Reflections on the Christianity Today’s podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.”

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Reflections on Christianity Today’s Podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.”

I have finished listening to all of the episodes to this point (including the bonus episode with Joshua Harris), and here are some of my takeaways.

1). Driscoll and the other leaders at Mars Hill were innovative and had a ton of great ideas they were able to implement to grow quickly as a church organization. However, with that rapid growth, came a lot of opportunities to abuse and spiritually manipulate people in the church. One of the comments that was constantly made was, “Look at the fruit.” There were a number of moments that showed a great bounty of spiritual fruit, but there was also a lot of rotten fruit that simply was ignored, because the “fruit” that was being looked at was numerical, then spiritual. It’s vitally important to not buy into the message that “Numerical growth = Spiritual growth.” The spirit may be growing, but it may not be holy.

2). Being a woman at Mars Hill was difficult. I understand that some religious groups/denominations have various views of women in ministry, gender roles, etc. When women are not allowed to work, because it would disqualify their spouse to be a leader in the church, that is toxic. When women have to stop what they are doing, because their spouses need to have their sexual needs taken care of, that is toxic. When a woman has to sit in a church service, and the minister talks about sex in a very pornographic way and proof-text the Bible to promote sex acts that a woman may be uncomfortable with, but has to perform because her husband request it of her and can now use the “Bible says/pastor says” card, that is toxic. Some notable quotes from former members was a woman, who praised this brash talk on gender roles and sex because it helped get her husband to “step up to the plate,” but then realized how toxic it because as the pendulum continued to swing too far. The other member (Jeff from 90lbs wuss), said that the teachings on sex in the church not only made his wife uncomfortable but that what was being communicated was “spiritual rape.”

3.) Transparency and accountability are vital to healthy church culture, and yet it is also the two things that continue to be thrown out the window in the guise of “protecting the integrity of the church.” Screw your false sense of integrity! It has nothing to do with integrity and everything to protect a brand. Out of all the times I have been a church member, consultant, and pastor, it is few and far between that I have seen leaders be humble and transparent with the church about sin, corruption, and other church issues. Transparency and accountability is a two-way street. In the case of Mars Hill, Driscoll needed to have accountability, and when there were by-law changes to give him more power and less accountability, it eventually lead to the fall of Mars Hill. On the same token, it is also important for governing boards and teams to be held accountable. I have witnessed and heard too many stories where a pastor was forced to resign, fired, or simply quit due to an overzealous, fruitless, fearful, power-hungry board who needed to protect their “assets” at the cost of destroying a minister and their family.

4.) The evangelical community needs to stop making celebrities out of ministers. The problem is two-fold. First, it puts an unrealistic amount of pressure on the pastor, regardless of the size of the church. They tend to focus more on performance than being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Second, it gives the leader a false sense of self and an overinflated ego, that gives him/her a “god-complex.” It leads to an abuse of power, and/or when there is a fallacy, it causes much damage across the church and community.

If you have not listened to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” I would highly recommend it if you are interested in church dynamics and culture.

Dropping Weight

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February 2015, I was packing up my family’s stuff from the house we were living in as we were moving out of state. when the moving truck door closed down and everyone was in their cars to make the six-hour trek down south, I took off the keys that I had been carrying for three years as minister to a church in Cortland, Ohio. My wife looked at me and asked if my key chain felt lighter as I had removed the keys to the church and the house. I laughed and said it is a bit lighter as I walked into the church for the final time. A few of my elders were standing around talking with me and saying our goodbyes and thanking me for the great work I had done for the church. I asked where I should put the keys and one of the elders held out their hands as I gently placed them and grasped their hands with kindness and generosity.

It would be around 24 hours where I would be handed new keys, new weight for the opportunity for the Lord to use me and my family to bless this new ministry I have been called to. I never would have thought that six years later, I would be in the same place of dropping off keys, dropping off weight, to go into this next adventure in life to see where the Lord will use me to bless others. Except for this time, it felt different.

At the beginning of the year, I see more conversations about people dropping the extra weight they are carrying. Most of it is physical weight as they diet, get a gym membership, and persevere to hit weight-loss goals they have set before them. Others are purging material weight to free up space in their homes. I think that we tend to remove weight in our lives that tend to burden us. Whether that is the removal of fat cells, giving away old clothes, or the painful removal of individuals from your life who cause unnecessary drama. Like a snake that sheds its skin, people go through a process of dropping weight from their lives. However, there is some weight that we want to keep in our lives. This is the type of weight that if removed would be painful. We can work out our bodies to lose fat, and feel the pain of sore muscles that will eventually grow to be bigger to help burn more fat. It’s the pain of letting go of one’s addictive substance because they want to have a healthier lifestyle and repair fractured relationships due to addiction. Most of the time the good weight we want to keep, is intermingled with the weight we want to drop or have to drop.

I reflect on my years in Cortland and dropping those keys in one of my elder’s hands. With that drop came memories of doing new fruitful ministries, such as having a clothing shed that helped us give free clothing to our community. Memories of carrying a heavy bag of peanuts to make peanut brittle with the Christian Women Connection, memories of frustration with no one coming to an event, and memories of great love and losses that come with being a pastor. In hindsight, I look back at those years and think of how blessed I was to be the pastor of those individuals and how even today, some of them still reach out to me for prayer, wisdom, or simply to tell me how much they appreciated all the work I put into the church and that there is fruit from my leadership that continues to grow.

When I dropped my keys off a few weeks ago at the church I pastored at, it felt a lot different from when I was in Cortland. In some ways, there was some weight I was glad to drop;

  • The disrespect
  • The hurtful words
  • The tearing down of my character and my family
  • The backstage politics
  • The broken promises
  • The broken dreams

Some of the weight that I will miss is

  • Visiting the shut-ins
  • Driving to the hospital and praying for people
  • Baptizing people (even if it’s in the bathtub
  • Praying for people in the church and the community
  • Bible study
  • preparing messages and getting text messages on how important the message had impacted them
  • being in a community with people I love

Today, I got a call that a woman from church was at the hospital with her husband who was feeling ill. I called her to get an update on her husband and to offer up a prayer for them. During that conversation, the woman asked me how I was doing. That was the paradox where joy and pain collided. On one hand, I was fine. I was enjoying time with my family and friends I haven’t seen in years. On the other hand, was the searing pain of not being able to see this individual every week, getting those strong side hugs, holding her hands as I pray with her, and encourage her in her walk with the Lord. Because going back into that environment will bring up a lot of sorrow of loss, and pain being around those who love me and those who threw stones at me behind the curtain.

When I dropped the weight of the keys in the elder’s hand in Cortland, there was warmth, respect, and gratitude as I got in the truck and drove down south. When I dropped the keys off at my last church, it was on a desk, in an empty building, alone.

Dear Pastor, It is okay to mourn your church.

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man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair

I had just finished a Zoom meeting with some area ministers.  The third Tuesday of every month is a time for us to gather over a meal and encourage each other in ministry.  As we were discussing some of the challenges in this new way of doing ministry.  As one pastor put so elegantly, “I’m finding out how much I am missing my congregation.”

Ministry is full of challenges.  I had heard on the pastor say that when he was in seminary, the professor proclaimed, “Ministry would be fun if there were no people.”  Before COVID-19, this statement would have gotten a few laughs and nods, but as the comment was said, there was no laughing, just a hollowness in our hearts and minds.  We may not miss the negativity, the gossip, the hurtful anonymous letters, and the personality conflicts.  But what we do miss, is the voice, eyes, touch, presence of an individual, even if that same individual has wronged you.

I have seen ministers who have defied government orders by still having services in their buildings.  I have seen pastors who have had criticism from the community, by doing a drive-in service; some even had had the police called on them.  Some pastors sit by the phone to receive updates from congregants who have been hospitalized while some preach a eulogy to a camera in an empty funeral home chapel, as no one has come out for services in fear of getting sick.

I get it.

I get that you love your church members

I get that you feel lost when you can not do a visitation, or go to the hospital, or preach a sermon in an empty sanctuary (or in your home)

I think of the parable of the lost sheep, except instead of one missing, its the whole flock that has been separated in separate areas while the shepherd is, for better or worst, trying to reach and feed the sheep under his/her care in new ways and, if we are being honest, you are completely lost.

So my suggestion to you, pastor, is to grieve.  Go somewhere and grieve this loss.  Go and grieve the simple handshakes, nudges, smiles, bump-ins, that most pastors take for granted.  Also, remember that your flock is not missing, they are just confined and they mourn too.  They miss you, and one day, they will be back and the church body will (hopefully) be stronger and united than ever, in the Name of Jesus Christ.