photo: Matthew Pearce, Creative Commons

photo: Matthew Pearce, Creative Commons

I’m a really connected person and a huge advocate for pastors staying connected online. That might make this next advice seem a little out of left field. Still, I think it is incredibly important.

We need to put our phones away every once in awhile.

My iPhone holds my life. It holds my calendar, my grocery list, my connections to friends, family, my wife, and my kids. It holds my photos, my games, and my ability to check the weather. It’s how my congregation reaches me, how my staff is able to communicate with me, the way we get things done, and take care of the people who need us. When I don’t have my iPhone, when I’m unable to be reached, it feels like the world is going to fall apart, either mine or everyone else’s.

But every once in awhile, and certainly more than our once-a-year God vacation, we need to get away. We need a chance to unplug, to turn off our email, and to focus on the real life things that are actually the most important, the things our phone and our busy online lives often distract us from.

And even more importantly, we need to get over the idea that the world will fall down if we’re not holding it up.

It’s easy to believe God is able to work through us when we’re present, available, and working as hard as we can. And in some ways that’s true. But it’s tempting to believe God is only able to work in the lives of our congregation when we’re present, available, and working as hard as we can.

This idea makes it nearly impossible to step away.

But stepping away is exactly what we need to do to realize that God is the one making everything happen, not us. It’s a necessary humbling experience to turn off your phone for the weekend, and to come back on Monday only to realize that everything was just fine, great even.

And it’s then that we are free to refuel when needed, that we can take time away to focus on the things that really matter, and that we can work freely understanding that God is the one carrying the weight of the world, not us.

So here’s your dare for the weekend: unplug. 

Tell your staff, or your congregation, or your assistant that you’re checking out for the weekend (which might be Friday and Saturday). Turn your phone off, or on silent, and stick it in a drawer somewhere. When you find yourself tempted to pick it up, or to check your email just for a second, don’t. It’s a discipline, certainly, it’s a fast from technology—something that’s never easy. But it’s necessary, and God will bless it. He’ll bless your desire to give up something that makes you comfortable in order to seek Him and spend time with your family.

And come Monday, while you may have a lot of emails in your inbox, you’ll be able to tackle them with renewed energy and fresh perspective.

photo: thephotographymuse, Creative Commons

photo: thephotographymuse, Creative Commons

Walking away from work is tough, especially when your work touches people as personally as being a pastor does. It feels selfish to walk away, like you’re abandoning the people who rely on you. There is always a reason to stay, always a good excuse for keeping your phone on and close by, always a person who needs your help, guidance, time, or prayers.

This is a beautiful thing.

As a pastor, it’s an honor to be needed, and relied upon. It’s a privilege to hold an important place in people’s lives, and our desire to honor and care for that place is sometimes all-consuming.

But there’s something else your congregation needs from you—and it’s probably the opposite of what you normally think. They need you to take a vacation. This will make you a better pastor.

First, take a vacation with God.

This doesn’t have to be expensive. You and God don’t need to go on a cruise together or to a swanky resort in Hawaii. What you need is uninterrupted time together, a chance to get away, a chance to reconnect. And so once a year, you need to take a vacation with God.

Your relationship with God is the most important relationship you have, and like it says in Matthew, we only bear fruit when we’re connected with God, when He’s our source for everything.

The best thing we can do for our congregation is to connect to the source.

Turn off your phone, bring your Bible and your journal, get out in nature and spend some time listening. Tell Him all you can think of to tell Him, and listen for all He has to say in return. Allow Him to fill up the places in you that have gotten empty over time, that you’ve poured out and exhausted in your efforts to hold everyone else up.

Your congregation will benefit from the simple act of taking some time away to spend time with God.

The second is this: Take a vacation with your spouse.

If you’re anything like me, your life is busy. Your life is full of appointments, and meetings, and soccer games, and dinners with friends. It’s full of homework assignments, and trips to Target, and things to do, and things to fix.

You and your spouse end up being the dream team – balancing and spinning hundreds of plates all at once, giving you very little time to connect.

It seems selfish to take a vacation in general, especially one where you leave your kids with the grandparents, or where you leave your work on your desk, or your phone on airplane mode.

But there’s nothing more important.

In order to be a good team, you need to be connected, and in order to connect, you need to get away from all the things that take your attention, and time, and love.

Taking this time to connect will make you a better team, will make you and your relationship healthier. Everyone in your life, from your kids to your congregation, will benefit from this.

It feels selfish to put your own needs first sometimes—to prioritize yourself over your congregation for a weekend or a week. But there’s nothing more important than to get some space, perspective, rest, and time to reconnect to the two most important relationships in your life.

The best way to love your congregation is to give them the best version of yourself—one who is connected to the Source and connected to their partner.

photo: Brian Glanz, Creative Commons

photo: Brian Glanz, Creative Commons

Someone asked me a few weeks ago how I’ve gained the influence I have in my life and the question caught me off guard a little. I don’t necessarily see myself as being a person of huge influence, although I do feel really thankful for the way God has allowed me to use my gifts for the growth of his Kingdom.

But the first thing that came to mind was something I wrote about earlier this week—the passage from John 15 about how the only way to be a part of what God is doing is to stay connected to Jesus and connected to the Father.

It’s not really about theology or strategy, in other words. It’s about love. 

But the second thing I thought about was how nearly every door of opportunity I’ve walked through in my life has been opened for me by someone else.

Knowing this has inspired me to open doors of opportunity for other people, which I believe has created a culture of reciprocity and generosity in my life. As I reflected on this idea I realized how vital this has been for me in terms of finding my calling, using my gifts, and gaining influence among those God has entrusted to me.

Here are three really important things I did without even realizing why they mattered:

First, I found people I admired and lived near them.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “we become like the people we hang around,” and for me, this couldn’t be any truer.

From a young age, I found people (men, mostly—but often times married couples or families) who embodied the values I wanted to see in my life, and I simply lived my life around them. I spent holidays with them. I asked them to go to lunch. I went to church with them. I just found reasons and excuses to be near them so I would become like them.

I didn’t think through this decision. I just did it. But when I reflect back I realize it was one of the most important decisions I ever made.

These people didn’t only open doors for me. They taught me, guided me, helped me understand right from wrong, and through relationship with them I was able to find myself.

Second, I was receptive to advice. 

Once I found the people I wanted to be like and be around, I would ask them questions all the time and put their advice into practice. Sometimes the things they suggested didn’t work for me, but most of the time I found their direction really helpful.

As I’ve gotten older and started to mentor some younger men, I’ve realized why this thing I did without thinking about it mattered so much.

There is a certain trust you gain with someone when you take their advice.

We naturally promote people who listen to us.

I don’t think this means we have to listen to everyone who ever gives us advice (that could be a disaster). But choose a few people you trust and be willing to listen to them, even when their advice doesn’t make sense to you yet. Use the power of reasoning God has given you but also be willing to step out in faith toward something you can’t quite see yet.

Third, I gave back what I was given.

Like I mentioned above, there was a spirit of reciprocity that happened in my life because I instinctively gave back what was given to me. I believe this was God’s protection over me but I was never so focused on “getting ahead” in my own life that I missed those coming behind me who needed the same help, direction, and advice I’d needed years earlier.

The thing I have experienced, but didn’t expect, was the tremendous blessing I’ve received from giving back. Mentoring young pastors and the young people God has placed in my life has truly been one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

I learn from them as much as they learn from me.

We need people ahead of us in life to show us the way, of course. But we also need people who are behind us.

The more we can be conduits of Jesus’ love, teaching, healing, and grace, the more we experience these things ourselves.

photo: wilB, Creative Commons

photo: wilB, Creative Commons

It’s hard to be a Christian and not ask yourself this question every now and then.

Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time on social media, or maybe this issue is just really close to my heart so I notice it more than most, but this question eats at me (especially after I spend a few minutes scrolling through Facebook):

Why can Christians be such jerks?

It’s obviously not only Christians who are jerks online (or anywhere else). There are plenty of jerks to go around. But the question I’m wrestling with is: if we’re supposed to be known by our love (John 13) but we’re fighting over theology or politics, there has to be a disconnect somewhere. Don’t you think?

Here’s the other thing: I don’t think anyone is trying to be a jerk. I think most people, most of the time, are doing what they believe is right in their spirits. Chances are, they simply don’t know how their words or actions come across.

But can we be honest with ourselves for a minute?

Let’s collectively take a look at our motives and our actions and ask ourselves: are we contributing to the jerkiness?

Here are a few questions I think we can ask ourselves before speaking, acting, or typing to avoid being jerks online or elsewhere.

Am I trying to get attention? 

Have you ever noticed how the meanest Facebook posts can get the most likes? It’s sad that this is the case, but it’s true.

We’re drawn to drama.

If you’re feeling lonely or ignored or invisible, it makes sense you might try to say something dramatic. It’s going to turn heads. It’s going to get you attention. But do you also notice that as soon as the “hype” dies down, you feel even more lonely and isolated than before? That’s because the attention you’re getting can’t satisfy. It won’t last.

There are better, more fulfilling ways to get attention—the right kind of attention, the kind of attention you want.

The next time you’re in a meeting, or poised at your computer to post on Facebook, ask yourself honestly before you speak or type: What are my motives? Am I trying to get attention?

Am I trying to convince someone else to change? 

Have you ever been in a meeting that seems to go on forever because everyone is arguing over an “important” topic (like chair placement on Sunday morning, for example) and no one is willing to change?

If you’re answer is no, count yourself lucky. If you’re answer is yes, welcome to the club.

The reason I bring this up is because so often our approach to arguments is this: get the other person to come to our side, convince them to change their minds or behavior.

And yet, this is a losing battle. There is nothing you can do to convince someone to change. You have absolutely no control over their change. People don’t change people. Only the Holy Spirit does that.

So rather than focusing on how you want other people to change, ask the Holy Spirit how he wants you to change. Pray he’ll change others to become more like him as well, and in the process you’ll find unity and harmony among yourselves.

Am I trying to stir up controversy? 

Sometimes I think we just get bored and need some entertainment. I truly believe this is a reflection of our culture—where everything is carefully planned and served to us comfortably and quickly. We were made for more adventure than this, more intrigue.

We’re bored. So we feel the need to stir up controversy.

Or the other option is we’re so unhappy with the drama of our lives we instinctively want to make others feel the same chaos or discomfort we’re experiencing. Misery loves company. Maybe you’re stirring up drama so you don’t have to feel so alone.

If this is you, there is no judgment. Only love. No one can tell you this is you. You’ll have to discover it for yourself. But if this is you, I urge you: ask God to meet you in the drama or chaos of your life and to share his peace with you. Ask him to lead you to a place of service where you’ll never be bored, where you’ll have to learn a complete dependence on him.

Ask him to make you the kind of person who can and will reflect his grace, mercy, and love.

Maybe then we’ll be able to point others toward him.

photo: Russell Martin, Creative Commons

photo: Russell Martin, Creative Commons

I don’t know a pastor—or even a believer—who isn’t concerned with getting the theology of faith right. We want to do the research and settle on answers about the rapture, marriage, creation, communion, and heaven and hell. We want to find our “tribe.”

I can understand the urgency we seem to feel. Theology is important. It’s important to know what we believe and why we believe it. It’s important to be connected to people who will support us in those beliefs and who will constantly be pointing us toward truth. Yet in Scripture, Jesus makes it clear:

There is one thing more important than good theology: Love. 

Consider John 15. This is the passage where Jesus reminds us he is the vine and we are the branches. He explains how the Father is like a gardener who is constantly pruning the garden, cutting back and clearing away the things that are getting in the way of his ultimate mission and purpose.

If we want to be a part of the larger garden, so to speak, if we want to have influence, Jesus shows us, we must remain in him and he in us. As long as we remain connected to Jesus and the Father, and he remains connected to us, we will bear much fruit.

On the other hand, apart from him, we can do nothing.

In fact, if we want to have influence but we don’t remain connected to the Father—if we aren’t about his mission and purpose—we will eventually be cut away and thrown into the fire and burned (v. 7).

So what is Jesus’ mission and purpose? This is the part where Jesus really drives his point home. He says:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” 

Just a few verses earlier, in John 13:35 Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (emphasis mine).

Notice he doesn’t say, “by your perfect theology” or “by your hard stance on all the issues” people will know you are my disciples. He says: people will know you are my disciples—that you are followers of Jesus—because you will love like I love.

Love is the most important commandment we are given.

I don’t know about you, but this feels a little surprising to me. 

In fact, I know there have to be a few of you reading who feel surprised by this declaration because every time I talk about this idea in public, I get a little bit of pushback. Not in a bad way. People are genuinely trying to find the right answer, but often people will say something like, “Okay, but Jesus also said we would be hated for being his followers… so it can’t just be all rainbows and fairy dust… can it?”

No, it can’t and it won’t be perfect all of the time, and of course there will be disagreements. In any healthy family there are disagreements between the members. But I find it interesting that the passage they’re talking about—where Jesus warns us the world might hate us for following him—is directly preceded by the passage I shared above.

In other words, just before Jesus says, “people might hate you for being connected to me,” he says, “the most important thing about being connected to me is this: you must always love.”

How many Christians do you know who are living up to this commandment?

If you’re like me, you know a few, but you also encounter dozens on a daily basis who aren’t acting in way that would help others “know us by our love.” Just log onto Facebook for a minute. Social media seems to provide a great platform for people who want to argue about theology and forget about love.

And at the same time, if we’re really honest with ourselves, my guess is we each have a long way to go in the love department.

I know I see areas in my life where bystanders might not know me by my love.

Yet if we want to be leaders, if we want to be a part of what God is doing, if we want to be connected to the garden of his goodness, this has to be our number one priority. We can’t delay any longer.

We must become people who love.