When People Leave (Part 1)

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Few things hurt as bad in church life as when people leave. People leaving a church for a job- or family-related out-of-state or cross-country move is one thing, but I’m talking about the more common and troubling experience of seeing folks leave for a church across town or for no church at all. Many temptations confront us as pastors when those we’ve worshiped and served alongside, for whom we’ve cared, with whom we’ve cried and celebrated depart. A range of emotions and assumptions rush at us as we process these partings.

This is the first in a series of five posts outlining a few of the common assumptions that confront me when people leave. I hope to offer some helpful lessons I’ve learned (and am learning) from tough partings over the years and to encourage you to look toward faithfulness and focus.

“It’s My Fault.”

This is the tip of the dagger for me—the first assumption. When folks tell me they’re leaving, when I hear they’re visiting another church, or when they simply stop coming to Bridge, I instantly hear a gavel smacking the bench: “You’re not a good enough pastor.”

Pride is a real problem, especially when it so often and so easily masquerades as self-pity. “I guess my preaching isn’t as good, my vision as thrilling, or my leadership as dynamic and engaging . . . as pastor So-in-so’s.” Well, let’s be honest, for most of us, that’s probably true! God has some very gifted shepherds out there whose abilities are off the charts. They’re the exception, not the rule. There’s a undeniable magnetism about them—people want to be near them, to hear them, to follow them. They want to see them in action up close and to experience the excitement and dynamism for themselves.

More on this in another post, but perhaps it isn’t the pastor so much as it is the church, and all the wonderful things going on there. There’s energy; there’s life; there’s vitality; there’s . . . Zumba!

When we learn that a member or family is leaving for pastor So-in-so or Such-in-such church, we have to call out self-pity for the version of narcissism that it is, and then kill it with prayerful gratitude to God for allowing us to serve this member or family for a time. Some good questions to ask ourselves when we learn folks are leaving: Did I teach them faithfully? Did I serve them through prayer, encouragement, and a godly example? Did I seek to lead them with sincerity (that is, with no grudges or bitterness toward them) during their time under my leadership? If we answer “no” to any of these, then we’re right to assume some fault in their departure. Confession needs to be made to God and them—and perhaps to others yet to leave. However, even if we can answer “yes” to these, though they would probably affirm their love and gratitude, the likelihood of changing their minds about leaving is still quite slim (I’ve never been able to convince a member or family intent on parting ways to stay). The temptation here is to promise things (changes, improvements, growth, new programs, etc.) that are likely not in our power to deliver, and that may in fact be more in keeping with man’s agenda than God’s. If we can answer “yes” to these questions, then despite the sadness and disappointment of losing fellowship and partnership, we will be able to stand before God with integrity having served them with a right spirit and with the abilities He’d given us at the time.

But, that’s not to say that the abilities God gives us for one season are the abilities needed for the next season of ministry leadership. Richard Blackaby said something very profound in a message to me and a hundred or so others at an associational leaders’ conference this week. He said, “It costs others dearly when leaders don’t continue to grow.” I’ve come to realize that departures from my church are quite possibly God signaling that I’ve gotten stuck and have some growing to do as a leader. Nevertheless, we mustn’t pursue personal growth as leaders just to do a better job keeping people around. Growth as Christian leaders should always be focused on reaching, equipping and sending more people into the harvest.

At times some may need to go in order that we grow. In John 6 Jesus teaches on the true bread that comes from heaven, namely, Himself. It was a hard teaching and offensive to many in the crowd, including some of those who had begun to follow Him. John tells us in v. 66 that after hearing Jesus’ words, many of them turned back and no longer followed Him. Jesus knew well the pain of seeing followers walk away. And I suppose, in one sense, it was His fault. I’m in no way saying your leadership or mine is perfect like Jesus’ was, but if we’re diligently teaching His word it shouldn’t surprise us that at times people won’t have a stomach for it and won’t stick around. …But some will.

And that’s the point!

When a person, a family, or even a rash of families leave a local church, it’s important to remember that not everyone has left! In small churches parting pains are more acutely felt, the holes left behind bigger, the serving pressure on those remaining becomes greater and the financial burden heavier. Satan loves when we lick our wounds and pine after those leaving. Why? Because in doing so we neglect those remaining and still looking to us for spiritual leadership AND we neglect the lost of our communities whom Jesus is still calling us to reach and disciple!

Humility forces us to admit (daily, hourly) that we’re imperfect leaders who need to come to terms with and labor to remedy our failings and faults. But humility must also remind us that even if we’ve served with a clear conscience, Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. He will at times move His sheep to other folds, sometimes for their benefit, sometimes for ours, often for both. Furthermore, He will at times re-move those who we thought to be His sheep (but who really weren’t), those who simply lose interest in church or for whom the gospel no longer suits their desire for comfort, out of the way so that our leading and shepherding energies can be channeled with greater focus and intensity into making disciples who make disciples from and for the harvest.

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Thanks for taking time to read Hope Notes! Please take a couple more minutes and explore the Events and Resources pages as well.

Have a blessed Palm Sunday weekend as you love and lead the Lord’s people!

Quality BEFORE Quantity

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“But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:23)

We’re all familiar with Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed. Jesus makes it clear there are different types/qualities of soil upon which the gospel seed might fall. But do we ever pause to think about the quality of the seed itself—not so much the incorruptible word itself, but the spiritual quality of the human messengers called to deliver it to the world…us?

A.W. Tozer offers one of the most convicting paragraphs I’ve read recently. Daniel Henderson quotes it in his book “Old Paths, New Power.” It goes like this…

“It is of far greater importance that we have better Christians than that we have more of them.”

If you’re shaking your head like you just got jacked by Mike Tyson, I can relate! “Did Darin actually post this in Hope Notes?” Yep! Tozer doesn’t pull punches. Here’s the rest of what he says…

“Each generation of Christians is the seed of the next, and degenerate seed is sure to produce a degenerate harvest not a little better than but a little worse than the seed from which it sprang. Thus the direction will be down until vigorous, effective means are taken to improve the seed…. To carry on these activities [evangelism, missions] scripturally the church should be walking in fullness of power, separated, purified and ready at any moment to give up everything, even life itself, for the greater glory of Christ. For a worldly, weak, decadent church to make converts is but to bring forth after her own kind and extend her weakness and decadence a bit further out…. So vitally important is spiritual quality that it is hardly too much to suggest that attempts to grow larger might well be suspended until we have become better.”

I don’t think by “better” Tozer simply means we need to work on being more moral Christians. Better morality is in fact a by-product of the kind of better-ness he’s referring to. For our churches to be less decadent we must lead them to be more dependent. The root word of “decadent” is after all decay. And what decays except that which has been cut off from its source of life?

I bring to the role of associational leader certain priorities for Cleveland Hope (e.g., “A.C.T.S.18.”: Advancing Current leaders, Cultivating church health, Training new leaders, Starting new churches, and 1:8 Multiplying our mission to the nations.) I shared these core priorities with the search committee in Fall 2017; they embraced them, and here we are over a year later moving (yes, at times very slowly or seemingly not at all) towards these aims. I get frustrated sometimes with low participation, low buy-in from churches and leaders. I can also understand if some of you get frustrated with me and the time/availability constraints of having a part-time associational leader. That’s fair. Many of you are leading your churches bi-vocationally and experience these two-way frustrations at the church level as well. Again, so am I…so do I!

But I’m wondering lately if perhaps slowness at Advancing, Cultivating, Training, Starting, Multiplying, etc. (whether associationally at Cleveland Hope or in fulfilling our priorities for growth at the local church level) isn’t actually God’s way of saying we need to be better before we get bigger. I don’t think “A.C.T.S.1:8” are bad priorities for an association, or that they need to be thrown out. Likewise I doubt your priorities for kingdom advance in your local context are demonic in origin. However, I do believe there’s an (unfortunately) assumed and unstated priority for many leaders, churches, and networks that should be stated from this day forward: PRAYER. I’m talking about the one endeavor, the one practice, the one discipline, the one strategy, the one (and ONLY) thing that we can do together that signals and substantiates our utter submission to and dependence upon God’s power for accomplishing the Great Commission. Teamwork can’t do it. Leadership finesse can’t do it. Books, conferences, organizational training, techniques and tactics will never foster better Christians—a better disciple-seed to be sown into the world. They just can’t! Apart from a radical commitment to collective prayer these things only serve to perpetuate an increasingly degenerate gospel.

I love fellowship. I love learning together as leaders. I love sharing encouragement and providing resources. I love dreaming together about ways to claim new gospel territory in greater Cleveland through new and established churches. I don’t want to drop any of those good things. But I want to build a culture of praying together into EVERYthing we do. I ask your forgiveness for not stating and making praying together THE explicit priority of my associational vision thus far. And I ask your help in making (and keeping) it so going forward.

What might this look like? How might we foster an Acts 1, upper-room intensity and expectancy across our family of churches? Last year we held three all-call, association-wide worship and prayer events called Hope Together. We’re doing it this year as well in February, May & August. Those efforts are good, but instead of promising a detailed set of new prayer objectives or events, I will simply affirm what Henderson says, we’re going “build sidewalks where the footpaths are.” In other words, I am going to begin intentionally seeking to infuse more prayer into our every gathering, from our annual October meeting, to Hope Togethers, to pastor/planter breakfasts, to even fellowship events like this Monday’s couples’ night at Forest City Shuffle, right down to lunches and phone calls. No opportunity when we’re together should be allowed pass without uniting to call down God’s power for His churches. Please join me by taking even the small initial step of finding one or two pastors in your area to meet and pray with. If you already have this, find another who doesn’t!

O that a quantitatively rich harvest of souls may be gathered into the Kingdom from our communities. But by God’s grace may we seek first (and jointly) His purifying and empowerment through prayer in order to be a more qualitatively rich batch of seed and seed sowers!

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The blessing of the man who worships the living God

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by Tony Loseto

Church Planting Pastor, Gateway Church Old Brooklyn

Psalm 95:6-8

“ 6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! 7  For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you hear His voice, 8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,”

The Psalms serve us both as a picture and a pointer. They are a picture for us of the faith of those who delight in God’s Word. They teach us how to stand on the promises of God and how to pray to Him in the midst of every circumstance and emotion we may feel.  Indeed, the Psalms could almost be called the scrapbook of faith, a collection of believers’ expressions of faith in the living God.  

But very importantly, the Psalms also point us to the one in whom all our faith is placed, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the Anointed One of Psalm 2, the Son of God who reigns over all the earth, and the One who blesses all who take refuge in Him.  The Psalms lead us to the blessing of faith in Jesus, and Psalm 95 in particular gives us the invitation to worship our living God.

In these verses we are invited by God to feel the weight of His glory. He is our Maker and our Savior. How vital it is for us to feel the worth of God. How essential it is for us to remember that He is our God, and that all we desire and think and feel is to be brought under the reality of Who He is. We are also invited to trust in His care for us as sheep He has purchased with the blood of His Son. How counter-cultural it is to daily consider how our hope lies not in what we possess, but rather in the One who has taken possession of us through Jesus Christ. We are invited to remember continually whose we are in the gospel.

 And, crucially, this invitation involves not only the lifting of our hands in praise and the remembering of the care God gives but our bowing down before Him and listening to His voice.  He is the God not only to whom we speak, but the God who takes the initiative to speak to us. Our worship of God must lead to our willingness to bow before Him and to hear His Word, the Scriptures. Listening to His voice may not always lead us to hear what we want to hear, but it will always lead us to what we need to hear from God.

If we will worship God, by seeing His worth, trusting in His care, and listening to His voice, we will be able to see the expression of our lives becoming like the pages of the Psalms. Today, as we hear God's voice in the Scriptures, will we see His Worth?  Will we trust his care? Will we listen to His voice? 

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What a blessing that God has given us a written pathway to deeper intimacy with Him & greater impact in the world! Many thanks to Tony for this encouraging word! Want to be a guest contributor to Hope Notes? Submissions welcome! Email me your ideas at davery@clevelandhope.com

before you r-u-n-n-o-f-t…

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"From every man whose heart moves him..."

by Darin Avery

Exodus 25:1-8

The Israelites were free. God had rescued them; Moses had led them. Fundamental rules of divine worship and inter-human relationships (the Ten Commandments) had be given to the nation. But they’re still in the wilderness—and they will be for many years to come. As a further pledge of His presence among His wandering people, God wants Moses to build Him a tent, a portable sanctuary.

As with any building project, materials must first be acquired for the final structure to take shape. A desert isn’t a great place to find such things as gold, silver, bronze, precious stones, oil, incense, fine fabrics and yarns, etc. Yet God asks for them. He knows the people have them, not because they found them lying around the sand and rocks of the Sinai peninsula but because they’d carried them off in a day of great plunder from their former Egyptian oppressors. The stuff for building His tent would come from their tents!

But I noticed something reading this passage (Exod. 25:1) that I never saw before: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.'“ Interesting! This was not a compulsory collection. God was not demanding anything from His people; His only demand was that Moses announce the opportunity for people to freely return a portion of the bounty with which God had already blessed them as they fled Egypt.

We can see this principle throughout Scripture, can’t we? God is not so impotent as to manipulate His people’s hands; rather, He always begins by moving our hearts. He would rather have the widow’s two pennies than the miser’s moneybag, the willing boy’s basket over the baker’s bulging bundles of bread, a gift cheerfully given over a tax taken.

As Moses cast the vision of a tabernacle made of so many different materials, it wouldn’t be hard for every Israelite to see something of his or hers woven into the final structure. “The curtain is God’s, but a strand of that purple binding at its fringe was mine,” one woman might say to another strolling past the tent of meeting, water jars in hand. “The poles the priests use to carry the ark belong to the LORD now, but I remember dragging those unfinished acacia logs through the Red Sea thinking I might have to leave them behind when Pharaoh’s chariots were hot on our tail; I’m sure glad I didn’t!” one man might say to another, as his companion catches a fragrant whiff of incense wafting from the sanctuary—the very type of incense his Egyptian neighbor once gave him as a gesture of good-riddance.

What’s my point?

The point is this: Every child of God has "stuff” at his or her disposal, valuable stuff like time, money, church buildings, talents, material possessions, relational capital, technical know-how, interpersonal skills, etc. And while all of that is good and may be valuable to us personally (or congregationally), God is still in the building business and is looking for materials, “stuff” from which to finish His eternal dwelling place, called the Bride, the New Jerusalem, the wife of the Lamb, a building not made with hands eternal in the heavens, a temple of living stones... Yet He doesn’t despair over not having enough, nor does He demand that we give anything to that most glorious project. He doesn’t have to! Why? Because not only is He still in the building business, He’s still in the heart-moving business too.

So, a question we need to continually grapple with is this: Do we think we can put our spool of “purple yarn”, our unfinished “acacia log,” or our chunk of “incense” to better use than He can? Sure, it involves a surrender of raw material to God’s design, but for now (and in eternity to come) which will delight our hearts more: yielding to the heart-movings of the Spirit to contribute freely, or resisting and keeping stuff for God’s tent tucked away in ours?

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Thanks for taking time to read this post. I hope it’s encouraging to you—and perhaps a bit challenging too! Want to be a guest contributor to Hope Notes devotional? Submissions welcome! Email me your ideas at davery@clevelandhope.com

But wait… there’s more!

Follow the links below to learn about opportunities and resources (or just click the “Events” tab above):

Eastside Pastor/Planter Breakfast (Mar. 19)

Lead Well Conference (Apr. 5-6)

Planter/Pastor & wives - Couples’ fun Nite (Apr. 8)

From your State Convention:

national assoc. of Ministry assistants conference (Apr. 24-27)

church planters’ Forum (May 9-10)

“You will wear yourselves out...”

It hit me hard yesterday morning…again!

We’re all familiar with Moses’ visit with his father-in-law, Jethro, following God’s rescue of Israel through the Red Sea. Jethro rejoices when Moses tells of God’s mighty acts on behalf of His people. But the next day, when he sees Moses, from sun up to sun down, singlehandedly sorting through every complaint and dispute, he knows it’s time to have a little talk with the father of his grandkids. Exodus 18:18 is one verse, but it contains two sentences. The first: “You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you.” I’d always focused on Moses as the one getting worn-out and burned-out; he’s the leader after all, and the people are just standing around waiting in line to have their disputes settled. But Jethro says that this will wear the people out too, not just Moses. That’s true isn’t it; in our contexts, burn-out can also come in the form of boredom. People want to be part of a community where they feel listened to and cared for, but they also want to be part of a community where they feel valued and like they can make a valuable contribution for the greater good (most people, that is).

The next sentence in v. 18 says: “You are not able to do it alone.” Good words from ol’ Jethro! But hard words for leaders to hear. Often as leaders we get our worth-load from our work-load, and in doing so we fail to empower and deploy the very people God has given us for help in building up the community. It’s subtle, but this arrangement puts us too much at the center of things; it overvalues ourselves and undervalues the other resources God has placed in His community to keep it moving toward His goal of being a light to the nations.

Granted, none of us is leading 3 million people through a desert. But don’t be fooled, just because you’re shepherding 300 or 30 people, if you’re trying to do it all and assuming “Well, I’m the leader, so I guess it’s my job,” you’re headed for a burn-out breakdown—and so are your people, however many or few you’re leading. Empower. Share. Develop and deploy the people God has given you to care for the community so that everyone is rightly valued and able to contribute most effectively.

Hey welcome to the new ClevelandHope.com! This refreshed website for our association is a case-in-point of the above devotional. I am so thankful to Chris Schwab for seeing the need and working to get things into shape. As we move forward I hope this site will become more and more useful to you and your churches as a resource connector!

I’m writing this morning from Alpharetta, GA where I and 250 fellow associational leaders are participating in the RePlant Lab, an intensive training experience equipping us to help churches in need of deep change and transition in order to have fresh gospel impact on the future.

I hope you’ll take some time and look around our new website. I especially want you to visit the Events page for a few reminders about upcoming fellowship and networking opportunities.

Have a blessed day as you serve (and share) in the Lord’s work!

Darin