Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why Complete Religious Freedom is Essential to our Future

In a few hours, I'll be checking out of the office and spending the month of May trying to finish two new books for publication in the fall.  Among other things, this means I won't be posting very often here until June.  But before I leave, I wanted to write a bit about an issue that I've been thinking deeply about lately:  religious freedom.

Last Thursday, I spent a wonderful evening of food and friendship with people of diverse faiths at an event sponsored by my Turkish Muslim friends.  Additionally, they honored me with the opportunity to speak about our growing friendship.  Each of us represented very different faiths--faiths that often contradict one another and present very different views of God, sin, redemption, heaven and hell.  And yet there were were; Episcopal and Catholic priests, Jewish Rabbis, Muslim Imams, and a few Baptist pastors from the network of churches I serve, eating and learning together.

I've been asked before why I participate in these kinds of events.  Is it because I believe that ultimately, we are all the same?  Do I believe that ultimately, we all worship the same god?  

The answer to that question is a resounding "no."  

And I state that clearly every time I'm given the opportunity to speak to my friends who adhere to other faiths.  I believe God has ultimately revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.  I believe Jesus' bloody death and bodily resurrection is the only avenue to having your sins forgiven.  I believe repentance from sin and toward Jesus, and faith alone in HIS finished work is the only way to a relationship with God.  And because I believe this, and because I love my friends, I spend time with them.

But I also spend time at events like this for another reason:  because we must model for the rest of the world what "tolerance" really looks like!

The term "tolerance" has had so many definitions applied to it over the past few years that the word itself has nearly been emptied of all significant meaning.  In the mainstream media, the term is largely used as a weapon against anyone who disagrees with the prevailing views of the day.  In short, to be "tolerant" you must agree with the majority, and if you don''t, then you are "intolerant."  Pot, meet kettle!

Another way this term has been abused is by assuming that all ideas and beliefs are of equal value, and that no particular belief or worldview can possibly be superior to another.  Practically, this approach to tolerance results in talking about what we hold in common while completely ignoring our deep differences.  The problem with this view of tolerance is that those who practice it can, at best, only develop "surface level" relationships with those of other faiths.  This view of tolerance never leads to deep friendships, because the deepest and most meaningful parts of who we are--our most cherished beliefs about God and redemption--are never discussed.  

Truth is, I've never met a Muslim Imam who believes I can go to heaven as long as I continue to believe that Jesus is God, and I've never met a Bible-believing pastor who believes my Muslim friends can go to heaven unless they believe He is God!  We have to find ways to talk openly and honestly about these differences--and why we hold them--in order to promote genuine peace among each other.  How can you have a genuine, respectful relationship with anyone if you don't understand why they believe what they believe?  My friend Bob Roberts says it best: "Multifaith not only respects but encourages religious people to say exactly what they believe, no matter how stark the differences.  But it encourages them to do so in the spirit of peace."

This is the kind of environment in which we can understand each other better, and share our faith openly, and it should exist on every square inch of planet earth!

Which brings me to the subject that prompted this post.  For some time now, Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American citizen, has been confined in an Iranian prison for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in that country.  According to an article in Baptist Press released yesterday, he has been told by Iranian authorities, "Deny your faith in Jesus Christ and return to Islam or else you will not be released from prison.  We will make sure you are kept here even after your 8 year sentence is finished."

Such is the epitome of "intolerance," and in practice, it really doesn't look much different from the "tolerance" that we see in our own land.  No, we aren't threatening to imprison people for what they believe (although you don't have to go back too far in our history to witness the drowning of women suspected of witchcraft), and we aren't denying anyone medical treatment because they hold to a minority opinion.  But no one can argue that we have become a nation quick to prejudge others based on their religious beliefs.  Those who oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage are simply labeled "bigots."  Muslims denied a building permit are assumed to be "terrorists in hiding."  Some days, I think we would actually imprison people for their beliefs, if only it weren't for that pesky Constitution!  

And, I think that says something indicting about our culture.  

We are, in reality, far from being a tolerant people.  Most of the "tolerance" we observe in our culture isn't really tolerance at all.  Its intellectual cowardice.  Albeit, its of a different variety--and thankfully, a far less violent variety-- than that of an Iranian government that locks up minority opinion, but both are examples of what people will do when they are simply too afraid to talk to each other.

Last Thursday evening, I shared a table with a Methodist pastor, a Catholic priest, an Episcopal priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim engineer.  And I did it because meetings like this are the starting point for genuine religious freedom to continue.

I did it because I believe Jews should be free to build a synagogue in my South Carolina hometown.  I did it because I believe Muslims should be free to build a mosque near "ground zero" in New York.  And I did it because I believe I should be free to plant a Christian church in Istanbul, or Cairo, or Tel Aviv, or Tehran.  And, I believe Pastor Saeed should be free to do the same.

But we will never get there until we drop the "tolerance" charade and start talking to each other!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

So What's It Like to Minister Here? Ask a Pastor's Wife!

If you want to know theology, ask a Pastor.  If you want to know culture, ask a pastor's wife!

While that mantra may not be universally true, in a general sense, wives tend to walk in culture, and closer to culture, than most of their pastor husbands.  Principally, this is because while the pastor is busy with church meetings, planning, conflict mediation, sermon preparation, and other things aimed at the "inside" of a church, his wife is shopping in the supermarkets, attending PTA meetings, and possibly working a job herself in the city.

One of the things we have learned in our area is the need for recognizing how people live, and seeking to understand their lifestyles if we hope to connect with them in any meaningful way.  You simply cannot minister effectively to someone you don't understand.  You don't have to agree with their lifestyle choices or worldviews in order to serve them, but you do have to understand where they are coming from.

A couple of months ago, as part of a leadership development process with select pastors and their wives from this Association, the wives were asked to develop a profile of what it is like to be in ministry in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area   What is below is the result of 13 of these women coming together and seeking to communicate both the perils and possibilities of serving the precious people in this part of the world.  If you are contemplating ministry, or especially church planting in this area, you should benefit from the collective wisdom of many godly women, who share their perceptions with you below.

And if you live elsewhere, I strongly recommend writing a similar profile of the cultural landscape where you live, along with a colorful description of what ministry is like in that area.  And I know of no one more qualified to speak to these issues than the pastor's wife.  I thank God for these women, and their heart for Jesus and this area.  Learn from them:

Profile of Ministry in Mid-Atlantic Culture and the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area*

Our settings range from the most challenging corners of inner-city Baltimore (arguably the murder capitol of the United States) to rural Pennsylvania. 

Though the population is dense, isolation is common and even cultural to some degree.  People do not just drop by someone’s home.  Unexpected guests are very uncommon.  Neighbors often know very little about one another. 

The entire area is a “bedroom community” for individuals who work in Baltimore and Washington DC.  Due to this nearby power base, the opportunity for influence is huge.  Much of what takes place here is politically-charged.   People commute up to 2.5 hours one-way to work in the District.  Obviously, this has negative affects on the family.

Life is fast-paced.  Traffic is congested.  Everyone is too busy and this is never-ending.  Long commute times and high-stress jobs add to the mindset.  People are incredibly career-oriented.  Education is an idol.  A high percentage of the populace has obtained a post-graduate degree.  (30% have a Master’s degree or higher).  High pressure is placed on students from Middle School forward.  Church attendance is not even on the radar of most people due to Sunday being their only opportunity for recreation.  As a result, a large number of events (5Ks, Soccer & Lacrosse Matches, Community Festivals, and even children’s birthday parties) are held during the same time that church services are going on.

Many consider themselves to be more cosmopolitan than most.  There is pride in secularism and liberalism.  (We are one of the first states to legalize same-gender marriage.  There is great pride in this.) Social open-mindedness is an attribute, even in the mind of many churchgoers.   There is a culture of nominal religion that is often identified as Christianity, but it is not evangelical. (Two largest groups are Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist.)

Diversity exists across many aspects of life.   A large portion of the population are transplants.  There are roughly 60 languages spoken here.  We have a true melting pot of culture, standards, worldview, family makeup, socio-economic status, and gender identity. ( A medical form commonly has 3 options for gender:  Male, Female, or Other).  Political correctness is a high priority.

Many churches are facing the realities of a surrounding community that has changed drastically in recent years.  Biblical illiteracy and immaturity in older believers is a problem.  In many cases, discipleship seems to have been greatly lacking for many years. 
There seem to be two primary groups of people  that we are trying to reach.

1-Incredibly wealthy, highly educated.    These people feel that they have it all together.  There are no felt-needs.  They have the money (or the debt potential) to buy most things that will make them “happy”.  Because of their lack of physical need, it is difficult to make them consider spiritual need. 

2-Poor, struggling, toughened.  These people are determined to be self-sufficient.  They do not want or need anyone’s help.  There is incredible brokenness.  It is difficult to build trust.  Poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, murder, alcoholism & violence are the norm.  They live this or witness it on a daily basis.  Most mothers in the city are single mothers.  There is a rawness to their need, though they wouldn’t admit it.  This group is particularly emotionally draining on a ministry family.  The weight of the brokenness and spiritual darkness is a heavy burden.  One of our younger churches has an annual prayer walk, visiting all of the sites where a church family has lost a friend or loved one to murder in the previous year.  Building a church in this region can be difficult as “redemption and lift” takes place.  People living in this hard place who come to faith in Jesus often end up building a better life for themselves (free of addiction, etc.) and then moving away to a safer area.

With both groups, the ground is hard to plow.  For many, the concept of church revolves around Catholicism.  God is not personal, and He couldn’t care less about them or their problems.
Evangelical Christians are in great minority and often not trusted due to misunderstanding.  The secular, humanistic mindset that exists here can be shocking to someone unfamiliar with it.   The hectic , high-stress pace often causes people to be rude and impatient.  But, when one of these people surrenders to Jesus, the ramifications are far-reaching.  Who knows when one of our churches might influence the next senator, cabinet member, or even president for the sake of the Gospel?

*This profile was assembled in February 2013 by 13 Pastor’s wives who live and minister with their husbands in our area.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Laying Waste to "Time-Wasters."

While I don't normally write about the specifics of administrative matters, I want to talk a bit this week about making the most of a busy schedule.  More particularly, I want to address that co-worker, parishioner, or small group member who seems to do nothing more than waste your time.

It sounds heartless I know.  But its reality.  I'm responsible for an organization that collaborates with more than 60 churches in the Baltimore-Washington area.  More than 10,000 evangelical Christians worship in those churches every Sunday.  I have to keep this Association moving in the right direction, and I can't do it if I grant every meeting requested, or if I spend all my time responding and reacting to others' requests instead of being a proactive leader.  And if you lead in any capacity, this is true of you as well.  

You simply cannot allow your time--possibly the most precious commodity you have to give--to be stolen by people and events that will keep you from doing what you know God has called you to do.  It may seem cold, but the fact is that the world is full of time-wasters--people who will suck the life out of you, and the effectiveness out of your work, or your ministry.  When you allow that to happen, everyone you serve suffers for it.  Conversely, when you refuse to give in, it may seem at first like the time-waster is suffering.  But in reality, maybe he or she will learn as lesson as well.

In my experience, there are three predominant types of time wasters:

The Clueless:  These tend to be the most innocent of the bunch, mostly because they never seem able to nail down a specific purpose for wanting your attention.  "I need to have a meeting with you," is their very simple and typical approach.  When you ask them what they want to address, the best they can usually come up with is something general.  "Oh, I just want to talk with you about what's happening in my ministry."  Usually, its less specific than this, which means when you finally meet, you will likely talk about nothing substantive.

While you may think yourself compassionate for enabling their ambiguity, the reality is that by granting said meeting, you are feeding the myth that your mere presence and casual conversation will actually accomplish something for this person.

Be forewarned:  Once you start to draw tighter lines around when you grant a meeting, the clueless will be offended.  Usually, this is due to their perception that you are there to "be their friend." Truth is, I have many friends in the organization I work for.  But I'm not paid for my friendship.  I'm paid to run the organization, and this same principle is true regardless of your field of employment.  Don't fall prey to the clueless time-waster.  Instead, keep on course with what you are called to do.  And in the process, you might help them more than you or they realize--mostly by helping them get a clue.

The Unmotivated:  I've had many coaching relationships over the years.  Most I look back on with fondness and thankfulness.  But a few I simply look back on in frustration, because they did not use MY time wisely.

I remember one young man who would ask to meet with me every couple of weeks.  We mapped out a "life plan" for his twenties that included the completion of his wedding plans with his fiance, eliminating his student loan debt, buying a home, and securing a church family for he and his new bride.  A year later, he had accomplished precisely none of this, yet still wanted to meet with me to "talk about the plan."

Unmotivated people are in many ways like Bob Wiley from the movie "What About Bob?"  As portrayed by Bill Murray, Wiley was an agoraphobic and hypochondriac who never left his home--except to see his therapist!  For Bob Wiley, the therapist visit WAS the end game!  He never intended to improve his own life or get better.  As a result, he brought his therapists down with him.

Don't let the guy from "What About Bob" steal your time.  If there is no forward progress, stop taking meetings with them!

The Anthropocentric:  For most of human history we believed that we lived in a "geocentric" universe, where the Earth was at the center, and everything revolved around it.  Then the 17th century came along and with it, the Copernican revolution.  Because of our observations of space, we now know that we live in a "heliocentric" solar system, with the Sun at the center, and the Earth being merely one of nine planets that revolve around it.

The universe is a big place, and the earth now has more than 7 billion people on it.  And occasionally, you will meet someone in your work or ministry who thinks all those people revolve around them--including you!  This is the anthropocentric time-waster.

This is the caustic, self-centered individual who expects you to drop whatever you are doing whenever he or she calls.  My work load includes roughly 150 emails daily (those are just the ones that make it past my staff, who get hundreds more!), many, many phone conversations, and a professional calendar that tends to stay booked solid at least two weeks out.  If I abandon the routine that allows me to address all of this simply because of the demands of one person, I'm not being fair to others in our network.

This is the person who doesn't blink when you tell them "I'm unavailable at that time."  Its the person who responds to your list of availability with an "alternate" choice you haven't given them.

Anthropocentric time-wasters get you off track, and off mission, primarily by their constant demands for you to compromise your schedule, and constantly react to others as opposed to being intentional about moving forward and doing your job.  Don't let these people hijack your life.

I'm sure there are other categories of time-wasters that could be given here, but the three above broadly describe the various kinds of people you will encounter who can get you off track.  Once you have identified them, how do you deal with them?

Principle 1:  Written confirmation of meetings and their purpose.  Don't ever, ever set a meeting with someone without confirming what it is you hope to accomplish.  Agree together on the agenda and goals, and do it in writing!

Principle 2: Expectations as to meeting outcomes. This is simple mutual accountability.  At the end of every staff meeting, those who work for me take away assignments, and so does their boss!  We all walk away knowing there is an expectation on each of us that those assignments will be completed before our next meeting.  

To be a good steward of time, you can't just know what you want to get done during the meeting.  You must also know what actions are expected to be generated as a result of the meeting.

Principle 3:  Refusal of subsequent meetings until prior commitments have been met.  Don't let Bob Wiley get away with coming to you over and over again while he accomplishes nothing.  If after a limited number of times together, it appears the other party is intentionally spinning their wheels, turn them loose in the ditch!  Just because they have no desire to get out of it doesn't mean you must be stuck there with them.

This doesn't mean that you don't leave the door open for them to come back.  But it does mean you are putting expectations on them BEFORE they can come back.  Several times in response to requesting a meeting I have asked "Have you accomplished X and Y since we last met?"  If the answer is no, then my response is simple.  "Well, once you get that accomplished, give my office a call and I'll be glad to meet with you about the next steps."

Principle 4:  Don't let it get to you.  Ever been pulled over by a police officer?  I have, and I don't remember a single time when that officer threw himself across the hood of my car in a fit of emotion, or yelled at me, or abused me in any way simply because I was breaking the speed limit.  In every situation, he calmly walked up to my window with his ticket book opened, and asked for my drivers license.

Why?  Because in those situations, the officer had the authority and power.  And when you have authority and power, you don't need to spend your emotions.

Developing a habit to saying "no" to time-wasters so you can say "yes" more often to the organization as a whole will inevitably tick some people off.  They will be annoyed with you.  Some will get upset with you.  In those moments when the nasty emails come accusing you of "not thinking I'm important," don't give in to the guilt trip.  And a sure-fire way to know if you have given in to guilt is if you allow your emotions to get the better of you.

You have the authority over the time God has given you to steward on this earth.  You cannot cede that to people who are demanding, and you don't have to get angry or otherwise emotional with them.  Just be the officer with the ticket book.  Don't be afraid to calmly say "I'm unavailable"  or "we can't meet until you have......" or "we need to clarify our purpose for getting together."

I work primarily with pastors, and though I love them, pastors are the worst at allowing others to hijack the time God has given them.  Of course there are emergencies, and when those emergencies happen, you respond to your people with the pastoral care and concern that they need.  But you also need to know how to define "emergency."  Many pastors have no clue, and as a result, fall prey to the time-wasters, who subsequently restrain them from serving the entire church well.  Your church does not revolve around the most demanding congregants.  It revolves around Jesus.  Make sure you behave accordingly, and you will model Christ-centered time management for your people.

What about you?  Who are the "time-wasters" in your professional life that you have to watch out for, and how are you ensuring that you aren't allowing them to divert your attention and turn you into a time-waster too?