Speaking Softly and Carrying a Big Stick

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick, was a phrase President Teddy Roosevelt used in a letter in 1900. It was in reference to a philosophy of foreign policy but has been used by many since then in all kinds of situations. From what I understand the meaning is that you should use as gentle and non-aggressive an approach as possible but also have available the power and authority to have your own way if the mild method doesn’t work.

I was a pastor in a Congregational church my entire pastoral career where the people have a major say in what happens, usually expressed by a vote, as to what they, or at least a majority of them, want for the church. I recall many a congregational meeting where I sat in the pew with most of the congregation, tense and anxiously waiting, as a few trusted souls were off in another room counting the paper ballots of the voting members on a crucial issue.

On such occasions, and others too, I found myself wishing I had more authority, more power, so that things would go the way I believed they should. Generally pastors can’t bark out orders; we’re supposed to use a softer, loving, gentler, what could be called a pastoral approach (an approach we know our congregation also is most comfortable with), but the fantasy of being able to carry a big stick (perhaps a cub?) was, nevertheless, often present for me. That’s the fantasy, but the fact is, I know that’s not the way to pastor!

Oh, we pastors are called to carry a big stick, but not a club, rather a staff, the shepherd’s crook. It’s not a stick to clobber people but one to care for people. Sure, sometimes the shepherd flipped it end for end and used the straight end for a club, a rod, but not on the sheep. Used as a rod it was a defensive weapon against the enemies of the flock under his care.

It seems to me that whenever we pastors start thinking about our power, how to guarantee that we have a significant amount of it or lament that we don’t have enough of it, we’re experiencing pastoral slippage, a drifting from our calling.

The people of the church don’t want to see their pastor as being manipulative. Besides, they can easily vote against being manipulated! The people of the church want to trust their pastor, and my experience is that they’re most open to change when the level of trust and a sense of safety is greater than the perceived risks of change. This level of trust and sense of safety ultimately comes from the pastor and, even more specifically, from the pastor’s heart.

That shepherd of sheep and greatest king of Israel, David, penned these poetic words, referring to the Lord as his shepherd, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The “stick” we carry as an under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd is to bring comfort.

As pastors we must guard our hearts from being power hungry. After all, we’re not manipulators but ministers. Yes, we’re to speak softly and carry a big stick, but that big stick is to be the shepherd’s staff!

Eggs and Baskets

eggsbasketsSmallI frequently combine my two interests of photography and writing devotional literature in what I call photovotionals, a photograph of mine upon which I base a devotional thought. Pictured here are two baskets, each containing eggs. It illustrates the old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

As a grandfather if I wanted to have the help of a grandchild in carrying a dozen eggs I’d enlist the help of two grandchildren and let each carry half of them. I’d have a better chance of enjoying eggs for breakfast; the chances of both children dropping the eggs seems a better risk than letting one child carry them all. I suspect this is the principle behind the practice of the president and vice-president of the United States never flying on the same plane.

A good financial policy is to have a diversified portfolio. If one company or one industry falls on hard times you’re not going to be ruined financially.

It seems to me that the principle of not putting all of our eggs in one basket also applies to those of us in pastoral ministry. Having retired in my 40th year of ministry at one church I can now see, with something close to 20/20 hindsight, that I’m glad I didn’t put all my eggs in the basket of being a pastor. God has blessed me with a great many interests. Throughout my pastoral ministry I also had an active writing ministry. No, I’m not a best selling author, but I wrote a weekly inspirational newspaper column for my hometown paper and a local paper in the area where I served as pastor. Along with my flock of people at the church I served I also enjoyed the hobby of raising a small flock of chickens. I also enjoyed photography, maintaining a decorative fish pond, and ventriloquism.

So much of pastoral ministry seems to be out of our control, and so I found some solace in spending some time in other things over which I felt I could have more control. Although it’s hard to lead a flock of chickens! It’s not that they have their own minds, it’s that they don’t have minds…OK, very tiny ones. I could take the pictures I wanted to, and when it comes to ventriloquism my vent figure Ricky only said what I wanted him to say!

If we as pastors put all of our focus, all of our energy, all of our identity in being a pastor, then we’re setting ourselves up for a devastating experience. We should put our emotional eggs in more than one basket, into many baskets. The Lord Himself should be the biggest basket of all, having a relationship with Him apart from ministering for Him and with Him. If we’re married and have a family we have two more baskets that we should be filling. I believe it’s very good for a pastor to have a sideline ministry; writing was mine. For some pastors the outside ministry might be as a chaplain for a hospital, police force, fire department, nursing home, or as military chaplain as is the case with my successor at the church I served. We tell our congregation that they can minister in many different ways; we can model that for them.

If the basket of pastoral ministry is the only basket into which we put our emotional eggs we can easily end up a basket case! I have found the old adage to be true: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

The Unknown Pastor

The unknown comic 2The “Unknown Comic” wore a grocery bag over his head with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth. He appeared frequently on the Gong Show. Comic Rodney Dangerfield always lamented he didn’t get any respect, but Murray Langston gets little recognition. That’s the real name of the “unknown comic” which I, of course, didn’t know; after all he’s billed himself as the unknown comic!

It has been said that God must love common people, because He’s made so many. God must also love relatively unknown pastors, because he’s called so many of us to be just that!

This, of course, does not mean we’re unimportant or have little to contribute to God’s kingdom. I know this to be true. But do I really believe this of myself and of other pastors?

It’s time for true confession. If I don’t know the conference speaker, book author, or blogger, in other words, if the person is not famous, I tend to skip the conference session, look for a different book or move on to another blog. Why? Does being well-known give the person the credentials to speak or write truth, and does being a virtual unknown disqualify the person from speaking or writing truth into my life?

The answer is, of course not. What makes it all the more ironic is that I’m one of those virtually unknown pastors and writers. My ministry was never profiled in a major Christian magazine, nor did I lead church conferences. My books and blogs have never hit the stratosphere. (I commend you for reading this blog from an “unknown writer.”)

We need to encourage one another and allow God to speak truth to each of us through each other. Most of us aren’t going to be a disciple like Peter, James, or John. Of the twelve, the one we know the least about is James the Less. We can assume, however, that though he gets no ink in the New Testament pages he carried out his apostolic calling nonetheless. He presumably never wore a paper bag over his head, but he certainly could be called the “unknown apostle.” Perhaps he should be our patron saint!

The Vindication of Ministry

vindicationWe all know that some people go home from Sunday services and have roasted pastor for dinner. Some people believe that complaining is a spiritual gift! By God’s grace we pastors never hear most of the critical comments people make of us. There are times, however, when we hear it through the grapevine. Then too, there are those memorable times when people criticize us to our face (which is better than behind our back). Sometimes they don’t ask for a private appointment to air their grievances (which is the Biblical way) but choose a time when they have an audience, like at a congregational meeting!

I recall the time when three of the men from my church decided they had to confront me about how I was handling an issue. I’m sure they saw themselves as the three wise men. I, however, saw them as the Three Stoog… OK, that’s not a good direction to go for a person who is continuing to work on his sanctification! Ultimately two out of the three spoke up at the special congregational meeting. They were handed a wireless microphone, which allowed them to pace and roam as they questioned my ability to lead as pastor.

By God’s grace I was able to resist the temptation to defend myself. I sought to follow Jesus’ example and remain silent before my accusers. It was a wise choice. Months later, after reconciliation with one of the men, he told me, “While I was ranting and raving I could see in the people’s eyes that I had lost them.” Actually, again by God’s grace, I was reconciled with all three men, two along with their families returned to the church after leaving for a season, the other man and his family found another church home, but we’ve been cordial with each other when we’ve happened to meet.

I’ve come to believe that when God calls us to a course of action for which we are criticized He does not expect us to defend ourselves. As the apostle Paul writes, Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

I’ve learned that I don’t have to defend my ministry. (He who defends himself has a fool for a lawyer!) I seek to hold to the conviction that the Lord will vindicate me. That’s why my prayer when I’m tempted to defend myself echoes the words of the psalmist. The Lord will vindicate me; your love, Lord, endures forever— do not abandon the works of your hands.” (Psalm 138:8)

A number of the psalms speak to this theme of allowing God to vindicate. The entire Psalm 35 focuses on this theme. In a portion of that psalm the writer declares, “Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent. Do not be far from me, Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord.” (Psalm 35:22-23) Part of the faith we need in ministry is to believe that God will vindicate us!

God and Efficiency

TurtleTimeI’m not convinced God ever calls someone to be an efficiency expert as a profession. OK, maybe I can’t be sure about that, but it does seem to me that God has little interest in efficiency. I see proof of this in His creation.

Look at a maple tree, oak tree, or cottonwood tree and you’ll see seemingly gazillions of whirlybirds, acorns, and flying cottonwood seeds. Sure, there needs to be enough seeds to find the right conditions to produce new trees, but that many? God’s creation is filled with such examples of extravagance. Beauty and diversity are two such huge areas. Why didn’t God stick to making plants and animals with few variations and functionally mundane appearances?

I also see proof of God’s lack of interest in efficiency in the special revelation of the Bible. In all of my years of studying the Bible I can’t recall any passage that shows God to be interested in efficiency or calling His people to efficiency. In other words, if I had to deliver a speech to an audience of efficiency experts, I’d be hard pressed to find a Biblical passage to base it on!

I share all of this because it relates to my experience as a pastor in one place for 39 plus years; in retrospect it seems He called me to “waste time” on many occasions. I believe He frequently called me to spend significant time with people who would never, in my humble estimation, return the investment by being a more active contributor to the church’s life. This does not surprise me. Jesus spent much of His preciously short time of three years of public ministry healing and helping those who are never mentioned again in the New Testament, people who apparently didn’t make a big, measurable mark on the early church. One time Jesus healed a man who was then thrown out of the temple. The Gospel states, Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him…” (John 9:35) Time on earth was running out for Jesus, and here He goes and traipses after a nondescript guy treated badly by a few others.

Corporations make much of everyone in their employ being efficient. The Kingdom of God is not a corporation. An implication of this fact is that there’s a real danger in taking corporate principles and automatically applying them to the church. We are, after all, pastors, not CEOs. In many ways God’s kingdom is topsy-turvy to how the business world operates; the importance of efficiency is one such area.

Does this mean we’re never to ask ourselves if we’re making wise use of our time? Of course not. Balance is the key. If we can find someone else to move the tables and chairs then it’s probably wise to do so, leaving us time to do that which the movers and shakers of tables and chairs aren’t gifted or called to do. On the other hand, we might have some of our best conversations while we work with our parishioners at setting up a room for a meeting.

For decades I served coffee at our annual fish fries at the church. It offered me countless opportunities to connect with people, especially people who enjoyed the Friday night physical food at the church but didn’t show up for the spiritual food on Sunday. Would I have better served the church by staying in my church office, studying and strategizing during those hours? I don’t think so.

Efficiency may have a place in ministry, but it doesn’t hold the number one place. The top priority is to be open to God’s calling, and that may not always lend itself to efficiency.

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor. And they rebuked her harshly. Leave her alone,said Jesus. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.‘” (Mark14:3-9)

A Humble Heart

towelbowelI’ve read a number of books by Andrew Murray (1828-1917) on my tablet because ebooks by Murray are cheap to download (some only 99 cents). OK, that’s a distant secondary reason. The first reason is that his writings are still full of insight these many years later. Murray was the son of missionaries to South Africa where he lived and ministered most of his life. He was a pastor and writer, having written an astonishing number of books, 240, one of which I just finished, Humility.

I’ve always been humble, so really didn’t need to read this book. Oops! OK, I did need to read this book. I realized that I give mental acknowledgment and verbal affirmation to the importance of humility, but it was Murray’s book that helped my heart to be more open to being humbled.

For those of us who pastor people there’s no better place to tend to our pastor’s heart than to reflect on the subject of humility. Murray writes of the importance of humility for the professional Christian worker. “We may find professors and ministers, evangelists and workers, missionaries and teachers, in whom the gifts of the Spirit are many and manifest, and who are the channels of blessing to multitudes, but of whom, when the testing comes… it is only to painfully manifest that the grace of humility, as an abiding characteristic, is scarce to be seen.” (page 19) We can be very gifted workers in God’s kingdom, but if we come across as prideful as over against being seen as humble our ministry won’t ring true with people. Then, too, if we want God’s help and not His opposition, we need to work on this area. God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (James 4:6)

Murray unpacks a great deal about humility in his small volume. We don’t normally think of humility as being an attribute of God’s, but Murray reminds the reader how Jesus was truly humble in coming to earth as one of us, lived humbly, and humbled Himself to the point of dying for us. Jesus taught a great deal about humility. For instance, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

Jesus had to help His disciples grapple with the need to be humble, for instance, when the sons of Zebedee and their mom asked Jesus for the boys to be at the head of the class of the twelve. The remaining ten disciples were really ticked at the two, so, obviously, they had as much work to do on the subject of humility as the two. If the original twelve needed to attend to the subject of humility then it’s probably a good bet it needs to be addressed in our lives as well.

Murray points out an aspect of humility that I’ve frequently overlooked. “Humility is often identified with penitence and contrition. As a consequence, there appears to be no way of fostering humility but by keeping the soul occupied with its sin. We have learned, I think, [through reading thus far through his book] that humility is something else and something more. We have seen in the teaching of our Lord Jesus and the Epistles how often virtue is inculcated without any reference to sin. In the very nature of things, in the whole relation of creature to the Creator, in the life of Jesus as He lives it and imparts it to us, humility is the very essence of holiness as of blessedness. It is the displacement of self by the enthronement of God. Where God is all, self is nothing.” (page 31) Our sin humbles us, but another marvelous method of God humbling us is when we become freshly aware of how awesome God is and yet how willing He is to stoop down to us in love!

There is no better way to conclude this post than to give Mr. Murray the final word. “Reckon humility to be indeed the mother-virtue, your very first duty before God, the one perpetual safeguard of the soul, and set your heart upon it as the source of all blessing.” (page 50)

I’m re-reading the passages I’ve highlighted in Murray’s book, Humility. I need a second exposure to this all-important subject of humility as Murray unpacks it.

Clark Kent or Superman?


Hanging in my closet is the robe and hood I wore when leading worship and preaching for many years at the church I served as pastor for 39+ years. I didn’t always wear the robe. Before air conditioning the summers in the sanctuary were too hot. Then we added a contemporary service; with a backdrop of drums and guitar the robe was not appropriate, though I still wore it in the traditional service.


I’m now retired, and when I look at my robe in the closet I feel a little like Clark Kent must have felt when he came back to his apartment at the end of the day from working as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper and viewed his Superman costume hanging in his closet. (I know, Clark was able to transform into Superman wherever he was, but in one episode we saw a Superman costume in Clark’s closet.) I no longer zoom around trying to be a super pastor; I am now living the life of a mild mannered retired pastor.

OK, so we pastors know we can’t be all things to all people as pastors and please all the people all the time. Being a super pastor isn’t our call from God, we get that, most of the time. I know, however, I was tempted to try to be that super pastor.

I recall the time Marlene called me in a panic and said her husband had fallen in the garage and couldn’t get up. My office at the church was just a few blocks from their home so I rushed over there, probably had him sitting back up in a folding chair in the garage within two minutes after she called. I kidded her that I really could use a flashing light on top of my car! I’m glad I was able to help, but I’ll also admit to feeling a little bit of the super pastor at the moment.

I’m thinking that once in a while we might need a couple of reminders as to why we’re to be a mild mannered pastor and not a super hero pastor. First, we know, as did John the Baptist, that Christ must increase and we must decrease. If we try to be a super pastor we’re going to inhibit people from depending on us less and on Christ more. Second, we know we can’t live up to the super hero role. Sooner or later the kryptonite gets to us and we’ll be weak and broken before our people.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth concerning how he had ministered among them, a good approach, it seems to me, for all of us who come to God’s people as His pastor. “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

We may or may not wear a robe in the tradition in which we serve as pastor, but most pastors, I suspect, find themselves wearing the clerical vestments of the role. The more the clerical vestments of the super pastor can hang in the closet and the more we can be mild mannered Clark Kent the better!


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