Pastors Prepare For What’s Next!: a book review

I am at the beginning of a pastoral succession process. The church I start leading on Sunday, has had a pastor for the past twelve-and-a-half years who is loved by the church and the wider community. This is a woman who has networked, started ministries which reach out to the community and has prayerfully led the church through difficult circumstances. She has a heart for racial justice, community outreach and mission. She leaves this position to focus more in these areas and she will still be part of the church family.

I am the ‘noob.’ I care about many of the same things as the previous pastor and want to see the church impact the wider community but am still at the beginning of learning how to lead a church. I want to do that well. So I read Next: Pastoral Succession That Works with interest hoping to garner whatever kind of wisdom it had for me at this moment in my pastoral career. Authors William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird have years of experience in helping church leaders lead effectively. In  this book, they research successions that work, successions that fail and how church boards and pastoral leaders can plan for a good succession process.

This book wasn’t written directly to me, but for out-going pastors, search committees and elder boards to help them think ahead. Vanderbloemen and Bird noticed that many successful pastors stay in their role past their prime, with no real plan of succession. As a result, the church looses momentum and when the inevitable switch happens it falls off mission and loses membership. They suggest intentionality about the succession process. After all, every pastoral position (or really any position) is temporary. All pastors are interim pastors who steward the church for a term, and they should be thoughtful about how to prepare the way for their successor.

Because Vanderbloemen and Bird base their findings on qualitative research, this book is full of stories of the succession process at various different kinds of churches (both glorious successes and epic failures). They observe that some of the best succession stories happen when churches groom someone from their staff or membership to take the place of the out-going pastor. This makes sense to me, though I think large mega-churches are more likely to have the pool to draw on for this sort of succession (and I am kind of glad the church I was hired at didn’t follow that route).  Also, they speak highly of father-son successions without any worry about nepotism (i.e. Joel Osteen is one of their ‘success’ stories).

However, they do not have a formula ‘one-right-way’ approach. They assert that if God is in it, successions will work. Three pieces of salient advice I found helpful were: (1) intentionality about the succession process-especially in the first 100 days, (2) help from the out-going senior pastor, (3) new pastor honoring their successor and the church’s past.

I think churches will benefit from reading this book, especially when they are in the midst of a search process. Vanderbloemen and Bird talk about the intentional, good sort of succession, but they also address succession problems when a leader unexpectedly dies, has a moral failure or resigns early. A board with proper foresight can plan for every contingency. Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest creating a succession plan and revisiting annually.

At times I disagreed with their pragmatic bent. They seemed to  measure the success of a succession in terms of congregational attendance.  Organizations go through ebbs and flows and I think a church that shrinks from thousands to hundred when the new pastor comes but is more faithful to the gospel, has had a successful succession even if their metrics do not bear this out. God can be in apparent failures too. This doesn’t mean that new pastors should not strive to bring in new sheep and to bear fruit in their ministry. It means that the picture of what it means to be a good, and faithful pastoral servant is more complicated than the picture that Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest.

But practical advice is important and I think that this book will be read with benefit. My own case is not the typical succession and I am blessed to have the input of the previous pastor, a good and faithful servant, mentor and friend. I give it four stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Baker Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

On to the Land of Promise: Part 1

For three years I searched for a pastoral call to no avail. One of those years I was unemployed. Two years I worked at a hardware store–good honest work, but not the work I was made for. I had thought that my time at Regent College had prepared me for ministry. I have one of the best theological educations but God had other lessons for me to learn.

I have recently accepted a call to a church in Safety Harbor, Florida. And I eagerly await what God has in this next step of my journey. The past few weeks were a whirlwind. I wrapped up my hardware store job, packed up my belongings and family and went to the land that God has shown me.  My days in Blaine were wilderness years for me. I wrestled with self-doubt. I wondered did, “I really hear God’s call on my life?” “Am I really called to vocational ministry?”  I applied to churches, but didn’t  really find a place that ‘felt’ right.

And then I found this church and felt led to apply. They were prayerful and asked perceptive questions. When I learned more about what they were doing and their heart for the city, I became more and more enamored with them. And after a process of mutual discernment I accepted a call. The call was affirmed by a congregational vote and here I am.

I  am sad to leave good, supportive friends behind but am excited about all God has for us as we seek to follow Him in Florida. I know there are giants in the land, and issues we will need to face as a family. As a pastoral leader, I know I will need to build trust and lay a lot of ground for a good transition. But I don’t officially start for a few more days.  Mostly our time in Florida has been spent getting settled. I wanted to reflect on what God taught me in the waylaid in Blaine years:

  1. Wherever God places you, there you are–the power of place. When we got to Blaine, I had my feelers out at a couple of churches and had garnered some interest. I regarded Blaine as a temporary stop, on my way to the next-big-thing. Little did I know that I would spend over three years in that community. I didn’t leave until I made my peace with the place. I planted fruit trees. Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city where I have carried you into exile.”  It was only when I really enetered into that place and took a stake in the community that God released me for what’s next.
  2. Standing still in a world of hurry–the patience of a saint.  We live in a high speed society.  We drive fast and hate waiting in line. We want everything to happen for us right on time (or right before that). At least I do. I had to learn in my bones that my timing was not God’s timing.  I wanted good things, but God had better plans for our lives. These three years were not just a pause button on my future, it was God’s plan for our lives.
  3. Good things come to those who wait (on God): the practice of prayer.  The wilderness is a place of prayer. These past few years have been angsty and difficult. I have wondered if my education (which I’m still paying for) and vocational goals was a personal miscalculation. So I wrestled with God these years and prayed a lot. One major thing changed in me. I let go of  anxiety and the necessity to ‘prove myself.’ I learned to trust God with the outcome as I continued pursue his call on my life. It took these three whole years for me to learn to trust God and not rely on my gifts, talents and resources.

Sacred time and space. I am grateful for these years of waiting. I also was blessed to have a supportive church and friends who walked alongside me. And now the next big thing: Milk and honey here we come.

Apologetics Urban Style: a book review

Apologetics is an important Christian discipline and I am grateful for theologians and philosophers that are doing good work. However, a lot of apologetics is focused on the academy, aimed at showiing the reliability of scripture (or a religious worldview) in the face of skeptical scholarship. This is important, especially with the growing secular trend in academia, but sometimes the objections to the Christian faith by professor types, is different from the ordinary unbeliever. Apologetics is not just about providing a rational basis for belief in theism for academics, it is about addressing the issues that keep the masses from coming to Christ.

This is what is so refreshing about Christopher Brooks’s Urban ApologeticsBrooks, who is dean of Moody Theological Seminar, radio host and popular speaker on apologetics, is passionate about speaking to the issues that affect urban people. Unlike traditional apologetics, Urban Apologetics is not full of sophisticated proofs  for theism  Instead the apologetic that Brooks promotes focuses on the issue of religious pluralism and a range of life issues ( abortion, sexuality, family, social justice).  Brooks is a conservative Christian but he is not doing apologetics from the center. He is advocating for a Christian apologetic that wrestles with the ideas and options urban people, especially minorities, face. This means he is cognizant of the dynamics of race, poverty and the Christian responsibility to act wisely and graciously in the face of them.

This is a short book (176 pages) and so is not a comprehensive answer book about what the Christian faith has to say to the issues. What Brooks does instead is offer some hints at how to answer questions biblically and relevantly. He also demonstrates a humble and generous spirit in his approach. How he says what he says, is as important as what he says.

In terms of answers to the issues, I don’t agree with everything Brooks says. I won’t nit-pick here, that is probably true of every book of apologetics, especially when the author is not in your own theological camp. However I agree the general tenor and tone of the book and think that Brook’s attentiveness to the issues that face city people (i.e. religious options, social issues, etc) are important touch points that the Christian faith can speak to. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Kregel Academic for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Watercolors are Sketchy: a book review

This is one of the few ‘non-theology/spirituality’ books I’ve reviewed here. I have done some non-religious business books and Susan Cain’s Quiet but for the most part my reviews focus on the Spiritual life, God and how to live meaningfully in light of God’s coming Kingdom.  But I have reviewed books on spirituality and art and so I thought I would explore a book which is more focused on craft and practice rather than meaning and significance.

Felix Scheinberger’s Urban Watercolor Sketching is written with both the artist and non-artist in mind. He explores the medium of water color (and mixed media, water color and pen drawings) for sketching. As someone who self-describes himself as artistically reclined, I really enjoyed this book and have used it as a practical manual to explore art. Sorry, I will not be sharing any of my ‘sketches’ online. They are not very good. I am still trying to get a handle on water color and against Scheinberger’s advice, I paint too much, and destroy the artistic value of my sketches.

But as Sceinberger demonstrates through out this book, Water color can be used effectively to add a splash of color to pen ink drawings, enlivening them and lifting them out of the drab black-and-white-world. He includes discussions on watercolor techniques, the use of colors (and how particular water-colors work and how to use them), and tricks of the trade.

Scheinberger has written two other books on watercolors, illustrated numerous children’s books and has had his work appear in several periodicals. He shares practical insights on artistic craft. I can’t say I have used this book as well as I would have liked, but I appreciate Scheinberger’s technical knowledge ad encouragement toward practice. I will keep this book accessible and refer back to it for it’s practicality. I give it four stars.

Thank you to Random House for providing me a review copy of this book through the blogging for books program.

Spider Theology: a kids’ book review

Jonathan Edwards is the great American theologian. He was pastor in Puritan New England and a key player in the first Great Awakening (c.a. 1730’s-40s).  Yet outside of the ‘Reformed crowd,’ Edwards is  no longer a household name. Reformed Heritage Books’ Christian Biographies For Young Readers series has released a new book to introduce the Edwards legacy to children.

Jonathan Edwards by Simonetta Carr covers the whole of  Edwards life. It tells the story of:  his childhood, his education and marriage to Sarah Pierpont, his early days as a pastor, his pastorate at North Hampton, his friendship with Whitefield and his part in the revival,  his dismissal from North Hampton and his Stockbridge years, his last days and death at Princeton. This is a children’s book, and short, so not a comprehensive treatment of Edwards. Carr points to episodes that would be of interest to young readers. She is an award winning biographer and has written quite a few biographies for young readers.

Carr’s Jonathan Edwards is beautifully illustrated by Matt Abraxas as well as maps, photos and Library of Congress stock images. There is even a portrait of Edwards from my favorite über-Calvinist theologian/portrait artist with a philosophical bent, Oliver Crisp. Crisp, who is a noted authority on Edwards, also read through Carr’s manuscript and helped answer some of Carr’s questions regarding Edwards.

The cover of the book, one of Abraxas’s illustrations, depicts the teenage Edwards dangling a spider from a stick.  A sketch from Edwards’ journal (12) reveals that Edwards once dangled a spider from a stick and made several illustrations of it dangling from it’s web. Carr comments on the time that Edwards devoted to observing the natural world, which is one of the aspects I most appreciate about his writings. Readers of his most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, will also recognize the image of the dangling spider.

This is a good biography and presents Edwards in a way that is accessible for chidren. Because this book is written for young readers, Carr does not wrestle with the ambiquities of Edwards legacy (i.e. he like many in Puritian New England, was a slave holder). It also doesn’t explore the nature of Edwards struggle with the difficult youth of his church (such as his strong words against ‘bundling‘).  This is a favorable presentation of Edwards  and I think a good introduction for youth.

My seven-year-old stalled on reading this somewhere in Edwards college years. I think this book is probably best for readers slightly beyond her level. Perhaps children in the 8-11 range. I especially think kids will like the ‘Did you Know?’ section at the end of the book that shares trivia about the Edwardes and their time period. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Reformation Heritage Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Style and Substance: thoughts on ministry and mission

This is probably a little random. But as my blog is titled thoughts, prayers and songs, i thought I’d do a little thinking out loud over here. Feel free to opine.

I’ve been thinking about style and substance lately. Style was the subject of the so-called ‘worship wars.’ As churches in the 80’s and 90’s fought over hymns or praise songs, seeker sensitive mega churches sought to downplay anything that seemed too churchy. This was an effort to help the de-churched overcome their religious baggage. Because of this, the face of the contemporary church in America has radically changed in our lifetime. There are a few traditionalists and there has been some recovery of older music, liturgy and symbol, but for the most part, ‘worship style’ corresponds to our own personal preferences. “Style” is a consumer category. We like liturgy the way we like American Eagle, tattoos and interesting facial hair.

Sometimes substance is pitted against style. When we encounter worship services which are too ‘glitzy’ for our tastes, we dismiss them as shallow, that is, ‘lacking in substance.’ Often we don’t really have a theological complaint, it just didn’t do anything for us. We are more tuned into  our personal sense of style than we are to substance. This doesn’t stop us from dismissing the substance of the type of worship experience we don’t like. Most of  the churches we ‘don’t like’ are just ‘not our style.’

Every worship service has a style, and a substance–a ‘mode’ and a ‘message.’  These too things are not at odds. If we want to reach our neighborhoods and communities, we need to speak the gospel (our ‘substance’) in the idiom of the people (‘style’). If you fail to consider the ‘style’ of worship in your gathering, who it includes and who it excludes, than you are off mission. We need a style that reveals the Kingdom and invites people into life with Christ.  If we are too concerned about appealing to the masses that the gospel isn’t central to all we say or do, than we lost the plot and we are wasting our time. Loving God and loving our neighbor is the substance and style of all we do in ministry.

If I was forced to choose, I’d say that ‘substance’ is more important than ‘style.’ But style and substance are not easily divided. When you consider how formational Christian worship is than you consider the intimate link between worship style and the substance of a particular gathering. A charismatic believer raising her hand in praise is formed differently than an Anglican who rises for God’s word and kneels for confession. Our liturgies help us apprehend and enter deeper into our life with God. They also frame our ways of approaching Him. One ‘stylistic question’ we need to ask is, “what is the ‘substance’ of what we wish to live into?”

This may seem heady and abstract, but I guess what I am arguing for is for us to be thoughtful about the link between our beliefs and practices. We can’t just say that style, modes of practice and technique don’t matter because it is through these that we embody our faith. It is also through these practices that faith seeps into our bones. Negatively, our own stylistic prejudices can contribute to our spiritual malformation. If we don’t attend a church that practices confession because we are uncomfortable with how vulnerable it makes us, than we never experience what God has for us through the practice (i.e., freedom, community).  We need to be aware of where our personal preferences (style) and what it obscures.

What do you think the relationship between style and substance is in the Christian life? 

Redeeming the Pain: a book review

Ricky Texada was living the dream. Called by God to the ministry, he was informed that he and his wife would both soon be ordained as pastors. Unfortunately his wife Debra was stolen from him by a tragic car crash. He felt the pain and searing loss and wondered why God did not spare his wife despite the number of people praying for them. Later he felt God reveal to him, that Debra had a choice and she chose to be with Jesus rather than tarry any longer.

Less than a year after the loss of his wife’s life, Texada felt led to another woman, Cyd. He had first met her in college. When his friend Keith met her at a concert, he told Texada and that he told Cyd that Ricky would talk to her.  After a couple months’ delay, Texada calls and takes a few halting steps towards dating Cyd. It becomes increasingly clear, that God is leading Ricky and Cyd together.

My Breaking Point, God’s Turing Point tells the story of Texada’s courtship and marriage to Cyd, after his heartrending loss of Debra. He talks about the ways God led them together. His story is a testimony of how God gives us beauty for ashes, and restores us from our brokenness.  While I do not belong to the same theological camp as Texada, I do respect his journey and the ways that our God has cared for him and brought him through a season of pain.

This book is designed to help people through their own journey of pain and seasons of loss. Texada hopes to impart hope to his readers. This makes his story read a little more like a ‘life lesson’ than a biography. At times I found his writing too didactic and heavy handed. The story has power on its own without always needing to draw a ‘life lesson’ out. I wished for a less packaged telling. But the sorrow and joy is all here.

This would be a good book for someone facing similar losses. I give this book three stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.