Saturday, April 25, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong

(Part Seven of an ongoing series. Starts with the important stuff -- in prior posts below)

Redefining My Identity

My tongue-in-cheek explanation for my career path goes like this: "There are two groups of people in the world I don’t really trust . . . pastors and lawyers. And I have decided to be both of those at some point during my life."

Needless to say, there are many trustworthy people in both of those professions, notwithstanding my sarcastic humor.

But explanation above sums up my professional journey to this point in my life.

At the end of high school, I set out to get an undergraduate degree in journalism and then go on to law school and become an attorney. I enjoyed public speaking and writing, so studying journalism and law seemed like a logical path for me to take. A good friend of mine was also planning the same course of study. We were heading off to Indiana University together to pursue similar endeavors.

Then I had my spiritual high on the airplane on the way back from Honduras, and everything changed. I was instead preparing to be a pastor of some sort.

But a few years into church work, I had a shift in my understanding of who I was. Instead of understanding my identity as that of a pastor caring for a group of people, I began understanding my identity as that of a missionary to the increasingly postmodern culture of North America. I realized this really was not a “vocational” calling at all – it was really something much larger, much more personal, and much more central to my identity as a person than it was a professional issue. It was not so much about how I went about making a living as it was about who I was.

The Moment It Hit Me

I remember the exact moment when I fully realized this. I was vacationing with my wife on Marco Island, in southwest Florida. It was a glorious, carefree, sunsplashed afternoon. I was sitting in a Jacuzzi overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, relaxing, reflecting, and spending time in solitude with God when a light bulb went on in my head. For the first time, I suddenly understood quite clearly who I was.

I understood that I was a missionary to the postmodern world, and I could be that whether a church signed my paycheck or another kind of enterprise signed my paycheck. It was a strange realization: one second I didn’t see it, then next second it was clear to me, and I have never doubted it since. I was to be a missionary to the postmodern world regardless of what I did for a living. The whole idea of being a vocational church leader suddenly seemed surprisingly secondary to my identity. My new understanding of identity was not in any way dependent on whether I worked for a church or not.

But What Else Could I Do?

This realization, or revelation, or whatever it was, raised a troubling question for me: what would I do for a living if I wasn’t a “vocational” pastor? A seminary degree does not exactly prepare one for a wide variety of career opportunities, at least not in the eyes of potential employers. I was not skilled in any blue-collar trade, nor did I have the knack to pick up such a trade. I was a white collar person through and through. I was able to work with my mind, speaking, writing, organizing, and managing much better than I was able to work with my hands. But I lacked the requisite degree, training, and connections to enter another profession.

The only other career I had ever seriously considered pursuing was law. That was the career ambition I found laying in the back of my mind once I started asking the question of what else, other than being a vocational church leader, I had ever wanted to do. But I lacked a few essential things. First, I did not have a J.D., the doctoral level degree required for practicing law. Second, I was not licensed in any state to practice law. This all seemed overwhelming to me at first. But I could not help but wonder if it might be time to recapture the previous career ambition that I had abandoned almost fifteen years before.

My real motive was to have a reliable way to support my family while pursing my identity as a missionary to the postmodern world. The reality was that I was not sure that many existing churches would, or even should, pay me to pursue my vision of being a missionary to the post-modern world, especially the way that I understood that vision.

Seeking Advice, and Then Going For It

Within a few weeks of my Jacuzzi experience, I had met with a few friends of mine who were attorneys in Las Vegas, where I lived. I shared my convictions with them about my identity and about my re-discovered desire to peruse a legal career. I asked them about their experiences in attending law school. I asked them if I should attend law school, or if I should consider some simpler way to pursue a career in law, perhaps becoming a paralegal instead. Every attorney I spoke with sincerely encouraged me to go fully pursue my ambitions and to apply for admission into law school.

Six years later, I am now a practicing attorney in the State of Indiana. Everyone who has been part of my life has been surprised by this career transition I have made, for one reason or another. The people who knew me first as pastor Greg are amazed that I’ve crossed over to the supposed dark side and actually made this dramatic career shift. Other people, who know me primarily as attorney Greg, can’t believe I was formerly a bona fide man of the cloth, so to speak. I just smile and say, “There are two groups of people in the world who I don’t trust . . . .”

The Larger Debate

The reason that I have shared this story about my personal life is because it represents a debate which is much larger in scope than my career decision. Church leaders across the nation who have felt called to a simpler expression of church have frequently struggled over the issue of whether “pastors” should be full-time church professionals or bi-vocational leaders.

I spent a weekend in Colorado Springs several years ago meeting with a group of people from across North America who were practicing simple church in their homes. We met together for a few days to pray, share ideas, and wrestle with difficult questions. While we were wrestling with difficult questions, a debate of sorts broke out between some of us. It was good-natured debate, yet it was rather intense. Some of those in the meeting really felt it was best for the simple church planters and leaders to completely abandon their positions as paid clergy and work bi-vocationally instead. They felt that, as one author one put it, churches were much too tied to their buildings, budgets, and big shots (us paid pastors being the big shots). They felt strongly that it was time for us to return to a church that more closely resembled the church described in the book of Acts, where overseers oversaw but also held on to their vocations to support their own financial needs. To support their passionately-held position, those in the meeting argued from texts like:

“we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.” 1 Thessalonians 2: 9; and

“I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. So I will very gladly spend for your every thing I have and expend myself as well.” 2 Corinthians 12: 14-15.

They argued that if we ever wanted to get back to a simple, organic expression of church that more closely resembled family than business, then we had to lead the way by transforming our own understanding of leadership to more closely resemble parenting (which, last time I checked, is not a paying position) and less resemble a corporate CEO model.

However, there were other people in that weekend meeting who passionately debated the opposite position on the issue. They were convinced that because the New Testament provided direct precedent for the idea that spiritual leaders who devote their lives to Christian service deserve to make a living by doing so. They argued from texts like:

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worth of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the scripture says, 'Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,'" and "The worker deserves his wages.” 1 Timothy 5: 17-18.

They further argued that in today’s specialized world it only makes sense for all believers to give a portion of their income to support others who can devote themselves full-time to leading the church. They pointed out that paid church leadership can be traced back to the very early church, even if not to the original church plants in the book of Acts. They also argued that the idea of paid church leadership can actually be traced back into Old Testament times, if you allow yourself to see it that way. They argued that people whose hearts were right before God could lead, even though paid, in such a way that would not take advantage of their paid position. They reasoned that the obnoxious odor often left behind when church leaders plea for money is not so much derived from the idea of paying pastors as it is from those pastors who, by their attitudes and actions, have given it such a stench.

During the debate, I was Switzerland. That is, I remained neutral for the most part. I probably entered the meeting that day leaning toward the paid clergy position (after all, it was good for my livelihood to take that position at the time!). Yet looking back on that debate years later, I think it planted a seed in my heart that would grow toward the opposite conviction. It was the beginning of my suspicion that it might be good for the church if a good many of its leaders, or at least me, would strongly consider leading without the benefit of a regular paycheck. I began thinking of that as the ideal and wondering if I could ever live out that ideal in my own life.