Pastors Who are Co-Dependent on the Collar

User commentsI was talking with a friend and colleague the other day.  The conversation got around to our profession and how, we’ve observed, some people really love it.

Not the work of the profession, mind you, but the idea of it.  They like being “a pastor,” not pastoring.

At the risk of sounding (more) judgmental, I’ll continue…

The problem with this, I think, is that it causes such a huge identity crisis in the individual, that the person becomes co-dependent on the title in a way that breeds psychological, emotional, and yes, physical illness.

Co-dependency is synonymous with death in all instances.

A definition here might be helpful, though.  Co-dependency is this reality where you can’t see yourself objectively, but only through the filter of whatever it is you are co-dependent on.

Parents can become co-dependent on their children.  When their children have good days, the parents are allowed to have good days.  The same is true for bad days.

People become co-dependent on their spouses, losing themselves in their role as partner/wife/husband.  I’ve seen many friends fall into this, and it seems to be especially true for those early on in relationships.  If you find you have no identity outside of your relationship with your partner, you’ve lost yourself altogether.  And, what comes next?  Resentment.  Rebellion.

We can become co-dependent on our religion, too.  I’ve known people to hang pictures of Jesus in their house like they’d hang a picture of a parent, sibling, or spouse.  Not as an art piece, but as a member of the family…and this, to me, is a sign of attachment to an icon or idol in an unhealthy way.

Plus, Jesus didn’t look like that…

Likewise, people can become co-dependent on their profession.  And while this is probably true for many professions, I’ve found pastors are especially susceptible to this reality, for a couple of reasons.

First, we talk about the profession in such a way that lends itself to abuse.  Pastors are “called.”

True, the church tries to inject that language into every profession or passion.  People are “called to act with justice,” as the hymn goes.  But the idea of “call” is usually reserved for the profession in a unique way, which of course means that, if a pastor leaves a congregation, or the ministry altogether, we have little language to imply anything other than they’re no longer “called.”

A pastor who loves being a pastor for the title, but may have little skill in the way of the pastoral arts themselves, might get wrapped up emotionally in this in a way that leads to un-health.  Want an example?  What about a pastor who stays in the pulpit because they really like the credentials, but aren’t proficient at the work? Or the pastor who pines after the administrative job not because it’s their gift, but because their gift seems to be to want that kind of job?

They do no one any good.

Or what about when a pastor can’t not be a pastor?  Like, all of their relationships are made through that role?  They have no friends outside the parish, virtually making it impossible for them to not only ever leave, but actually do the work effectively. Let’s be honest, a friend cannot tell us hard truths a lot of times.  The relationship is different.  And that works both ways: both with a pastor telling someone a hard truth, or someone telling a pastor a hard truth.

I’ve blogged about this before, but if your only outlet in the world is through the lens of the collar, you’re co-dependent with the profession in a way that is making it impossible for you to do your work.

In other words: you love the idea of being a pastor, not the work itself.  Because the work demands you give some distance.  But the idol of the job whispers that you can do it differently…

You can’t.

Or what about those days when you only measure yourself against the opinions of others in relation to your work in the parish?  You begin to believe you’re good or bad at your work only because others think you’re good or bad at it.  If you constantly measure your worth based on the opinions of the pews, you’re probably co-dependent on your role.

And before you think I’m casting stones in glass houses, let me inject some real honesty here: it’s easy to become co-dependent, especially for a pastor.

It’s easy to buy the lie that people give you that you have to be at every function for it to have any meaning.  It’s easy to buy the lie that you can’t be yourself in the grocery store because, well, what if a parishioner sees you with a political shirt they disagree with? That’s a problem…

It’s easy to buy into the lie that you suck just because that parishioner left the parish, sent you that note, or is gossiping endlessly about you.  Likewise, friend, it’s easy to believe you’re good at your work because people praise you and lavish you with accolades, even though you rarely prepare for your sermons, rarely touch base with parishioners, rarely read or study, and rarely do the actual, hard, behind-the-scenes work that gets no recognition.

It’s easy to buy into the self-serving deceit that you are your job and your job is you and that the letters in front of your name identify you more than anything else you do or have ever done.

It’s an easy trap. I’ve fallen into it. Every pastor has.

We all fall in love with the idea more than the art at one time or another.

But unless you’ve put in some safeguards like people who can be honest with you (who aren’t parishioners), and a healthy dose of “no” in your vocabulary, and some honesty about how normal (and usually mediocre) you actually are despite what your ego and your ordination want to tell you, co-dependency is hard to slough off.

Co-dependent pastors kill themselves, and the church, one forced smile at a time.

It’s OK to just be yourself sometimes.  Those letters in front of your name are not you, but just part of what you have at your disposal to do the actual work.

 

 

The Church of the Future is Full of Good Feels. Only.

kham-pha-nhung-cong-dung-tuyet-voi-cua-vitaminDA friend and colleague recently posted this article about Zoe Church and their mass baptism on the streets of LA.

The location is no doubt double-edged: they probably couldn’t host those baptisms in the night club their church meets in.  Blood is allowed on the dance floor…but not water (and if you don’t get that reference, check your Michael Jackson albums).

But no doubt at work was the optics, too.  LA loves to roll out and walk red carpets, and what better way to design a baptismal service than to entice the cell-phone paparazzi?

The whole article, while well written, smacks of gimmick and glam.

And trust me, I don’t say this without some self-conviction. I’m not far from receiving similar accusations.  We in the mainline get accused of being into gimmick and glam when we suggest a credit-card kiosk for offerings (because who carries cash anymore?), logo-label coffee mugs, or (gasp) suggest a coffee station in the Narthex.

I’ve been called arrogant and artificial a few times (this week).

I figure most pastors my age aren’t far from such accusations.  When you lead, people will call you arrogant, even if you don’t see yourself that way. When you try new things people will accuse you of being self-serving and gimmicky, even when that’s not your intention.

Doing things differently or with a new set of eyes and ears and minds is not gimmicky.

What is gimmicky?

Leveraging Sunday to purely provide the shot of feel-good that humans say they want. Like a drug, we’re addicted to the feel-goods.  And we’ll come back for it week after week, but never feel any better, ultimately.  It will work for fooling yourself, but won’t work for what you want from it.

Read the article.

See the ending where he notes that, at the end of the day, he’s “here to preach good news. To give humanity hope…When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

But here’s the rub: his idea of good news, of hope, has more to do with consumerism than it does with Christ.  It has more to do with individual dreams than with Jesus.

His good news is good news for the celebrity who stars in each of our individual plays, not for the world at the center of God’s drama.

Narcissism and the current Christian culture go hand in hand.  The Jesus who you invite into your heart becomes your indentured servant in this story, granting wishes and giving you unending personal encouragement as you deal with being an adult…

That’s the story, right?

Right now in Austin, people are being targeted by a serial bomber.  How is your personal Jesus going to help them?

Right now in Syria little boys and girls are being bombed. Weekly.  It’s far from you, but do you think Jesus has a thought about it?  Or is Jesus only about encouraging you?

This is the problem with the church of the future.  Pretty soon the self-help shelves will meld with the Christian Lit shelves in the book stores (which will soon all be electronic, anyway, save for the few who have a cult following), as Jesus becomes more and more the personal talisman of the believer.

Hope is not the assurance that in the end you’ll get what you want.  Hope is the assurance that, no matter how it ends, you won’t be left high and dry by a God who cares deeply about you, your story, but also everyone else’s story, and deeply cares about how you will intersect and interact with their story.

You will be encouraged, because you won’t need the drug of the feel good every week when the true story of the wandering prophet from Galilee is seen.

You will have hope because you’ll see that the whole world can be moved and changed, not just your world.

And when the pastor in the article mentions he wants to avoid politics…well, what are we to do with church and politics?

Friend, we’re about to come up on Palm Sunday.  If you want to talk about a political march, about resistance theater done in public, read this story about a Galilean who rides on an ass instead of a white horse to snub his nose at Caesar (who would enter cities on a white horse), effectively calling Caesar the ass in the play.

You might be able to take politics out of church, but you can’t take it out of the Bible.

Is this the future of the church, the “church of the good feels”? Yes.

And no.

Because it’s the current reality.

I’m not against good feels in church.  But I am against an uncritical faith. I am against stripping the Bible of it’s power to change the world because you want to make it about solely changing your life.  I am against public theater that serves the self over the whole community.

The church is a place to know and be known.  It is a place to receive comfort and be made uncomfortable.  It is a place where your wounds are healed and the wounds of the world revealed (and, often, the ways you’ve caused such wounds whether you wanted to or not).  And it’s a place where you learn that the Good News is both about you but also about everyone else, and that should be jarring to you.

The church is about the feels, but they aren’t always what the world would call “good.”

But they are good in the same way we call “Good Friday” good…

The church of the good feels is alive and well, but I wouldn’t call it “good.”  And I wouldn’t go there.

But I would eat an acai bowl with you.

Because I like acai…not because I think you’d think I’m cool if I did.

Corporations Need Pastors

manager-1

This is from the movie _Office Space_…please don’t sue me.

Corporations need pastors.

Not in some “personal spiritual advisor” sort of way that many people take it…as if God has to rubber stamp your thoughts and your work.  That kind of pastoring is largely just ego-stroking.

I’m talking about the real day-to-day work of a pastor that has more to do with picking up the broken pieces of existence, not reinforcing the powerful-but-fragile personalities at the top.

I’m talking about pastoring the real, vulnerable, crap-laden work of the corporate world.

I mean, let’s be honest, many HR professionals unofficially take on this role.

Or perhaps it’s the admin at the front desk who is both gatekeeper and secret-keeper for the people behind the door.

You know the situation: he’s the one everyone comes to with their frustration; she’s the one that everyone sees as both their confidant from the power brokers and their access to the power brokers.

But often times these are ad hoc roles, a way for the living organism that is the corporate ecosystem to right itself (or keep the even keel) so that harmony can exist within and mission…if there is one…can be maintained without.

Really, though, HR can only go so far before they break their own rules and regulations as both confidant and enforcer.  And the person at the front desk may have the skills…but do they have the time?

Or, even worse, they have the time but not the skills…which is part of the problem…

Which is why corporations need pastors, chaplains, spiritual leaders. Because…well, let me give you a glimpse into the life:

-at our best we are well-practiced at the art of prioritization.

-every week we prepare at least one, but normally 4 or 5, formal reports.  We do research, we write, edit, and re-write. We lean on knowledge and actively gain more knowledge as part of our work.

-every week we craft experiences. Every week we seek to engage hundreds of other people into the mission of the place, intentionally, through shared experiences.

-every week we seek to make direct connections between people’s experience and their greater purpose in the world.

-every week we seek to foster community.

-every week we mediate between individuals.

-every week we mediate between people and their personal struggles.

-every week we invite people to intentionally reflect on their lives.

-every week we deal intimately with a budget, and when we’re at our best, we filter our budget through our priorities.

-every week we manage staff and volunteers.

-every week we coach people in problem solving, both personal and otherwise (which I’ve sought special training to be able to do).

-every week we provide an ear and an open presence to take on the burdens of others, throwing them into the nether regions of the world so that the person doesn’t have to carry them…or at least, not as much of them.

-we’re trained and skilled in counseling, and don’t charge counseling fees.  And when we’re healthy we’re a discerning referrer, paying attention to what we can help you through and what might require therapy beyond our capacity.

-we’re a trained dumping ground for anxiety. We can teach and encourage practices that alleviate stress and move people to living fuller lives.

-if you’ll let us, we’ll help you tap into something bigger than yourself.  Most people I work with call it God.  Some call it “purpose.”  And some just say that they feel different after our time together.  But regardless of what you think is going on, something is.

-we’re great at giving permission: to let go; to feel; to stop feeling; to ignore; to pay extra attention to.

-every week I have active projects with moving deadlines.  We juggle people’s expectations and weigh them against our calling…and we help people do the same in their lives.

-every week we tell stories that wrap up the stories of others into a larger purpose

-every week we provide ritual moments that ground people in their contexts.

None of this is intended to glorify the work.

If anything, writing all this down terrifies me a bit (no wonder I’m tired as all get out every day)…

And, of course, I’m leaving out the phrases like, “Every week I wonder what the heck I’m doing and if I’m making a difference and I sit at my desk and scratch my head for a half hour deluding myself into thinking I’m working when actually I’m just not sure where to start…”

Which, of course, means that we’re just like you in many ways.  But often times that’s exactly what you need: someone assigned to walk with you who is in many respects just like you because in this social media crazed world it feels like no one can relate to you. Right?

I write it all because, more often than not, when I talk to people in the corporate world, they’re struggling with time management and purpose.  They’re struggling with having the rat-race business rub up against their values.  They’re struggling with connecting their work with their deeper purpose in life.  They’re struggling with how to relieve anxiety and stress in an ever expanding work week.  They’re struggling with a corporate culture that encourages competition to the detriment of personal actualization and mission cohesion.

And I write this because the CEO’s and managers I talk to struggle with keeping mission and vision at the forefront of their work.  They struggle with asking the hard questions about their role and impact in a society that is feeling more fragile and fractured these days.

And there’s evidence that a deep spiritual life helps an individual handle life…which makes me think it could certainly help a corporation handle life.

Most people think a pastor’s work is primarily one of evangelization, and certainly that fits our training.  But practically, I see the soul-emptying work of many of my friends screaming for a chaplain for their soul.  And not just outside of their work, but specifically in their work.

With the growing number of “nones” and “dones” who are leaving organized religion (and with good reason…I get it), there is an aspect of life that might be lost here.  An aspect of the whole person that might get neglected.

And I wonder, I just wonder, what would happen if a corporation took a chance and, instead of hiring a new M.BA sought out an experienced, nuanced, competent M.Div?

Not to convert, but to convey.

Convey that this organization cares about you past your on-paper productivity.

I just wonder, what would it look like for corporations to invest in the soul of their employees in the same way they ask their employees to invest in the corporation.

I just wonder if corporations need pastors.

 

Why I’m On Vacation (Again)…and You Probably Should Be, Too.

best-family-beach-vacations-east-coast_f_mobiThere are certain times when my office sits empty.

Sometimes it’s because I just work better at coffee shops for some reason.  Sometimes it’s because part of my work as a pastor is to be with people, and those people aren’t always at the church.

But this summer it has largely been because I’m on vacation. I have one more on the books, the first one that Rhonda and I will be taking without kids in over 4 years. And I have to be honest with you about why, especially this summer, I’m using up all my vacation time…and why you should, too.

Reason #5: I’m never not a pastor unless I’m gone.  And even then I usually am. As I approach the 10 year mark in this profession, I am becoming more and more aware of this reality.  Now, I know pastors aren’t the only people who feel this way about their jobs, but I’ll let you in on a little secret:

If, by some miracle, I make a friend who is not a parishioner, and who did not know me before I was a pastor, you know what I tell them that I do for a living?  I tell them I work for a non-profit…and that I don’t like talking about work.  Because the minute I tell them I’m a pastor, I either a) become their pastor/counselor with no chance of reciprocity, or b) become seen as the morality police, and the relationship significantly changes.

Vacations, being with family, these become grounding experiences where I am reminded that I am not just a pastor, but a father, husband, son, and yes, friend.

And you are those things, too.  And if you forget that, you need to go on vacation.

Reason #4: I’m allotted the time, but no one expects me to take it.  Even I don’t normally expect that I’ll take it.  And so when this summer came around and I had the opportunity after, frankly, a difficult year, to spend extra time with family far and near, I decided to set my calendar…even though I didn’t think I should.

How amazing is that?  I didn’t think I should.  And I didn’t think I should because, implicitly and explicitly, I have been trained to see my work as my measure of worth and value, and that is just not true.

One of the reasons I’m offered a generous time-off package is because I work a lot when other people aren’t working like, oh, every weekend (and most every holiday except for 4th of July requires me in a funny robe).  And having sat next to people on their deathbeds on many occasions, none of them wax nostalgically on their time in the office.  They wax on their time with family, “away”…and, well, I want some stuff to wax about.

And you should want some, too.  I sit with people on their deathbeds, and not once have they regretted a vacation opportunity they took, even in the face of mountains of work. Go on vacation.

Reason #3: When I’m “off,” I’m not off.  This is closely related to issue #5, but not exactly the same.  In this world of hyper-connectivity, even when I leave the office my “work day” doesn’t end until I close my eyes, and it begins with a “quick email check” the minute I open my eyes.  It’s a personal problem.

Oh, and that emergency number knows no clock…which it shouldn’t.  There’s a reason we have an emergency number, and please know that I am always willing to rush to the hospital.  But that means I am on call.  And it is something you should know about your pastor: they feel as if they are always on call, because by and large, they are.

And I’ve noticed, especially as my children have gotten older, that the divided life I lead between watching them with one eye, while keeping the other eye on my iPhone, has been destructive for my spirit and my parenting (let alone my “spousing”).  Jesus says we are to give away ourselves for others, but that means I have to have something to give away.

Let me be very honest for a moment with you: I am jealous that you get to leave Friday late-afternoon and come back Sunday night from mini-holidays to the beach or to the mountains or to the lake.  With my work schedule, we can sometimes leave Friday evening, but we always have to be back Saturday night.  And if there’s a wedding or a funeral or a church event or…I mean, it just doesn’t work out.

And if none of that resonates with you, remember that the Sabbath is instituted by God.  Do you take an actual Sabbath?  I often don’t…and I need to.

Vacations can, if we allow them, be times that we are actually, truly off (even though that’s not always the case).  And if you are leading a divided life, with one eye on the things you love and the other eye on the things other people think you should love, you need a vacation.

Reason #2: My grandfather. He worked for “Ma Bell,” as he called it.  Southern Bell at the time.  Union work, which allowed him to retire early, support a family, have a great pension, and live a good life; it taught him the value of a work week.  Jobs like that are scarce anymore.  But he told me once that his people (union folks) worked hard to make sure that 40 hours a week was the standard unit for work in these United States, and that though I would probably work over 40 hours, it shouldn’t be the norm.  And if it was the norm, he said, “well, what did we work so hard for?”

Well, it’s the norm.  And not only is it the norm, it’s the expectation for most salaried professionals. For you, probably. Which is a problem, and it is killing our ability to work so we can live, and pushes us into the living to work category of existence, save for the privileged few who have 4 hour work weeks.

Do honest work. Do good work. To meaningful work, a full 40 hours of it.  And then we should honestly rest.  Good rest.  Rest with meaning and intention.  

Reason #1: I love my family more than my work. I have to say that because, well, I’m not sure they can tell that by my behavior most of the time.  It is just true that, as a pastor, I put other people’s families in front of my own. A lot. And while I can’t make up for lost time, I can look toward the future with intention.  Vacationing is one way I can do it.

And don’t get me wrong, I love these people, and I (usually) love my work.  But do I love it more than the first calling I had, to be husband and parent and son, to be faithful to that first claim upon my life?  No, I do not. And if I don’t want to become resentful, and if I do not want my family to resent my work, I have to attend to the balancing act somehow…imperfect as I walk it.

So, what about you?  Do you love your family more than your work?

The ability to vacation at all is such a privilege in this world, and it’s not afforded to everyone…I realize this.  How can my work as a pastor speak to that inequality, while also being honest about my own need to be away?  How can your work do the same?

 

God, You’re Attractive

imagesHeard across America last month on The Mindy Project, “He’s hot like a youth minister…”

Yeah, that’s a thing.  Have you noticed it?

Our youth minister really liked the line.  One of our health and healing workers at the church, an acupuncturist, made sure to relay the scene to him.  Smiles and laughs followed.

But man if there isn’t some truth there, right?  The popular church sure does hold up beauty in its pastors and people.

Look at some of the popular pastors you know: T.D. Jakes’s suits cost more than most of his parishioners’ monthly incomes; Joel Osteen’s teeth and hair are never unpolished (cue the “Soul Glo” theme from Coming to America); Joyce Meyers’ earrings could double as nunchucks they’re so big and sparkly; Mark Driscoll’s tight jeans betray their price tag shock value by looking just a little too distressed to be naturally distressed…

We love attractive people telling us about God.  Perhaps, then, we’ll begin to believe that God is attractive (have you seen Jesus without ripped abs?) or that God wants you to be attractive.

In a blog post by Mark Driscoll, “16 Things I Look for in a Preacher,” coming in at number 11 snuggled between Driscoll’s desire for the pastor to be emotionally engaging and not be a “coward” is the exhortation that the pastor needs to “look like they have it all together.”  From clothes to haircut to overall presentation.

When I read that I ran and vomited in a trash can.

Look, you don’t have to go far to find that the church worships beauty, especially physical attractiveness.  The apostles are all ruggedly handsome in their depictions.  The various Marys in the Bible are never overweight, never suffering from hair loss, and certainly don’t have any moles to speak of.

In fact, in the recent movie Son of God (which was surprisingly un-bad), Jesus’ mother Mary clearly has had plastic surgery, making her look like an odd choice for the role.

Beauty and aesthetics have their place within the worship of a God who encompasses beauty.  I’m not denying that.  But take a look at the stock photos on church websites: happy families with bright teeth and 2.5 kids all around, often representing a racial diversity not present in the congregation.

And all the while we’re reading and hearing ancient stories of Jesus touching lepers, healing the sick and the lame, loitering suspiciously at well-known watering holes.

It doesn’t sound very “stock photo” to me.

I think it’s a little bit of an illness that we have here.  This idea that God or Jesus is “put together” and expects/desires/wants/needs for us to be so, too.  Even the local evangelical church-plant pastor who I hear all the time say, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” never leaves home without his tragically hipster jeans and plaid shirt…

It may seem like all sorts of judgment on my part, but I’m trying more than anything to be observant.  Because my faith, more than anything, tears me a part in all sorts of helpful ways…ways that allow me to not be so tied to appearance and the necessity of having it all put together in deference for letting go of appearances and engaging life, and others, more fully.

It’s sad that “youth pastor hot” is a thing.  It’s sad that it is based in reality.

When the writer of Ecclesiastes penned, “Vanity, vanity…all is vanity” it wasn’t a prescription for the church.

I Found Jesus…He Was Behind the Couch

My wife and I have a magnet on our fridge that says, “I found Jesus…he was behind the couch the whole time!”7786.jpg_3

My nephews love it.  I love it.

I think my nephews are even likely to tell their pastor that.  I encourage them to.  I told them it’d always be the “right” answer in Sunday School…because, you know, faith is all about having the “right answer”.

I think it’s funny.

I think it’s funny because, well, that whole theme of “lost and found” in the Bible is turned around by this whole notion of “finding Jesus.”

In all of those “lost and found” verses in the Bible, it’s not Jesus who is lost, but the other person.

Even in that “seek and you shall find” passage, there’s no indication that it’s “seeking” Jesus.

Seeking knowledge.  Seeking enlightenment.  Seeking salvation, liberation, wholeness…sure.

But not Jesus.

So this idea that we can “find Jesus”…well, you might as well look behind the couch because I think you’re just as likely to find Jesus crouching there as you are to find him in the “seeker’s service” at your local big-box worship center.

I’m not trying to come down harshly on “seeker services”; I think faith communities need accessible points of entry.

But if we think we’re giving them Jesus, as if Jesus can be commodified…well, we should stop fooling ourselves.

The search for Jesus is the search for the white stag…it’s pointless.

Yeah, pointless.  Because I think all you’ll end up finding is a mirror image of yourself that you pass off as Jesus.

Instead the faith teaches that Jesus is/was/will be right where you are, and has been all along.

Martin Luther has this totally unhelpful/helpful phrase about looking for Jesus.  When explaining how God is present in the Eucharist, Luther said that Jesus is “in, with, and under the elements.”

This is absolutely unhelpful to the rational mind.  The literalist, the legalist, the fundamentalist, they won’t accept that answer.

There must always be a system, a way of finding, a problem/solution answer.

But what if there isn’t?  What if, instead, we leave those things behind and just agree to encounter the mystery of a present God, seen in the Christ, who subverts every single system and search, and who just surprises us as being on the scene?  What if we just walk with mindfulness?

It’d be a Biblical way of operating, that’s for sure.  Jesus surprises everyone at the tomb, the house of Mr. and Mrs. Clopas, the upper room, Paul’s lonely road to nowhereville.

Jesus surprises everyone in little Bethlehem (remember the Magi go six miles off course to Jerusalem to find him?).

Hell, maybe Jesus is behind the couch.  It’d surprise the socks off of me.

But if you looked, you won’t find him there.  Instead, it seems, Jesus finds us on the roads of confusion, in the upper rooms of fear, at the tomb of despair, in the little town of doubt.

That seems to be Jesus’ way.  This is why I don’t shy away from confusion, doubt, and despair.  I don’t have to have it all worked out.

Because that’s not the point.

I have a little mantra I repeat a lot to myself: “Jesus walked into a bar and no one noticed.”

Yeah…that sounds about right.

An Argument for Keeping Churches Small*

12SmallChurchAdvantage_400_478515996*A quick qualifier before we begin: “small” has yet to be defined with precision.

Because I think small doesn’t have everything to do with numbers (although, I think that at a certain point it does).

So, I’ve been getting some push back for my last article on why I dislike mega-churches.  A lot of it is warranted.  I think that if you put something out there, people should be able to push back.  And please note, I also dislike a lot of small churches (also in the article).

But that piece was written in response to a piece by a colleague who says he doesn’t like “mega,” but then never actually digs into “mega” at all in a substantial way.  Perhaps that wasn’t his point.  But there is something to be said there…and I wish he would. I think there is a real argument to be had for keeping faith communities on the small side.  I really do.

Here’s a part of that argument:

Look, we have a depression problem in the communities of faith, by and large.  This is well diagnosed.

Little churches are depressed that they  aren’t mega, and I think mega-churches have depression as well, though not of the psychological nature.  Mega-churches are depressed, and depressive, in that the consolidation of resources, while seemingly allowing for unlimited amplification of good, actually depresses the good they can be and do.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, let’s define “small.”

Small to me is manageable.  For every community the particulars of that will be different, I think.  Some of it will depend on the leaders (clergy and others), some of it will depend on other factors such as location and mission (locus and focus).

But small does not mean deficient.  And it certainly doesn’t mean “bad” or “not living into it’s potential.”

I think many churches are small in size because of unconscious choices they make: who the power brokers are, what the internal fights are, their ability to welcome and adapt to change, etc.  Very few of these choices have to do with Jesus, btw.

But I think that communities of faith can be small by choice for reasons that absolutely have to do with Jesus.  That is, they can take their own temperature and decide when their connections are becoming so strained that they need to send some folks to start new communities of faith.

Because Christ was about making connections and reaching the margins…not about consolidation.  The need to consolidate is the need to control.

Control is a nice little illusion.

Let’s go back to mega a bit.  Because I think mega is about control.  That’s how mega is depressive.

Here’s the thing:  mega churches are hierarchical…like most churches (there are some notable exceptions, like the Quakers).  And the broader the base, the smaller the top.  And although there may be many leaders in a mega church (there should be many leaders in any size church!), when message lies in the lonely top, when perspective lies in the lonely top, when generation and impetus lies at the lonely top, it depresses the ability for the people to grow out on their own.

It truly does.

And it creates rock stars rather than ministers which, to me, is a real problem.

And these rock stars then become the interpretive lens for the parishioner rather than Jesus, because, well, how can you challenge someone who obviously has so much influence and control? They must know what they’re talking about…

This is, I think, why mega-churches have a large rotation of regular attendees…people who come for a few years, and then move on.  Consolidation at the top doesn’t allow things to “trickle down” in the way people want it to. The inability to actually have agency, to grow together while challenging each other, is depressive.

My parishioners and I don’t all agree on every point, theological or otherwise.  But we have a relationship that allows us to continue to do mission together, even while acknowledging where we diverge.  That just doesn’t happen in the same way in the mega world, to the detriment of the church and individual spirituality.

And, by and large, I find that mega churches perpetuate that mega-mentality that “more is better,” but practice a “more is not better” when it comes to leadership and messaging, as the lead pastor’s sermon is video streamed into each campus regularly despite the availability of other pastors to craft other sermons.

This, I think, doesn’t connect people in the way it’s intended.  There’s dissonance there.

I think it actually depresses mission; it doesn’t expand it.

And finally, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room: ego.

We must always be on guard when it comes to the ego.

The ego of small-in-numbers churches is offended that they’re not bigger…and so sometimes they fall into patterns of behavior to keep themselves numerically small as a way to fulfill their doom-prophecy.

They call themselves “friendly.”

When I hear or see “friendly” on a church sign or on a church website, I automatically think “dysfunctional.”  Because they’re trying to make up for the fact that others aren’t in the room by proclaiming that they’re super-nice.

If they were truly welcoming, though, and open to change, others would be in the room, right?  Maybe.  Most likely.

In contrast, the ego of the mega church leader is never kept in check as the church begins to grow but is never sent.  As the base gets bigger, the ego gets bigger.  Things seem to be “working,” and there’s nothing more delicious for a hungry ego than to see things “work.”  And so how do we keep things working?  By keeping control.

And the ego of the mega church attender is, likewise, fed by size.  “I must be doing something right because I go to a successful church! Look how big it is and how many programs it has!”  Red Riding Hood did a similar comparison before being eaten by the wolf…

People at this point will say things like, “God never intended you to live a mediocre life,” or “God has big dreams, you should too” or start quoting Proverbs or other parts of scripture to lay a foundation for bigger and successful is better.  And this is, I think, a secret in the world of mega: self-help tidbits that we pass off as spiritual.  Make me feel good, and I’ll serve you forever.  Feed the mega-ego until it’s stuffed.

But Jesus rarely made people just “feel good.”

If we look at Jesus (and really, all scripture should be seen through the lens of Jesus), we don’t see that.  Abundant life didn’t have to do with numbers or feeling good.  It had to do with reliance on God.  Reliance on God keeps the ego in check.  Humility.  Passionate giving.  Love that is sacrificial.

Look, I don’t know if your church is too mega or too small.  And I, by no means, think I have it all figured out.  My ego is trouble…just ask my wife.

But I think a good beginning question a faith community could delve into would be, “Do we think more is necessary?  Is more better?  Or are we confident that God has equipped us with all that we need?”

And really ask it!  Wrestle with yourself, with your church.

Keeping a church small intentionally involves asking those question.

And, I should be clear, I think there are small churches with 30 on a Sunday morning, and small churches with 3000 on a Sunday morning.

Both will have difficulty staying small, though.  There seems to be an in-between that aids in this kind of work.

Because mega is so tempting.

So constant questions, checks and balances, and the ability to really ask if you’re depressed or depressive is necessary.

I guess I would say, let’s keep it small.  Seriously.