Upheld

Two years ago, while our church celebrated our 60th anniversary, a pastor friend commented to me that throughout his ministry, there had only been a couple of years when he didn’t feel like it could all end tomorrow.

Sixty-two years ago, in a small living room on the corner of 29th and Adams, Berean Baptist Church of Ogden was born. From those humble beginnings, God has seen fit to uphold us until this day. Due to the current worldwide situation, we were extremely limited in what we could do to celebrate our anniversary yesterday. But I thought a few comments would be appropriate.

As part of our 60th-anniversary celebration, we recruited a young man to help us create a documentary about our church’s history. Pastor Nate Warren grew up in our church and now pastors a small church in Elwood, Indiana. Among other things, he is very talented in videography. He did an outstanding job helping us to record our story for our posterity.

When we set out to make this documentary, we definitely had our children in mind. We wanted to preserve this history for them so that they would know our story. We tried to get this done while some of our oldest members were still with us. We are so glad we did it when we did. A few short months after completing the documentary, one of the key figures in our church went home to be with the Lord. We are so grateful that we were able to record her testimony before she left us.

But once the documentary was completed, we thought we had something that could bless and encourage every Pastor. Let me explain.

The story of Berean Baptist Church is pretty amazing, all things considered. We aren’t a large church. We aren’t a famous church. We are an average-sized church in an average-sized city in America. Yet, God has seen fit to carry us through some unusually hard Providences through the years. In our first twelve years, we went through six different pastors. The longest any pastor stayed between the year of our founding in 1958 and 1970 was three years. One pastor stayed for three months.

In the late 1980s, we survived a devastating church split that followed, not surprisingly, on the tail of a building project. But again, God saw fit to Providentially preserve our church.

No doubt, the hardest Providence in our history came with 9-11. Two days after terrorists turned airliners into missiles to bring down the World Trade Center, our Pastor, who was visiting Fiji at the time, was swept out to sea and drowned. The story of how God worked through that time still amazes us.

We named our little documentary, “Upheld.” We believe that word captures the gracious way God’s sovereign hand has worked to sustain and preserve our church over these years. “Upheld” comes from one of our church’s favorite hymns: “How Firm a Foundation.”

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

Once we made the documentary, we felt very strongly that it could encourage other pastors. After all, ministry is warfare.  Trials and troubles are not unique to us.  God sustained our church in unique ways, but we are not uncommon in that regard.

We thought that you might enjoy seeing what God has done in our church, that it might encourage you in yours.  Churches have struggles and experience many setbacks.  It can be useful to hear how God has sustained others so that we can look forward to what God will do for us.

You probably won’t know many of the people in our story. And since we don’t have a famous church, you might not be all that interested in our history. But we think that if you take the hour or so to watch this documentary, our story might encourage you that God can uphold you too.

A sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God’s notice. A small church might be comparable to a sparrow – unknown, humble, obscure, in some ways the off-scouring of all things. Yet God is big enough to care about the small stuff, to hold the sparrows in His righteous, omnipotent hand.

I hope you will consider viewing this history. We don’t publish it so we can be famous. We like it just fine outside the spotlight. But we want to encourage you with what God can do. Our history is, ultimately, the history of every church. We all face trials and triumphs, crushing disappointments and uplifting victories. Our history is not the story of extraordinary people. It is the story of ordinary Christians with an extraordinary God.

In many ways, we have gone along for the ride. God has carried us through some stormy seas. He has sustained us and upheld us, and we want this documentary to be our expression of gratitude for all he has done. What God has done for us, we are very confident He will do for you too.

Pray Without Ceasing

In I Thessalonians 5:16-22, the sometimes wordy Apostle Paul strings together a list of very clipped, concise instructions for the people of God: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks… and so forth. I don’t intend to deal with the passage here, but just to urge Christians to be praying during this time. I hope I can encourage faithful prayer for two particular things.
First, pray for our elected leaders, especially the Governor of your state. Pray for your county officials as well – your county commissioners, your county sheriff, your local health department, and so forth.  These men and women are especially burdened right now with decisions that go beyond the norm.  I cannot imagine the pressure they feel and the responsibility they carry. No doubt some of our nation’s Governors have handled this coronavirus pandemic better than others. I appreciate the way Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert has dealt with this so far, especially as he has avoided some of the heavy-handed tactics other Governors have used. No doubt any one of our nation’s Governors can be criticized for one thing or another. But I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. I am glad that I am not in their shoes. I cannot imagine the weight of responsibility they must feel at this time.
In our dealings with elected leaders, I hope we will all remember that they are in many ways a lot like us. They second guess themselves, they have doubts and fears and misgivings, and, apart from a few exceptions, they want to do what is good and right and best for the people. Most of what we know of politicians come from 10-second clips on the news. Personally, I wouldn’t want my life to be judged by a 10-second sound-bite.  I have had the privilege of getting to know quite a few politicians and elected leaders in our area.  I can’t speak for every politician in the country, but it seems to me that our local politicians get into this business so they can better our community.  They would be the first to tell you that they don’t always get it right.  They get frustrated like the rest of us.  They wish they had a crystal ball to foresee the future so they could make the perfect decision.  They feel our outrage and our disappointment with them very deeply and personally.
I am not asking you to stop holding them accountable.  We should be watching what our elected leaders do.  I am not asking you to give them a pass when they make the wrong decision.  I am not asking you to leave them alone or to avoid any sort of confrontation.  Most of them value the feedback they get from citizens, even if they disagree with it or decide to go a different direction.
people holding mask over a sculpture

I am asking you to pray for our elected leaders.  Pray that principle will determine their decisions and that their policies will align faithfully with God’s Word and our Constitutional principles.  Pray that they will guide their affairs with discretion.  Pray that they will make wise decisions that will allow us to lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness.  Pray that God will uphold them and sustain them at this time.

In all this turmoil, it would be worth its weight in gold for your elected leaders to hear a word of encouragement from you.  They could retire early if all the criticisms they receive were turned to coin.  A word of encouragement goes a long way for them.

Ricky Hatch is our Weber County Clerk/Auditor, and one of the top Clerk/Auditors in the nation – no exaggeration.  He is a rock-solid conservative, devoted to the Constitution, and a great friend.  Ricky put together this little spin on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (click the link to watch it) to give some guidance to those who work with Legislators.  He offers some great advice.  You can accomplish much by shaking your fist and glowering, no doubt.  You will at least gain a reputation.  But if you can respect your elected officials and try to work with them, you will find them much easier to deal with.

Second, pray for your pastor.  I have had countless conversations with pastors over the past few weeks.  In every one of those conversations, I hear a common thread.  A pastor’s first concern is for the spiritual health and well-being of his people; a close second is for the spiritual needs of his community.  Right now, a pastor’s ability to serve his people and his area has been limited.  He feels like a hobbled racehorse running the derby.  He navigates uncharted waters right now — the turbulence doesn’t make navigation any simpler.
Every pastor I know is deeply concerned about making the right decision in this situation.  Pastors are very aware of the impression they are giving in whatever decision they make.  Some will say that they are cowing or caving in.  Some will say that they don’t care about the people of their community.  Some will charge them with recklessness.  Some will accuse them of cowardice.  They want to glorify God and please Him.  They desperately want to shepherd their people through these trying times.
Please, pray for your pastor.  Every pastor in America has been faced with a gut-wrenching decision over the past few weeks.  In a time of crisis, a faithful shepherd wants to gather his sheep around him so he can support and protect them.  Yet, our current situation has made that very difficult. 
Yesterday, I was told of a pastor who, to protect his flock from COVID-19, announced that they would be moving to online services.  No sooner had he finished making the announcement than a family in the church met him at the front to say that they were resigning their membership immediately because of his decision. 
Believer, I hope you will uphold your pastor in prayer.  You might not like his decision, but do your best to support him in it.  Understand what he is faced with right now.  The people of God never need spiritual guidance more than in times like these.  But because of the nature of this pandemic, Pastors find themselves hindered, prevented from giving the personal care and spiritual guidance Christians need.  I hope you will take some time to think through what this must be like for your pastor.
We should all be praying fervently during this time.  There is a great reunion day coming when those churches who have had to limit their services will be able to gather again in full strength.  I imagine that day will be a little like that “Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’.”  What a day that will be!  We should all pray for it fervently. 
Until then, every Christian should pray that God will accomplish His purpose in all of this, that we will surrender to Him and seek Him, that this disease will not claim too many lives, that unbelievers will come to repentance and that our nation will seek the Lord.  We should all be upholding each other in prayer.  Remember the sick and elderly in your church family, especially.  And again, please pray that our reunion day will not be long delayed.
We can rejoice at this time because God’s will is being done.  We are in God’s hands!  Praise the Lord!

The Problem of Replacing One Sinner with Another

A pastor is a sinner who, having been saved by the grace of God, has been called and equipped to lead the people of God, preaching the Word and equipping the saints.  How’s that for a definition?

We don’t necessarily think of a pastor as a sinner, unless we had a pastor who sinned against us or fell into some kind of scandalous sin.  Otherwise, we have this persistent notion that the pastor is above the world, untouched by the feeling of our infirmities, unvarnished by the sins that so easily beset us.

This view of the person of the pastor is false.  We know this.  A church is a body of sinners.  The pastor belongs to that body.  There may be times when we are more aware of his fallenness – like when he steps on our toes.  But we know – at least in theory – that  he is in our same condition in most ways.

But in a good relationship between pastor and church, we might forget that the pastor is a man, and a fallen one at that.  For mysterious reasons, when the pastor is ready to hand over leadership and end his ministry to our church, we tend to forget his faults and promote him to sainthood.  Woe unto the next pastor in such cases.  His every move will be scrutinized and he will be measured endlessly against his predecessor, Pastor Donowrong.  Frankly, this is unrealistic and wrongheaded.

In my introductory article on churches in transition, I pointed out that when a church changes leadership, the leadership passes from one sinner to another.  This is fundamental doctrine, and should not require a detailed defense.  The fallen nature of man is as foundational to the Christian faith as the deity of Christ or the unity of the Godhead.  Why then are we surprised when someone goes off the rails?

Here’s the problem: we expect our pastors to be “above the fray.”  Some of that expectation comes from our fascination with power, and the fact that some pastors are impressive and powerful men to begin with.  Blame it on our humanity, but we tend to think that power means perfection.  Too often, we think of the pastor as if he has a walk with God not available to the average Christian, as if he had already attained.  We are shocked to learn that he even has faults.

Some of our expectations about the pastor come from the pastor’s presentation of himself.  The pastor himself may believe that he cannot ever let anyone know about his faults.  In order to conceal the ugly truth, pastors fake it.  This can lead to disaster – be sure your sin will find you out.  But some men are better than others at concealing their faults, and so the church will not be made aware of the problems in a man’s life and ministry.  This is an unhelpful reality in too many churches.

Over years, a church grows accustomed to a pastor’s faults, which helps foster these delusions about our pastors.  Because we love our pastor, and because we try to be gracious, we get used to overlooking those faults and sometimes even excusing them.

Enter the new pastor.  He has faults, the former pastor has faults.  But his faults have become part of the woodwork, and nobody notices anymore.  The new guy on the other hand, his faults are all fresh and unfamiliar, and the church notices these.  Especially if he is replacing a well-loved, well-respected pastor, the new pastor will find himself under a microscope.

What then is a church to do?

First, Keep Things in Perspective

If we enter a leadership transition looking for Pastor Perfect, we will be sadly disappointed.  Every pastor has his own set of sins that are unique to himself.  Brace yourself.  Don’t look for his faults, but when you find them, don’t be surprised or shattered by it.

Secondly, Recognize That Temptations Change

Seasoned pastors have a unique set of temptations that are very different than those a new pastor will face.  The new pastor has temptations unique to his new position; the entrenched pastor has temptations unique to his longevity.  Older men are tempted one way, younger men another.  Martin Luther has been quoted saying that a young man is tempted by girls, a middle-aged man by gold, an older man by glory.  Sometimes we overcome our temptations, sometimes we simply outgrow them.  Our temptations may not be constant, but temptation certainly is.  We are always tempted, but not always the same way.  We can expect, in a leadership transition, that new temptations will creep in all around.

Thirdly, Be Gracious

Extend the same kind of grace to the pastor that you would want extended to you.

For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.

Pastors sometimes hold a double-standard.  But the double-standard is not a pastor-only problem.  Church members also hold the occasional double-standard.  In truth, the pew is often as guilty as the pulpit.  We are commanded to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).  This means, among other things, that we ought to judge Scripturally rather than preferentially.  we must have a true standard, which would be God’s Word.  When we find fault in our pastor, we have some Scriptural responsibilities.  The Bible is not silent in such cases. Galatians 6:1 gives a general command in any case when a brother is overtaken in a fault.  I Timothy 5:1 gives a more specific command regarding pastors who sin.

…ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)

Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; (I Timothy 5:1)

These are not options or suggestions for dealing with sin in the pastor.  These are commands.  One sin is not corrected by another; nor does one sin give us an indulgence to commit another.

Fourthly, Respect the New Pastor

Respect takes time to earn.  Recognize that.  But it shouldn’t take time for us to give respect to a new pastor, even when it has not been earned.  Respect the office, and learn to respect the man.

Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. (Hebrews 13:7)

You cannot claim to respect the office when you clearly disrespect the man.

Part of respecting the pastor involves understanding his role in your life.  God calls a pastor to live among his people, and sometimes that means we see things we did not want to see.  Recognize that his battles will help you with yours, so long as he approaches his own Scripturally.  We do not want a pastor who has no conflict with temptation or sin.  Such a pastor cannot guide us, encourage us, lead us, or help us with our own struggles.  Pastors learn how to fight against sin in the arena, not in the study.

The man in the arena is likely to have a little mud and maybe even a little blood on himself.  The guy with the clean uniform at the end of the game didn’t play.  When your pastor comes out with his hair messed up, understand that he has been in a battle.  This is good.

Finally, Pray for Your Pastor and Encourage Him

Certainly, there are times when we must sit in judgment.  But those times are thankfully very rare.  In most of our interactions with people, we should behave as those who will be judged, not as those who must judge.  In the past century, we have become much more casual towards authority, and as our culture has become more egalitarian, we have made every effort to free ourselves from our obligations towards authority.  These things ought not to be.  We must act in a Scriptural way towards the pastor, just as he must act in a Scriptural way towards us.

Leadership transitions in a church become difficult when we forget this simple truth – that taking a new pastor means taking a new set of flaws, faults, and failures.  It is no good to expect the new pastor to be what the old pastor wasn’t – which is to say, without sin.

A First Take on Churches in Transition

Every church will face a time of transition – a change in pastoral leadership – at some point in their history. Though transitions in leadership provide a church with an opportunity for growth and blessing, navigating these transitions can be like running a gauntlet.

The Bible is not silent on the issue of leadership change. In the weeks ahead, I hope to outline a Scriptural approach to this most important issue. To begin with, I have five thoughts which I hope to develop more fully in the future.

First, transitions pass leadership from one sinner to another

We know this fundamentally, but we forget about it practically. Churches believe and teach the fallen nature of man as foundational to the Christian faith. Why then are we surprised when someone goes off the rail? When problems surface in the process, we have a sin problem. Every person from pew to pulpit, from pastor to pastor, must recognize the temptations unique to his role in the transition.

Secondly, the church is still God’s church

Forgotten in the process of passing leadership from one man to another is the idea that the pastor is a steward. When stewardship passes from one leader to another, both men must remember that they are but servants. The Master has not changed. Christ is still head of the church. As head of the church, God has determined to bring some changes to His church. This is intentional. We should recognize God’s hand in bringing about this change, and we should rejoice and be glad. We must trust the Lord to lead the new pastor as we trusted Him to lead the old, and we must not hold stubbornly to the old ways of doing things.

Thirdly, we must learn the virtue of forbearance

God knows we will have plenty of opportunity. Forbearance requires patience and longsuffering, a restraint of our own passions and an indulgence towards those who slight us or injure us. There will be perceived slights and actual slights once the “honeymoon” period is over and the reality of the transition sets in. Every person involved in the transition must determine to “let all your things be done with charity.” As I Corinthians 13 teaches us, charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Charity teaches us to think the best of others, rather than assuming the worst. This will be a necessity if we want a change in leadership to bless the church.

Fourthly, transitions can demonstrate that we take humility seriously

Many a pastor has declared that the church can survive without you. God doesn’t need any of us: He chooses to work through earthen vessels. When leadership passes from the pastor to a new leader, the pastor finds himself at the receiving end of that maxim. He will be thoroughly tested on that point. Did he believe that for others only, or does he also believe that for himself? The old pastor has a pretty simple duty: get out of the way. Christ is still head of the church. On the other hand, the new pastor must not allow pride of position to cause him to think of himself more highly than he ought. He must study to avoid novice pitfalls, “lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.”

Finally, we must concern ourselves with the enemy under our own skin

While Satan provides us with a convenient scapegoat, in leadership transitions Satan only needs to appeal to our own baser natures. Self is our great enemy. Selfishness and self-centeredness are the ruin of a good transition, and we must guard against our self above all else. When we scrutinize each other rather than ourselves, problems will follow. Paradoxical though it seems, we defeat our selfish concerns by being concerned with ourselves. In a sense, self-concern is inescapable. We must be concerned about our own selfish nature. We must not concern ourselves with slights and injuries against our person.

In the weeks ahead, I hope to expand on these ideas. But above all else, for a change in leadership to bless a church, we must concern ourselves first with the glory of God and the honor of His name. If we will obey the first two commandments – love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves – then a transition can be a blessing.