The loner President and the loner pastor

Yesterday I dipped my toe into American politics and survived; it will probably be a while until I venture forth in that direction again. But I mentioned how many political biographies I’d read over the years – maybe a bit of an odd reading diet for a pastor and professor – and I’d like to explain why.

Partly it’s because they are so entertaining. And by that I don’t mean “funny,” but rather “enthralling…captivating…etc.” I love observing the rise and fall of powerful men and women; I admire their God-given gifts of organization, management, leadership, oratory, etc.; I tremble at their fatal flaws and mis-steps; I soar with awe at their courage and I sag with despair at their cowardice. Power is such a fascinating roller-coaster, isn’t it. As such these political bios have been a stimulating and enjoyable way to spend some of my evening hours.

I also love watching how God’s providence interacts with human affairs. Of course, rarely do the biographers or autobiographers attribute events to God, at least not the successes; but it’s so intriguing to read the same events through Bible-tinged glasses and see God’s interventions in powerful people’s lives. As Nebuchadnezzar found out, there is a King of kings and Lord of lords.

These books also give such insights into the dark depths of human nature. You see what people are prepared to do, say, and be in order to gain power, keep power, and deny power to others. You see what people do with power when they have it. I’m sure we hardly know even the half of it, but that half is bad enough. And an increasingly painful trend is the self-justification that rears its ugly head in many of the biographies. I like to see politicians, generals, etc, admit mistakes and take responsibility. But that rarely happens today. Instead it’s just page after page of self-vindication. Maybe it’s the political climate, but very few have the courage now to say, “I was wrong. I made a bad decision there.”

I have even learned many pastoral leadership lessons from these books. Of course, there are many aspects of political leadership that do not transfer to pastoral leadership, but there is some overlap, especially in the area of faults and weaknesses.

The loner President
Let me give you a recent example of this: two recent stories played the same note, though one played it with the left hand and the other with the right. Obama the loner president appeared in The Washington Post, a newspaper usually sympathetic to the President, and Aimless Obama walks alone was in the New York Post, not one of the President’s fans.

Both articles had the same theme: in the face of multiple difficult problems, President Obama withdraws from people and limits contact to a few close confidantes, spending the evenings in his office with books and his internet browser. Here’s how the (friendly) Washington Post begins its story:

Beyond the economy, the wars and the polls, President Obama has a problem: people.

This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors. His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, to be generous. Personal lobbying on behalf of legislation? He prefers to leave that to Vice President Biden, an old-school political charmer.

Obama’s circle of close advisers is as small as the cluster of personal friends that predates his presidency. There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.

Obama is, in short, a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work.

And here’s the New York Post’s take:

The reports are not good, disturbing even. I have heard basically the same story four times in the last 10 days, and the people doing the talking are in New York and Washington and are spread across the political spectrum.

The gist is this: President Obama has become a lone wolf, a stranger to his own government. He talks mostly, and sometimes only, to friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett and to David Axelrod, his political strategist.

Everybody else, including members of his Cabinet, have little face time with him except for brief meetings that serve as photo ops.

The president’s workdays are said to end early, often at 4 p.m. He usually has dinner in the family residence with his wife and daughters, then retreats to a private office. One person said he takes a stack of briefing books. Others aren’t sure what he does.

If the reports are accurate, and I believe they are, they paint a picture of an isolated man trapped in a collapsing presidency.

The Washington Post identifies this “isolationism” as a character trait, whereas the New York Post sees it more as a reaction to the difficulties of his presidency. It’s probably a bit of both. And although there’s probably a bit of exaggeration going on here, it does seem to fit the generally depressed picture of the President these days.

So where’s the pastoral takeaway?

Well, many pastors, by nature and temperament, prefer theology to people, preaching to pastoring, quiet to socializing, books to the BBQ. Such men must daily “deny themselves” and fight against their nature in order to visit, mix, and connect with people. But they also have to be extra careful when difficulties come into their ministries that they don’t default to withdrawal, isolation, and the select company of those who agree with them.

Whatever people think of Bill Clinton’s policies and personality, he certainly had “people skills” (yes, probably too many of them); he knew how to connect policies to people. Last month he was advising Democrats on how to overcome the Republican’s anti-government message. “If you’re going to fight that,” he told a room full of engrossed former advisers, “your counter has to be rooted in the lives of other people.”

That’s where our theology must be rooted as well – in the lives of our people. Theology in the abstract, disconnected from real life, will accomplish nothing and actually put distance not only between us and our people, but also between God and our people.

Our pastorates must be rooted in lives of our people also, and never more so than when difficulties and opposition arise. So, if you’re retreating to the study and the books because of an onslaught of pastoral problems, give yourself a good kick out of the door. (Or ask your wife to do it). Mix with your friends, spend time with your elders, visit the flock, and invite your enemies to the BBQ.

A rare foray into American politics

Although most of my life has been spent in the UK, ever since the Reagan years I’ve also taken a keen interest in American politics. I must have read close to a hundred different biographies of various American Presidents, VP’s, Secretaries of State, Generals, “spin-doctors,” and political journalists. And of course there are the daily visits to realclearpolitics, politico, etc. And after all that research, I’m looking forward to when I hope to be able to cast a ballot in a few years time.

So allow me to make one of my rare forays into commenting on American politics with this simple question:

Why are the mainstream media almost completely silent on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism?Mitt Romney

I’ve been reading Latayne Scott’s The Mormon Mirage over the past few days, as I prepare to interview her on the Connected Kingdom podcast. I must confess that, with most of my Christian life and ministry having been spent in the Scottish Highlands, I’ve not needed to know much about Mormonism and I’ve had very little contact with Mormons themselves. That’s why The Mormon Mirage has been such a frightening eye-opener for me. As I discovered more and more about the Mormon’s bizarre and outlandish beliefs, practices, and leaders, the question kept popping into my mind: Why are the mainstream media almost completely silent on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism?

I look at the media’s brutal, ruthless, and merciless treatment of political leaders with any kind of evangelical Christian faith (e.g. President Bush, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, etc.). But when it comes to Mitt Romney – silence! In fact, even more intriguingly, we find increasing numbers of the media, and even of Democratic opponents, praising him! Something very suspicious going on here.

Here’s my theory.

Democratic strategists know that they can use Mitt Romney’s Mormon “faith” to destroy him in a general election campaign. Therefore, keep the powder dry, help Romney get nominated, then repeatedly connect him with the utterly weird religion he is associated with; keep him on the back foot defending or explaining (or rejecting) his beliefs, and wait for sufficient independent (and evangelical) voters to take fright, as they assuredly will. And even if Romney then renounces his Mormonism, that simply plays into the already damaging “flip-flopper” narrative of someone who will say/do anything to be elected

This is nothing whatsoever to do with the American left’s pre-occupation with the so-called “separation of church and state” (which is increasingly being interpreted as no one with faith is allowed an office of state). This is nothing to do with whether Mormonism is a cult or not. No, this is simply about personal gullibility and potential electability. I know that we Christians are mocked for believing in the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection, etc. However, even our harshest critics would say ,”Compared to Mormonism, Christianity is a model of sanity and reasonableness.”

I was quite keen on Romney until I read Latayne Scott’s book. Although he’s rather weak and unpredictable on social issues, I thought his business and leadership gifts and experience might be just what America needs at this time. I’ve been impressed with his debating skills and he certainly carries himself well. But this Mormonism is going to sink him.

So, here’s my prediction. If Romney is nominated, the media who seemed to support him will suddenly discover he’s a Mormon, and they’ll quickly and easily render him unelectable.

(UPDATE: The last week’s media “interest” in Mormonism was the result of a prominent pastor’s comments not media investigation of Mormonism. The reaction of most of the media to these comments seems to prove my point: “What do you mean Mormonism is a cult…not Christianity…etc?” Downplay, minimize, etc….until the time is right…)

Children’s Bible Reading Plan (52)

# 52 tells us that that’s a year of Children’s Bible Study plans in the can. May the Lord bless the many children and parents who are using this or other systems to get their children into the Scriptures which are able to make them wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).

Here’s this week’s morning and evening reading plan in Word and pdf.

Here’s this week’s single reading plan for morning or evening in Word and pdf.

And for those who want to start at the beginning, here’s six months of the morning and evening in pdf, and here’s six months of the single reading plan in pdf.

Here’s a brief explanation of the plan.

Al Mohler on Mark Driscoll

I was sent this audio clip of a Q&A at the recent Expositor’s Conference. Al Mohler was asked a question that concerns many pastors: “I work with college students…and one of the big influences on their lives right now is Mark Driscoll. What do you think the effects of sitting under Driscoll on Youtube or on his website, and what kind of things do I need to be prepared for ministering to college students listening to his teaching?”

Or download here (right click).

Am I boring you? 7 tell-tale signs

Ever wondered if you’re boring? Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project, gives seven signs to watch out for.

Happiness Project

  1. Repeated, perfunctory responses. A person who says, “Oh really? Oh really? That’s interesting. Oh really?” is probably not too engaged. Or a person who keeps saying, “That’s hilarious.”
  2. Simple questions. People who are bored ask simple questions. “When did you move?” “Where did you go?” People who are interested ask more complicated questions that show curiosity, not mere politeness.
  3. Interruption. Although it sounds rude, interruption is actually a good sign, I think. It means a person is bursting to say something, and that shows interest.
  4. Request for clarification. A person who is sincerely interested in what you’re saying will need you to elaborate or to explain. “What does that term mean?” “When exactly did that happen?”
  5. Imbalance of talking time. I suspect that many people fondly suppose that they usually do eighty percent of the talking in a conversation because people find them fascinating. Sometimes, it’s true…In general, though, people who are interested in a subject have things to say themselves; they want to add their own opinions, information, and experiences. If they aren’t doing that, they probably just want the conversation to end faster.
  6. Body position. People with a good connection generally turn fully to face each other. A person who is partially turned away isn’t fully embracing the conversation.
  7. Audience posture. An audience that’s upright and still is interested, while an audience that’s horizontal and squirmy is bored.

The seventh is especially helpful (worrying?) for preachers.

You can buy Gretchen’s entertaining and enlightening book here.

Top 6 Struggles of Pastoral Ministry

Phil Monroe summarizes Michael Mackenzie’s AACC
Conference presentation on the most significant struggles in pastoral ministry

  1. Stress
  2. Burnout
  3. Marital Problems
  4. Sexual Problems (infidelity, porn, etc.)
  5. Depression
  6. Conflict (family or ministry).

The prime causes of these are:

  1. Isolation
  2. Unrealistic Expectations
  3. Poor Boundaries.

Phil wisely calls for deeper layers of these causes to be probed before listing Mark McMinn’s stress-prevention measures:

  1. Personal devotion to Christ (outside of sermon prep)
  2. Hobbies
  3. Exercise
  4. Regular time away
  5. A good marriage.

And he closes with the $64,000 question. But you’ll have to read his post to find out what that is!

In fact you’d do well to add his blog to your RSS list.