A Job or A Calling?

I used to think there wasn’t much of a difference between a job, a career, and a calling. I bet you didn’t know that my first job was in an orange juice factory, but I got canned. I just couldn’t concentrate. Then I went up north and worked as a lumberjack, but honestly I couldn’t cut it so they gave me the axe. Finally I tried an inside job and was trained as a tailor, but it soon became obvious that I wasn’t suited for it. (You know I’m kidding, don’t you?) I did have other “real” jobs like working at Burger King, being a lifeguard at the ocean, and on the maintenance crew at a hospital. None of these had my heart, but they paid the bills while I was in seminary.

Unfortunately, it does sound like a familiar scenario for many who go from job to job trying to find something that suits (oops) them. This is very confusing to many men in our culture (and a growing number of women) who tend to define themselves by their occupation. We need to cut through this confusion and first establish our “calling.”

Dr. Timothy Butler of the Harvard Business School acknowledges this: “There are three words that tend to be used interchangeably- and shouldn’t be. They are “vocation,” “career,” and “job.” Vocation is the most profound of the three because it has to do with your calling. It is what you are doing in life that makes a difference for you, that builds meaning for you, that you can look back on in your later years to see the impact you’ve made on the world. A calling is something you have to listen for.”

I would define a job as something you do to pay the bills. I think that a career is also working for the paycheck, but there are usually more opportunities for advancement and training in your field that bring a longer term vision for a professional future.

A calling, however, is where your skill, passion, and gift-mix are so interconnected that you may feel you could make a difference in this world. One of my friends, Paul Sweas, gave me a quote that I think is terrific: “A job/career is what you are paid for. A calling is what you are made for.” What have you been made for? I think that is more important than asking yourself what you would like to do for a living.

There are some for whom a job (and even a career) not only pays the bills, but enables them to fulfill their calling in another area. Many have called it “tent making,” replicating the Apostle Paul who literally made tents to support himself while doing ministry. For others, their calling also translates into a job and a career, like it has for me after 47 years in pastoral ministry. But what really matters is our calling.

This will be my last semester of having “a job”. I will be stepping down as Chaplain of Wheaton College Graduate School. What will I do in “retirement”?  I have no idea. But there is one thing I know that will not change — my calling, as a Pastor. How that will be played out in the future is my next great adventure. Who knows, maybe I’ll be a chaplain in an orange juice factory– this time I’ll concentrate!

A Wounded Shepherd…

I am sitting in a seminar for pastors who are considering interim pastoral ministry. Most of us are seasoned veterans, yet it was humbling to hear a few of them share the pain of what they have endured because they were forced to leave their churches.

I am well aware that many pastors have caused pain to the churches they have served because of immorality, financial indiscretions, and other disqualifying sins. However, there are a lot of pastors (like my friends in this seminar) who have been forced out of their churches because they had incurred the wrath of a few powerful board members or influential people in the congregation. These are guys who are in their 50’s who who have lots of experience but do not have many senior pastor opportunities open to them anymore, so they are considering interim pastoral ministry (at which, I am sure, they will excel as wounded healers).

In our seminar we learned that 33% of U.S. churches have had a pastor leave due to a forced exit; 62% of ousted pastors were serving a church that had forced one or more pastors to leave in the past; 10% of churches have forced three or more pastors to leave.  What is truly amazing is that the driving cause behind a pastor’s forced exit most often comes from just 3-4% of the congregation, which in the majority of U.S. churches (with congregations of little more than 100) translates to three or four people.

I have been blessed with three churches over my forty years of ministry who have sincerely loved me and my family, but I am learning that this is not every pastor’s experience. The stunning facts are that 80% of pastors say that church ministry has negatively affected their family, 70% of pastors say that they do not have a close friend, 60% admit to being in some sort of crisis, 57% say they would leave the vocational ministry if they could find something else, and 50% are struggling in their relationship with God. There is something desperately wrong when statistics reveal that 400-500 pastors leave the ministry each week and that only one out of ten who begin actually finish their calling in the pastorate.

I realize that as an interim, I will be called to some toxic churches and will hear lots of stories and complaints about the pastor that just left, perhaps under painful circumstances. I will need to help a church grieve and rebuild, but my heart will always go out to the wounded shepherd whose pulpit and office I will fill for a time.

Who will pastor the pastor? Me…that is what I want to do. I also see the need of enabling churches to create a gospel-centered culture of love and candor that will not allow for the “functional anonymity of the pulpit” (Paul Tripp), but will draw the pastor into the very system of care that he is providing for others.

If you know any pastors beaten up by the ministry or if you are one, here are some resources that may be of help:

http://www.pastorsintransition.net (Pastors in Transition provides comprehensive help to hurting pastors and their families who are transitioning out of a vocational ministry position, voluntarily or involuntarily).

http://www.pinmin.org (Pinnacle Ministries is both a pastoral care and church health ministry. They have a retreat site north of Milwaukee called Shalom House for pastors and their wives to go for rest, relaxation, and restoration, http://www.the shalom house.org).

http://www.interimpastors.com (Interim Pastor Ministries for those experienced pastors looking for an intentional interim position and for churches who have had a pastor depart and need help in transition and preparing a new pastor to come).

When Dreams Die…

This past Monday at Wheaton College our chapel speaker was Phil Vischer, co-creator of VeggieTales. He had an awe-inspiring testimony of how a dream of his died through financial bankruptcy and how he saw God replace that dream with Himself. You may also know Phil as the founder of Big Idea Productions and the voice of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, and a host of other veggie characters. For some reason his presentation made me hungry for more.

He shared that during the time of his greatest disappointment, his mom gave him a cassette tape (do you remember those?) of a sermon titled “When a Dream Dies.” The pastor was preaching on Elisha and the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4; how God gave her a son and then how the boy died when he was older. In her grief, she sent for Elisha who came and miraculously brought the boy back to life. The speaker’s application was that God wants us to let go of our dreams so that we will find that He is all that we need. Vischer found this lesson transformational.

The Shunammite’s story is very similar to the story of Abraham and Isaac, when God wanted Abraham to lay his dream-son on the altar. Was it really to test Abraham to see if he loved the Giver more than the gift? I have heard that taught. However, don’t you think that God already knew Abraham’s heart like he knows ours? I think the issue was that Abraham didn’t know his own heart. Thus I believe that God may allow our dreams to die in order to reveal to us what is in our hearts, something we would never know apart from our dreams being dashed. CS Lewis said that “he who has everything has nothing more than he who has God alone.” We must not pant after our dreams, but we must learn to pant after God. The most important thing is to hold God as the most important thing.

Phil Vischer has now started a company called Jellyfish Labs, which produces new faith-based projects for kids and families. He chose the jellyfish as his business moniker because the creature has no means of locomotion and must be carried along by the current. It is not that Vischer has given up taking initiative for the future, but he is more intentional about being obedient to what God wants him to be doing today. And for that he has learned to wait on his knees. He used to believe the mantra that God can’t steer a parked car. Now he believes that he must “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (Ps. 37:7).

So if your dream has died, do not think that it is the end. It may be the beginning of an entirely new understanding of yourself and a deeper sense of the sufficiency of God.  It could also lead to a new dream.

A New Baby Girl!

photo(1)My baby girl, Joy, just had a baby girl, Davy Joy. Davy was born this morning around 6 am and I am exhausted. Just kidding. I was home sleeping, but Gloria was in the delivery room. My congratulations to Joy and Seth (and to the grandparents Rumsey) on this life-changing event. Our lives will never be the same.

There is a fresh sense of excitement when each of your grandchildren are born (this is number six for us). There is also a growing sense of responsibility about being a grandparent. This responsibility goes beyond annoying your kids by spoiling theirs and setting up a 529 savings plan for the grand-kids college. Our greatest responsibility is to remind and embody God’s love and faithfulness; that it goes beyond their parents and has come down to them from generations before.

The Psalms are filled with what could be called a job description for grandparents:

“He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God…” (Psalm 78:7).

“But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (Psalm 79:13).

“So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, and your power to all those to come” (Psalm 71:18).

“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4).

Praying for our grandchildren is essential, but the Psalmist also implores us to teach, to recount God’s praise, to proclaim His power, and to proclaim His mighty acts to them. We can do this in stories from the Bible and in stories about God’s faithfulness in our lives. We grandparents can add depth and authenticity to the voice of mom and dad because we’ve just been around longer and we don’t really care about being cool.

We are there to make sure that in the busy-ness of life with all of its distractions, no one in the tribe forgets God. We form the bridge that connects what mom and dad are saying about God to what the generations before have said. We can also be an encouragement to our children in prayer and by reminding them that the baton will soon be passed to them as the next generation of ancients “who set their hope in God.”

Rise up, O grandparents! There is no retirement from the responsibility of making a difference in the generations to come, for the glory of God.

It’s not about ME…

pass the batonThis is the last “Just a Thought” that I will be writing as the pastor of Community Fellowship Church in West Chicago where I have been for the last nine years. We will officially finish our ministry here on Sunday (Aug) at what I am calling “a transition service.” I will literally pass the baton to a very capable Will Pavone who will shepherd this wonderful flock of God’s people at CF. Then, Gloria and I will venture into a future partly known to us but fully known to God.

The last several weeks have been filled with parties, opportunities for hugs and good-byes, and hearing the loving affirmations usually reserved for funerals. Speaking of funerals, I am reminded of Paul as he rehearsed the amazing things that God had done through him and spoke about the uncertain future he faced as a prisoner of Nero in Rome. However, there was one thing of which he was certain. His ultimate concern was that he would “eagerly expect and hope…that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20, 21). Paul’s ultimate concern was not glorying in his past adventures or looking ahead to his next ministry assignment or even his health or survival, but in the cause of Christ and his glory.

Professional sports, even college-level athletics, have become something so completely different than what we experienced as kids. In sand-lot and high school football we played for each other, for the team, and for the sheer enjoyment of the game. Today, high-powered athletes who earn their living off the game play for themselves and a better contract. If they don’t like the coach or the team, they ask to be traded. If a coach were ever to confront such a player and say, “it’s not about you; it’s about the team,” it would be laughable as well as hypocritical. However, for Paul, it really wasn’t about him or his survival, health, or happiness. For Paul, everything was about Jesus and his reputation in this world.

And so as Gloria and I face the future, the Lord has impressed these things upon me. This is not about us, but about the team, the sheer enjoyment of the game, and most of all the Coach. It is not about what we have done, or about our image, or about our physical or financial well-being, or about our careers or future opportunities. Our ultimate concern must be with that which is certain to be victorious (the gospel), and with Jesus Christ who is certain to be exalted above all things.

As for the future…the Coach will take care of us.

“Plural Marriage” the new normal?

plural marriageNew Mexico has now become the 17th state to recognize same-sex “marriage.” The dominoes are falling. Most of us knew this would happen, but many people did not recognize the other unintended doors of social change that might open as well.

Several months ago I wrote an article on “serial marriage” after seeing a program about a man living with two women. Only one was his legal wife, but he considered the other woman his “wife” as well. I had asked on what basis our society could deny the right of this man to marry both women if it has already crossed the line of redefining marriage. I suggested that there will be other attempts to press for individual rights in this area now that marriage has fallen from its created design between a man and a woman (see the words of Jesus in Matt 19:4, 5).

Yesterday, in the Chicago Tribune, there was an article titled Utah ‘plural marriage’ wins round in court. “Advocates for so-called plural marriages are applauding a ruling by a US District Court judge (who else?) that struck down key segments of Utah’s (where else?) anti-polygamy law, saying they violated constitutional rights to privacy and religious freedom.” The headline is a little misleading and we have to dig deeper to understand the significance of this decision. The ruling preserved the law against bigamy—being officially married to more than one spouse at the same time. However, the ruling claimed that the presence of additional “unofficial wives” in the same family should be recognized as “religious cohabitation.”

“Proponents say that polygamist cohabitation among fundamentalist Mormons traditionally involves one marriage certificate; and additional wives represent religion-based relationships that are protected under the Constitution. They say the judge’s ruling has preserved laws against bigamy, which involves more than one marriage license.” Essentially the judge ruled against the language of the Utah law that says, “or cohabits with another person.” Advocates have also said that “the judge’s ruling grants polygamists the same legal standing as same-sex couples.”

What we see here is a road to social and moral change that has been traveled before. A movement starts small merely advocating to be recognized; it appeals to legal and constitutional rights; it cries out for respect and dignity; it argues that the government should stay out of the business of defining “family”; it presents its case in the media (the TV reality series on TLC “Sister Wives”; and generally there will be some type of persecution of the movement that becomes a rallying-point (the Mormons have plenty of examples from the assassination of Joseph Smith to the “banishment” of Brigham Young); it appeals to the “civil rights” given to other minorities; and the movement usually finds its initial success in the courts, not with the electorate (e.g. Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriage because of a 5-4 decision of the State Supreme Court).

There is one more ingredient for social change; an idea must have time to develop and trickle down to a new and more tolerant generation. (It should be noted that there are Christian polygamist groups who base their beliefs on the Bible, but they will always remain on the fringe and will never travel “the road” of social change.)

“He who stands for nothing will fall for everything.” The quote is attributed to GK Chesterton from a line in one of his Father Brown Mysteries. In a culture where truth is redefined as “truthiness” and conviction is regarded as bigotry, this quote sounds terribly intolerant. Nonetheless, mark my word; the dominoes will keep falling as our society continues to implode. The late Francis Schaeffer said that he no longer prayed for God to bless America, but for God to have mercy upon America. “Let your steadfast love be upon us, O Lord, even as we hope in you” (Ps 33:22).

Ministry in Transition


Last week in my Sunday sermon, I announced that I would be stepping down as the pastor of Community Fellowship sometime in July, 2014. We have begun a search process for a new pastor and are prayerfully seeking God’s guidance and direction in the process. We have adopted Jeremiah 29:11 as our verse for the year and our theme is Present Calling/Future Hope. I am very excited about the future of this church. I am also looking forward to this year here; although it will be transitional, there are some very exciting ministry initiatives that will be taking place.

Many have asked what I will be doing next and whether we will be staying around the Chicago area or heading back to New England. I would say that the theme for our church year is also an appropriate theme for me—Present Calling/Future Hope. I have a present responsibility to shepherd a wonderful, vibrant congregation that I love. I also have confidence that God will continue to find me useful and to lead me to another ministry opportunity.

Since some of you are connected in high places and might be able to find a job for me somewhere, I thought I’d share with you some of my past experience. I worked as a lumberjack for a while, but just couldn’t hack it, so they gave me the axe. Then I moved to an inside job working in an orange juice factory, but got canned because I couldn’t concentrate; I was always thinking about theology. Next I tried working for Midas Muffler, but found the work too exhausting. I had read that DL Moody was converted in a Boston shoe store, so I worked in a shoe factory and found that I just didn’t fit with the job.  I was so desperate that I got a summer job working for a pool company, but even that job was too draining. I even considered working at Dunkin Donuts, but knew it would be a grind. Finally I went back to school to become a historian, but after the first semester I realized there was no future in it.

Then I became a pastor—ah, I love it! In spite of all my varied experience in the past, this was a place in the universe for me. All these jobs I got paid for; being a pastor was what I was made for. It is not the easiest job in the world, but neither is working in an orange juice or shoe factory. The issue is one of calling. I believe that the one whom God calls will be sustained. My life verse for ministry is 1 Thess 5:24; “The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.”

Many of my readers do not know me, but I would sincerely ask those who are praying people to pray for Community Fellowship Church in its pastoral search during this year of transition. I would also ask that you would pray for my wife and me as we seek direction for the next chapter in our lives. Thank-you.


The Slavery of Too Many Choices

ChoicesYears ago I went for lunch at a restaurant in Moscow. I sat down; the bread was already on the table (on all the tables), having been put there when the restaurant opened that morning. It was hard as a rock and probably could have been used in self-defense if the KGB ever came after me. I asked the waitress for a menu and she told me that they did not have one. She proceeded to tell me what they were serving and whether I wanted it cold or hot. On the one hand, I was stunned with the fact that I was being told what I was going to eat. On the other hand, it was refreshing that I didn’t have to make a choice— except for the temperature of the food. The Moscow markets were also very limited. People would buy whatever was on the shelves whether they needed it at that time or not. The issue was not one of choice but of supply. When I returned to the US and went into one of our grocery stores, I had a strange feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices with which I was again confronted.

Barry Schwatrz, the author of The Paradox of Choice (2004) says, “Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”  That’s an understatement.  Instead of increasing our happiness, too many choices have tended to increase our anxiety. “Am I getting the best deal? Maybe I just won’t choose right now.”  “I’ve got so many interests, how am I ever going to choose what I want to be? Maybe I’ll put that decision on hold and travel.” “I’m afraid that if I get involved in a relationship it might not be with the one I’m supposed to end up with. Maybe I’ll be like Al Paccino in Heat who vowed never to get involved in a relationship he couldn’t walk away from in thirty seconds.” Could it be more than just an Orwellian truth that “Freedom is Slavery?”

The realization of this “paralysis of analysis” has actually found its way into advertising. I was reading one email advertising guru who said that if you’re trying to convince readers to take one action, a single offer is better than multiple ones. “With multiple offers, readers have to decide which product they want to focus on; then, they have to decide whether or not they want to act on that offer. This divides attention between choices and requires more decisions…” [As an aside: I know that purchasing a car can be an overwhelming experience because of all the choices. So this fall, when I was looking for a newer used vehicle, I used a different tactic.  I prayed for wisdom and then determined beforehand the make and model, the year, the approximate mileage and the price range of the car I wanted. I didn’t care that much about the color or the interior. I sent this information out on the internet to a few dealerships. I visited three of them and bought the car in two weeks.] 

James 1:6-8 tells us that when we ask God for something we should ask in faith and not with a double mind; such doubt produces instability in all we do. In the most recent issue of Christianity Today is an article written by Barry Cooper, Imprisoned by Choices. He says, “There comes a point when not choosing becomes idolatry. It becomes a lack of trust in the God who ordains the decisions we will make, gathers up the frayed ends, and works all things for our good and his glory. Be wise, but then rest in God’s total sovereignty and goodness, and choose. Commit. Make a decision. Be wholehearted and single-minded.” Martin Luther once said that in view of God’s grace “sin boldly.” Perhaps if he were talking about God’s sovereignty he would have said, “choose boldly.”