Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Leadership in the Church of God

I ran across the following blog from my friend, now my new pastor, which I believe deserves a modest response in a different context. Jeff Eckman wrote his Midland congregation in the context of where they were at that time. He wrote, “While Studying for my sermon I was reminded why Democracy is not necessarily the leadership style of choice for God’s People.”

Jeff makes his point, in the context of their relationship, but I want to respond in a different context. Jeff continued, “Before you shoot me as a communist, remember that we live in a Republic, and though we often throw around the term “Democracy” and seem to be trying to create Democracy in other countries, this country is not one. Democracy means mass rule. Whatever the majority wants, the majority gets.  It doesn’t matter if the Majority is right or wrong, or whether what they want is the best thing for everyone (or anyone for that matter), they get what they want because they have a majority.

“When the children of Israel sent the 12 spies into the promised land to spy out the land and bring back a report, there we two spies who had faith that God would allow them to succeed if they followed him.  God had promised the land to the descendants of Abraham for hundreds of years.  God’s will was clear.  They were to move forward and conquer the land.  Unfortunately, what started as a fact-finding mission for strategy sake, turned into an opportunity for disobedience when the other 10 spies, talked about the giants in the land and all of the difficulties they would have if they moved forward.  Suddenly, moving forward to take the land, which was obviously the will of God, became negotiable, and the people chose not to go.  Democracy wins, but the people of God didn’t.

 “The vast majority of people in this world are not going to lead forward with vision and faith.  I believe God appoints leaders for that purpose, but if the system being used in the church functions as a democracy, those visionary leaders will almost always be overruled by those who are busy looking at the road blocks and not the opportunities.  These are good people mind you, and many of them will offer the excuse that they are simply counting the cost.  While it is important to plan and look forward, it is sometimes impossible to predict everything that the future holds, especially when you serve a God who can part the Red Sea.  Where God leads, He will provide a way, but the majority will very seldom vote to do what is challenging or difficult, and as a result they often reject the leading of their leaders in favor of the comfort of the status quo. For Israel, that meant wandering in the wilderness until an entire generation died off.

 “Only when we learn to trust and follow godly leaders, will we begin to move forward on God’s timetable. Mass rule WILL leave us disappointed in the desert” (emphasis added). I agree with Jeff’s conclusion, but I also see another perspective having grown up with what the church called “charismatic government” (our church polity). F. G. Smith was the great proponent of this, but, as it turns out, there came a day when Smith found his leadership challenged by a democratic surge that was the new Ministerial Assembly.

This “Assembly” challenged the old rule of the select few of the inner circle. It eventually replaced Smith as Editor of the Gospel Trumpet (with all the perks of being the ruling Bishop) and the new Editor, C. E. Brown, introduced a new era of democratic protocol in which the General Assembly assumed more responsibility and diversified the leadership roles. In the process of this happening, Smith introduced a measure to have his “writings” accepted as the official doctrine of the Church of God, a measure entirely contrary to all that Smith (and everyone else) taught through the years, a measure that would have been a great abuse of power.

It had been this same narrow sharing of leadership that had allowed Smith and Riggle to dominate the new Missionary Board which resulted in the unfortunate “firing” of one of our finest of missionaries, G. P. Tasker.

It was this same limiting of leadership that resulted in the autocratic release of a large group of local Church members in one of our church communities, which resulted in a schism (a worship war) in which the pastor created the changes he wanted for the congregation, but it resulted in a divided congregation with a new group hiving off, their community witness effectively damaged for years to come, and other unfortunate results.

Jeff is right; democracy is not the panacea, the cure-all of church polity, but the autocratic leadership with the corporate CEO as the model is not the answer either. I, for one, believe the role of pastor is a God-given gift to the church. On the other hand, I suggest that “God’s direction” is most often found within the collective wisdom of the people—the church body. The Spirit of God resides within that body known as the people of God, and while God always finds a Moses around somewhere in the process, God is by no means chained to the pulpit or confined to the clergy.

To say it another way, my most meaningful experiences as a pastor came not when I proclaimed my “thus saith the Lord” or when I prayed for a serious need or healing; rather, it came when we (pastor and congregation) mutually prayed, petitioned, sought guidance, and listened for the still small voice of God, and all obeyed.
We Americans tend to overrate Christian individualism and underrate the collective wisdom of the Church Body. From Warner’s World, this is 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Church in Transition

For the first time in my sixty+ years of ministry, I experienced something I always wanted to be part of but never had the privilege of directing.
For the past seventeen years I have, when in town, most often sat in the pew at North Avenue Church of God. I have enjoyed the richness of music that Brenda Gothberg displayed  by means of the Allen Organ. I have enjoyed the friendship of numerous worshippers, both old and new, many that I have known since coming to Battle Creek midway of 1973. Although I have often endured the blended worship, led by the Youth and Worship Pastor who is now the twenty-year veteran of the pastoral staff; I have learned to appreciate some of the “new music” while missing much of the more formal liturgy and more-traditional music. No-thing and no-one, however, has kept me nailed in my pew like this pastor, James Leslie Sparks. I love the way his mind works. I found his personal life not only instructive, but redeeming and transforming.

The retirement of Jim and Susan Sparks from pastoral ministry concludes nearly four decades of pastoral ministry, and brought nearly two decades of local  ministry to a stunning close. Pastor Sparks closed the worship service today by calling Jeff and Tori Eckman to the front, publically anointing them with oil, and praying for God’s anointing on them, and the congregations loving support—after personally and publically promising his fullest support in every way, financially—spiritually—mentally--emotionally.

The 2-5 p.m. Open House in Sickle Hall was well attended, complete with modest refreshments, after which the sanctuary filled to near capacity to enjoy the program emceed by Jim Sirks and master-minded by Mary Hirakis. It was full of laughter,as well as deep emotion. It was refreshing to witness the testimony of transformed lives from throughout Jim and Susan’s 40+ years in ministry. I visited with whomever I could and shared one final hug before relinquishing my pastor. Jim and I will remain colleagues in ministry, but on a different level - a new level of friendship more like that of those two old cronies in the bible, Caleb and Joshua--retirees.

The day brought memories of my own successes and failures across forty-five years of pastoral comings and goings—memories  more good than bad, although not all good. I thought about others I have encountered across those years. One of the guest participants this morning was the Reverend Dewayne Repass. I think “Reep” first visited in our home in the early sixties; he was one of “Gaulke’s boys” from Gulf-Coast Bible College in Houston and we were pastors of the Ridglea Church in Fort Worth, TX. Reep will soon retire from his own illustrious career as current Chief Development Officer at Church of God Ministries, following his years with Indiana Ministries, which followed his pastoral career.

It brought to mind other retirement events, similar to Sparks’ retirement. I remember what pleasure I took in meeting Pastor Bill Konstantopoulos during his earliest weeks as new pastor of the Winchester, KY First Church. Bill and I became not only peers in ministry but personal friends as I sat in the pew many a Sunday at Winchester First, thoroughly blessed by his fourteen-years there. Thus, I felt especially blessed when privileged to share in his retirement events, which only further enriched our friendship on an even more satisfying level.
To this point, I have only mentioned younger peers in ministry. Jim Sparks reveres the name of Sam Loveless, his mentor and Susan’s pastor from Indianapolis. Bill K honors the mention of Nick Zazanis who connected him to the Church of God in Athens, Greece. I have a special place for Otto F. and Julia Linn and A. F. Gray in Oregon, the Lawrence Kendalls’ and the Herman Harris’es in Arkansas, Harry and Henrietta Harp in Atlanta, L. V. Benson in Mississippi, Max Gaulke in Texas, and Fred Pinyoun and E. F. Adcock in California. That is but a scratch on the surface, but how blessed I have been by this rich tapestry of redeeming and transforming grace that we call the fellowship of ministerial colleagues in the Church of God.

Very enriching, but I started out to discuss the transition that Jim Sparks initiated with assistance from State Minister Bill Jones—from Sparks to Jeff Eckman. Few pastors are blessed by being able to work with their pastoral Search Committee and guide the transition and entrance of the new leadership. While Jim and Susan went out with a blaze of glory, it was the smoothest transition I have ever observed, and such an improvement over so many such occasions that I have observed elsewhere!
I believe even God was pleased with it.  I commend chairlady Mary Hirakis and her committee for being so in tune to the winds of the Spirit. Jeff and Tori will benefit greatly from it, as will the North Avenue Church and community. It actually made me proud to be a small part of this dynamic congregation. And with today, the deed is done.
While I have grieved with anticipatory grief over this loss, I have now been able to process that grief and genuinely anticipate my new, young pastor, who may be as much as 45 years my junior. I salute you Jim (and Susan, Jim's equal in every way), and I welcome you, Jeff (and Tori, and family). May you, Jeff and Tori, be as personally blessed by the loving grace of your colleagues, peers in ministry, et al, as were Jim and Susan, and so many others of us.  It is a special and priceless privilege to belong to such an enriching fellowship as the Church of God Ministry team.
To utilize a book title I know, perhaps I should remind us both locally and nationally to “Get Ready: God Uses Transitions”! From Warner’s World, this is

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A United Church in a Divided World

Behold how they love one  another , has always been the trademark characteristic of the Church and this morning Pastor Jim concluded his final series to our North Avenue fellowship with this title, “The Loving Church” (Galatians 2:11-21). I was present for the first time since late April, having attended Winchester Pastor’s Fellowship and giving two hard weeks of cleaning and manual labor to my daughter and wife in Kentucky. Since our church is in pastoral transition, I was anxious to return.

Entering the sanctuary, I realized our new lead pastor (Jeff Eckman) was behind the mike usually occupied by worship pastor Jim Sirks (at State Youth Convention with the youth). That was fine; Jim would be preaching, the worship folder informed me.

For those acquainted with Jim’s sermon foundation in Galatians 2, the church struggled with conflict and a confrontation between the two primary leaders. Paul represented the Gentile influence (the new cutting edge of growth; Peter represented the Jews and conservative traditional values.

Jim outlined in two major points: the source of conflict and solutions to conflict. SOURCES OF CONFLICT include fear, hypocrisy, and legalism, and what I heard Jim say was that applause ought to come from God. SOLUTIONS TO CONFLICT include confrontation (by Paul v. 15), the truth Paul shared with Peter (vs. 15 ff), cf v.21), concluding with Peter’s reference to Paul( (see 2 Peter 3:15-18) as proof of the two men being reconciled.

That was Sparks; this is Warner. I retired from pastoral ministry simultaneously and I began attending North Avenue irregularly (being involved in frequent ministry-related efforts elsewhere. Over these 17 years, I have come to know, love, appreciate and highly value the friendship of Jim Sparks (and Susan). Now, I am watching him exit his local leadership role and move into a new role as part of Bill Jones state leadership team. I have learned Pastors/preachers come and go, but Jim has engineered one of the smoothest transitions that I have known in over a half-century of ministry. BUT IT DID NOT COME WITHOUT DIFFERENCES, CONFLICTS, AND RESOLUTION.

One illustration Jim gave reflected Coach Don Schula’s somewhat hardnosed approach to correcting errors. Someone asked Schula was he not too hard on “little errors.” Schula’s reply suggested that uncorrected errors multiply. My reaction to that is, the Church of God has allowed too many “uncorrected errors” to multiply, beginning with the ministry of D. S. Warner. We had a conformist mindset and refused to recognize or tolerate our diversity; thus, we have have been an exclusive people, as opposed to being inclusive—united—loving.

Peter fearfully withdrew himself from the more open Gentile fellowship, for fear of the conservative traditionalist Jews, who thought the only way into Christianity could be through the traditions of the Jewish Law of Moses. It took Paul to lovingly confront Peter, tell the truth about God’s loving grace, and become a uniting, reconciling “loving brother” in Peter’s life.

They worked out their differences and we have the GOSPEL OF CHRIST today—one gospel, not one Jewish and one non-Jewish (Gentile), not one from Paul, one from Peter, and one from Jesus.

Congregations transitioning from one leader to another must learn this lesson if they are to be the PEOPLE OF GOD and do the ministry of the Church. It is a lesson with which I need help, for I like to be liked and I detest conflict. I find it easier to walk away than talk it out and work through the process of resolution. It is a lesson the Church of God needs desperately, IF IT BE A UNITED CHURCH FOR A DIVIDED WORLD, as our longtime friend Dale Oldham so eloquently proclaimed over the much beloved Christian Brotherhood Hour.

Congregations have worship wars over music styles. Right now I have friends suffering in silence from two congregational perspectives that were once one united congregation, whereas there are now two. People are hurt. The community witness of that original church has probably been irreparably damaged. WAS THAT WHAT GOD HAD IN MIND? A resounding NO! NO! NO! The damage to God’s purpose for that church in that community could be compared to the subversive infiltration at the finish line of the recent Boston Marathon! Thus, the uncorrected errors continue to multiply.

I love J. B. Phillips, whose scriptural paraphrase helped so many during WWII conflict. He paraphrases Peter gently urging people to get their applause from God rather than the fears, hypocrisies, and legalisms, with which we need to be confronted in our times of disagreement (times which are inevitable as long as we are human).

“Because, my dear friends, you have a hope like this before you, I urge you to make certain that such a day would find you at peace with God and man, clean and blameless in his sight … as our dear brother Paul pointed out in his letter to you,k written out of the wisdom God gave him. In that letter, as indeed in all his letters, he referred to these matters … But you, my friends whom I love, are forewarned, and should therefore be very careful not to be carried away by the errors of wicked men and so lose your proper foothold. On the contrary, you should grow in grace and in your knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—to him be glory now and until the dawning of the day of eternity” (2 Peter 3:11-18, JBP).

Thank you Pastor Jim for 17 years of modeling ministry. You did it as people-person, because you are a lover, and we didn’t always have to agree with you. You did it by example, by maintaining an impeccable personal integrity that we could trust. You achieved it by being always willing to talk. Consequently, your recent 17-year stint at North Avenue became one of the most productive ministries in the Church of God.

From this corner of Warner’s World, I am walkingwithwarner, …we make too many errors to allow those uncorrected errors to be the thing that multiply most …