This is post #14 of a series entitled RELIGION OR RELATIONSHIP: Five Days that Define Our Call in Christ. We hope you’ll enjoy this series of 27 podcasts and blogs that focuses a bit deeper on the first five days of what we now call Holy Week. Using the Gospel text found in Matthew 21 through 25, we explore the major differences between organized religion and true relationship with Christ. Practical sessions that give us Jesus’ view of spirituality as compared to the religiousness found in so many people today. Here’s the homepage for the entire series.
Today’s Lectio Divina: Now Jesus turned to address His disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer. Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’ Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let Him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and He’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ. Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. Matthew 23: 1-12 (MsgB)
Back in late July of 2011, I was sitting at the kitchen table of my pastoral coach, Dave Jacobs. Dave and his lovely wife, Ellen, were long-time pastors in our denomination, laboring for many years for the cause of Christ in southern California. Several years earlier, Dave had stepped away from pastoral ministry, burned to a crisp, relocating to the quaint little village of Rogue River, Oregon. There, after a few months of recovery, Dave decided to start working with other burned-out pastors, coaching those of us who were laboring diligently in smaller churches. In 2009, as I was hitting the wall with my own church in Cedar Rapids, a compassionate fellow pastor suggested I contact Dave and see if spending some time with him on the phone might breathe a bit of life into my dried-up soul.
As many of you know, from reading my blog, my sessions with Dave worked wonders with my soul, but quite honestly, also stirred up a growing passion to step out of the ugly traffic of what I now call the 3-B’s of Americanized church life.
You see for much of my thirty-plus years in pastoral ministry, I had given myself over to the 3-B’s, where (B)uilding size, (B)ucks in the offering, and (B)utts in the seats had become the primary way I measured my success (or failure) as a pastor. Thank God, it was Dave Jacobs who helped me see that Jesus just might have a better way for me to measure “success” in ministry, and beginning in 2009, and continuing even to today, I now call myself a “recovering” 3-B pastor on my way to becoming a Christ-centered, 3-C contemplative activist. Our website, The Contemplative Activist, is dedicated to helping others in that pursuit as well.
So now, back to the kitchen table of Dave and Ellen Jacobs in Rogue River, Oregon.
In July of 2011, Sandy and I were in the last weeks of a much-needed 12-week sabbatical. Our church, at the time, was struggling, and it was Dave who was masterfully coaching me through these tough times. The sabbatical we were taking was at Dave’s suggestion, so he didn’t hesitate to say yes when I suggested that Sandy and I might venture out to Rogue River to spend a few days with the Jacobs before stepping back into the wars of pastoring my church through these tough times.
It was at that kitchen table, as Dave and I were telling pastoral war stories, when I said…
“You know, Dave, I was reading in Matthew’s Gospel this morning, and I was really struck with the harshness of Jesus’ words when He was telling His disciples to be careful about following church leaders who talk a good line, but they don’t live it.”
Actually, I was paraphrasing today’s passage in Matthew, and as Dave and I were chatting about these things, I suddenly stopped, took a deep breath, and inquired, “Hey…wait a minute! Whose idea was church leadership anyway?”
I continued my question…
“I mean, come on Dave, is the word leader even in the New Testament at all?”
Dave took a sip of his coffee, smiled, and then said, “Hmmm…”
And in the way only a great spiritual director can do, Dave replied, “You know, Marty, that’s a great question…why don’t you go home and ponder on that?”
Three weeks later, there I was. Back home in Cedar Rapids, pondering on these things, and the phone rang.
It was one of my pastor friends in Iowa, inviting me to come and fill in for him as he was finishing up a set of Wednesday night classes on the subject of, you guessed it…Qualifications of Excellent Church Leadership!
By now, I was getting the message from above that I really needed to do a deeper word study on the subject of leadership as found in the New Testament. I knew that I couldn’t just step in for my pastor friend and teach the traditional lessons that I’d been taught about the qualifications of leadership in our church denomination. You see, I was deeply troubled by what Jesus said to His disciples here in Matthew 23.
And even though my tradition didn’t follow the Catholic traditions where a priest is called Father, I was beginning to be very troubled with the fact that everything I had been taught about building a “successful” church revolved around 1) me being a highly-qualified church leader, so that 2) I could recruit, train, and deploy other highly-qualified church leaders for the cause of Christ.
As I see it, it was that goal, alongside my desire to be a successful 3-B pastor, that was actually driving me to become that burned-out church leader who could barely get out of bed on Sunday morning to teach yet another sermon on how Jesus was calling all of us to be “successful” in our work for God!
So, when Jesus speaks of “leaders” who lay heavy rules and regulations upon God’s people while rarely helping them along the way, my heart grows weary as I realize that so many of us in our Americanized church settings just might be the type of “leaders” Jesus is telling His friends to stay away from!
So, what about you?
What’s driving you to be the very best “leader” in the pack?
As I see it, it’s time to stop-look-listen-and-learn from the Master here and ask ourselves if we’ve become the leader Jesus warns us about.
And if you’re like me, once we stop long enough to ask the question…
Jesus, in His mercy and grace, will gently lead us out of this place of control and manipulation, into a style of servanthood leadership where we are content to simply be ourselves, where our lives (and ministries) will count for plenty.
Care to join me?
My Prayer: Jesus, Your harsh words about self-centered leaders grab my attention. Thank You for sounding the warning signals that point out a style of leadership that actually works against Your greatest desires for Your people. Holy Spirit, as I respond to these warnings, indwell and empower me to walk in the humble role of servant, where Jesus is the leader and I’m simply the follower. For Your Name’s sake. Amen.
My Questions to Ponder: How is my style of leadership reflecting the ugly descriptions given us here by Jesus in Matthew 23? Am I guilty of any of the self-centeredness and self-aggrandizing the Master condemns? If so, what practical steps do I need to make in removing myself from that style of leadership, so that I might better become the humble servant that Jesus calls me to be?
So, what are you hearing from Jesus as we take this journey into the first 5 Days of Holy Week?
Religion or Relationship: Five Days that Define Our Call in Christ.
A 27-session Lenten blog series from Matthew’s Holy Week Gospel.
Throughout the Lenten season (Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday), you and I will take a deeper look at Matthew 21-25. In order to keep all the blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our blog series home page for ease of use.
If you like what you’re reading, might we suggest you share this page with others!