. I also asked Kristin, the wife of one of Grace’s executive pastor’s, what Debbie does to create healthy relationships. Since leadership begins at the top, both Debbie and Kristin agree that Debbie has maintained certain values that have created healthy relationships with the pastors’ wives.
Connectivity—When the church was young, Debbie wanted to convey the message that she cared about the pastors’ wives as people. So she instituted monthly meetings so pastors’ wives could share the joys and challenges of life by encouraging one another and sharing wisdom. The meetings also provided a launch pad for increased relationships not only with Debbie as the lead pastor’s wife, but also between the other pastors’ wives. Since Grace is now larger, the meetings occur about four times a year and consist of a field trip or dinner out.
Vulnerability—Debbie believes women are hungry to be real but afraid to be judged. To combat this, Debbie has chosen to be vulnerable about the challenges in her own life: her marriage, children, menopause, anxiety, and challenges as a woman in ministry. Being vulnerable with her own struggles empowers women in her circle of influence to be more open about their challenges.
Affirmation—Noticing excellence and faithfulness affirms to the pastors’ wives that they are appreciated.
Resolutions—Smoldering feelings eventually turn into big fires. Debbie is a big believer that conflicts need to be addressed. When she has negative feelings about one of the pastor’s wives, she brings up the uncomfortable relational issue in a gentle, calm, and open-hearted manner, hoping to discover her feelings and gain a deeper understanding, leading to a deeper level of intimacy and a closer relationship. Even in particularly difficult situations, where pastors have been asked to step down from their positions, Debbie has reached out to their wives and had healing discussions. Also, when Debbie has feelings of insecurity about one of the pastor’s wives, she reminds herself of the following:
• It’s not about herself; it’s about God.
• She must be incredibly grateful that God has chosen to send amazing women leaders who take ministry to the next level at Grace.
• She can’t do everything. It takes everyone with various gifts working together to advance the kingdom.
From Kristin’s Perspective
Ministry Sweet Spot—Debbie and Craig created a culture at Grace where people, both volunteers and staff, work in their “sweet spot” of ministry. Early in the church’s history, each staff member took a personality test which identified strengths and gifts. This helped them understand one another and create realistic expectations. For example, Debbie loves to greet people as they come through the doors. Remembering people’s names and situations, she makes them feel loved and affirmed. Kristin feels awkward greeting people as they come through the doors; however, if you give her a job such as checking kids into the nursery or serving coffee, she is more comfortable connecting with people.
Seasons of Ministry—While pastors’ wives are not obligated to volunteer at Grace, some women want to lead. Debbie encourages these women to minister where it is most natural at the time. For example, when Kristin was a young mom, she led Bible studies for other young moms. When her children were toddlers, she led a play group for moms of toddlers.
Clear Expectations—Debbie sets clear expectations when pastors’ wives are needed to help with events, but never asks them to do anything that she wouldn’t do herself.
Mentoring—Debbie values mentoring, putting the relationships with the pastors’ wives before the ministry work they are doing together. She does a tremendous job of listening, advising, and choosing her words wisely.
Hopefully, women in church leadership won’t be found exemplifying the Housewives franchise but modeling the biblical standards found in Scripture. “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other (Romans 12:10). Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3).” Hats off to Debbie, who has set the bar high for the rest of us.
It’s not just about finding warm bodies and putting them to work
Recruiting, training, deploying, and supporting volunteers can occasionally feel like a full-time job. But as leaders, we all understand that without these volunteers, church as we know it would come to a screeching halt. For nearly 20 years, my husband (Christopher) and I have mobilized hundreds of men and women to serve on the various teams that we lead. I hope this overview of some things we’ve learned will serve both seasoned and beginning leaders.
Our role begins in much the same way that a college coach recruits athletes. Coaches understand their mandate—winning games—and choose individuals with a variety of skill sets; they don’t just need five point guards! And ministry is slightly more complicated than outscoring your opponent.
Because the needs of a church are always changing, recruiting happens year-round. For the more prominent teams (worship), this typically means winnowing down many eager volunteers to the necessary few. The long-term healing and discipleship program Christopher and I run has a worship, teaching, prayer, and small-group component. We minister to individuals in the church who would identify themselves as struggling to connect well with others and/or God. Leading in this setting requires a more intense commitment and we usually have to pursue candidates.
Much as a basketball recruiter will sit and watch a potential player, we have learned to pay attention to the people around us. Julie first appeared on my screen when I was leading a breakout group at our women’s retreat. I made an effort to sit with her during one of the meals and then continued to follow her trajectory for the next few months. After she shared her story of sexual abuse with me, I felt there was enough trust to invite her to come through the program. I placed her in my small group so I could consistently sow into her. The following year, I invited her to be an assistant leader. She has been an indispensable team member—and a great friend—for seven consecutive years.
We recruit nearly all of our volunteers for this program from the pool of participants. At the halfway mark in the four-month session, I ask my small-group leaders for names of participants who demonstrate both aptitude and promise. When the program comes to an end, we have a follow-up conversation with each of these men and women, inquiring about their interest. Equally important is the reality that we are in constant “dialogue” with God, asking him for guidance and revelation. We have said no to certain folks who asked to be part of the team because we felt they were not yet ready to lead in this context.
Discerning Character in Potential Leaders
Over the years, we have developed a specific, though flexible, set of criteria for potential leaders. Because both the healing/discipleship program and the worship team are high-profile and high-stakes ministries, maturity and integrity top our list. Obviously, discerning this is no simple task. When choosing elders, some churches will interview the candidate’s spouse, children, and neighbors in order to discover if the person who shows up on Sunday morning is the same person on Friday night. Church folks know how to present well, so my husband and I try to spend time with potential team members in a variety of settings prior to extending an invitation. That woman in the back row with a good (not great) voice who worships with abandon each week might be a better candidate for the worship team than the conservatory grad who spends the worship set texting.
Though it may seem surprising, our next character requirement is sobriety. Costly mistakes have taught us not to take anything for granted in terms of our team members’ understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. We have a contract clearly stating their commitment to relational, sexual, and chemical sobriety. In case you were wondering, yes, this is unusual and yes, it’s a challenging conversation to have with new team members. We feel that we have no integrity to either lead the church in worship or call participants into wholeness if our team members are acting out. Specificity gives members a clear sense of what’s expected of them and what will happen if they lose their sobriety while in the role (which I will cover in a future article).
The fourth criterion—availability—requires a sit-down conversation. As with athletes, it’s often the case that the most gifted candidates are being recruited by multiple ministries. We want to help potential team members choose wisely and not overextend themselves. Asking questions such as “When do you feel most or least engaged?” and “How much time do you currently spend doing church activities?” helps them to clarify where they might be best deployed. With this as a priority, we have actively dissuaded some individuals from being part of our team because we felt they were already maxed-out or would fit better elsewhere. We also write out a detailed schedule so they know how much time will be required of them and whether they can pull it off. For worship team, we use a schedule rotation so that people are not overcommitted.
Diversity, our final criterion, is both dear to our hearts and unequivocally the most difficult to achieve. We aim for diversity of age, race, socio-economics, and gender. When a visitor first walks in the door to our church or ministry, we want them to be able to find someone like them on the leadership team. In order to have a diverse team, we have to press ourselves beyond the comfort zone of our own culture. This can mean everything from intentionally including songs in the worship set reflecting non-white-rock styles to inviting guest speakers who bring a different perspective to the table.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing, making photographs, pastoring, and trying to keep her three teenage sons adequately fed. She and her family live surrounded by apple orchards, just outside of Boston, MA. You can find more of her words and images at www.dorothygreco.com.
I feel caught between legalism and cheap grace
Over the past few years I’ve found myself caught in a web of legalism and cheap grace. I grew up in a small Baptist church in South Carolina. It was a small, loving church, where everyone knew everybody. I loved it. It is where I received my foundation.
So why do I feel trapped? I’m trapped because although I have had many positive experiences in many churches, I have also seen the atrocities. I’ve seen a person bound by legalistic rules with no grace, and I’ve seen everything being swept under the blood. I’ve seen people behaving badly in both environments. In the legalistic church, there are blind spots. In the cheap-grace church, there is no conscience.
What do I mean by legalistic? Merriam-Webster defines legalism as “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry defines legalism as “the excessive and improper use of the law.” In my experience, it manifests itself in the form of rules, regulations, and community covenants. I was employed at a conservative Christian university. The community was composed mainly of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Members of the culture were required to sign a covenant promising to follow the standards of the community. If the rules were not followed, it was grounds for termination.
This created, in my opinion, a lot of Pharisees. It was a family of individuals with a superiority complex, who failed to offer membership to those who didn’t follow the same rules. It produced a climate of criticism, judgment, and hostility toward outsiders. It produced a culture that failed to foster relationships with those outside the family. It is so easy to become a Pharisee. We must all guard against it.
What’s the problem with this environment? It fails to show grace to those who are struggling. It fails to truly acknowledge that we are utterly dependent on the Lord. It fails to recognize that we are all sinners saved by grace. It forgets Matthew 7:3-5: “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the long in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the long in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” I love this Scripture because I’ve seen it manifested in two ways in the legalistic church: 1) The focus is always on someone else’s sin. The person who has sinned is shown no grace, but criticized and sometimes shunned for their poor decision. 2) The person doing the criticism fails to focus on his or her own sin.
Many times in legalistic churches, there is a lot of focus on the “big sins.” The primary focus is on fornication, adultery, abortion, homosexuality, and similar sins. However, we ignore other sins and how we treat others. Many times there is gossip, racism, injustice, pornography, and other forms of immorality. Many times we forget the “love your neighbor as yourself” portion of Scripture, and it doesn’t always equate to sending a note card and inviting people to a potluck.
For example, at the Christian university I worked for, an employee can be fired for drinking alcohol; however, another employee can make racial slurs and maintain his or her job. The reasoning behind keeping the one employee is “We are all sinners. He just ‘fell short.’ ”
In the legalistic community, we have to do a better job at showing love and grace in this community. We also have to look at the blind spots that we don’t want to uncover. We have to love each other better, not in words, but also in conduct. We need more transparency and authenticity.
The Other Side
I’ve also been in a myriad of environments where sin is prevalent. The excuse for lack of accountability is “We are under grace.” We also hear, “No one is perfect,” “We’re only human,” “God knows my heart,” and “The pastor teaches me the Word…so that’s all that matters.” We have all heard these excuses for habitual sin. Are we all sinners? Yes! Do we fall short? Yes! Is it okay with God? No! Romans 6:1-2 states, “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?” In this life, we will surely commit sin. We will not reach perfection until we see Jesus, but that does not give us permission to live unholy lives.
In the news we are inundated with stories of pastors and church leaders caught in immoral situations. In fact, we don’t have to turn on the television; we see it in our own churches. I’ve seen it time and time again. My fellow church members tell me, “He is only a man.” Is it okay for church leaders to live openly immoral lives? I don’t think this is what Jesus intended when he said, “Follow me.”
When I confronted leaders with these issues, I was told, “We all fall short.” I was told, “God knows the heart.” I was told, “It doesn’t matter what you do because we have grace.” I’m always pointed to the blood. While I am aware of the power and magnificence of the blood, I don’t think we should do away with accountability.
When I have conversations with members of the church, I always hear the phrase “No church is perfect.” I am told, “The same problems are at every church.” I know that is not true, but given my experience and the stories of others, it sometimes appears to be. It is my hope to find a church in the middle. It won’t be perfect, but it will not fall into the categories of cheap grace and legalism. I have tried to change the communities I was a part of, but I felt like a prophet crying out in the wilderness. I am tired. I need rest in a healthy church environment. But where do I go? I feel trapped. I feel like I’m suffocating and when I try to breathe again, the wind gets knocked out of my sails.
My experiences have helped me redefine my relationship with the Lord. I’m desperately trying to love him and others in the face of adversity. My experience has also challenged me to consider what the body of Christ should look like. I have served in so many ministry capacities; however, I’m now in the muddy tunnel trying hard to move forward. I sometimes wonder where God is, but I know he is teaching me valuable lessons through this process. I know he loves me, but I don’t understand why he allows me to see so much evil in the church. I’m trusting that this will ultimately work together for my good one day.
Carmille Akande is a licensed minister, attorney, speaker, writer, and blogger based in Dayton, Ohio. She has a heart for outreach and discipleship ministries and blogs at 2540ministries.blogspot.com.