11 Oct Church Leadership Reimagined
Church Leadership Reimagined
2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 11, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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A few weeks ago, I opened a preaching journal and discovered a headline that made me laugh out loud. It read, “Every congregation has two things—a pastor and an opinion about the pastor.” As funny as I think that is, it isn’t actually true. The truth is that what every church has is a pastor and as many opinions about the pastor as there as people in the church.
Pastors learn to make peace with the scrutiny that comes with our job. There are, after all, good reasons for such scrutiny, not the least of which is that as people of faith, spiritual leadership and mentoring are important to us. Spiritual mentors have an impact on the formation and growth of our faith, of our experience of church, and our connection to the community. Spiritual mentors are, of course, not limited to pastors. My faith was significantly impacted by several adults who taught Sunday school, had the youth group over for pizza, and just generally showed interest in me as a person. It is because all of us need spiritual mentors, and we also need to be a spiritual mentor to someone else that it is important to consider the subject of spiritual leadership as we continue to reimagine church. To do that, we’re going to look at the relationship between Paul and Timothy.
Paul was, as we know, a mentor and a shepherd to numerous churches, and he was known as a spiritual leader who walked the talk. As recorded in 2 Timothy, Paul has a taken a young protégé under his wing, encouraging Timothy to take on the mantle of pastoral leadership. In doing so, Paul offers Timothy and us several insights about the nature of effective spiritual leadership and mentoring.
First, we see that effective spiritual mentoring is relational. Look carefully at the picture we have of Paul in chapter one—praying for Timothy, remembering their shared experiences, longing to see him. Timothy isn’t just a young man with potential that Paul is grooming for ministry. Paul is deeply impacted by and invested in the younger man he serves. His heart is open and responsive to Timothy as a person. Timothy isn’t just a project that Paul is working on; the relationship between the two is as meaningful and valuable to the established, elder church statesman as it is to the up-and-coming younger one.
If we scour the New Testament for pastoral references, two dominant images emerge: the shepherd and the servant. These images stand out more than the teacher and more than the leader. And for good reason. We don’t shepherd and serve the budget, our e-mail inbox, information, or committee agendas. The direct object of shepherding and serving is always the people with whom we are connected. Pastors, and indeed, all of us, regularly face the challenge of choosing between the important and the urgent. Spiritual leadership means remembering that people, not programs, are the most important agenda in the church.
These two images complement one another and remind us that spiritual leadership is not an “over and against” type of relationship. A pastor or teacher or leader within the church is not “up here” while everyone else is “down there.” Mentoring people in the faith is about coming alongside as both shepherd and servant. Both roles are keenly focused on the well-being and growth of the person with whom we are in relationship.
The second thing that stands out is that Paul combines instruction with inspiration. There are times when instruction, when learning some new piece of information or gaining a new insight or truth is transformative. We were stuck in one way of thinking about God or understanding God’s work in our lives and with new insight, our relationship with God is broken open in a significant way. But sometimes information is not enough which is why we find Paul also appealing to Timothy’s heart. Paul is hoping to ignite the young man’s soul, to get him to own his role as pastor, to encourage him to stick to his doctrinal guns in the face of opposition.
For all the importance of preaching and teaching, it isn’t textual accuracy that opens the door to transformation so much as textual efficacy. We want to know, does this stuff actually work? And if so, how? How does it make sense and why does it matter when I’m at work, or juggling virtual learning with my kids, or navigating the challenges of a global pandemic or a personal health crisis? Will I be able to become something different? Why should I? And what do I do if I’m struggling to want to?
For many, many years, long before I became a pastor, my conviction has been that our problem in the area of faith is not that we don’t know enough; it’s that we don’t practice what we do know. I am convinced that if we could actually do 10% of what we hear Jesus telling us to do, we would turn the world upside down, just like he said we would: if we prayed for our enemies and truly desired and worked for their good; if we loved the marginalized and the immigrant, the addict and the person trapped in poverty and we sacrificially gave of ourselves and our resources so their lives could be better; if we forgave the person who hurt or betrayed us; if we dealt with our pride and anger and resentments. If we did what we already know to do, without question, the world would stand up and take notice that the church is showing up and making a difference because we would be impossible to ignore.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, in an NBC radio interview given almost 50 years, offered some advice that still resonates profoundly today: “Let [us] remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let [us] be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power and that we can do—every one [of us]—our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappoint-ments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as if it were a work of art.”
We are, in effect, divinely created living works of art, and with the inspira-tion of an artist’s eye, we need to learn to see how our lives are being painted. As spiritual mentors, we can encourage and inspire one another to keep at it, to stay open, to remain faithful, to persevere in the midst of our doubts or pain—and in so doing, we are helping one another learn to live life as the work of art we are.
And that brings me to the last insight Paul shares with Timothy. Paul switches to the first person and then says to his protege, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” He doesn’t just teach Timothy about the Christian life; he models it. Paul puts flesh on it. He puts his feet and hands in motion and goes where his words have gone.
This is the perhaps the most important and riskiest aspect of spiritual leadership and mentoring. We need and crave an apologetic of experience. We want leaders who walk the talk and model what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like. In the same way the disciples had Jesus and Timothy had Paul, we need others around us to show us, not just tell us, what a lived faith looks like.
The trouble is, of course, that all of us, pastors included, are simply vulnerable human beings. We can and will disappoint, fall, and fail. We won’t always get it right.
Pedestals belong under plants, not humans, including if not especially, pastors. We concluded our Genesis series a month ago with the story of Jacob wrestling with God and coming through that experience blessed but also with a limp. I’ve always loved that story because I identify so thoroughly with it. Author Dan Allender wrote a book titled Leading With a Limp, and in it he says this: “Our calling is often shaped by our weaknesses as much as by our strengths. We tend to run with our strengths and avoid those people and tasks that expose our weakness-es. But the story of God is not a saga of human potential; it is the revelation of the kindness and passion of the Father who seeks and redeems sinners. Therefore, our strengths may help us with certain tasks and responsibilities, but it is our frailty and sin that make known the glory of God’s story.”
If you’ve been in church for any length of time at all, as in, more than about 30 minutes, you’ve surely been led by pastors and spiritual leaders whom you have liked and others whom you liked less or perhaps even disliked. First and foremost, I want to thank you for understanding that the church is so much more than one person or personality. Thank you for craving spiritual leadership and for continuing to seek it amongst God’s people in good times and bad.
As I’ve said on many occasions, Calvary is not my church. It is God’s church, and our community thrives because we have a Divine Shepherd, and in spite of this very human one. Every pastor leads his or her church for only a short period of time. I hope it is in the distant future, but whenever the time comes for me to pass that pastoral mantle to someone else, I passionately want the Calvary flock to be healthy and spiritually nurtured, alive and deeply connected to one another and to our community.
I want to thank you for being good spiritual mentors to one another and to encourage you to continue to seek out people to mentor you and other people to whom you can be a mentor. Our Reformed tradition places a lot of emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and on our functioning together as the Body of Christ. No single person can respond to all the needs or keep everyone connected or solve all the problems. We need one another to encourage each other to love and good deeds, to persevere, to grow into wise and mature followers of Christ. It is only together that we can listen and discern the voice of our Good Shepherd who is always inviting us to reimagine our life together as church and always calling us forward into a glorious future.
What I can pledge to you is that I will continue to show up and give you the best that I have to build relationships, to offer teaching that is relevant and inspirational, and I pledge to keep working at this Kingdom living thing alongside you. How blessed we are to get to do this journey together. Thanks be to God. Amen.