This series of blog posts has been a years long search for understanding for me. I am sure I am not 100% correct in my thinking in every area, but I’ve tried the best I can to see things from multiple angles and perspectives. It is not my goal to place blame or complain, nor to make excuses for myself. My goal is to simply state what I see are issues facing Christian churches that I can no longer subject myself to. This is a multi-part blog series because I want to make sure I express myself thoroughly and well.
In the last post, I talked about division in the church. In this post, I want to touch a little more on that, but also on issues with leadership in the church.
Just down the street from our house there used to be a monastery where Trappist Monks used to live. Their monastery closed down in 2017, a year before we moved to the area. I never got to meet them, never got to see their buildings, or taste their famous bread. I don’t understand the whole monks, nuns, and priest thing with the Catholic church. What I do know, is that in this predominately LDS area, these Catholic monks made a positive impact on many lives in this community.
I recently read a book about the monks who used to live down the street from my house and was touched when I learned about why they chose this life for themselves and the vows they made when they chose it.
There are five vows the Trappist Monks make when they chose this lifestyle. 1. Celibacy. 2. Poverty. 3. Obedience to all things good. 4. Stability. 5. Conversion of manners.
I’ve heard some of these before, but not the meaning behind it. For example Celibacy for them isn’t just about abstaining from sex. The idea is to keep their hearts free for service to the Lord and his church. “Celibacy does not separate us from the riches of human love, but is a means by which that love is taken up and fulfilled as a gift offered to the whole church and the world.” In other words, they take that energy and devotion that is supposed to be reserved between a man and a wife – and they redirect it as a sacrifice in order to show God’s love to the world. They devote themselves to loving people.
For poverty, the idea is not to be poor. But rather to have a community similar to that of the early Christian church where all their possessions were shared in order to spread the gospel of Jesus. They also do this in order to free themselves from the self-centeredness that separates us from God and others.
Obedience to all things good is to put aside their own desires even to the point of preferring another’s wishes. Stability is a promise monks make to commit themselves for life to one community of brothers and sisters with whom they work out their salvation in faith, hope, and love. In my last post I mentioned how Jesus picked twelve disciples who didn’t come from the same background. This is the same idea. They promise to work together no matter what differences come up between them.
And finally, Conversion of manners is a promise to learn the truth about themselves as they really are and become radically dependent on Jesus in order to experience intimacy with God.
Do I agree with all these practices 100%? Nope. I can see issues in each one. But the heart of what they’re trying to do, I do understand and respect. Many of the monks who used to live down the street from me were war veterans from WWII. They were looking for peace after the chaos of war. They knew how awful the world could be and they wanted to be part of the good this world can offer by sharing the love of Jesus with their community.
I haven’t met a person here, yet, that doesn’t have wonderful things to say about monks. What a testimony! They broke through religious barriers and even made friends with the LDS church leaders.
The book I read was “Monastery Mornings” by Michael Patrick O’Brian. He grew up visiting the Monastery and got to the know many of the monks quite well over the years. This is what he says about them,
“I learned about human nature and humanity. The monks were men of God, but they also were just men. I saw them with awe, revered and admired them, but also appreciated them as fellow human beings. They were full of wit, humor, kindness, joy, sadness, courage, fear, flaws, perfections, imperfections, wisdom, confusion, answers, questions, compassion, uncertainty, grace, a thirst for peace and meaning, and of course, love. They were different and set apart, yet they also were just like me…”
I love that paragraph, because to this boy the monks became his mentors and teachers, men he could look up to without following in their footsteps and becoming a monk himself, although he did consider it for a time.
They devoted their lives to serving people in their church and community by various means, feeding them with actual food, but also with the Word of God, and having an intimate relationship with Jesus because without that you can’t live a life of sacrifice to fellow humans. It just doesn’t work.
And while they lived apart from the world, rarely leaving the Monastery grounds, they still managed to touch many lives in this little valley. Did they do it perfectly? I doubt it. Would I have heeded their advice if they told me to confess my sins to a priest? Nope. But I sure can respect the fact that they were trying to share the love of Jesus with the world. And I can see beauty and authenticity in the way they did it. Even if I don’t agree with all of it.
How do we make our churches more like this? How do we convince people to make Jesus more of priority in their lives? How do we make church less of a ritual and more of an opportunity to know Jesus better? How do we convince people to leave the church building behind but continue to seek Jesus throughout the week?
I don’t have all the answers on how to fix it. But I can look back over my own church experiences and see patterns that aren’t good. I can begin to have conversations with people about their experiences and the patterns they’ve seen. Maybe together God can show us a better way.
But it’s difficult to have these kinds of conversations because there seems to be an unwritten rule that says if you have a grievance against leadership in a church that can’t be worked out then you are the problem, not the leader. And, if that’s the case, then you shouldn’t talk about it with anyone else in the church because you might lead them astray, cause them to stumble, or worse – cause a church split.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that we do need to start talking about these things. There are too many wounded people coming out of church wondering if (A. God is just an imaginary being because how could God be represented by those people or (B. God could really love them or use them because they are obviously way more messed up than the other people in that church. And I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.
In Acts 20, Paul speaks to the overseers of God’s flock. The leaders. He says,
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (vs 28).
And in 1 Peter 5, Peter tells the elders. The leaders.
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (vs 1-3).
So according to both Paul and Peter, leaders of the church should:
Willingly keep watch over their people.
Be chosen or called by the Holy Sprit to be an overseer.
Be shepherds to the people.
Be eager to serve.
They are NOT supposed pursue dishonest gain.
They are NOT supposed to be “lording it over” those God has entrusted to them.
The verses above are from the NLT. And because I’m a word nerd, I like to dig a little deeper behind words. To save you from a really long post on the words in these verses, here they are again in The Passion Translation and the Amplified Translation.
1 Peter 5: 1-3 TPT
Now, I encourage you as an elder, an eyewitness of the sufferings of Christ, and one who shares in the glory that is about to be unveiled. I urge my fellow elders among you to be compassionate shepherds who tenderly care for God’s flock and who feed them well, for you have the responsibility to guide, protect, and oversee. Consider it a joyous pleasure and not merely a religious duty. Lead from the heart under God’s leadership—not as a way to gain finances dishonestly but as a way to eagerly and cheerfully serve. Don’t be controlling tyrants but lead others by your beautiful examples to the flock.
1 Peter 5:1-3 Amp
Therefore, I strongly urge the elders among you [pastors, spiritual leaders of the church], as a fellow elder and as an eyewitness [called to testify] of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory that is to be revealed: shepherd and guide and protect the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not [motivated] for shameful gain, but with wholehearted enthusiasm; not lording it over those assigned to your care [do not be arrogant or overbearing], but be examples [of Christian living] to the flock [set a pattern of integrity for your congregation].
Acts 20:28 TPT
So guard your hearts. Be true shepherds over all the flock and feed them well. Remember, it was the Holy Spirit who appointed you to guard and oversee the churches that belong to Jesus, the Anointed One, which he purchased and established by his own blood.
Acts 20:28 Amp
Take care and be on guard for yourselves and for the whole flock over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd (tend, feed, guide) the church of God which He bought with His own blood.
Looking back at my own history in church, I haven’t seen these qualities in very many leaders in the churches I’ve been in. I’ve seen it, rarely, in some of the people who serve. I’ve seen those serving in kid’s ministry who look and act like this. And I’ve seen it in hospitality. In all my experiences, I can think of maybe five people who fit these descriptions of a leader. None of them were pastors.
Does that mean I don’t think there are any pastors that fit this description? Nope. Do I see myself as this kind of leader? Nope. How then, can I make these claims?
I grew up in church. I am a self-proclaimed rule follower and proud of it. I was never a problem child, I aimed to please. I was quiet and obedient. My mom always served in some capacity, and so as soon as I was old enough, I also began serving in the church. I started in the nursery and preschool rooms. I participated in VBS, AWANA, and kid’s Bible studies.
As a teen, I continued helping with the babies and toddlers, went to camp, reluctantly performed skits and plays, and even led the youth worship band for a short time. I also wrote a play for pastor appreciation one year.
As a young adult, I still worked with the kids, went to women’s events, prayer groups, and volunteered behind the scenes to help put events together. With all my involvement in church, you’d think I would have eventually felt like I belonged, like I had friends and a community. But I never did. Instead, I saw those who served in the church walking away wounded. Over, and over, and over. And I was one of their number.
I don’t put full blame on leadership. I can’t say for certain what drove other people away because we’re not allowed to talk about those things in church. But I'm observant. I also recently realized I’m an empath. Being quiet, observant, and able to feel what others are feeling can reveal a lot about people without a lot of effort. I knew there were people in certain roles who weren’t happy. I didn’t know why. And most of the time, those people ended up stepping down from their positions, and soon after that, would stop coming to church.
I only recently discovered I had some trauma that clouded my perceptions as a young person. This played a part in my ability to feel connection with people. I know that now. I didn’t know that then. I also know that many people involved in leadership did not, and still do not know how to help people who are struggling with unseen and unknown issues like I had.
Leaders are human. They aren’t perfect. But I also think we’ve set up our churches in a way that gives certain leaders too much power. Power they aren’t meant to hold. Leadership accountability is something I see that’s lacking. Either the church leadership has an accountability team that is scattered throughout the country and not nearby to see the day-to-day workings of the ministry. The leadership accountability team is all handpicked by the pastor to ensure they support him and his decisions. Or the accountability team is non-existent.
Galatians 2:11-14 When Peter came to Antioch, I told him face to face that he was wrong. He used to eat with Gentile followers of the Lord, until James sent some Jewish followers. Peter was afraid of the Jews and soon stopped eating with Gentiles. He and the others hid their true feelings so well that even Barnabas was fooled. But when I saw they were not really obeying the truth that is in the good news, I corrected Peter in front of everyone and said: Peter, you are a Jew, but you live like a Gentile. So how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?
Paul corrected Peter. Publicly. And then he wrote to the church to explain what he'd done so they wouldn't be confused. When do we see leaders in the church being corrected? I don’t think I ever have. I’ve seen leaders apologize for certain things occasionally, which is great, but mostly I see leaders needing to look like they’ve got it all together. All. The. Time. This is not realistic. It’s not authentic. It’s not fair to the leadership and it’s not fair to the people in the church.
The overseers are supposed to lead by example. People struggle with stuff. All people. We all get things wrong. We all need correcting. How can leaders expect people in the church to accept correction if the leaders never need correcting?
I have problems, yes. Every human does. But I, a fellow human being who believes Jesus died on the cross to save me from sin, am not the problem with church. And yet, despite being involved in every way I possibly could, I still wasn’t accepted into a church community. A place where I felt I belonged. A place that felt at home where I could let down my walls and truly be myself. Instead, I found myself wounded and bruised and wondering what was wrong with me.
Some of that was from my own stuff. Some of it was people in the church who made me feel as though I was more broken than they were. It took me a really long time, and a lot of heart ache to realize I wasn’t broken in the ways they were telling me I was. Maybe in a corporate church service hearing a message along with the rest of the congregation I was fed and guided. But one on one, behind the scenes, where life was actually happening… I was confused, hurt, searching, and trying to match what I heard on Sunday morning with what I was experiencing. And I wasn’t allowed to talk about any of it with anyone except the leadership who didn’t listen.
To Be Continued...