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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Common Traits of Those Who Fail in the Ministry

No one goes into the ministry planning to fail, their expectations envision success. Being sensitive to some common causes of failure can help avoid a ministry going down in flames.

1. Wrong thinking patterns:
•    “My value, worth comes from my performance”: Our worth as individuals comes from what Christ has done for us, not how well we perform. We dare not confuse talent with self worth, or functional ability with acceptance before God.
•    “Victim mentality”: There are those who seem to see the glass always as half empty, and believe that everyone is after them, that others are always picking on them, and that the dark clouds just seem to follow them around.
•    “I can not be wrong” and “fear of failure”: The  issue here is insecurity.  A fear of failure means loss of self esteem or a sense of worth as an individual, or an issue of pride, and a resistance toward humility.
•    “I have all the answers” : The “know it all” attitude can stem from over confidence, or a false sense of superiority. Sometimes the underlying reason is insecurity, but also can be just outright arrogance.

–What can be done? Paul in Romans 12:1-2 gives us great help: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will.” [emphasis added] Patterns of wrong thinking are common even among those who name Christ as Savior. So how do we “renew our minds” so that we can be “transformed?” Again, Paul gives us some great help in Philippians 4:8:  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  We must change the focus of our thinking. 

Another great help is to articulate the truth of the situation.  The truth is that we don’t have all the answers, only God does; that everyone isn’t out to get us, since “he that began a good work in you will carry it on until its completion” [Phil. 1:6].  The truth is that our worth as individuals comes from what Christ has done for us, not how well we perform. The truth is that failure is the confirmation that we are not perfect. Everyone fails at something. We chose to think in certain ways and develop patterns of thinking that are not healthy nor biblical. Choosing to think in other ways takes deliberate effort and practice, but is a biblical principle that can change our lives.
2. Those who fail in the ministry have tendencies to rationalize their actions rather than understand the reasons for them and they provide excuses for why and what they have done, rather than true explanations. Sometimes this is accompanied by an inability to accept responsibility. Unfortunately, rationalization becomes the pattern of justification for an inability to complete a task, or to admit wrong. Time was not taken to think through issues involved or to seek council about implications of a course of action, resulting in poor outcome at best, or failure at worst.  More time is spent in making excuses for what went wrong than the time it would have taken to adequately prepare in the first place. Rather than preparing, life becomes a series of reactions to one life event after another.

What can be done?  Careful preparation, thorough considerations of issues related to the problem, and seeking wise counsel can go a long way in preventing such disasters. Proverbs 15:22 says: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”  If there is a deficiency in one of these areas, then asking for help and accountability from others can help retrain old patterns of response.

3. Failing to develop a servant and learner’s heart and failing to love people
.  Leaders that fail often lack love for those to whom God has called them to minister. As someone as said, “People don’t care about what you say, until they understand how much you care.” Jesus was the supreme example of the servant leader, washing the dirty feet of disciples too proud to even do it for themselves.  Leaders that fail are also those who are unwilling to learn from others. God provides a myriad of opportunities for us to learn from those around us, even from those who do not know Him, but we must we willing to be taught.

4. Failure to keep on growing: spiritually, musically, physically, relationally, and intellectually.  Living things that cease to grow and develop often die. Leaders that fail have stopped growing spiritually, too busy or tired to maintain the personal spiritual disciplines necessary for an intimate relationship with Christ.  Regular physical exercise and healthy diet rarely are high their priority list. Investment in relationships and continued study never seem to find their way into the scheduling process. They are driven by the tyranny of the urgent, lost in a sea of activities that seem out of their control.

Learning to make healthy boundaries for one’s own spiritual life, family life, health and ministry can revolutionize one’s life and effectiveness and provide a healthy model for families with whom they minister.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are there bleating sheep in your ministry?

In 1 Samuel 15, Scripture relates the story of Saul’s failure to completely follow God’s instructions to completely destroy the Amalekites and how he allows the men to take the spoils, allowing the king of the Amalekites to live. When questioned by Samuel the prophet of God why he disobeyed, Saul only attempts to justify his actions. By calling his partial obedience a completed task, refusing to admit any wrong doing on his part, and blaming others for what had happened, Saul totally fails the true test that God was giving. The test was not just a call for an elimination of an old enemy of the Hebrew people, but a test to see if Saul would wholeheartedly follow God’s command. Saul failed in several areas:

First, he failed to see that partial obedience is disobedience.
Second, he confused the task to be done for the lesson to be learned. By only focusing on the goal of winning the battle, he never asked himself if God might have a higher purpose in the assignment.
Third, he allowed fear to motivate his actions, rather than faith, because he defined who he was by what he did more than who God had called him to be.

Let’s briefly look at each one of these. I was reminded of this first issue while visiting with our daughter who was correcting our grandson. After not doing all of what his mother has asked him to do, I heard her give some instruction and completed her statements with the phrase, “partial obedience is disobedience.” I was completely impressed, for this is a lesson that really must be learned from childhood.

In God’s sight, partial obedience is disobedience.
This may seem cruel and cold at first, but look at it this way. Suppose that the surgeon who is about to operate on you asks the nurse, “Has the scalpel been sterilized?” and she replies, “Yes, all but this one tiny part.” Would you want the surgeon to use it? Of course not, for regardless how small that “one tiny part” may be, there could be enough bacteria to kill the patient. If this is true in our physical world, in the spiritual realm only God can see what lingering “bacteria” is left by our partial obedience, and such sin separates us from open fellowship with the Father. In the case of Saul, God’s commentary is tragic: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” [1 Sam. 15:11] Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the LORD all that night.” [Notice that Saul’s disobedience was a grief to Samuel, who had anointed him as king. Our failures rarely affect only ourselves.]

As finite creatures we are incapable of understanding the infinite mind and purposes of God. However, that does not mean that God does not want or allow us to discern some of the purposes of His actions. The most obvious revealed purpose is why He sent His Son to redeem man, – “for God so loved the world.” Other areas of God’s actions and will may not be so clear. Sometimes what God has called us to do is not as important as the character quality He is developing in us in the process of doing it. I remember in the movie, “The Karate Kid,” the older master tells his young apprentice to paint the fence, but in a very specific way. Later, he has him polish a car, again in a very specific manner. The confused teenager obliged, but did not understand and finally in frustration tells the man that he came for training in karate, not to paint fences. Then the master shows him that the motions he gave for painting the fence were actually a part of a specific defensive move in karate. The activity was painting a fence, but the lesson was detailed training in defense. Saul had confused the task to be done with the lesson to be learned.

After Saul had defeated the Amalekites, he proceeds to set up a monument to himself. This is revealing in that he [1] takes credit for what God had done, not realizing that God had only used Saul as the instruments of His will, and [2] Saul was defining who he was by what he had accomplished, not by his character. Understanding this is key to the conversation that follows with the prophet in 1 Samuel 15:13-34. Rather than cite the entire passage, I just refer to specific parts. When Samuel finds Saul, probably in front of the monument he had set up for himself, Saul greets him, saying, “The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s instructions.” [v. 13]. The prophet does not mince words in his reply: “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” Which is to say, “Saul, if you had obeyed I wouldn’t be hearing what I am hearing. The proof of your disobedience is all around you.” Saul then tries to shift blame: “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.” [v.15] Saul did not understand that disobedience is disobedience, regardless when attempts are made to spiritualize it. He could not own up to his own failure of responsibility to oversee the actions of his troops.

Samuel does not allow for excuses or justifications, his reply is swift and clear: “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night.” God doesn’t play our games of trying to justify our actions. Samuel again confronts Saul with the truth: “Why did you not obey the LORD?” Saul fails to see this as an opportunity of grace and forgiveness on God’s part and again tries to defend his actions: “But I did obey the LORD,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal.” [v.20-21] Saul just does not get it. Only when judgement falls does Saul begin to reveal the truth. Samuel’s response to Saul’s excuses are words that we must take to heart if we are going to have effective ministries. Listen first to Samuel’s response to Saul’s rationalization of his sin:

“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king.”
[1Sam. 15:22-23]

The tendency is try to explain away our sin, to push the rationalizations in which we have used to delude ourselves on God in a feeble attempt to justify our actions. When Saul refuses to respond to the grace of God and admit guilt, judgement falls. Saul’s rebellion against God was like idolatry in that he had set himself up as his own authority, worshiping the image of himself for what he had done. Saul had even taken that mental image of himself and turned it into a physical monument for him admire. However, now it was too late, his unrepentant attitude has been judged by God and with one quick word, God has rejected Saul as king. Disobedience, especially among the leaders God has placed in power, has serious consequences.

The tragedy of the situation continues to unfold: “Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the LORD’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD.” [v.24-25] When Saul finally admits he is wrong, it is too late. God has already chosen another leader, one whose heart would follow after His. With his confession he revealed the motivation of his action: fear. Since Saul understood who he was only by what he did, that is, king and leader of the army, he feared doing anything that would reduce their numbers, thus, weakening his image and potential. He was not depending on God for his battles, but sheer numbers of men. So, when the men wanted to take the plunder from the battle, Saul did not have the courage to trust God, to set the standard of complete obedience based on God’s command to destroy everything. In short, he failed to see that his worth was not based on the size of his army or the battles won, but on the what God had called him to do and be. [This is clearly seen later in the battle when David kills Goliath.] The price he paid was very costly, for though he continued to reign as king, he did so without the blessing of God, and he grew more self-centered and suspicious until he finally commits suicide on the battlefield.

Let’s returning to the original question, “Are there any bleating sheep in your ministry?” Bleating sheep can be any area of our lives in which we settle for less than complete obedience, any time we confuse the task to be done for the lesson to be learned, and any time we allow fear to motivate our actions, rather than faith, defining who we are by what we do more than who God had called us to be.

{This is Part 1 of a Character Study on the life of Saul. Part 2 may be found at Worship HeartCries: Do We Always Have to Learn Lessons the Hard Way? }

Saturday, April 14, 2012

“...God has turned His back on me...”

Strong words, sometimes more felt, than allowed to pass from our lips, yet many feel this way when going through very difficult circumstances. Listen to the words of Naomi: “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!” [Ruth 1:13 b, NIV] The International Standard Version reads, “the Lord is working against me!” Naomi had traveled with her husband and two sons to Moab in search of food for survival. After staying there for some time, her sons married Moabite women and later her husband and two sons died. Now left alone with no male survivors, that is, protectors and providers, Naomi was feeling totally abandoned. In that moment she felt as if the covenant keeping God [LORD or Yahweh] had forgotten His own covenant and she was left like a leaf in a wind storm.

We know the story and long to be able to whisper in her ear, “I know it’s bad, but God has something so incredible for you, just trust Him!” We know that God was using all these circumstances to bring Boaz and Ruth together, to supply for all her needs, to bless her with grandchildren, and eventually a king for Israel. Naomi did not live to see her great grandson, David, become king of Israel and had no idea of the great things God would bring about through the tragedy. On an even greater level, nor could she have perceived what God would do through this linage: the birth of God’s Messiah, Jesus!

It is good for us to have reminders of God’s providence, His power, His love, and how though it may seem as though He may have abandoned us, that injustice rules and God has forgotten to keep His promises, He still is in control. Words like that are easy to write and fly off the tongue quite readily, but believing them in the midst of feelings of abandonment are not that simple. I know with my head what God has said, but my feelings of loneliness seem to mock my beliefs. I must come to a decision to believe God regardless of my feelings or external circumstances and know that He is in control and that He is working on His plan and schedule. I must conform to His plan, not that He changes the universe for mine. If God allows, I may see His purpose, if not, I will see it when I stand before Him in glory. We can always think of others who are in more difficult situations than our own, and though those kind of thoughts may change the perspective somewhat, when it is all said and done, we are still in pain and still blaming God for not working on our behalf. We need something more than just a reminder that there are others in worst circumstances.

One thing that we can do is to reassign meaning to what is happening: to realize that God is working out is plan and that He is giving us the privilege of being a part of it and using it to help grind down the rough corners of our character so that they reflect His character. Giving thanks to God “in all things” [not “for”, but “in”] is a great first step. I really believe that Jesus was reassigning the meaning of what was happening on the cross when He said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” More than just a statement of complete anguish, though He was definitely going through indescribable agony, Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, for in that psalm those Jews around Him at the cross would have been well familiar with the rest of the text and how it describes the suffering He was going through at that moment. Through His pain Jesus was shouting to the crowds, “Listen, look, God is fulfilling His Word before your very eyes!” He was trying to help them reassign meaning to the tragedy of the moment. To help them see that even in death, God would gain the victory.

In similar fashion after the resurrection, when the disciples were in complete disarray and confusion, when He appears to them, Jesus reassigns meaning to what they were going through. Luke 24:25-27 records Jesus explaining what had happened to two on the road to Emmaus: “He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” Jesus reassigned meaning, though it wasn’t until he did what they had no doubt seen Him do many times, break bread and give thanks, that their eyes were opened.

We may not be able to discern what God is doing, but we can ask Him to help us reassign new meaning to what is going on, confident that He is in control and that He has a purpose that will be for our ultimate good and His glory!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Gideon’s Lessons for Worship Leaders [Judges 6-8]

1. Size and importance doesn’t matter.
By Gideon’s own comments, he was from the “weakest family in Manasseh and the youngest in his family”. Being useful for the Lord, is not dependent on the size of the group to which you minister, or if you are serving “in one of the great congregations” of the area. God’s understanding of “greatest” is not measured the way our culture measures it.

2. He was faithful and brave in little things.
When God calls out Gideon for service he is threshing wheat in a wine press, a place that he could help provide food for his family, but in a way that the enemy would not see.

3. He was called of God to do what he did; he didn’t dream it up on his own. Gideon did not have dreams and aspirations of becoming a great general and winning fame and riches for himself . He had no delusions of grandeur. After attending a mega meeting and seeing all the glitz and fame some worship leaders seem to have, it is easy for that to become an attraction and for some to want to desire that for themselves. That is not a call from God, only an ambitious desire.

4. When he realizes that it was an angel of the Lord that had been speaking to him, his first response is worship, not boasting about what had happened.
Judges 6:23 states that after the angel of the Lord had vanished from his sight, Gideon cried out in fear, but God tells him not to be afraid. His first response was to build an altar, which he names “The Lord is peace.”

5. Before he could do great things for God, he had to deal with the idolatry in his own household.
He worship experience is followed by obedience to what God tells him to do. God then instructs Gideon to tear down the altar to Baal that was on his father’s land and offer a sacrifice using the wood from the idol, which he does. Even though he is ridiculed for what he did, he remained obedient.

6. The Spirit of God did not come upon Gideon until he had been obedient in what God had called him to do by tearing down the idol of Baal. Obedience in the little things is prerequisite before we are useful for the larger tasks. As Jesus said in the parable of the talents, he that is faithful in little, will be given more. There must be a willingness to do what seems to be insignificant jobs with an uncomplaining spirit, before we are entrusted with greater tasks.

7. He was humble, and needed reassurance that this was what God wanted him to do. There have been many sermons on the weaknesses of Gideon’s “throwing out a fleece,” or asking God for proof for what God was calling him to do. And in one sense, it is true, because of a lack of faith, he did ask for confirmation. However, Gideon is listed in faith’s “Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11, so there must be something more here. Consider, that he did probably did not have easy access to scripture, and no prophet is even on the scene until Samuel, years later. He was well aware of his inability to accomplish the task. He did not doubt that God could do it, only his own involvement in the task.

8. God looks for those who will give Him the glory. God reduced the number of soldiers from 32,000 to 300, which is a great study in itself, but we’ll save that for another time. God’s desire was to work in such a way that the Israelites would not say that is was by their own skill and strength that they defeated the enemy, but that would realize that it was by God’s hand alone. Such is a model for our ministry in leading worship: it must be for God’s glory, not done in such a way that we become the focus of attention, or used as a stepping stone to a “better situation.”

9. Once Gideon acts on faith, God provides a sign to reassure Gideon that the victory was God’s. The first sign, the fleece, was at Gideon’s request, but the next, Gideon’s overhearing the enemy’s soldier’s conversation [Judges 6:9-15] was God’s initiative, showing Gideon that He was already working on his behalf. Notice that Gideon’s first response to God’s sign, is worship.

10. Gideon followed God’s plan, and taught others to do what he was doing.
When it was time, Gideon tells the 300 men under his charge, “Watch me, and do what I do.” [Judges 6:17]. Worship is not something we tell other to do, it is something we do and ask others to follow in what we are doing.

11. God brings the victory for Himself as Gideon was obedient to do what God had instructed.
The army was defeated, God was glorified, all because Gideon was obedient, and believed what God had promised.

12. Gideon was persistent.
The battle that followed was tough. The previous night’s destruction had left 120,000 men dead, but 15,000 had fled. Gideon didn’t say that his part was over, but took his 300 men after them. Even when denied help [Judges 8:4-9], he kept on pursuing until he had captured the kings of the enemy.

13. The reminder of his victory, became an idol unto itself. Gideon refused to become Israel’s king, stating that only God was their king, but did take a ring from each of his men’s share of the war booty. With this he made an ephod, a gold woven garment, similar to what the priests wore. This symbol of Israel’s victory over the enemy became an idol that they worshiped, rather than the God that had given them the victory. Any victory we might experience, any experience we might have can become an idol in and of itself and take us away from the very One who gave the victory or experience.

I trust these lessons can be of help to all of us who lead in worship.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jesus Knew Who He Was...

Dr. Norris Grubbs, Associate Dean over our Extension Centers for NOBTS as well as Greek professor for Leavell College, shared some insights during Faculty Devotions this week that helped crystalize some ideas that had been swirling around my head. Referencing Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13, Norris shares the following:

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come form God and was returning to God; so he got up ...” John puts this at the start of this story, and I think it helps us understand a little bit of how Jesus was able and willing to perform this lowly duty of servanthood that night. He understood who he was.

So often, I think we define ourselves by what we do. The problem with that approach is that we will never serve others especially something degrading like Jesus does here because we will be afraid others will think that is who we really are. But the Bible clearly shows that we are not defined that way. Jesus knew what the Father had given him and that he had come from God and was going back there. I wonder if sometimes I fail to serve as I should because I have forgotten all that God has given to me and that I am his no matter what I do.

Good words, Norris, good insight.

Jesus was not concerned with the loss of image or the opinion of the disciples. His overarching purpose of living out the nature and character of God for them in that moment was more important than the passing judgements of those who might base their opinions on what others think or define themselves by what they do. Go back and mediate on the phrase, “He understood who he was.” We need to stop and unpack that a little more.

Too often we allow ourselves to be defined by others, whether these “others” are voices from the past that told us that pronounced words of failure {“You’ll never amount to anything}, defeat {You never do anything right!}, or even praise {You’re so good at that...}. The problem with those statements is that those statements fail to adequately describe who we are, because we are more than what we do. It is dangerous to attempt to live trying to disprove words of failure and defeat or live up to words of praise, since they depend on the approval of others. In the long run, we will be defining ourselves by a measurement that is sure to collapse and fail.

The biblical truth is our identity comes from what God in Christ has done for us, not from what others might say or think. If we are in Christ, we are CHILDREN OF GOD! There is no higher or more honorable name that might describe who we are. God gives me my worth, not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but because of whose I am and what He has done!

Jesus knew who He was. We need to realize whose we are and not pay attention to those who would attempt to redefine who we are by their own standards. The longer I am in the ministry, the more I realize how easy it is to forget this basic truth and fall back in trying to define my worth according to the pleasures and displeasures of others. I am a child of God, not worthy of anything, but by the grace of God granted favor to be called His child. In Christ, I can know who and whose I am! Thanks, Norris, for the reminder; I know I needed it.