A Mess of Metaphors



First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.



Soaring, by C.S. Cowles

A guest blog from a retired friend of mine, written in honor of retirees.

“They will soar on wings like eagles”

(Isa. 40:39)

            While sitting on the Point overlooking scenic Payette Lake in the heart of Idaho’s mountains, I noticed movement at the bottom of the cliff. It was an osprey launching itself over the water. It worked its elegant wings until it found an updraft. Then it relaxed. Fascinated, I watched it glide in lazy circles effortlessly riding an invisible thermal up and up until it was eye-level with me. It continued to rise. High above me it headed out across the lake.

In that osprey I found a wonderful metaphor for those of us well into the third trimester of our lives. With family raised and career established, we are free to break away and soar: soar up to where new vistas of opportunity unfold, where uncharted waters can be explored, where long-cherished dreams can be pursued.

Biblical examples come quickly to mind: Abraham responding to the momentous call of God at 75, Moses launching the most revolutionary freedom movement in history at 80, and Anna the first to preach Jesus as redeemer at 84.

My life has been deeply impacted by retirees who “soared on wings like eagles.” There was Dr. H. Orton Wiley, esteemed early Nazarene leader, who at 83 filled blackboards with theological truth that still excites me today. There was Dr. Clovis Chappell, who at 85 was so feeble he could hardly totter over to the podium at a pastor’s conclave. Yet his “inner man” burned with such intensity that it set my soul on fire. On that day I was raised from the dead of disillusionment and despair at the lowest time of my ministry. I am quite sure that I would not be who I am or have done what by God’s grace I’ve been able to do apart from those two stalwart men of God who “soared on wings like eagles.”

Then there were the `big three’ in my first church: retired couples who formed the inner core of my tiny congregation. They wrapped their accepting, loving, and enabling arms around our young family, and bore us up “on wings like eagles.” And then there was the elderly District School Superintendent who not-so-gently confided that “sermons do not have to be eternal in order to be immortal.” Though a bitter pill to swallow, especially for one who thought he had to deliver “the whole counsel of God” in every sermon, he taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my preaching life: namely, that “the mind cannot absorb what the seat cannot endure.”

One of today’s most exciting frontiers are people who in the “prime time” years of their lives launch second and third careers. I have a cousin who since retirement has made 23 mission-trips to South China, continuing the pioneering work begun by our grandfather in the early 1900’s. She raises money, gathers Bibles, and collects study materials for Chinese believers. She is “soaring on wings of an eagle,” and loving every minute of it.

I have another cousin on the other side of my family who in semi-retirement felt called to resurrect the Stone Corral Community Church established by our ancestors in the 1870’s. It had fallen upon hard times and died. He secured the deed to the property, chased out the birds and animals in the abandoned building, and rounded up scattered remnants of the congregation most of whom were also retirees. Together they refurbished the building, enlisted a retired pastor to lead them, and today average well over 100 in worship. My cousin who plays the piano for their services is “soaring on wings like an eagle.”

And so it goes all across the land. Retirees are teaching classes, feeding the homeless, enrolling in seminary, refurbishing churches, going on mission trips, tutoring disadvantaged children, visiting nursing homes, writing letters of encouragement, all the while having the time of their lives.

Dr. William McCumber, pastor, educator, author, and long time editor of Holiness Today, died recently. I had the privilege of following him as pastor of Atlanta First Church many years ago.   After retiring for about the third time, he accepted the call to pastor his home church in Gainsville, Georgia, at 80 years of age. He was still going strong at the 54fe6c73c1fa3.image.jpgtime of his passing at 87.

I was thinking about him as I stepped out to begin my early morning devotional walk. I looked up. Stretched across the sky was the glowing contrail of an airplane set on fire by the rays of the rising sun. Barely able to see the glint of the airliner I thought: There goes Bill, soaring “on wings like an eagle.”

Soaring. That’s what I want to do until I too “soar up on eagle’s wings” to be with my Lord.


CTM.jpg“A couple of years ago I learned that three of my pastor friends around the country had resigned on the same day.  There were no affairs, no scandals and no one was renouncing faith.  But three good, experienced pastors turned in resignations and walked away.  One left church ministry altogether.

The details are as different as the pastors themselves, but the common thread is that they finally go worn down by trying to bring change to a church that was stuck and didn’t know what to do.  Their churches were stuck and declining, stuck and clinging to the past, stuck and lurching to quick fixes, trying to find an easy answer for what were clearly bigger challenges.

What all three churches had in common was that they were mostly blaming the pastor for how bad it felt to be stuck.”

Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, p. 12.

Pastor to Pastor

I’ve sat down with three different pastors this week.  They have wildly different personalities, life experiences, and circles of friends.  They don’t know each other and are only tied together by my own story.  One was a church planter.  One was a retired professor and pastor of large churches.  One watched God grow a church from a small and hopeful bunch to a booming metropolis.

What they share in common is war stories.  They thanklessly though still passionately sought vision for their churches and paid for it.  One rose higher.  Two fell and got up again.  All three are now vessels of grace because of it.

I love these three guys, and I love that they are so different.  One is whimsical and warm.  One is quiet and matter-of-fact.  One has the grizzly charm of a veteran.  All bow before the same God, and that God looks at all three in their diversity and is more than well pleased.

One told me about trying to plant a church and raise money on nothing but faith, only to have God deliver unexpected gifts on exactly the day they were needed.  God could do a better job of planning ahead, we both agreed.

One tells me when he calls, “I greet you in the majestic name of Jesus!” If it were anyone but him, I might think they were being corny.  But his voice is golden and bright, and has the sound of a General on the day after the armistice is signed.

All three prayed for me without me having to ask.

This week, here in sabbath rest, I got to experience something that I haven’t experienced in a long time as a pastor.  I received pastoring.  Pastoring is not so didactic as advice-giving, not so sentimental as nursing, and not so casual as hanging out.  It’s somewhere in between those three.  Pastors, especially the ones who have been around a long time, work a kind of magic that you don’t pick up on until you’ve walked away.  Suddenly you realize that you are comforted, or inspired, or perplexed, or even bothered, and you don’t know for sure whether or not they meant to do it, you only know that you are in a new and unexpected state.  There is very little in this world as comforting as telling a pastor your sorrows only to come up laughing together, as though you had dived into a pool you expected to be icy only to find out it was as warm as a bath.

The Holy Spirit and a pastor’s words can meld like epoxy and become active.  I’ve missed being able to receive this.  It makes me want to find a little church with dusty pews and an iconic steeple and volunteer to help.  When the last of my three friends offers to pray, I rest my head on my folded arms at the table and close my eyes.  I don’t catch exactly what he’s saying, but I feel the afternoon breeze blowing over my head and shoulders like kind hands, and when he is done, I am somewhere different than where we began.

Don’t Become A Pastor Until….

Don’t become a pastor until….

…you’ve invited someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus to believe in Jesus.  That’s what pastors are for.  If you don’t do it in your daily life now, you’re not going to be better at it when some seminary or denomination says you’re ready to.

…you pray and worship when no one is listening.

…you can pray and worship without telling everyone you did.

…your knowledge of the Bible is as thorough as your questions about it.  The questions shouldn’t come from what you don’t know; they should come from what you do know.

…you’ve given up the dream of getting rich.  We print “In God We Trust” on the back of his leading competitor.

…you’ve given up the dream of being famous.  There should be a pretty distinct difference between a sermon and a selfie.

…you’ve given up the dream of being attractive.  If the dream comes true, you’re likely to embarrass the ministry.  If it doesn’t come true, but you keep hoping, you’re going to look ridiculous.preacher

…you’ve realized your wedding vows are more important than your ordination vows.

…you could competently do ministry without a formal theological education.  And once you don’t need it – go get it.

…you’ve learned how and when to say “I could be wrong” and “I’m sorry.”

…you can name the places that you’re broken with no more shame than if you were describing what you like about a painting.  Brokenness is something we need to accept about ourselves so that we can deal honestly with the problems it creates, rather than trying to hide it from everyone else until the problems become public.

…you have a stronger passion for releasing other people’s gifts than releasing your own.

…God’s call to ministry is louder than your desire to do ministry and other people’s affirmation of your ministry.

That said, I don’t know that I would have become a pastor 17 years ago if I was following my own list.

To the Power of One

I found an interesting piece of trivia about the church at which I pastor, Glenkirk Church. Apparently, back in 1965, the church was meeting in a little chapel at another location, and the day came when the congregation had grown too large for the little chapel. The pastor at that time named the need to build a bigger sanctuary on that lot. Apparently the congregation was divided on this. I wasn’t there, so I can only guess how the conversations went.

“It’s too expensive! Why would we spend so much money on ourselves?”

“Why do we need to grow anymore? The church is fine the way it is!”

I know these kinds of questions came up, because as it was told to me by one of the old-timers who remembers, “It passed by one vote.”

One vote!

Just one person enough to move that congregation forward. I don’t know who that person was (or technically, who that 51% was), but I owe a debt of thanks. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. The church wouldn’t have grown. It wouldn’t have gone through a later move to an even larger campus on which it could keep growing. Children wouldn’t have received Christian education. People wouldn’t have been sent into full time missions. Countless people would not have become Christians at Glenkirk. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would not have been spent on missions with the poor.

To that one person who voted “yes” – thank you so much!

Because of you, there are three children of Glenkirk who are now in full time ministry in Muslim countries. There is one who is a youth pastor on an island in the Atlantic. There is one family who became Christians at Glenkirk and are now rebuilding an orphanage in Haiti that fell down in the 2010 earthquake. One is a chaplain at Fuller Seminary. Without you, my two children, along with many others, wouldn’t have been baptized at Glenkirk. And now each week, we gather as a family, young and old, to sing to a good God, as we have since that 1965 vote.

Thank you so much! Without you, I wouldn’t pass each week through the shadow of this cross and remember the One who said “yes” to God’s call for the sake of we who would come after him. Whoever you are – well done!


The Glenkirk Cross
The Glenkirk Cross (Photo courtesy of S. Vance)