Monday, March 25, 2013

Why I did it

As many of my readers know, I recently decided to step aside from being the senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church, and "trade places" with my able associate pastor Matt Ryman, pictured here on the far right with Mark Bates (center), the founding pastor of UPC. It's not really official until we're installed in our new positions, but the transition has already begun. My new title will be Pastor of Discipleship. It's a move that was about seven months in the making, requiring the support of my elders and staff, numerous meetings, tons of communication, and the approval of 4/5 of the congregation.

Many people have asked me why I did it. Some have credited me with humility. But I assure you, as God knows quite well, "humble" is not one of my attributes. No, I was motivated by two simple desires -- to focus on what I love most, and to see God glorified at UPC.

My journey began when I gave serious thought to the fact that in less than a year I will be sixty years old. I took some time to ask myself some probing questions:

  • What’s my “sweet spot”? 
  • When am I at my best?
  • Where can I make my most significant contribution in my last “third” of life?
  • How can I simplify my life in order to be at my peak for the Lord?
  • What should I focus on now?
  • How can I maximize my value to UPC and the kingdom of God? 
I read the book Halftime, by Bob Buford. I also read From Success to Significance, by Lloyd Reeb. These books gave me more questions to consider. I filled out the Strengths Finder assessment and took the Birkman Method. I reviewed my Myers-Briggs profile. These things were very helpful in my journey. And of course I prayed and talked with people whose counsel I value. I sensed that God was encouraging me to make adjustments in my life so as to finish well. I don't mean to sound morbid, but the fact is I don't have tons of time left. I certainly don't want to wait another five or ten years before I figure out what "finishing well" looks like. I need to be proactive.

So last summer I came to several key conclusions. Among them were the following:

  1. I'm a relational guy. I enjoy working directly with people and helping them grow.
  2. The role that brings me the greatest satisfaction and, I think, the greatest blessing to others is that of shepherd. Shepherding includes teaching and preaching, but also spending unhurried time with people, counseling, visiting, practicing hospitality, ministering to the grieving, leading small groups, working with children, leading task teams, training leaders, and the like. 
  3. Less energizing are the tasks associated with top-level, organizational leadership: i.e., leading on the “macro” level, motivating, analyzing problems, coming up with new and visionary plans, managing staff, leading the elders, etc. Those are things I've done for over twenty-five years. I'm ready for something different.
I didn't know quite what to do with these thoughts until I attended a seminar at the PCA General Assembly in July, 2012. It was a seminar for senior pastors my age. The speaker encouraged us to explore alternatives to retiring or switching churches. He said something like this: "If your people trust you, and if you have an associate pastor who respects you and whom you love, you ought to think about making a 'lateral move' instead of simply leaving. You ought to hand the baton off to that younger colleague, and stay in your church in a new role."

That's the kind of direction I was looking for. I spoke with my associate pastor and he was immediately captured by the idea. I spoke with my elders and they voiced support as well. Then it became a matter of figuring out how best to present the concept to the congregation.

I wrote a letter to the church and read it aloud in a meeting last November. I told the people what I'm writing here. Many members voiced their support. But as expected, others had questions and reservations. We formed an Advisory Team to lead the transition process, always aware that the decision to change pastoral calls rests finally with the congregation. We created means of getting people's input and had several meetings. Finally, in late February of this year, the congregation voted in favor of the pastoral transition. My younger colleague would take the helm as senior pastor of UPC, and I would become an associate pastor focusing on discipleship and shepherding.

I'm truly excited about my new role, especially the opportunity to rethink our small groups program. But I'm excited not just because I will be doing the things I love most. Above I said that I had a second motivating desire -- to see God glorified at UPC.

I have an obligation to help younger leaders reach their full potential. That’s what other people did for me thirty years ago. It is vital (not to mention Biblical) that we who are older pass the baton to those who are younger. (See this excellent article by George Barna.) Not only that -- we HAVE to change if we are going to stay ahead of the game and be culturally relevant to new generations of men and women. You may have seen the statistics. Vast numbers of young people are leaving the church during their college years, and many never come back. Thirty percent of American adults under the age of 30 have no religious affiliation. The US church is aging. In many places it is dying. Today, of about 350,000 churches in America, four out of five are either plateaued or declining. It is time for creative risk and a new venture if we are going to reverse these trends.

"Always reforming" needs to be more than just a slogan. As churches make necessary adjustments in order to be contextually relevant -- while never compromising the gospel -- the kingdom advances. My decision to "trade places" was not an effort to work less (frankly I'll be working just as much as ever!). Nor was it a response to stress or disappointment or ministry burn-out. It was, I hope, a way of letting God surprise us with all sorts of new and unexpected gifts of grace. I'm also hoping my church can provide a model of succession for other pastors and other churches.

Leo Tolstoy said, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." If change was going to happen at UPC, I knew it needed to start with me.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

When praying, words matter

In previous posts, I railed about some common grammatical errors people (including me) make. The following is not really a grammar thing, but it does have to do with words improperly used.

It's very common for people, when they pray in public especially, to say, "Lord, we pray that you would... (you fill in the blank)." I'll never forget what one of my seminary professors (the venerable and late Dr. Robert G. Rayburn) did one time. He asked a student to pray at the start of class. And so this student started praying a very nice prayer. He used the well-known and very proper A-C-T-S pattern that every Christian knows we're supposed to use. And when he got to the S part of the prayer ("supplication"), he said something like, "And Lord, we pray that you would use this class in our lives to make us more like Jesus." But before he could finish that sentence the professor interrupted him (gasp!).

Dr. Rayburn said, "You must not pray that way. Don't say, 'Father would you do this or that,' say 'Father, will you do this or that'!"

What Professor Rayburn was getting at was that the word "would" is not the language of a child speaking confidently and shamelessly to his Father. A little child does not usually say to her father, "Daddy, would you read a book to me?" If she does, she apparently is none too confident that daddy wants to read her a book. Instead she says, "Daddy, Daddy! Will you read a book to me?" She expects to be heard and she expects to be gratified. Similarly, God wants to know what we want. He wants us to ask for what we want, not tentatively but confidently.  When we pray, we should talk as though we believe what Jesus said one time: "Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7). Sure, God can, and often does, say "No" to our requests. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask for what we want.

So the way that student should have prayed is, "Lord, we pray that you will use this class in our lives to make us more like Jesus."

Ever since Dr. Rayburn shared that little secret, I have tried to pray, "Lord, I pray that you WILL...(whatever)." Try it and see if using the word "will" instead of "would" helps you pray with more boldness and childlike honesty.