28 Years – Half Way There?

That’s how long I’ve been doing this whole ‘pastor’ thing… the longest I have done anything for. It actually even sounds like a long time doesn’t it?

Before becoming a pastor I was a Phys ed teacher for 9 years. Phys Ed teaching was great – I loved my time at Kingsway and at Scarborough (my first year at Wagin was a hard year and a super sharp learning curve!) but after those 9 years I’d kinda had enough. At that time I was a part time teacher and part time youth pastor at Scarborough Baptist – both were 3 day roles and both were ‘exploding’ jobs.

If you loved your job, as I did back then then you could just keep working and working and working…  and I did just that. I had a pretty high capacity for work, but my marriage didn’t have anywhere near the same capacity and Danelle and I nearly parted company on a few occasions. In 1996 I finally gave teaching away and went back to study again – this time a theology degree while I continued to work part time as a pastor.

I spent the next 7 years at Lesmurdie Baptist church in a youth pastor role for 5 years before transitioning to a senior leadership role in 2001. I never really felt like a pastor for most of my first 12 years in church leadership and it was only in that final part of my time at Lesmurdie that it dawned on me why. I had never set out to be a pastor – but to be a missionary – an overseas missionary in the Philippines. It was just that things didn’t quite go to plan in that venture and I ended up working in my own church with young people.

In the final two years of time at Lesmurdie my vocation as a missionary was rekindled via a prophetic message and also a rather serendipitous adventure to join the Forge crew. That ‘calling’ sparked in ways I wasn’t ready for, culminating in a sharp resignation and a new venture.

In 2003 we headed off to plant a church in Butler. I was going to be a local missionary (and hence this blog was born). I also went back to teaching at Kingsway because we needed me to get a job, but I just didn’t have the passion for it. In fact it was a terrible grind and not good for me or the school. They didn’t renew my contract and I wouldn’t have signed it if they had.

For around 6 years I led our team at Upstream as we tried to plant a church and figure out suburban mission. It was harder than I had anticipated – but that’s another story… In that era I did some work with Forge, as both state director and then national director for a spell. I also did some coaching work for the Baptist churches – spending time with youth pastors and trying to help them get focused in ministry as well a discussing the challenges it brought. Both of those roles were hugely fulfilling, although the constant need to raise funds for the Forge role often left me drained. Towards the end of our Upstream era I began a hobby business in reticulation and spent a few hours a week trying to make some money in that space. I started to really enjoy the challenge of both physical work and the problem solving required in the retic game.

With Upstream winding up we took self funded long service in 2009 and travelled around Oz for 6 months, thinking that the $250K we had invested while we were gone was going to return 40% and we would come home better off than when we left. The GFC came along and instead of making 100K we lost the lot. That was a bummer because it was borrowed money…

We came back to a new role, leading Quinns Baptist Church and it felt like a good fit. Danelle and I were the ‘senior pastors’ and ready for a new challenge. Leading a church that came ready made with 2 rival factions (unbeknownst to us) was harder than we anticipated and it took 2 years before we started to see any green shoots of hope.

In those early days I didn’t think we would last 10 years in this role. It began difficult and got harder. But then after bottoming out we turned a corner and began to establish a core of good people committed to the mission of the church in the area. From around 2012 onwards the church began to feel healthy and like it had purpose. We began to enjoy our roles – thankfully.

It was good to have my reticulation business running alongside the church as it kept me earthed in the everyday lives of a range of people – many of whom were local. That sense of missionary vocation has never once waned – a dream of seeing Australian people come to an experience of Jesus and his kingdom that transforms them and the world around them. But interestingly these days I have started to feel more like an actual pastor for the first time in 28 years. By that I mean that I have genuine deep love for the people God has put me in community with. When someone hurts I feel it. When a family leaves its painful. When someone has a win I feel the need to celebrate with them.

Maybe it’s a maturity thing – maybe it’s a longevity thing. I dunno. In the last year we planted a church again and I’m happy to call myself one of the pastors – because I am. I now intentionally and happily  ‘pastor’ whereas before I used to leave it those who were more gifted and that way inclined.

As I look to the future I can feel my body wearing out – my knees and back are both fairly cactus from 10 years of hard labour – but my sense of calling to lead and plant churches is as strong as its ever been.

My hope is that with 28 years down I am about halfway in this ‘pastoring’ thing – yeah I don’t have ‘retirement plans’, and my hope is that the best is yet to come.

I never set out to be a pastor – just a phys ed teacher… But here I am – and with no regrets.


Ride Upon The Storm – Watch It!

Growing up in a pastor’s home brings with it all sorts of challenges and often our children are faced with expectations that are beyond those of any other kid their age. But imagine it was expected that (as a son anyway) you would not only choose to embrace your parents’ faith as your own, but that you would follow in their vocation.

That is the premise of a simply brilliant SBS series I have just finished watching. Ride Upon the Storm is a Danish series based around the life of the Krogh family. Johannes Krogh, a mid 50’s priest in the state church in Denmark is the central figure in the show and over the course of two seasons we are given an insight into the life of their family.

Johannes is a passionate man who seems to ‘believe’ the tenets of faith even if he struggles to put them into practice. His greatest flaw is his incendiary anger, flaring at the slightest issue and fighting dirty when he doesn’t get his way. He is a bully and a thug, but it isn’t who he wants to be. Add to this an element of philandering and a problem with alcohol and he becomes a very strong, but also very broken man – who in his own brokenness proceeds to destroy others.

The series opens with Johannes’ son, August wandering thru the family home and finding his grandfather praying passionately in tongues – not a Lutheran staple. He is confused and somewhat disturbed by this. Johann sees him peering into the room, grabs him and insists he ‘never speak of this’. It’s a family trait to never speak of hard things – which is why Johannes is so lost and why his family is in tatters around him. Early in episode 1 Johannes puts himself forward for the bishop’s role in his local area, only to be beaten by Monica. He is utterly devastated but again he will not speak of how he feels – he expresses it in other ways. As the series progresses and Johannes relationship with his sons implodes even further he even goes to the gym and pays a sparring partner to hit him ‘really hard – but not in the head’. He gets himself beaten up as a way of dealing with his anger and pain.

Spoiler alert – some of this may open the storyline up a little…

Johannes has two sons – August who decides to be an Army chaplain and Christian who cheats on his final university thesis and ends up quite lost. In a trip overseas Christian meets a Buddhist and he pursues Buddhism for a time much to Joannes disgust. August has the devastating experience of shooting an innocent woman in the heat of battle while overseas and he suffers dreadful PTSD (but he doesn’t speak of it or the killing). With all that baggage August finishes up pursuing a priesthood in one of the local churches where he finds himself questioning much of his faith, while Christian turns his Buddhist convictions into a profitable self help program – an irony he becomes aware of eventually.

The women in the show are victims of the inherited brokenness and their lives are destroyed by men who are unable to articulate their struggles and their darkness.

Alongside the family drama is the theme of how secularism is impacting on religion. The church Johannes serves is shrinking and those working in the church view their ‘jobs’ as just that – jobs. Johannes comments with disgust that ‘belief in God is no longer a prerequisite for entering ministry training. One of the disused church buildings in the area is put up for sale and despite strong and (very politically incorrect) protests from Johannes it is bought by Muslims. Although they too have their struggles with some of the Muslim characters clearly not buying into their faith as strongly as they may have previously. Christian’s homecoming after his ‘awakening’ thru Buddhism quickly translates into writing a book that sells well, that precipitates a company that specialises in self help and achieving your dreams. His Buddhist mentor observes and says words to the effect of ‘how very western of you – to take Buddhism and make it a commodity’.

Of course it is SBS so expect a lesbian affair between Johannes wife Elisabeth and another woman, as well as the question of how to manage gay marriage in a church context.

I loved this show for its gritty, realistic portrayal of a family destroyed by inherited expectations and generational demons. I appreciated the insight into how a ‘state’ run church functions and the shape of faith in the Scandanavian area. It wanes a little in the final few episodes but gets there in the end. If you don’t mind reading a TV show then give it a shot!

Vale Smithy

As a young bloke in his late teens and early twenties I often found myself frustrated with the state of the church – with our ineffectual evangelism and our moderating of Jesus’ words to suit a middle class climate.

I remember sitting with my pastor once – opening the book of Acts and reading some of it to him – then saying literally ‘what’s changed?’ I was full fire and fury and a little lacking in grace and wisdom… ok more than a little. But I dreamt of more for the church. I still do.

So when a prophet came to town and said the things no one else dared to say (and who also lived his message courageously) I hung on his every word. Back in the day I would have walked over hot coals to hear Smithy speak and his teaching from Acts 17 still resonates in my ears as one of the most inspirational calls to mission I had ever heard.

I just got home from work and opened Facebook to see a mate’s post indicating that John Smith (Smithy) had died. I had just lent his life story DVD to a friend last week saying ‘check this out – here is a man who inspired me and his story is worth hearing’.

He is best known for being the founder of the God Squad – a motorcycle club that positioned themselves for mission amongst the outlaw motorcycle gangs – places angels fear to tread. He was an amazing Bible teacher, pioneering missionary and a genuine prophet, who at times had some brilliant insights.

I vividly remember him being invited to a Christian schools conference only to hear him unload with full fury on those who would segregate their kids from the rest of the world. I’m guessing that wasn’t what they asked him to say, but he said it anyway… I don’t remember him being asked back.

I remember his thought provoking spots on the radio – where he would call people to think about some aspect of faith in an engaging way. He always ended with ‘this is John Smith…’ And as I listened I thought ‘one day I’d like to do that.’ The stuff I do now on radio was modelled on his straight talking, but culturally sensitive approach.

The last time I saw Smithy was at a Uniting Church conference where I was the main speaker on the subject of mission in the western world. I had no idea he was going to be there and when I heard I must admit it rattled me a little. Here was I going to speak to a group of people on the subject of mission with one of the Aussie gurus on the subject sitting in the crowd.

He sat two rows back and smiled and cheered me on as I spoke. At the end he shook my hand and gave me some great words of encouragement.  I needn’t have felt nervous – but when one of your teen heroes is sitting right there its hard not to.

So Smithy’s gone and the world has been the richer for this sharp thinking, courageous and straight talking man of God.

The Spiritual Discipline of Showing Up

I was chatting with a mate this morning about what was going on in his church and he let me know he wasn’t sure as he hadn’t been that often lately – maybe fortnightly – maybe less often…

I asked why.

Because some days you’re tired, you’ve had a full on week, need a break etc. I’m sure you know the deal. Most of us wake up on Sunday morning with some sense of weariness and entitlement to an easy day. After all – it is a day of rest right?…

There was a point in my life (maybe 20-30 years ago) where I would have encouraged him to listen to that inner voice saying ‘slow down’… ‘take it easy’ because so many people I knew were busy with church activities and church itself had often become a dutiful commitment. He may not have made it on Sunday but he was gonna be at 3 other church events that week!

Not so these days.

So my response was a hefty push back to seeing participating in the church experience as an important and significant spiritual discipline. (We had been talking about other disciplines of engaging scripture and prayer, so that was the context of the conversation).

It used to be a ‘given’ that we would turn up every week to worship with the church family, but more recently it has become one option among many. In those days when church often felt  ritualistic and routine and we sometimes attended weekly out of duty or fear of being visited by the pastor, it was important to show people freedom and encourage them to discover anew the joy of Christian community. But the ground has changed and now it’s much more common to ‘attend as we are able’. . And in that new context it’s all too easy to mistake genuine weariness for laziness, to have a little more ‘me time’ than perhaps is warranted and eventually to turn up to church every now and then.

Even for the faithful ‘every Sunday’ can seem like a lot. But I am sensing we need to shift our thinking around church gatherings to see them as a key part of our spiritual disciplines – to ‘turn up’ whether we feel like it or not (like we do with footy practice and other sports) partly because its good for us and it is forming us in ways we may not see, but also because when we don’t turn up we actually deprive the community of our presence and our input.

My encouragement to my friend was to see Sunday church as an almost unbreakable deal, to be there every week, but not just to turn up and digest some teaching and be inspired by some great worship music – but to go there asking ‘God what do you want of me in this space today?’

When we are ‘irregular attendees’ rather than part of the family the church will feel unfamiliar, we will not be in the loop of the community life and more than likely we will go as consumers rather than contributors.

But the value of the church experience is found being in it rather than sniffing at it from the fringes. A few weeks back we said goodbye to a family who were moving interstate and there were tears all round – not because any of us are particularly emotional people – but simply because we loved on another and had shared life for a significant time.

I want to be able to be part of a community where I am elated when things go well for people and I feel it deeply when there is sorrow, but it only happens by turning up and choosing to be intentional about being part of the family.

I never thought I’d write a post saying ‘you should go to church more often’, but in this current climate I think you should… An important factor in that call is the realisation that for most people their Sunday interaction is likely their only church engagement for the week (we no longer run anywhere near as hard as we used to).

And as with all disciplines don’t quit if the results don’t immediately wow you. It takes time and it takes genuine discipline to participate (more than just attend) and to become a part of the family.