20.7.08

In Pursuit of Profundity

In the urgent-now of anticipation and anxiety rooted in nostalgia, I pursue profundity, supposing to find escape in intellectualism and philosophy. So I walk the woods of Emerson and muse over the shavings of Aristotle. I turn over this stone or that to see what life lives beneath; and crumble dry leaves within my hand to see what comes of a thing at death; I peel back the bark of ancient trees and touch my tongue to taste the sap of a forgotten world; I walk the traveled paths in hopes that I might find the road less traveled and say, when it has come to an end, “Yes, that has made all the difference.”

But profundity eludes the searcher, the philosopher, the intellect—for he looks outside and beyond the common supposing that something great lies just there, just at that place where human eye once ventured, but gave up venture in despair: one man sought, but gave up seeking…or so it seems. He supposes—or should I more honestly say, I—that I suppose insight may be found, like gold, in a place too little searched, too long ago.

Weary, I lay upon the living room floor. Speckles of crumbs lie scattered as feed for non-existent bird. The labors of the day bore no sight of the profound, no vision of introspective glory too great for simple articulation. I nearly sleep while my children play nearby. They play common games with common toys: this one races cars while that one lines up figures in some comedy of movie characterization: Batman is friend to Mr. Incredible, and he to Chewbacca, and he to an oversized Care Bear. Darth Vader barks commands at Buzz Lightyear and a Lego Indiana Jones trades heads with a Clone Trooper—an orchestration of such contradiction that it stretches the imagination beyond breaking—or, at least, the imagination of the old.

I am old, if proved only by the declaration of the preponderance of my observation. In ages past, I brought the jungle of Africa to the planets of far off adventure and waged war on alien creatures with a Six Million Dollar Man. And all was right with the world.

In my half awakened state, these characters of play grow large as life. Dreams overtake reality as they engaged for prominence on the battlefield of imagination. And in their haste, they pause and wonder at the sleeping giant—the figure of a man more out of place than adventures in space and aliens in the Amazon. And I find in that too-oft searched, neglected space—gold. It glitters with the glint of imagination, captured in child’s play.

This is profundity.

9.7.08

The Wane of Influence

Influence: Different From Power
When conflict rises within a church—often involving the pastor and some segment of the congregation—we are quick to talk about “power struggles.” And rightly so—a misuse (or at best, a misunderstanding) of a biblical view of power is a major factor in most church conflicts. But far too often, we quickly lump all conflict into the bucket of “power struggles” when a far more basic, human tension is involved. Namely—influence.

By influence, I mean the prominence that an individual (or a group) has gained in the normal course of institutional, organizational, and communal life. Influence involves power—in technical terms “the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions etc., of another or others.” (Dictionary.com) But power is only one part of influence. At a much more basic level, influence affects identity, significance, and purpose.

Influence, for anyone, comes about through the normal act of living. Parents have great influence over their children. A small-business owner has great influence over the direction of his company. And certain individuals within a church setting gain influence as they live—usually as they counsel, advise, serve, and eventually, lead. The very act of seeking wise counsel entails the granting of influence to some: “instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still” (Prov. 9:9), “the wise heart accepts commands” (Prov. 10:8), “a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15). In each case, wisdom influences an individual. Wisdom is never impersonal (even the Proverbs compare it to a woman)—it comes to us through people: fellow believers, a spouse, a parent, and the Holy Spirit as he is at work in these people.

When we seek someone’s advice or counsel, we are granting him or her a level of influence over us. The degree to which the advice and counsel of that person has proved wise in the past is the level to which his or her influence increases (or should). This illustrates one of the key differences between power and influence (as it pertains to conflict)—namely, that power is sought while influence is granted. People may have power over us in some regard or another without our consent, but they only have influence over us insofar as we have granted it to them. That is why the sought-out counsel of a mentor is of much greater value than the persistent (and unsolicited) recommendations by an over-involved parent, older sibling, or nagging friend. And who among us is not encouraged when we are sought out for counsel, when we are perceived by others as wise?

Because of these realities, the loss of power—while threatening and undermining—is very different from the loss of influence. Loss of influence deeply affects us. When power is sought and obtained, it is done so with the knowledge that it can also be lost (such is the fear of every dictator). But when we are granted influence—slowly, incrementally, in the day-to-day interactions of advice sought and counsel given—it affirms a much deeper human reality: who we are as individuals, our purpose, and the significance of our lives. A parent who controls the actions of a child primarily by the threat of discipline is never as fulfilled as the parent who finally has the satisfaction of having a child say, “Dad, can I get your advice on something?” A husband who dominates his wife into submission will never have the satisfaction of experiencing the respect that comes from “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

Influence: The Story of John the Baptist
A scan of Scripture reveals passages aimed at the misuse of power. Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25–28). (As an aside, the term “authority” is significant in how it functions throughout the book of Matthew, demonstrating the Kingship of Jesus.)

We are a little slower in being able to identify passages that deal with the idea of waning influence. Consider how many passages call us to submission, obedience, and humility (“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned,” Rom. 12:3). Such calls instruct us to allow Christ’s Spirit—through the Word and through fellow believers—to influence us.

And yet, the life and testimony of John the Baptist illustrates the nature and impact of influence gained and forfeited. John 3:25–30 recounts:

Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Now compare that to the events of Matthew 11:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (11:2–6)

What prompts John to send his disciples to Jesus? This is John, remember—who must have known from his mother Elizabeth and his relative Mary the story of his and Jesus’ conceptions—who was reluctant to baptize Jesus, and who declared, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7).

At the very least we are safe in seeing John’s actions as expressive of uncertainty and doubt. John is in prison, and many of his disciples are now following Jesus. John’s waning influence is clear—and even self declared: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Ironically, what can be confessed with humility at the apex of influence can nevertheless be doubted (and painful) in the valley of irrelevance.

While influence is often gained incrementally (perhaps over a lifetime), it can be lost in a very short time. Consider the elder who, over the course of 20 years and three pastors—perhaps through internal conflicts and external challenges—faithfully sought to serve and lead the flock under his care. At some point, perhaps in the later years of his eldership, he honestly acknowledges the church’s need for new and younger leadership. But the influence that he has gained through the seasons of church life, he may lose in as little as five years, to a new, young pastor. And with waning influence comes a deep questioning of personal significance—doubt, fear, insecurity, loneliness, sadness, and a profound sense of loss.

I believe John’s actions—sending his disciples to question Jesus—reveal these emotions. At one point, John confidently declared, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20; 3:28). It was declared of him at another point, “Among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Talk about honor! What kind of significance should such a man feel? Yet there remains an uncertainty, a doubt—and not a doubt expressed by John that is not “concern for others,” but expressed in a very visceral, personal way.

Jesus doesn’t reprove John or his disciples, nor does he send back the rebuke, “John, come on. You know better. This is me, your cousin. You baptized me. You saw the Spirit descend upon me. You heard the voice from heaven. You know better than to doubt.” For John, imprisoned and waning in influence, ending a life of ministry in a most undignified fashion—his fears, loneliness, and sadness are personal. Jesus’ answer is personal—oriented toward his Kingdom. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:5–6). This is the promise of redemption, of salvation, and of a Kingdom that dignifies every member—with value, significance, and certain love. With waning influence comes fear and uncertainty, but the answer of God is Kingdom.

Influence: Systems and Organizations
An elder and his wife who have gained influence slowly, over years of faithful service, and who are first to advocate a new pastor, will often begin to express doubts and uncertainty as the scales of influence tip away from them. Where at first they can say, “He is the pastor: ask him,” (e.g., “I am not the Christ”) and later say, “I could not bear it all,” (e.g., “I must decrease)—later, they may well express fear, uncertainty, doubt, sadness, and loneliness in the face of waning influence.

And this applies not just to faithful elders, but to faithful parents as well. How do parents feel when—having raised their children to be equals in the Lord—Mom and Dad find their influence waning in the eyes and lives of their adult children? How does a small-business owner feel when—after a season of great success, and “going public with the company”—he is slowly excluded from any discussion of the company’s vision and direction? In fact, I can think of no relationship save one where influence does not diminish naturally over the course of the relationship. That one relationship is—marriage. Presidents, chancellors, vice-presidence, CEOs, CFOs, elders, deacons, pastors, parents, businessmen, politicians, and dignitaries alike will wane in their influence. Only in a healthy marriage does the influence between a husband and wife continue to grow deeper and more pronounced over the life of the relationship.

Studies show that conflict in the local church follows predictable patterns—three years, seven years, and twenty years. At three years, a pastor will begin to have influence over smaller (or more minor) decisions people make in their own lives. He will be sought out for counsel on decisions of occupation or education, and maybe family dynamics—Where should I go to college? What should I do about this relationship or that? What should I consider before accepting this job?
At about seven years, he will begin to have influence over the course of the congregation as a whole—direction, dynamics, vision, budget, etc. Up to this point, power has either remained with those who held it before, or else has become a power-sharing arrangement (think balanced scales). But around year seven, there is a tipping point of influence from those who have historically shouldered those responsibilities to the “new pastor.” And if a pastor and church leadership survive that tip in influence (without capsizing), there will often follow a great period of growth lasting ten years or so, until a new tip in influence comes with the rise of new, younger leadership (driven by some crisis).

These periods of shifting influence need not capsize a congregation or organization—though sadly, they often do. The question is, what will we do when we begin to wane in influence? The model of John the Baptist is for us, “I am not the Christ.” I am not the Christ. I am not the Christ. I am not the Christ! It behooves us to say this aloud to ourselves at least daily. Regardless of the level of influence that the Lord has brought us to, we must ever remember that we are not the Christ. There is but one Christ, one head of the Church, and we are not him.

For the young pastor, the encouragement is to consider the great “identity crisis” that may well be going in the lives of certain members as their influence wanes. Such crises often arise over seemingly insignificant issues—starting worship 10 minutes earlier, moving the women’s Bible study to the evening instead of mid-morning, whether or not a guitar is used in worship, or building a cypress fence to hide the unsightly plot adjacent to the church property. Not that these issues always point to crises of identity, but they often do. These ultimately are expressions of influence on the wane—a loss of a deeper sense of purpose, meaning, and significance.

Had Jesus answered John’s doubts (could we say challenges?) as I did above (i.e., “Come on John!”), it would only have served to create further insecurity for the struggling disciple—for now he is rebuked in the midst of his doubt. That response is a recipe for disaster. And here, Christ is the model for the pastor—gentleness, compassion, understanding, and a directing of one’s eyes toward the Kingdom. A wise pastor will pay attention to those times when influence shifts from those faithful saints who have led the congregation to himself (earlier in a ministry), or from him to others (later in a ministry)—and he will react accordingly. A wise pastor will continue to seek every opportunity to encourage, support, praise, and ask advice (e.g., seek counsel—and according to Proverbs, only a fool does not seek counsel) of those longtime faithful servants of the congregation. He will seek avenues for their continued influence—discipleship, service, and continued leadership in appropriate areas. But even when the opportunity for these have passed—a wise pastor will direct the eyes of all toward the Kingdom: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” This will look somewhat different today—those with AIDS are loved, those who are shut-in are cared for, those who are ill are treated, those who are orphans are adopted, those who are widows are served, and those who did not know the good news receive it and believe.

And a pastor will also recognize: I am not the Christ. There is often a fear in young pastors, an insecurity that expresses itself as insistence and over-confidence—a bristling at being called “the new pastor” after ten years, or the calling of “unspiritual” those members who seem tangled up over what the church grounds look like on Sunday morning. Fear in older pastors expresses itself similarly—bristling over some “new idea” for outreach and evangelism, unwillingness to change some long-standing tradition of the congregation to accommodate ministry, or suspicion of a younger pastor who himself is beginning to grow in influence with a younger, more vocal portion of the congregation.

Two Responses: Offense or Union With Christ
I believe this is why Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:6). When a man or a woman begins to see the effects of lost influence—her counsel is sought less by the younger women of the church, or his input is less often included in decisions regarding the upkeep of the grounds and expansion plans—there is the risk of offense. We are offended, aren’t we, when someone “plays” in our areas of responsibility? But as influence shifts so does responsibility, and during such times we are called not to be offended.

No new people can know the full history of an organization or institution. No new pastor will ever have enough “information” about the events that have shaped the church. And yet we are offended—when newcomers show up with ideas, suggestions, and dreams that don’t fit our own; or when leaders come in and make changes that go against our sense of prudence. We take offense when we grow bitter about waning influence. This is why Jesus says that we are blessed when we are not offended by him. He must increase.

If our response is to be other than “offense”—we must look to the Person of Christ. One way this can be done in the life of a congregation is by regularly focusing on our union with Christ. Through repeated emphasis on our unique relationship in and with Christ, the fibers of our being—made up of our experiences and beliefs—find fullness in our union with the Divine (by the Spirit). Far from the loss of influence resulting in a rending of our sense of identity, as we hold before us our great union with Christ, we are empowered to risk the loss of everything, even our influence.

The challenge for the pastor in this is great, because it involves both high self-awareness and others-awareness—an ability to name his own fears and intuit and perceive the fears of others. The wisdom of Proverbs gives guidelines of grace for us in these endeavors. Likewise the constant proclamation, “I am not the Christ.” For as we recognize the full extent of that truth, our blind eyes do receive sight, and far from being offended, we are delighted to see how the influence of Christ is conveyed through all members of his Body.

There may yet be sorrow and tears—as the tears of a father giving away his daughter, all grown, for marriage; tears as of a mother at the moving out of her last child, and the echoes of an empty nest; even the tears of the aged at bitter-sweet memories of bygone days, or opportunities missed. There must always be a place for tears within the reaches of the Body of Christ. In this life, there will be sorrow and tears—but the Lord is the one who wept even when we could not, and who promises to greet us at the gates of heaven to “wipe away our tears” (Isa. 25:8).