Archives For Pastoring

My Biggest Regret as a Pastor

Erik Cooper —  September 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

It’s been two years since I stepped away from full-time church ministry and into my new leadership role with a missions-based non-profit here in Indianapolis. Time almost always yields perspective, and as the months have quietly ticked by, I’ve been able to look back on my dozen-year pastoral journey with a clear sense of joy, pride (the good kind), and appreciation. Those were incredibly fruitful years I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But there’s one giant regret that I just can’t seem to shake. Something I think young pastors and leaders might want to take time to ponder. Let me explain.

OldChurch

Like most young leaders, my sincere zeal to launch the church into the 21st century focused my energies squarely on all the things that were wrong, broken, or ridiculous about the way we did ministry. (And let’s be honest, there are some large targets to aim at).

Empty tradition was my main enemy. And so began the long, arduous task of unraveling all the “religious” irrelevancy that was most certainly reducing christianity’s impact in today’s progressive culture. Everything “Church” was parsed, questioned, and unwound until most conversations took on the forlorn overtones of the opening lines of Ecclesiastes:

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”
–Ecclesiastes 1:2

(In my opinion, this is a classic sign of over-analysis).

So I cast off, threw out, and abandoned the “absurd ways” of my predecessors. After all, we’d progressed. I knew better. I could see it all so much clearer. Yet after all the unwinding was complete, it started to feel like there wasn’t much of anything left.

Many of you are probably quietly arguing that this kind of critique is a vital part of a healthy rebirthing process. And you (might) be right. I don’t regret challenging the status quo. But if I had it to do all over again…

…I would be less consumed with tearing down rote tradition, and more obsessed with restoring rich meaning.

Focusing on the restoration of meaning will ultimately neutralize many rote traditions, but fixating on the destruction of tradition won’t get you meaning. (It may get you some things you didn’t want). There’s a not-so-subtle difference between meticulously restoring the beauty of an historic house, and zealously disassembling it and tearing it to the ground.

The generation behind me craves meaning. They want substance. Something bigger than themselves. Something rich with foundation and significance. The Church has been around for two-thousand years. Some of the best answers to “institutional irrelevancy” might actually be found by looking backward. (And I’m not talking about back to the 1950s).

Maybe I’m just getting old and losing my edge. Or maybe there’s something worthwhile here to ponder. I’ll let you decide.

When I left my job in full-time ministry, I thought my pastoring days were behind me. I was trading coffee shop counseling sessions for board room strategy sessions, Oswald Chambers for the Wall Street Journal, pulpits for P&L’s. Who needs a pastor in key leadership of a money-making enterprise? It was time to let go of the identity I had fostered for 12 years of vocational service to the church. It just wasn’t needed anymore.

Boy was I wrong.

I don’t preach on Sundays (unless I’m filling in for a friend) and my paycheck no longer comes from a church, but other than that not much has changed about who I am and what I do every day.

Waiting2

David Lindsey, owner and CEO of Defenders here in Indy, likes to say “businesses don’t grow, people do.” As people get healthy, as they embrace their identity, learn to communicate honestly, face their fears, connect to one another, and mobilize around a vision greater than themselves, the trajectory of the business tends to get healthier, too. If this is true, I think more businesses could use a pastor (or twelve).

Some of you have the gifts of a pastor but find yourself in the business world. Don’t wait for a church gig, you’re needed where you are.

Don’t get frustrated by budgets and sales calls, maintenance requests, customer complaints, that overbearing supervisor, or the stress of another major deadline. (Honestly, that stuff is just part of life). Look at the people. Serve the people. They desperately need what you can add to their lives and to the culture of the organization. Breathe life. Bring hope.

Your gifts as a pastor aren’t locked up in your job description or in the “sanctity” of your company’s business model. Your business needs you be the pastor that you are, right where you are, right now (not when your church staff finally has an opening).

Will you do it?

NOTE: When I say pastor, I don’t mean condescending proselytizer, I mean lover of people. Leave room for the Gospel to do its work.

This is a guest post from my brother-in-law and close friend, David Wigington, who pastors Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Bloomington, Indiana. I struggled to process the possibilities of this story when he first shared it with me, but I think you will find both amazement and encouragement in the words that follow. We may never know how our smallest of gestures have rippled out to touch the world. Take 3 minutes and give this a read.

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It’s difficult to describe just how far Mbeya, Tanzania actually is from Indianapolis, Indiana. There really is no good way to get there

  • 8 hours to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
  • 10 more hours south to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
  • 14 more hours on the very underdeveloped highway system in Tanzania.

In June, I traveled to Mbeya at the invitation of my friend Rev. Dr. Barnabas Mtokambali, to speak at a very special dedication of a church planting school that is situated a couple hours away in an even more remote, out-of-the-way town (if that’s even possible) called Makambako. Tanzania has a culture that values honor, so while I was there I was assigned a “driver” to get me to the various meetings, meals, and church services.

His name was Pastor George James.

Pastor George is a quiet man with a very sweet spirit. He first gave his heart to Christ in 1988. Eight years later he felt called by God to become a pastor, so he went to Bible College and completed his education. After leading a local church for a few years, he became the principal of the Bible College in Mbeya. You don’t have to spend a long time with Pastor George to see that he has the heart of a teacher and a mentor. He lives on campus with his wife and two children, and has coached, educated, and trained hundreds of men and women for ministry over the last 10 years.

MomsBible_Africa3_Crop

I spent three days climbing in and out of Pastor George’s late-1990’s Toyota Cressida, and he claims it was sitting there the whole time. Somehow I never saw it until our last ride together back to the airport. There, on the armrest between the driver and passenger seats, sat a burgundy leather Bible. But more than just the color or the binding, something very unique caught my attention.

There was a name clearly stamped in gold leaf on the lower right corner.

No, that can’t be right.

I was still a little jet-lagged. Worn down emotionally, physically and spiritually from three days of preaching. Were my eyes playing tricks on me?

YES! That’s what it says: KAREN COOPER

MomsBible_Africa2_Crop

Karen is the mother of my life-long friend and brother-in-law, Erik Cooper. She’s been a spiritual mom to so many over the course of her life. Could it actually be possible that this Bible once belonged to her? I was already starting to get that sense something special was happening when I asked Pastor George how this had found its way into his possession.

“A few years ago, a friend of mine was travelling to Dar Es Salaam, so I gave him some money and asked him to try and find an NIV Bible. Many of the classes I teach are in English, and up to that point my only English Bible was a King James. He found this tabbed, thin-line NIV at a used bookstore in the city for 1,500 schillings (about one US dollar) and I’ve been using it ever since.”

For nearly a decade, Pastor George says that Bible has been his constant companion at every Bible college class he taught, every chapel service he has preached, and every Sunday morning service he has attended or led.

So how does a Bible with my life-long friend and brother-in-law’s mother’s name on it end up in Pastor George’s hands in Mbeya, Tanzania?

Needle in a haystack?

Happenstance?

Providence!

Karen remembers donating several Bibles to a “Bible Drive” at our local church in Indianapolis nearly 25 years ago. Initially, she wasn’t going to give away the ones that had her name on them or held any kind of “keepsake” value. But she distinctly remembers her father-in-law, Rev. Ed Cooper, saying, “Karen, Bibles weren’t meant to be kept on a shelf gathering dust. They were meant to be used.”

So right about the time Pastor George was leaving a life of East African tribal religion, animism, and witchcraft for new life in Jesus Christ, Karen Cooper gave away a few of her Bibles. And somehow, it seems, one of those Bibles ended up in a used bookstore in Dar Es Salaam, East Africa.

Until a few weeks ago, she had mostly forgotten and certainly didn’t know where any of those Bibles ended up. Perhaps now she does.

“So will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They’ll do the work I sent them to do, they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.” –Isaiah 55:11 (The Message)

On a dusty road in Mbeya a few weeks ago, I got a little glimpse of heaven. Can you imagine what it will be like when the curtains that separate us from eternity’s perspective are rolled back and we will see all of the investments we have made in the Kingdom of God?

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NOTE: Here are links to two Bible donation organizations for anyone interested in putting an old Bible to good use.

Bible Senders
Bible Foundation

I was honored to preach for my friend, Nate Pyle, this past weekend at Christ’s Community Church on the north side of Indy. I wish it had been under better circumstances, but once again God was gracious enough to let me share a message that continues to rock my own world.

If you have a few minutes today, I hope you’ll press play. Maybe you’ve forgotten why this whole Jesus thing is actually good news. Maybe you’re tired, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Maybe you define your place with God by what you do (or don’t do) for Him, instead of what He has already done for you.

This message is changing me. Maybe you can find some hope in it today, too.

Earn As You Go Christianity

(Click the controls above to listen).

I spent twelve years in full-time ministry, but I always hated being called pastor. I’m not really sure why. I have no high-browed, hipster, theological issue with the term or the role – in fact I cherish every minute of it – it just always made me cringe when it was used as an extension of my first name.

“Pastor Erik! Pastor Erik!”

“Please, call me Friar,” I would usually retort.

I took an amazing new job last fall at a missions-focused non-profit here in Indy, and with it finally hung up the pastor monicker after a dozen year run. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I realized I was sort of missing hearing the name that had so long been an object of my disdain.

binoculars

I first noticed it a few weeks ago sitting in the stands of a charity basketball game at the christian school where my kids attend. The teachers were playing the preachers (a.k.a. church staff with a better rhyme) in their annual grudge match. The stands were packed! As the pre-game introductions were made, the pastors made their way onto the hardwood amidst wild cheers and crazy-fun nicknames. There were high-fives from the crowd and screams of appreciation that lasted through all four quarters and into the post-game celebration. It was a blast.

But amidst all the jubilation, I was wrestling. That used to be me. I used to be the man. The go-to. The guy everyone cheered, recognized, and looked to in these kind of settings. Now I’m just a dude sitting in the second row of the bleachers. Now I’m known as Emma’s dad (although I will admit that’s a sweet gig).

And in that lovely moment of pitiful self-absorption, I clearly heard God’s voice deep in the recesses of my spirit:

“That feeling? Yeah, that’s my love.”

Your love? Your love? So your love feels like a pity party? Is this a Taylor Swift song?

But He was right (somehow I think He usually is). You see, I’ve got a mistress. A secondary god. An idol I’ve bowed to in worship for a big chunk of my life. I long for, feed off of, and define myself by the accolades and approval of other people. I’ve written about it many times here, and from the responses I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

Defining ourselves by anything other than Christ’s redemption always leaves us searching, longing, yearning for something we already have. We can even find ourselves looking amongst some really good things.

Jesus and influence.

Jesus and motherhood.

Jesus and creativity.

Jesus and good works.

Jesus and pastoring.

Jesus and being liked, looked to, and appreciated by those around you.

Jesus and _________________ (fill in your blank).

As pastor Tullian Tchividjian puts it, “most idols in themselves are good things, good gifts from God….the trouble comes when transform these into ultimate things.” Do you ever find that to be true? (Don’t lie to me now).

Most of us spend our lives trying to earn what’s already ours, instead of living freely from a yearning that’s long been satisfied. We have Christ, but we’re always looking for our and. Just like me, God loves you enough to remind you to stop looking for what you already have.

“My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me.”

– Galatians 2:20 MSG

What’s your Jesus and?