We recently sat down with faculty members Mike Emlet and Alasdair Groves and asked about some of the new opportunities in front of them. Here is what they shared.
First of all, Alasdair, we would like to congratulate you on your new role as the director for our School of Biblical Counseling (SBC)! What are you most excited about in this new season?
I am excited about the opportunity to think through questions like: How do we bless people who are in ministry and can’t come to Philadelphia to learn in person? Whether it is a 43-year-old pastor in Singapore, or a 60-year-old woman seeking to mentor younger women in her church in California, making these students increasingly our focus is such an opportunity.
When I initially started in this role, I felt like distance education was an inferior way of learning forced upon us by the geography of our students. In the last few months, however, I’ve come to think that distance education can ultimately be better than on-site training. Our online students are already connected in a local church and this is a powerful resource. I am excited about shaping a program that embraces and harnesses the potential of students who are already firmly rooted in a ministry context. Then, when I add the interactions I have had with potential ministry partners around the world (churches, seminaries, etc.), it’s fair to say I’m chomping at the bit to see what the next decade brings for CCEF.
Mike, how do your counseling and teaching interact with each other? And what new opportunities are you encountering?
My counseling and my teaching are absolutely interdependent. For me, teaching without counseling would be like explaining how to swim without ever having gotten into the water myself! Counseling repeatedly drives me to study Scripture to better understand and help the person I’m meeting with. And teaching allows me to share the fruit of that study with others. But it doesn’t stop there. Students raise good questions that send me back to further study and to reconsider my counseling theory and practice for a particular issue. My teaching sharpens my counseling and my counseling keeps my teaching grounded in real life.
One new opportunity for me is my upcoming trip to Australia. I will be presenting a one day workshop in Brisbane (two talks on addiction, two talks on anxiety), which will be repeated in Melbourne at the end of my trip. I will also teach at the biblical counseling residential conference in Sydney where I will lecture on psychiatric disorders, psychoactive medications, and offer several sessions of counseling observation using videotaped counseling. Finally, I will teach my Counseling and Physiology course to students at Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne. I am excited about the opportunity to be on the ground in a place where the biblical counseling movement has been more recently established. I expect to learn much as I see how biblical counseling is taking root in a context other than the United States.
Alasdair, how are you growing in your counseling ministry?
I’m growing in my understanding of the need to be directive and to set concrete goals with my counselees. Because I haven’t taken new counselees for two-and-a-half years, my counseling focuses on difficult and long-term issues. I’m increasingly aware of how important it is for people who feel deeply stuck or exhausted to see clearly how they can walk forward with the Lord.
We’ve talked about teaching and counseling, and I know you both have upcoming writing projects that you hope will serve the body of Christ. Mike, will you tell us about your new book, Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications, which will be released this fall?
You don’t have to engage in many conversations in the church to find out that Christians disagree about both the nature of psychiatric problems and the use of psychoactive medications. My hope is that the book will offer a balanced perspective on how to understand psychiatric diagnoses and how to think about the benefits and drawbacks of using medications. To use the Goldilocks metaphor, I want people to come away from their reading neither “too hot” (overly enthusiastic) nor “too cold” (overly dismissive) regarding psychiatric diagnoses and medications, but “just right” (full of balanced biblical wisdom).
How would you like people to pray for you?
Please pray that I would not become weary in well-doing (Galatians 6:9). Pray for stamina and good health for my teaching in Australia—almost forty hours in two weeks (so it’s probably also important to pray that I don’t lose my voice!). Pray for a quick adjustment to the time change, and for my wife Jody, who in the midst of her own work outside the home, will be solo-parenting for the two weeks I am away. Pray for rich conversations with participants and students that would be helpful in furthering Christ’s work in their lives and ministries and that my own soul will be enlivened and refreshed.
These past six months have been particularly challenging with the combination of ministry responsibilities at CCEF, pastoral care as an elder in my local church, and serious health concerns for several members of my family. Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Pray that I would spend my days seeking and resting in the sufficiency of Jesus for all he calls me to in my family, at my church, and at CCEF.
Alasdair, tell us about the writing project you are working on and how we can pray for you.
I am working on a book about emotions with Winston Smith, who recently left CCEF to become a fulltime pastor. First, I ask you to pray that in our new roles we would still be able to carve out enough regular time to make this book happen. Secondly, I would greatly appreciate people praying for me as I’m bumping into some personal limits of my capacity in ways I never have before. I need the Lord to sustain me, and I want to lean on him more intentionally and frequently. Finally, pray joyfully with me, thanking God for giving me a job I love, and the raising up the support for us at CCEF so we are able to advance so many exciting projects!
Thank you both for what you have shared. As the faculty’s schedules change this fall, what new opportunities are you looking forward to?
Alasdair: Recently I’m realizing that we now have the opportunity to be more collaborative in our development of content. I think wisdom in this season is asking, “How can we function better as a team?” The end product is going to be so superior as we brainstorm and learn new ways of developing content that stands on the shoulders of what we’ve already done and yet takes it to a level we’ve never been able to achieve before.
Mike: I agree. You see that opportunity in other ways as well. For example, I am one of six faculty members who have started an advanced skills working group. We’re asking how we can do a better job of showing how our conceptual model works itself out in both informal and formal settings within the church. How can we ground everything we do in the absolute fundamentals of Scripture, so that our counseling methodology is not neutral? So then, when we talk about how to develop better listening skills, it’s absolutely connected to the God of the universe, to the way we understand human beings, and loves others well. I think this is a great example of the kind of collaboration we’re hoping to see.
I’ve always thought of Mark as the “hurry up” gospel, because everything seems to happen “immediately.” Perhaps that’s why Mark 6 caught my attention recently where Jesus invited the disciples to rest after they return from their missionary journey. Rest seems so incongruous in this fast-paced book, and surprisingly, it’s the only gospel in which this invitation appears. As someone living a “hurry up” life, longing for rest, I was intrigued, especially in light of how it played out.
The disciples had come back from their travels excited to talk about everything that had happened. The crowds were pressing in on them so severely, however, that not only was it challenging to talk, but they couldn’t get a moment to eat either. That’s when Jesus extended this remarkable invitation: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they hopped in a boat and headed for a solitary place (otherwise known as the wilderness). Sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it? Getting some down time with Jesus and your friends, eating and swapping stories? But that’s not what happened.
Instead, they arrive to discover that thousands of people from the surrounding area are waiting for them. Jesus, seeing the crowd as sheep without a shepherd, is moved with compassion and spends the day teaching them. Eventually, the disciples (who still haven’t eaten) appeal to him to disperse the crowds so the people can go find something to eat. But what does Jesus do? He tells them to feed the people. They balk at what it would cost, so Jesus has them find out what’s available—five loaves and two fish. He then gives thanks and has the disciples hand the food out until the entire crowd of 5000 are satisfied, and each of the disciples has his own basketful of leftovers besides.
So much for a quiet day alone with Jesus. So much for telling Jesus all that God had done while they were away. So much for having a restful day. But wait, it gets worse!
Jesus sends the disciples off in the boat to Bethsaida, dismisses the crowd, and then goes up on a mountain to pray. The disciples, meanwhile, are straining at the oars to row into strong headwinds. Up on the mountain, Jesus is aware of their situation but he waits until the early hours of the morning to go to them. As he walks by them, they mistake him for a ghost and shriek in terror. He replies saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” At that point he climbs into the boat with them and the winds die down. The passage ends by stating that the disciples were completely amazed, because they had not understood about the loaves and their hearts were hardened.
So a day that had begun with such promise had not turned out as expected. I can easily imagine that the disciples could have been disappointed, frustrated, discouraged, confused, physically spent, and feeling like they had experienced anything but a day of rest. Whatever had become of that invitation? Had it just fallen by the wayside? Had circumstances thwarted Jesus’ intentions? Or, I wondered, was it possible something more was going on?
Consider the scene—a large number of Israelites out in the wilderness needing food, with no obvious or natural way for them to get it, so their “shepherd” has them sit on the green grass in groups of fifties and hundreds and then miraculously provides them with a meal of bread and fish. Does that remind you of anything? Perhaps an even larger group of Israelites out in the wilderness with no obvious or natural way to be fed who experienced the miraculous provision of manna for forty years? And can you hear the echoes of Psalm 23? The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… He makes me lie down in green pastures… He prepares a table before me…
Jesus, the compassionate shepherd, first fed the crowd spiritually, and then, by using the disciples to pass out an ever-increasing supply of bread and fish, revealed himself as the bread of life. And, perhaps even more significantly for the disciples, he provided each with a basketful of tangible evidence of who he was to carry with them.
Jesus continued to reveal himself through the events on the lake. Who is able to walk on the sea? Only one who is lord over the sea. And, because the sea represents chaos in Scripture, Jesus is demonstrating his lordship over chaos. The passage says that Jesus “intended to pass them by.” Do you notice the similarity with other passages where God passes by to make himself known, as when he hid Moses in the cleft of the rock and his glory passed by? And then, if it hadn’t become apparent already, Jesus uses God’s own name to announce himself to the disciples, declaring, “It is I”!
Did it turn out to be a quiet, peaceful day for the disciples? Hardly. But does that mean rest was lost to them that day? Hardly. Their rest was right in front of them, if only they had the eyes to see him. So how does that help me when the times I’ve set aside to rest become overcome with the unexpected? I recall how the “hurry up” gospel managed to describe a day full of activity, while also revealing the one who is rest himself—one whose heart is compassionate toward his sheep, who nourishes us spiritually, while also providing our daily bread. One who goes up on the mountain to intercede for us. One who is lord over chaos, who not only comes to us when we’re straining at the oars, rowing into the headwinds of life, but who also gets into the boat with us, saying, “Take heart! It is I! Don’t be afraid.”
We have a common crisis in our home; it is the calamity of boredom. Our children might even consider it a catastrophe. “I’m bored” is repeated so often it would not be an overstatement to say that these words echo continuously throughout our home especially during any break from school. These are children with limited media time but still children with a Wii and Xbox system, a pool outside our door, multiple games, toys, and other planned activities. Yet “I’m bored” rolls off our children’s tongues with great frequency and displeasure.
As a result, we came up with a clever solution. We told our children that every time we hear the words, “I’m bored” (and all versions of boredom: “I’m tired”, “Nothing to do”, etc.), we would assign a chore to do. It didn’t take long before the words slipped out and thereafter, my kids appeared to find ways to occupy their time. Though it is a clever solution (and a great way to get the house cleaned), doing chores does not address their more fundamental struggles.
First, young people struggle with being over-entertained. When left to their own devices, they will often turn first to technology which allows them to be passively entertained rather than actively engaged in a hobby or activity. By spending time on social media, video games, TV or movies, they are, quite literally, entertaining themselves to mindlessness. When there is a moment of silence or inactivity, the adversity of boredom descends upon them and they feel incapable of overcoming it. Assigning a few chores makes them aware of their plight, but it is only an external impetus for behavioral change. They need to learn to engage free time more productively.
Second, we need to help our children foster the neglected gift of stillness. There is something lost when we do not learn to just sit, to be quiet, swing on a hammock or take a walk without something bellowing in our ear. We all need to stop and smell the roses, experience creation, to cease striving and know that He is God. We need to learn to enjoy such moments as a delight, not a period of boredom. Like us, children need to learn to reflect, contemplate, and meditate on the things of God. How will that happen if we do not endeavor to instill this in our children?
Third, kids need to be less self-consumed by their personal comforts and desires and learn to think outside of themselves. There is a world of need, service, job opportunities, education and life to be lived and they need to be nudged (or sometimes dragged) in the right direction. Teens are not going to wake up one day and feel charitable and ask to go serve in the local food pantry. It requires cultivating generosity and a desire to serve. It means instilling in them a willingness to give of both time and resources. As parents, we have to be willing to do the hard work of steering our kids towards service and imparting within them a desire to be other-centered.
So, if your kids are bored at home, you might try the chore response. It does have a certain appeal. But recognize its limitations. It will not instill in them the godly character you really desire for your children. That only comes through careful examination of what captures their affections, and equipping them to thoughtfully steward their free time.
Like everyone I have many identities – daughter, wife, mother, Nana (five grands and one on the way!), worker, and finally . . . pastor’s wife. And that puts me in a special club. A club of women who are trying to navigate the expectations of their particular church culture and do no harm along the way. A friend once said to me, “Well you can’t really make your husband’s ministry successful, but you sure could make it worse.” Gulp. That’s just a little bit of pressure. And I have felt that pressure at different times in the last thirty plus years of my husband’s ministry. I have felt the weight of not meeting people’s expectations, having a busy husband, trying to shepherd our children through painful church experiences, the sense of never having done enough, and that if things don’t go well at church somehow it’s my fault. And then of course the weight of my own mistakes and sins – the times I really did say things that were hurtful or didn’t notice someone else’s need – how does one live a public life where you and your family are on display in all of your weaknesses?
Well, I can share with you a few strategies that definitely don’t work. It turns out that denial doesn’t help (as in “I’ll just pretend I’m a regular church member”), also self-protection, bitterness, guilt, self-pity, manipulation, and avoidance. None of these things help. But Jesus helps. The one who called you into this life is also the one who shepherds you carefully and kindly through this life.
How has Jesus helped me? He gives more grace. It was God’s grace that turned a self-centered, self-reliant young woman toward him. It was God’s grace that showed me my great and daily need for forgiveness and help. And then God gave me a life (pastor’s wife included) that forces me to acknowledge how needy I am every day. And if I forget, then my relationships show me once again that I can’t do it on my own. When I notice my sins, to survive, I have to remember that the forgiveness of sins is the heart of the gospel message. When I notice others’ sins, to survive, I have to share the grace I have received – because forgiving others is also at the heart of the gospel message.
The pressure cooker of 24/7 ministry puts ours and others’ sins and failures on display, but it also puts on display the grace of God that allows us to receive and give daily forgiveness and mercy. It turns out to be true that “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Blessed are those who have nothing and know it, because that is the way to receive everything from our faithful Savior Jesus. To the extent that being a pastor’s wife forces me to rely on Jesus for everything – that is a great grace.
Which brings me to another important way that Jesus has helped me through the last thirty years: his rule over all of life means he is able to use every hard time for our good and his glory. There have been times when I felt crushed by life and ministry. During one of those times we were getting ready to leave the church where we had ministered for many years, and I was sad, scared, and angry. A friend of mine said to me, “This happened to us too and looking back I can see that God transplanted us in the kindest way possible. He gently dug us up, shook some dirt off our roots, and replanted us where he needed us.” I looked at her and thought, I don’t see it that way. But now, many years later, I do. I see that God’s plans were better than mine. I see his kindness in how and when he moved us forward. I see that he had things for us to do in another part of his kingdom. I see that no harm came to me and mine. Yes, he shook some dirt off our roots (dirt that needed to come off), but he took great care of us as he did so.
I didn’t choose to be a pastor’s wife (actually since my dad was a pastor it was a conscious thought that I would never, ever be a pastor’s wife). But you can’t be too careful with God. It turns out that you can be a non-Christian who takes up with a fun bartender at work and still end up one day serving the Lord as “the first lady of the church.” And it also turns out that the life I didn’t choose is a rich life – full of deep friendships with folks I would never have met otherwise and the amazing privilege of being invited in to the most significant and hardest moments of people’s lives. We see faith on display in God’s people through joy and terrible tragedy. And I am forced to live by faith as well. What could be better than that?
We can easily list dozens of ways to lighten the load of ministry. The hard part is acting on any one of them or acting on the one most suited to our situation. Here are three that shouldn’t add much work to your schedule.
1. Pour out your heart to the Lord and ask others for prayer and help
This makes most any list. We have been created as mere human beings, limited, finite and needy. To reach the zenith of our humanity, we say “Jesus help” and follow that with asking for prayer and help from those close to us. This is faith: to be brought to the end of ourselves and to trust in Christ, the head of the church. In other words, when burnout is bearing down on us and we become keenly aware of our weaknesses—this is actually a good thing. The Apostle Paul aspired to such times. Self-reliance is a myth. Maturity means that we grow in dependence
2. Look for the Spirit’s activity
I was with some Bible teachers recently who seemed tired by the slog of ministry. They mused, “Do people ever really change?” People’s growth in godliness can, indeed, seem glacial, but I think they were saying something else. Their primary ministry is preaching and teaching and that limits their opportunities to engage in face-to-face ministry, which is where you see the Spirit on display.
As a counselor I see people who feel stuck, yet the Spirit is with them and the evidences are everywhere. If you only greeted them on Sunday morning, you might miss it. But get into the details of daily life and you will see repentance, perseverance, patience, bold love and grief that calls out to the Lord. When you see the glory of God on display in this way, your spirit is lifted.
If you are feeling overburdened in pastoral ministry, look for the work of the Spirit in someone’s life. Ask for a story of what God is doing. It will remind you that we are living in the age of the Spirit. The temple’s curtain has been taken down and earth has access to heaven. Now we freely enter the Holy of Holies, and soon we will see him face-to-face.
3. It is God’s will that you taste rejection
Perhaps the most difficult part of ministry is that you will be critiqued and rejected by those whom you love and serve. You will be accused wrongly. You will be judged because of what you do and what you don’t do. People will leave the church because of you. This is inherent in pastoral ministry.
Consider Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians as a word of encouragement. In this letter, we discover that the greatest of all church planters was rejected by the very church he planted. He didn’t fit their idea of a gifted preacher. He wasn’t very impressive, and who wants to go a church in which the pastor is merely ordinary?
The encouragement here is that there is a lineage of rejection among those called to ministry. The Old Testament prophets were rejected, the Son himself was rejected, and the shepherds who pastor in Jesus’ name will be rejected. It is a reminder that you are joined to Christ and share in his sufferings. We can, of course, speak and act in ways that deserve critique, but there will be days when it will come for no reason. At those times, Paul reminds you that this is confirmation of the love of God.
The stresses and burdens of ministry can seem like too much to bear. But when we realize that Scripture actually predicts such times, and it can be evidence of God’s approval, then hope begins to enter the hardships.
I felt shame last week.
The township sanitation worker slapped me with a written warning. It was bright orange and plastered on my garbage can for everyone to see. Apparently, he found unauthorized material in that garbage can—namely, errrr….. a bunch of concrete. I wish I could say that I wasn’t aware that heavy items like concrete are prohibited, but I was fully aware of that. I consciously decided to push the boundaries of what was “allowable.” Guilty as charged! Maybe that’s why the sanitation worker’s chastisement had so much impact. Or, maybe it’s because any disapproval and disappointment shakes me up. To be fair, it’s likely a bit of both.
The reason I share this story is that in the midst of all that was happening, I also found myself noticing things about the experience of shame. Here is some of what I observed.
All of this because a sanitation worker found concrete in my garbage can! This person doesn’t know me or anything about me. And yet, I experienced tangible and palpable shame. How much more significant it must be for someone whose shame is perpetual or involves a family member, neighbor, or colleague.
Whether it’s a singular episode like in my story or a chronic life experience, having some insight into the physical and mental experience of shame helps prepare you for its eventual reoccurrence. But there’s something even more fundamental that needs to be understood about the experience of shame. It is this: what feels true is often different from what is true.
This fits my experience to a tee. My feelings of shame were so real and powerful that I was tempted to question basic things I thought I knew about reality, namely: I am God’s child, I am acceptable, I am eligible to serve God, etc. Shame can threaten our foundational beliefs like this because, in the moment, it feels like it is the most accurate representation of what is true.
My only hope (and yours) is in what God says is true. His message transcends the experience of shame and grounds me in what is real and unchanging. Shame does not decide my identity or my status before God, or my future. Nor does shame determine my competence to love and serve others. My status, my identity, my future, and my qualifications to participate in kingdom ministry are secured for me in Christ. Paul hammers this home in Romans 6 through 8. First, he proclaims that I am dead to sin and alive in Christ (chapter 6). Next, he tells me that much of the time I won’t feel that way (chapter 7). Finally in chapter 8, Paul implores me to remember that even when all this doesn’t feel true—it still is true. God claims his people and shores up their frailty and weakness by means of his Spirit (v.16, 26-27). With an experience like shame that condemns and accuses, Paul rhetorically asks (v.33-35):
Who shall bring charges against God’s people?
Who is the one who condemns?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
The emphatic answer to all three questions is: “no one.” Not the evil one, not myself, and not the experience of shame.
On the day of the garbage can citation, my body needed to work through the physical manifestations of shame, and my conscience had to sort out my culpability and calling to confess and repent. But nevertheless, I was confident that my status before God was not at stake—even when it felt like it was.
Alasdair Groves and Mike Emlet sit down and talk about OCD.
This is part 2 of a 2 part series: Part 1
Religious OCD: “Am I saved?” “Have I committed the ‘unpardonable’ sin?” “Is this action a sin?” “Why do I always feel condemned?” “Why can’t I get these thoughts out of my head?” This session provides a gospel-based ministry approach to Christians crippled by obsessive doubt, scrupulosity, and an overly-sensitive conscience.
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How can I light a fire and get you engaged and active in wanting to grow when you don’t really seem that interested? You’re “eh,” “meh,” and “whatever.” What could shake you out of apathy and indifference? What could shake you out of plodding along through life, going through the motions in your Christianity?
There’s no magic answer of course. But let me share a couple of things that I’ve found that have affected my own lethargy and apathy. First of all, I often look at myself in light of the seven deadly sins. (These are actually the seven daily sins, things that are endemic to what it means to be a human being!) The one that always gets me is sloth (Latin: acedia). Sloth doesn’t just mean you’re just sitting around watching TV all day, popping bonbons. Sloth also means indifference. Feeling apathetic. Sloth says, “I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter. What’s the use? Whatever.” It’s a pretty accurate characteristic of the modern era, a mild cynicism that questions whether or not anything really matters.
The thing is, everything actually does matter. It matters a whole lot. The tiniest things we do, the most careless words we say, the smallest act of kindness towards another person—all these things actually count. We live in God’s world. From God’s perspective, there’s nothing we do that’s outside his concern or gaze.
Think of how Jesus chose to single out giving a glass of cold water to somebody who is thirsty, and talked about how you won’t lose your reward in heaven when you do something that small. He thought that spotting someone else and serving them in some small way really, really mattered. It’s the opposite of indifference because someone else’s need matters to the point that you put yourself out.
Also, let’s think about the way in which people who are apathetic also often complain and grumble. We can become negative, mildly sour, skeptical about stuff that happens. You know, in the Bible, the people of Israel were killed for grumbling! It was a death-sentence crime to grumble, because God is truly good, and we lose sight of that when we become absorbed in our own needy desires.
We forget, but God doesn’t forget. Grumbling matters before him. He is continually calling for us to wake up and remember. He reminds us not to fall asleep or lose sight of what it’s all about. He says, “Don’t forget who you are, and don’t forget who I am.” Don’t forget that everything we do and say actually matters. Every careless word or unthinking comment actually matters, and our God is committed to touch us right down to the throw-away comments, the casual bad attitudes and “whatevers” that can so degrade our lives into apathy.
Human life—every choice, every thought, every word, every deed, and every attitude—really, truly matters. As you awaken to that, you awaken to the fact that you really need help. You’re able to say, “God, I really need you. I need your strength. I need your forgiveness. Give me the grace to care about things that really matter.”