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5 factors that can mess with your mind. Two | The Risk Factor

Want to see a group of church leaders squirm, put failure on the agenda of your next meeting. It's not that spiritual leaders have to be in the winner's circle all the time, or that our sensitive egos can't handle the more humble outcomes of life. No, for pastors and other church leaders failure has another deeper, darker dimension. You see, failing God isn't like showing up late for a meeting or missing the budget goal for the year. There's this accountablity thing, the biblical promise that the leaders of his church will one day give an accounting of their stewardship. As it is written, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls , as those who will have to give an account" (Hebrews 13:17).

Then again, the pastorate and church staff positions seem to attract a fair share of approval addicts. So, failing God, though powerfully significant and real in every sense, is just step one on the ladder of spiritual responsibility for individuals called to serve him. This is what I call the dark night of the soul accountability, those moments of reflection and devotion when he prods and probes to reveal our sinful nature once again and brings us to our knees in confession and repentance. When the accountability is about people pleasing, it's usually more public, most often humiliating, and generally a whipping that cuts deeper than any other words we could hear. What people think shouldn't even be on the scorecard! Yet, somewhere in the inverted priorities of pop culture the human elements usually play louder and stronger than any other influence on us. And, really, it's not new. The New Testament gives a good bit of advice to God's people about valuing men more than God. But, then, there's something in the default setting of sinful humans that puts the people equations higher in our metrics.

As a result, many church leaders won't venture into the high-risk areas. Now, we can talk about these minefields all day long and perhaps never reach agreement about what they are. Back in February, Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, wrote a blog listing the top ten most fiercely defended traditions in local churches (see These are his take on the those areas of church life that are most hazardous to address. I believe his research and conclusions are spot on. You can go to that site to review them. At the same time, every one of our 40,000+ independent congregations has erected "posted" signs around the sacred areas of their church history and life. They are the people, events, rules (written and unwritten), and principles that cannot be questioned or touched. It usually takes a while for a pastor or church staff member to explore and navigate the teritorial bounds of church life.

The Risk Factor is what happens when we enter those marked areas. Yesterday I discussed The X Factor, defining them as the unknown and unpredictable aspects of ministry that are beyond our knowledge. When we are prepared as his disciples The X Factor, still mostly unexpected, won't throw mission off point as readily. But, there's another layer in dealing with The Risk Factor. Here, we know the boundaries of the no trespassing areas of church life. Entering them, then, is a matter of purpose and intention, crossing those lines knowing full-well the implications of violating established taboos. Sadly, we live in the day of comfort zones and housing allowances and medical insurance and retirement packages and our eagerness to venture into private property is abated significantly. They're dangerous places, these high-risk areas. And, underneath is a question: who wants to be known or remembered as the pastor who stirred the pot and caused dissension in the church?

So, how do we deal with The Risk Factor as we lead God's people?

(1) Always know that pastoral leadership, and ministry itself, is hard work. Jesus announced that his people would be aliens and strangers in this world and that his leaders could count on trouble as they fulfill his calling. So, The Risk Factor is always going to be real and potentially dangerous.

(2) Spiritual discernment should define everything we do as leaders of his church. Just because we know the untouchable areas of church life doesn't mean we have to address them. Some of them are inconsequential peculiarities not germane to the mission of the church. As one old preacher told me years ago, we should exercise care about dying on the wrong mountain.

(3) Understanding the dynamics of conflict and the biblical means of resolving it are essential as we prepare to enter the high-risk areas. I usually recommend Peacemaker Ministries and their excellent conflict resolution materials as a systematic approach to dealing with the issues that could divide and bring dissension within the church family. You can review their system at

(4) There are many written resources for use in dealing with the traditional trouble spots in church life. Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer have compiled pages of research and conclusions that identify many of the common high-risk areas shared by Baptist churches. Read their blogs and follow their links to a great deal of data that will help you deal with The Risk Factor in your ministry.

(5) Do your homework before you accept a call to a church. Incredibly, few pastors and staffers ask the most crucial questions when exploring the possibilities of a new ministry locale. Someone on a Pastor Search Committee or in church leadership can give you a heads up. The only bad question, as we all know, is the one that isn't asked.

Then there's the Jesus Factor. He talked to the Twelve often about counting the cost, launching into the deep water, going into the highways and hedges, dealing with the traditions of men, and speaking to the times. In his final discourse before the crucifixion he reminded them of what was to come. He said, "But the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26). He promised them that the Holy Spirit would guide them and direct them through the high-risk areas of their service.

While we're mastering all the strategies and models of mission, we should always remember the spiritual dimension, his provision to be with us forever, to guide us in our service to him. And so, we have an edge as we navigate the dangerous currents of the high-risk zones.

Greater is he that is in me...

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