Writings by Cole Huffman

The Dream of the Seventy-Seven

I had a dream the other night in which I was addressing seventy-seven young men, all in their thirties, who were about to take the pastoral helms of seventy-seven churches and each church was, like First Evan, at least seventy-seven years in existence. Such dreams always seem to follow when I read Revelation over a late-night plate of enchiladas. Here are some of the things I heard myself telling those pastors:

·         Toughen up without losing your tenderness. You will be told no sometimes by the elders of your church and that is good for you. You will not be equally loved or affirmed by all in your congregation and that is good for you. You will have to wait sometimes for what you want and that too is good for you. Faithfulness and patience, both fruits of the Spirit, do not ripen without troubles, delays, and denials. Lose the glass jaw that sends you to the mat in a heap of self-pity when you’re opposed or something you champion is defeated or needlessly delayed from your vantage point. Thank God in those times that He is still perfecting your character. If you got everything you wanted you’d be pastoring Heaven. These are real live people you’re dealing with, you know.

·         Make friends with your predecessors, both living and dead. In an “old growth” church with history, memories are deeply rooted and the pastoral eras are the rings in the tree. The pastors who went before you were compared to the pastors who went before them too. Make peace with the players of the past and pray for the ones who will follow you as you pray for yourself. Someday you too will become their “former” pastor. Endeavor to pass to your successor—who will grow tired of being compared to you—a healthy church.

·         Work to cultivate new blooms on old branches. Most of what you’ll find in your church—even if the church is withering away or a total rebuild project—doesn’t require uprooting as much as pruning. Jesus did curse the fig-less fig tree that, like the people, wasn’t prepared for His coming. But to those who have received Him, He prunes, seeking new and lasting fruit. Help your church understand its values and how to maximize them.

·         You can tolerate inefficiency but not inertia. Inefficiency or inexactitude in the structure, function, and culture of your church is aggravating to differing degrees but it doesn’t really threaten vision. Inertia does though because inertia is not simply inactivity but inattentiveness. Pastors are not babysitters. Where there is inertia in the church it means your people aren’t paying attention to God and wasting their lives, the biblical definition of folly. That’s a vision problem and needs to be addressed with a truer, more expansive view of God. You can leave your church for persistent inertia—if you’re always told no or resisted at every turn—but not for inefficiencies in its structure, function, and culture. Those you work with and work through.
(A "by the way" on leaving churches: the grass may indeed be comparatively greener in another pasture but there are sheep patties in that grass too. Go into a different line of work if you’re trying to avoid institutional or people problems—weather station manager in Antarctica might be a good choice for you.)

·         The catalytic leaders that headline Christian conferences really don’t have much to say to you. Don’t get me wrong: Take wisdom wherever you can find it and remain evangelically teachable to those who are organizationally excellent and insightful. But the young leaders evangelicals tend to bronze have often done their best to avoid, flee, or blow up the kind of church you’re in, believing it is a bastion of mediocrity. They’re not bad guys, so don’t regard them cynically. And some of them may become your friends (take friendship wherever you can find it too), so don’t behold them enviously. They’ve just never had to work for change in an entity like your church. You’re working out different muscle groups of leadership than they are, that’s all.

·         Astringency is not coercion. The difference is that astringent leadership will call people to do what they resist for a greater good they’ll later see. Coercion makes people do what they resist for the leader’s own purposes—to prove oneself in some way. Coercion will result in short-term compliance but long-term resistance. Sometimes you have to lead astringently; sometimes you need to position yourself or your proposal such that you risk being told no. But with coercion’s tools you’re building the casket into which your people’s respect for you will lie.

·         If you love your people they will love you back. Mostly true. But this old saying is never truer than in traditional-set churches: You can’t win them all. Don’t hide from anyone. Practice relational integrity with all. But don’t kill yourself pursuing people who are disinterested in what you’re calling for or indifferent to you. And be who you are, not your best impression of anyone else. If it comes to it you’d rather be fired as (state your name here). Know who you are, learn to like who you are, and be who you are. Apply the same to your congregation and unless they are Orcs you should have mostly agreeable experiences with them.
Well, I said other things in my dream state to those seventy-seven young pastors headed to older churches; things about discerning values and directional matters and how to cope when your church insists on serving Taco Salad on Wednesday nights. I’ll keep those things between them and me. But the reality breaking in on my sleep that night is that I love the church that has some age on it and want churches like First Evan to be led well. It sure makes me sleep better at night.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 6:10 PM
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