For When You are Bleeding Like a Stuck Church: a book review

9780801092480Churches, like all institutions, go through stages when they feel stuck. Leaders try everything—programs, strategies, worship styles, staffing changes, new haircuts, but when you’re stuck, you’re stuck. Chris Sonksen is a personal coach for more than two hundred churches, impacting thousands of leaders. In When Your Church Feels Stuck, he helps church leaders get unstuck by facing seven critical questions every leader must answer.  The questions are:

  1. What do we do? (What is our mission as a church? Why are we here?)
  2. How do we get it done? (What is our strategy?)
  3. What are the guiding principles we live by? (What are our values
  4. How do we measure a win?  (What are our metrics?)
  5. Do we have the right people in the right seats moving in the right direction? (Do we have team alignment?)
  6. How do we match what we say is important with what we really do? (what services do we actively provide?)

If you read leadership books, which I do occasionally, none of these questions are terribly surprising (some cribbed directly from leadership literature). Sonksen helps pastors and leadership teams clarify their purpose, strategy, and impact on a community.  I certainly see how a book like this may be helpful and certainly clarifying the answers to each of these questions would help churches and other organizations do what they want to do. As a pastor, I can readily see how asking these questions of our church leadership at key moments would have been helpful.

Unfortunately, I find the questions more helpful than the content. A lot of it is rehashed leadership you can get anywhere and Sonsken’s definition of unstuck is simply numeric church growth. He uses a fictionalized example of Pastor Jeremy throughout the book. Pastor Jeremy has tried everything but his church is stuck and he can’t get it to grow higher than 250 members. The questions and conversation Sonsken has, helps Jeremy and his team move past their stuckness into growth.

I don’t have anything against church growth per se, but it seems like Sonksen’s expertise is growing multi-staff churches. For example, when I read his chapter on metrics, I knew going in that churches often measure success by the three B’s (bucks, bricks & butts). I saw the value in asking how do we measure a win? because I know a church that is involved in community partnerships to impact the neighborhood and cultivates deep fellowship may not have the same kind of tangibles. Unfortunately, Sonksen’s metrics don’t look appreciably different than any denominational spreadsheet (123).

I do appreciate what Sonksen is trying to do, and I think he probably would be fine with me taking his questions in a different direction if it helps clarify my leadership vision of church, though I kind of bristle at the content. I give this book 2.5 stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

Shift Happens: a book review

Contemporary Churches (2015) is a short booklet by Louis Kavar, Ph.D. designed to aid churches in transition and in need of revitalization. Kavar is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ with thirty-five years of experience in pastoral ministry, a psychologist, and pastoral counselor, and spiritual director. He brings his wealth of ministry experience to bear on helping churches shift from traditional congregational gatherings to something more life-giving and sustainable in our postmodern context.

51u1nyx759lThere are five chapters of Kavar’s book. Chapter 1 describes the cultural shift we are in, where the wider culture is not responsive to the church’s traditional and institutional structure. Kavar describes our need to move from where we are, to begin to configure and conceptualize church in new ways. Chapter 2 describes the movement from death to life, as congregations move through the stages of grief, a spirituality of bereavement, toward resurrection and new vitality. Chapters 3 and 4 moves toward a new model for the local church. Finally, Chapter 5 describes the spiritual practices and rituals that will sustain a church in transition. Kavar writes, “The vitality of the Christian life is not dying. Instead, structures that no longer represent the way of life our culture embraces are fading away.  In this transformation, the words of Isaiah 43 is true for us today, ‘Look I am doing a new thing. It’s emerging don’t you perceive it?'”(94).

I knew that Kavar was a clergy person, a spiritual director, and a psychologist when I picked the book up. I somehow got in my head that this book was about ‘contemplative church transformation.’ It took me waaay too long to realize I read that it was called Contemporary Churches, and not Contemplative Churches. But Kavar draws more heavily on psychologists than mystics. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t deal with spiritual transformation ( he employs Brueggemann’s orientation/disorientation/reorientation framework, the rhythms of death and resurrection, the example of Jesus, spiritual practices, discernment and the operations of the Holy Spirit. And he incorporates insights he’s gained as a psychologist and a church strategist.

Resources abound for church revitalization and congregational transformation. This isn’t the first resource of this kind I’ve read, though it is perhaps the most mainline one I’ve read. Kavar does reference mainstay evangelical authors like Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, George Barna, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons and even Willow Creek Association resources (but not Ed Stetzer, sorry Lifeway). The changing dynamics of culture effects evangelical and mainline congregations alike, though all anecdotes and illustrative material here are of Mainline congregations and contexts. Some of his examples of shifts (e.g. the move to LGBTQ inclusion and social justice awareness) will be contested in more conservative contexts, but the principles hold true across the theological spectrum. Kavar has some interesting things to say about how for postmodern people, there is a shift in our understanding of church membership from adherence to historic dogma first toward the primacy of communal belonging (members first,  dogma later). I’m confessional enough that this makes me uncomfortable, though I recognize he is right about the broader cultural shift.

Fellow clergy (and congregational leaders) will benefit from reading this whether or not you buy all of Kavar’s theological assumptions and conclusions. He is a good dialogue partner. I give this book four stars (Contemplative Churches, would have been an awesome book).

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review

Public Theology as Pastoral Ministry: a book review

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan aim to recover a theological vision for pastoral ministry. The Pastor As Public Theologian diagnoses our contemporary anemia as “[t]oo many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16): management skills, strategic plans, “leadership” courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth”(1). Pastors are recast as CEOs, therapuetic gurus, managers, life coaches, community activists, storytellers, political agitators and a host of other images borrowed from secular culture (7-9). With the bifurcation of academic theology from practical disciplines, pastors increasing are leaving theology to the academics and rooting their identity in these secular cultural images.

9780801097713So Vanhoozer and Strachan propose recovery. The publican theologian is a scholar saint deeply invested in people’s lives, sound doctrine, and biblical faith. They unfurl their proposal with a brief introduction (written by Vanhoozer), an examination of biblical and historical images for pastoral ministry (Strachan), and an exploration of the purposes and practices of pastoral theologians. Vanhoozer and Strachan point out the pastor’s role as an organic intellectual who builds up the body of Christ (22). Theology is too important to leave in an ivory tower. However, Strachan and Vanhoozer are both career theologians and not pastors. Between their chapters are short reflections by twelve other scholars: mostly pastors (with the exception of Cornelius Plantinga), all male, and generally Reformed. These little snippets provide an ‘on-the-ground’ view of how these ideas work out in real life. These are written by people like Josh Moody, Gerald Hiestand, Melvin Tinker, Todd Wilson, Jim Samra, Wesley Pastor, Kevin DeYoung, David Gibson, Bill Kyes, Guy Davies, and Jason Hood.

Strachan is professor of theology and church history at Boyce College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His contribution to this book explores biblical and historical images for pastoral theologians. In chapter one, he looks at the Old Testament and how Yahweh’s wisdom, truth and grace was mediated to the people through kings, prophets, and priests. While acknowledging differences between Old Covenant contexts and New Testament and contemporary realities, Strachan uses these images (of priest, prophet and king) to give us a biblical theology of the theological office in the pastorate. In chapter two he gives an overview of church history, highlighting the importance of theology  in the tradition for pastoral work. Early church theologians, Reformers,  Puritans and the leaders of the First Great Awakening (especially Jonathan Edwards), and Neo-Evangelicals like Harold Ockenga all prized the practical importance of good theology for ministry and mission; however,  Medieval Scholasticism divided theology and ministry (76-77) and contemporary populists placed no premium on theology for practical ministry (86-90).

Vanhoozer’s chapters present the fetures of their positive proposal. He argues that pastors are generalists who use theology to help form people in Christ’s image:

Christian theology is an attempt to know God in order to give God his due (love, obedience, glory). Jesus Christ is in the thick of it: he is both the ultimate revelation of the knowledge of God and our model of how rightly to respond to this knowledge. Pastoral-theologians, too, are in the thick of it: they represent God to the people (e.g. through teaching by word and example) and the people to God (e.g. through intercessory prayer). Changing a lightbulb is child’s play compared to teaching people to walk as children of the light (Eph. 5:8). Far from impractical, the pastoral-theologian is (or ought to be) a holy jack-of-all-existenital-trades. (104).

Vanhoozer than presents a compelling vision of the pastoral theologian’s task: expressing the gospel , with biblical, cultural and human literacy, with wisdom and love in the image of Christ. “What are theologians for? What is the distinct service of the pastor-theologian? We reply: for confessing comprehending, celebrating, communicating and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ” (125). In chapter four, Vanhoozer walks through the peculiar tasks of pastoral ministry (i.e. evangelism, counseling, visitation, preaching, teaching, liturgy, prayer, apologetics) and show how public theology enriches and enables real ministry.

This is a well reasoned account of the importance of theology in pastoral ministry, one in which I am in deep sympathy. Studying is spiritually formative for me, so I resonate with Vanhoozer and Strachan recovery of a robust theology for ministry.  My own ideas of pastoral ministry have been shaped by my reading of Eugene Peterson. As I read this book, I thought of Peterson as the public-theologian par excellence. He certainly embodies the sort of combination of thoughtfulness, active attention and pastoral concern that Strachan and Vanhoozer describe and argue for.

Nevertheless I found this book limited in a couple of respects.First, I am on board with this vision but I have served and attended churches where good theology was not valued. What this book doesn’t do is present a way to bridge the gap from the modern therapeutic/CEO models of ministry to their public theologian proposal. More work needs to be done on how this works out practically, especially in churches and contexts that ‘don’t get it.’ Second, for a book that includes contributions from fourteen people, it is exceptionally narrow. White. Protestant. Reformed. Male.  Calvinists aren’t the only Christians who value theology and the life of the mind.  Methodists, Radical Reformation churches, and Pietists deserve their due (there is one Evangelical Free Pastor, so Pietists are marginally represented). Women and minorities would bring different perspectives and concerns. I wish that Vanhoozer and Strachan widened their net beyond their own boys’ club.

But these demurrals aside, I liked this book, agreed with it and find aspects instructive for ministry and mission. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

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.



Practice How You Preach: a book review

I am one called to preach the Word, so I read books that will help me grow as a preacher.  Preaching resources generally fall into one of two categories (other than good or bad). Some preaching books focus on ‘preaching technique.’ Other books major in looking at the message of preaching and helping preachers attend to the text before them. Rare books accomplish both objectives. Daniel Overdorf has written a book which does.

One Year To Better Preaching compiles fifty-two exercises  to help preachers preach as they practice.  You can go through this book in a year by doing one of these exercises as part of your weekly sermon preparation. Alternatively, these exercises focus on eight different areas, so preachers can focus on areas of weakness in their preaching.  Topics covered include:

  1. Prayer and Preaching
  2. Bible Interpretation
  3. Understanding Listeners
  4.  Sermon Construction
  5. Illustration and Application
  6. Word Crafting
  7. The Preaching Event
  8. Sermon Evaluation (from page 11 of the introduction).

Overdorf also suggests focusing on one or two exercises a month or reading this with a group of preachers. However you read (and practice) this book, these exercises will help you grow in your ability to proclaim God’s Word.  Each chapter  has a description of a preaching component, a corresponding practical exercise, testimonials from other preachers, and suggested resources (i.e. articles, books, websites) to help you continue to grow in that area.

Seasoned preachers will have honed their skills in some areas already; however we can all grow in our preaching. I flagged several of these chapters to come back to and work through for the next times I am in the pulpit.  Overdorf has a gift for writing pithy chapters which pack a punch. There is a lot of practical wisdom here!  I enjoyed the chapters which talked about ‘word craft’ in preaching. Overdorf helps us not waste words as we proclaim the Word.  Using language well is something I am passionate about and still need to grow in.  Other chapters remind preachers of the basics (i.e. the importance of prayer, learning the historical and literary context of the passage, preaching from the big idea,  considering your audience, etc). These suggestions are made by just about every preaching book, but by attaching the message to a hands-on practice, Overdorf makes his message stick.

The copy of this book that I read through was in PDF format.  I read books in electronic format and enjoy them.; however I think that if you decide to read through a book of exercises like this, you will want to read through the physical copy (Available from Amazon starting September 16th). I find practical manuals like this are most helpful when you can mark them up, dog-ear pages and underline a lot.  This isn’t a book made to look pretty on your shelf or take up space on your hard drive.  This is a book for preachers to practice what and how they preach.

I give this book five stars and plan to put it into practice.

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

Tripp Hazard: A Book Review

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry
Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry  by Paul David Tripp

There are vocational hazards associated with pastoral ministry. Whether you are aware or not,  your pastor is in the middle of their sanctification and is susceptible to falling into ungodly attitudes–pride, greed, lust, anger and bitterness. Knowledge of theology and the biblical text is no guarantee that your pastor will do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. Sometimes over-familiarity with biblical truth results in a loss of wonder, pride and failure to passionately pursue God.

Paul David Tripp has written a book which is a powerful diagnostic tool for pastors,  identifying where we ministers have gone a miss. Rooted in his own experience, Dangerous Calling examines how pastors can lose sight of the gospel of grace. Tripp shares vulnerably of times where he has personally lost sight of his purpose and passion in ministry and he exhorts pastors to take care lest they lose sight of their own relationship with God, and all He has done on their behalf.

Tripp addresses three dangerous aspects of pastoral life. In part one of this book, he examines ‘pastoral culture.’  Pastors are people who are theologically trained, are leaders of the congregation and often serve as examples for the church. Unfortunately this has resulted in pastors being knowledgeable about God without necessarily growing in spiritual maturity and cut off from the congregation (sometimes placed on a pedestal). Tripp challenges pastors to cultivate their devotional life and to not set themselves ‘over the congregation’ while forgetting that they are also part of it.

In part two, Tripp hones in on the way pastors can sometimes  forget who God is. Pastors sometimes lose their awe of God because they are over-familiar with  Scripture but fail to cultivate a daily life with God.  Sometimes pastors are overcome with anxiety about themselves, others, circumstances beyond their control or the future. Sometimes they stop maturing spiritually because they act as though they arrived. Tripp exhorts us to pay attention to where we have failed to look with wonder at all that God is doing in our midst and to passionately pursue our relationship with Him.

In part three, Tripp looks at the way pastors forget their unique identity. Pastors sometimes ‘do ministry’ for their own glory–build empires and amass their reputation. Other times we devote ourselves to ‘preparing for ministry’ but forget to cultivate our own spiritual life.  Our tendency to separate ourselves from the flock may result in our thinking that our élite status separates from the ordinary Christian. Tripp reminds us that we sit under our own preaching and must humbly and actively pursue our own spiritual health.

I found this book helpful in examining my heart and motives in ministry. In his capacity as executive director of Pastoral Life and Care, Tripp has walked along side a number of pastors in ministry and he is well aware of the dangers. I think that this is a helpful resource for pastors to remind them of to attend their own spiritual health. I think this could be used profitably by all who are in ministry.

Nevertheless I have two small critiques. First, Tripp seems to assume that ‘pastor’ implies male and he fails to use gender inclusive language.  Women in ministry can use this book profitably because there is nothing in his advice that is male specific. Secondly, I think this book is helpfully read alongside other books which talk about clergy self-care. In a couple of places I wanted to augment Tripp’s advice with other treatments on the topic. For example, Tripp rightly identifies the problem of clergy isolation (pastors are part of the church, not over the church) and suggests that pastors be involved in a small group that they do not lead (79). I think this makes sense but I also wish that Tripp said more about establishing appropriate boundaries as a pastor and managing expectations from parishioners (i.e. people in a pastor’s ‘small group’ can sometimes behave as though they are in the pastor’s ‘inner circle’ and therefore demand more attention and care than others in the congregation). This doesn’t  negate the many fine things Tripp says, but I wouldn’t treat this book as the final authority on clergy self-care.

Tripp’s approach is based in his experiences in ministry and his own reading of scripture. So he offers a lot of practical insights. I recommend this book to people in ministry and I feel like this is the sort of book which will help pastors make sure they are shining the light of Christ and not just casting their personal shadow.

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