Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Conversion of a Pastor

A reader asked something very pertinent and poignant:

I've read with great curiosity about your "conversion" and was wondering if there is/are post(s) from that time that I may read.  I struggle with the same issues that your congregant Mark dealt with and I read your sermon from his funeral and it was great.  I was just hoping to read what you were writing at the time he gave you that book that lead to your "conversion"...really a fuller understanding of the Gospel, I'd say.

I think one would have to read through the entirety of this blog in order to grasp what I was writing at the time this conversion process started, but one would also have to know the underlying processes which was at work as well.  In this post, I hope to lay some of that out so that you can see just what was going on inside my heart at the time.  Be forewarned, I personally don't think it was pretty.  In fact, it was rather petty.  At the time, I never saw what I was doing and what my motivations were.  I know now, and I have a sense of shame regarding them.  But none-the-less, I will put the chips out there and let them fall where they may.

As I stated in my Easter Sermon to my congregation, I was filled with dreams as a pastor--big dreams.  I wanted to be the pastor of a congregation that grew and grew and grew.  I wanted the place to worship thousands on a Sunday and have thousands of members.  I wanted that congregation to buck the trend of decline experienced by denominations in the U.S., and then I wanted folks to beat down my door asking, "How did you do it?"  I wanted to be able to share my expertise and be important in the eyes of the church.  I wanted fame and notoriety.  To an extent, these things still reside within me as a shadow.  I am not sure I will ever get rid of them.

Of course, in order to have these dreams come to fruition, I needed a congregation to cooperate.  I needed others to cooperate with me and make this stuff happen.  I would work like the dickens to see it accomplished, but I needed others to work like the dickens as well.  I never realized how self-centered this approach was because, as I see it now, I was using Jesus as a means to an end and I was using a congregation and its people as a means to an end.  The only humility I had within me was a false humility to make people think I wasn't using them.  (Again, I never saw it this way at the time.  I never thought I was using anyone.  I thought I was doing God's work and simply preaching the Gospel.)

I considered my first congregation a learning experience as I served as an associate pastor, but coming to my current congregation was a chance to really do things my way.  I jumped in with both feet and hit the ground running.

And things went wonderfully!  The congregation grew by leaps and bounds!  People were excited about doing things!  People were filling the pews!  And I was thrilled!  My dreams seemed like they were well on their way to coming true.  We were drawing all sorts of people to the church--some who were disgruntled with other congregations; others who had stopped worshiping long ago but were returning; young families with children.   I was happy, happy, happy.

But then things began to stop.  Perhaps there were many factors, including making the transition from a "pastoral" sized congregation to a "program" sized congregation, but there was one in particular that I can point to that filled me with fear.

The national church in 2009 made the decision to ordain practicing homosexuals.  There were a few members who were absolutely against this decision.  There were others who favored it.  There were many who were not happy but wouldn't cause a fuss--they would just stop giving.  There were others who really didn't care at all.  It was a no win situation as far as I was concerned.  The national church assembly had just thrown a monkey wrench into my plans.

And so I tried to fix it.

I did.  I tried to come up with a solution that wouldn't necessarily satisfy everyone, but it would be enough to keep the congregation on the right track to growth.  My dreams wouldn't be derailed!  Or so I thought.

The "fix" didn't work.  We still lost members.  A different sort of "spirit" seemed to surround the congregation.

And so I went to work.  I tried to get the church focused on other things.  You know what all the pundits say, right?  Keep an organization focused on a project.  Keep them focused on doing good things!  That will bring folks around and keep them coming to your organization.  Yep, I bought it.  Onto trying such events.  The first of which was the Kan You Kover 100K?--one of the reasons I actually kicked off this blog.  These things will work, right?  No luck.

Little did I know that burnout was fast creeping upon me.  I had thrown myself into trying to save my dream, and it was taking its toll.

It was around this time that I was given the book A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Tackle Life's Biggest Questions.  Looking back now, it was a blessing and a curse at the time.  Ultimately, it was a blessing, but to begin with it fed another part of my ego.

You see, I suffered from, and still to an extent suffer from, a tremendous desire to be right.  I want to have the right thoughts, subscribe to the right doctrine, do the right things, and so on and so forth.  I wanted to think that I was intellectually superior to others, and I wanted to think I was morally superior to others as well.  I would have never, ever admitted this before.  False humility.

The authors presented in this book offered me a train of Christian apologetics that I had not been exposed to in my days of college and seminary.  After having been exposed to "Christian fundamentalism" in my youth, college and seminary presented me with the exact opposite end of the spectrum.  Neither of these two paths seemed intellectually satisfying in my estimation.  Both seemed to have severe inconsistencies.  The train of thought presented by the book seemed to have fewer inconsistencies and have a better progression of logic.  Therefore, I became hooked.

I read and read and read.  I ordered other books by those who had chapters in the book.  I absorbed their thoughts thinking I had found the "right" path.  I now had the answers!  I knew what would save my dream!

Discipleship!  I had to be a better disciple.  I had to make my congregation be better disciples!

I embraced another form of legalism, and burnout loomed large.

Yeah.  Long story short, I failed at that discipleship thing.  I just couldn't be a great disciple, and I couldn't make others be disciples either.  Looking back at many of my sermons from those days, I was so concerned about what we were supposed to be doing!  Do this.  Do that.  Give here.  Be loving.  Be kind.  Produce the fruits of the Spirit.  I was also consumed with believing the right things.  This is the proper belief.  This is the proper doctrine to grasp.  If we all just believed this, things would turn, and we would stop this plateau and grow once again. 

What I failed to realize is that these sort of things don't happen unless a heart has been transformed by the Gospel--the realization that our salvation is from the Lord; that our self-worth is from the Lord; that we do not strive for worldly status and praise--"I haven't accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."

I've written a couple of times about that statement of my grandfather's.  I wrote about it this past Easter along with Timothy Keller's speech about doing evangelism in a postmodern world.  Both of these events were instrumental in bringing me through that final lap of conversion.  Honestly, I had to fail before this could happen.   I had to burn out.  I had to realize my failing and frailty.  I had to realize my own brokenness and inability to grow a church.  I had to realize that I was using Jesus as a means to an end and not as an end in and of Himself.  I had to die to all of that.  I had to be humbled.

It wasn't pleasant, but there is now something different within me.  There is peace.  There is joy.  I'm not trying to treat my congregation as a means to an end.  I don't get angry or frustrated with others when they make decisions which are not in line with having Jesus at the center of their lives.  Hey, I spend a long time doing the same thing, and if I am honest with myself, there are times when I still do such things.  I know Jesus is still working on me.  I know Jesus will work on them.  I simply need to proclaim the gospel.

And that gospel is rather mucked up these days by the church.  I mean, most of the time we spend talking about what we should do.  We consume ourselves with the transformation of society or hammer folks with ideology.  We focus on a lot of shoulds.  Shoulds are important, no doubt, but you cannot talk should in the church until you talk redemption.  You cannot talk about living the Christian life until hearts have been turned toward God.  Only after folks become converted to the Christian faith can we begin trying to wrestle with how we are supposed to live it out.

Too often, in the church, we make the assumption that folks hearts are already tuned in. We make the assumption that they have already been changed by the gospel.  I think making that assumption is deadly.

I think making that assumption has caused many of our congregations to either become "liberal" or "conservative".  We embrace a particular ethic or social stance or ideology to become acceptable to those outside; then, those folks will want to become a part of us because our ideology matches as well as the things we do.  In my estimation, this has transformed many churches into clubs.

I once asked members of one particular congregation what made their church different from any other social organization.

It was quite awkward for a few moments.

What distinguishes the Church of Christ from any other organization is its focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ--God's reconciling the world unto Himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is the power of the Gospel to change lives--to bring a sense of lasting peace, joy, and fulfillment which makes us different.

Our salvation; the world's salvation is of the Lord!  It's of the Lord!  Our self-worth; our status; our identity comes from the Lord!  It's of the Lord!  I don't have to go around proving myself.  I don't have to be important in the eyes of anyone or any institution.  I don't have to have a congregation grow in order to be happy or fulfilled.  I simply need Jesus.

I somewhat understood that with my head, but it hadn't sunk deep within.  It didn't  govern my heart.  I think it does now.  I still struggle.  I still find myself becoming a little disappointed when worship attendance isn't where I think it should be.  I still get a little upset when people tell me they are coming to worship and then don't.  I still find myself wanting to be right about all kinds of things; but these things no longer dominate.  These things are no longer my ultimate pursuits.

I've changed.

Maybe you seek that kind of change too.
Maybe you are tired of getting your worth from all sorts of things.
Maybe you are stressed out; burned out; unhappy; unfulfilled.
Take a deep breath and examine whether or not Christ is at the center of your life.
Examine whether or not you are pursuing Him or other things.  (This may be extremely difficult; as I noted earlier, I wasn't aware of what I was doing.)
Perhaps you will have a moment of clarity.
Perhaps not.  Be patient.  Wait.  Seek.  Ask God for it.  (Read my next sermon for some insight into how this process may look as it plays out.)

But don't go around thinking you can continue to do all the same things.
Don't think that you can continue to pursue the things you are pursuing now.
Change will have to happen.
It will be painful.  I am sorry to say that as we tend to avoid painful things, but it is necessary.
But once broken through, when Christ orients your heart toward Him, things change

And for the better.

The Truth--Jesus--sets you free.


Gary said...

I'm confused. Did you have a born again conversion experience? Are you now Church of Christ?

Maybe I'm missing something but it sounds as if you are endorsing a personal "conversion of the heart".

That is evangelical language. It sounds great but I grew up in it and it is an emotional roller. If you depend on your heart (feelings) as a gauge of your spirituality, you are constantly checking your "faith gauge" to see how you are doing. Eventually you burn out.

Having converted to Lutheranism, I now take great comfort in my OBJECTIVE assurance of salvation: GOD'S act of Baptism.

I hope I have misunderstood you, Pastor. It would be very sad to think that you have bought into the evangelical's false teachings just to make you feel better.

Please tell me I am wrong.

Kevin Haug said...

Thank you for asking the question, Gary. I would not call my experience a "born again" experience in the understanding of the Anabaptists; Pentecostals; et. al. And, no, I am not Church of Christ now--only in the sense of the mystical body of Christ. And I do not depend upon my heart to gauge my feelings of spirituality.

I depend on Christ. Plain and simple.

Now how is this different from my posts all these years?

Frankly, I gave lip service to depending on Christ. I gave lip service to the idea that salvation was of the Lord. I gave lip service to the idea that God was the one who gave growth to congregations and people and so on and so forth. I gave lip service, but at the core of my being was a self reliance that I didn't even see; there was a self centeredness and a desire to be important in the eyes of the world. My self-worth was tied to this--not to my relationship with Jesus Christ.

Burnout came. Been there. Done that. Also have done the feeling thing--went through Via de Cristo and experienced the thrills of evangelical worship. This ain't that "feeling." It's deeper; much, much deeper.

Things resonate in a way they never had before. I get St. Paul much, much better now. Recently, I was asked to list my accomplishments--the things I was proud of. I couldn't. There was nothing I could think of that I had accomplished which made me proud.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Philippians 3:7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

I get this now. Really get this. I'm still trying to come to grips more fully with how this will work itself out in my calling as a Pastor, but it has deeply affected my teaching, my preaching, the things I consider important, and the very depths of my being.

Gary said...

Very good. I am relieved.

God bless.