The Sending Church: a book review

J.D. Greear is the pastor of the multi-site Summit Church in Raliegh-Durham, North Carolina and the author of several Christian books. While I am generally suspicious of mega-churches, I am impressed by the substance of Greear’s teaching. He is passionate about biblical teaching, discipleship and getting people to live out their faith in risky ways. His new book, Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send  unpacks ten kingdom ‘plumb lines’ for church leaders to lead their churches in becoming a sending church.  When Greear took over the helm at Homestead Heights Baptist Church, he relaunched a traditional Baptist church as a contemporary missional church. They went from a congregation of three-hundred to a mega church, to a multi-site church. Greear has a passion for growing missional leaders and releasing them to make a kingdom impact.

At the heart of Greear’s approach is a passion for sending. While other pastors focus on growing their church or movement, Greear and his leadership team do not hold on to their most gifted leaders. They train them and send them out. In this book, Greear shares ‘plumb lines’ –short memorable phrases that he repeats ad nausem to help keep his leadership and congregation on mission. These include:

  • The Gospel is Not Just the Diving Board, It is the Pool
  • Everyone is called.
  • The Week is as Important as the Weekend
  • A Church is Not a Group of People Gathered Around a Leader but a Leadership Factory
  • The Church Makes Visible the Invisible Christ
  • The Point in Everything is to Make Disciples
  • Every Pastor is Our Missions Pastor
  • We Seek to Live Multicultural Lives, Not Just Host Multicultural Events
  • Risk is Right
  • When You are Sick of Saying It, They’ve Just Heard It

While the stated purpose of the book is to get churches to be sending churches (through both church planting and short term missions), the above “plumb lines” illustrate an approach to ministry that is gospel soaked, rooted in the priesthood of all believers, puts a priority on discipleship, and actively cultivates diversity. The church that I pastor is not at sending stage but a small church that needs to pursue growth. Nevertheless Greear has plenty of things to say which apply to my context, and casts a vision for where we can grow to.

As a pastor, I appreciated the practical nature of this book. I  like that Greear is not confused about technique, models and methods. His vision for a sending church is firmly grounded in New Testament faith. Two appendixes give practical insights for setting up an international mission strategy, and developing a strategy for domestic church planting. For my context, many of Greear’s recommendations don’t work, but I still felt myself stretched and encouraged to take Kingdom risks. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Cross Focused Reviews and Zondervan for the purposes of this review.  I also would be remiss if I failed to mention how much the cover evokes 80’s era video games for me. Ah, memories.

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.

Dealing With the Problem Children of God: a book review

The church is full of difficult people. Often they don’t mean to be divisive, but pastors have to navigate power plays from lay leaders or other people opposed to the minister’s ministry philosophy. Differences in theological convictions can lead to mistrust and questioning of pastoral motives. Sometimes lay leaders have convictions about how to deal strongly with sin in the congregation without seeing the full picture that the pastor sees in confidential counseling sessions. This often means that when ‘dragons’ act to nip a problem in the bud,  they cause undue hurt and consternation. Author Marshall Shelley calls these problem people, “Well-intentioned Dragons.” After all they aren’t trying to make life hell for those around them, but the end up causing much pastoral anxiety.

Ministering to Problem People in the Church helps pastors diagnosis problem people, set appropriate boundaries, create a culture of active lay participation and healthy leadership and confront these ‘dragons’ where necessary. Ministering to Problem People in the Church was originally published as Well-Intentioned Dragons. I actually read the earlier edition of this book and found it helpful of understanding the dynamics of fallen people in church. New to this edition was a chapter on electronic communication which gives pastors some principles for communicating well in a world of texts, email and social media (and not compounding problems!). Also Shelley has a chapter on dealing with those struggling with mental illness in the church, which is sensitive to the dynamics of treatment and affirms the full personhood of those who struggle without demonizing them.

I think Shelley’s shorthand of ‘well-intentioned dragons’ for difficult congregants is problematic (these are fellow image-bearers not mythical beasts) but he offers sound advice on how to navigate troubled waters. Despite the shorthand label, he advocates attempt to approach dragons with respect and understanding, sensitive to their past wounds. He also doesn’t think we are in the business of slaying dragons, but of winning them back to the body of Christ (following Matthew 18). So despite the nomenclature, Shelley humanizes God’s problem children in the church.

Another concern one might have while reading this book is, ‘what if the pastor is the the problem?” Spiritual abuse and clergy misconduct are real issues but that is beyond the scope of this book. Shelley assumes that the pastor is attempting to lead God’s people well. I would hate for abusive pastors to label all their opponents as ‘dragons’ as a way of silencing them, but that would be to ignore most of Shelley’s advice. But if you assume that this book is written to help pastors lead healthy congregations (which it was), and follow Shelley’s advice for creating a healthy leadership culture, their is little cause for concern here.

Pastors and ministry leaders will find  in Shelley’s helpful advice for shepherding God’s people, especially when they find themselves at loggerheads with those they seek to lead. This will be much more helpful to the ministry practitioner (its intended audience) than the general reader. I give this book four stars.

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



Doing Church (Leadership) as a Team: a book review

Joseph Hellerman is a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot. He also serves as a copastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Sungundo, California. The dual vocation of Bible scholar and pastor has allowed him to delve deeply into the Bible and ancient literature and discover implications for ministry. In Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today, Hellerman takes a look at the dynamics of power in the Roman culture of Philippi and Paul’s counter-cultural message in Philippians. He then discusses the implications of Paul’s words for our contemporary ministry context.

The three parts of Hellerman’s book delve into the reality of power relationships. In part one, Hellerman examines the reality of power, privilege and class in Roman culture.  There were the cultural elites, but a hunger for glory and status from non-elites meant that non-elites also patterned their life after elite culture. This is evident in Philippi. the only place in Paul’s missionary journey that Luke identifies as a Roman Colony (Acts 16).

In part two, Hellerman unfolds Paul’s counter-cultural message from his letter to the Philippians.  While there does not appear to be a crisis in the church of Philippi which Paul is addressing, he does go to great pains to give an alternative view of leadership, power and status.  Unlike other Epistles, Paul does not stress his apostleship, but uses the sole designation of slave, a status which had a fair degree of shame attached to it in the first century (123-6). He also urges the Philippians toward greater unity, humility and service.  The Christological hymn of Phil. 2 demonstrates how antithetical to Roman-business-as-usual, the gospel was. Jesus had status, came in the form of ‘a slave,’ and suffered death by crucifixion on our behalf (141, ff).  To a culture organized around gaining glory, status and power, this was a radical departure. And yet Paul called the Philippians (and us) to follow Christ’s self-emptying example.

Part three draws out  the implications with an eye toward current church leadership structures. While Hellerman does not mandate a particular approach to church governance, he does question models of church leadership where a sole, senior pastor has absolute and unchecked authority.  He includes a number of stories from students which illustrate where church power structures go awry (especially chapter 7) and illustrates the importance of examining the social context of ministry and argues that the ‘team leadership model’ is more consistent with the New Testament.  This allows for greater accountability, shared wisdom, and less division between clergy and laity. Hellerman shares what this looks like in his own context, part of a team of pastor-elders at Oceanside.

Hellerman builds his case well, and I loved how he combined a close reading of First Century Philippi and Paul’s epistle with its implications for church ministry today.  By beginning with ‘ancient history,’ Hellerman is able to illustrate how Philippians speaks both to its context and our own. This focus on history will be daunting for some readers, but the payoff is worth it.  I absolutely loved part two (his reading of Philippians) and copiously underlined several sections.

I am lucky enough to be a part of a church with healthy leadership, but I have lots of friends who I have seen chewed up and hurt by their churches. I think that this is a valuable resource for recovering a more communal and humble approach to leadership. Especially for those who are starting out on their journey in ministry and developing convictions about leadership.  I highly recommend it. 5 stars: ★★★★★

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

Doing Good is my Middle Name: a book review.

Peter Greer is no stranger to doing good. As president and CEO of HOPE International, he has invested his life in addressing both physical and spiritual poverty through microfinance. However he also knows the shadow side which can accompany good doing. When people give their life in service through activism, missions or ministry, they may end up serving from the wrong center. Some serve to earn salvation. Some give their life to a cause to prove their own worth. The Christian response should be to serve out of a response of overflowing gratitude for all Christ has done on our behalf. Unfortunately, we often louse that up and end up casting more shadow than light.

In The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good Greer shares his own journey  of ways he’s ‘done good’ but from the wrong motivation. At one point he devoted his life to ministry but ended up giving ‘leftovers’ his wife and family. He had bought into a sort of Christian Karma which declared if ‘I do this for God, God will do (fill in the blank for me). He has used the wrong measuring stick in defining success and has compared himself to others.  The lessons he’s learned along the way help us be aware of where our ministry might have slid into the danger zone.

Greer shares lots of stories of where ‘doing good’ can be dangerous for our souls. He isn’t trying to talk us out of doing good, but to examine our internal motivations. So he turns over the idea of ‘doing good’ and points to the places of possible danger.  We’ve all heard the stories of the Christian leader who blows up and blows it. Greer gets us to examine our own hearts in action before our own life falls off the rails.  The fact that he does it with humor and grace is an added bonus. 

Much of the advice in this book is practical good advice like: have friends you are accountable to, listen to feedback, being authentic and humble, don’t take photos of nursing gorillas or tell a room full of ministry supporters that you welcome them with open legs (a language error, in case you were wondering). These should be obvious and basic. Unfortunately life in ministry can sometimes reflexively fall into the category of ‘doing important tasks’ without doing the hard work of self reflection which should accompany ministry. Greer’s book provides a good diagnostic tool for Christian ministers. 

I enjoyed this book and give it four stars. It is a good read for active minded people who like to ‘get involved’ in ‘helping others.’ Greer’s recommendations will help us do that from a healthier place. 

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