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Remembering the Day I Was Fired

Apr. 15, 2014By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

In the spring of 2008 I was brought into the principal’s office. I had been teaching at a Christian school for two years, where I had started working after I graduated from seminary. The first 18 months had gone really well and I truly enjoyed what I was doing. I had seen kids come to Christ, enjoyed teaching the students, loved coaching the basketball team and was privileged to serve as a board member. At home, my wife and I had just welcomed our second child into the home we bought in 2006. However, the last six months had been pretty difficult and in the morning of a spring day I was asked to resign. We all know what that means - I was being fired. 

It is hard now to recapture exactly what happened. I write with six years of perspective. The day will forever be ingrained in my mind. Getting called in. Sitting with friends who were letting me go. Telling my wife I was being fired from my first vocational ministry job. I had heard that only 1 in 5 people graduating from seminary were in vocational ministry after five years. Would I be a casualty? Would people think less of me and wonder whether I was competent or qualified to serve in a role I had been trained to do? Most of what I say below would apply to all types of firing, but I am speaking specifically about being fired from a vocational ministry position for reasons other than significant moral failure or cut backs - I’m talking about the hard and unclear cases.

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The allegations, whatever they are, are probably not 100% false

The last six months of my job were difficult. I needed to wade through all that was being said about me and learn. Even if 99% of it was false, some of it was probably true and even if it was minor I needed to mature. Do some pastors get sifted by their people even though they are 100% in the right? Yes, but it is rare. I have sat with many people who have been let go from ministry positions, and as they have told me their stories I have usually been able to see why the whole thing went south, even if they can not see it yet. It took me some time, but I Iearned quite a bit about leadership, personal interaction, clarity in speaking, keeping better attention to details and much more.

Submit to Authority

Almost everyone is under the authority of someone else. It is easy to submit when you agree with the decisions being made, but the true test of submission is whether you can submit to decisions you do not agree with. I am not talking about submitting to immoral decisions. Over the course of a job we are bound to disagree with someone making decisions in leadership. I am sure I could have reasoned that what was happening was unjust. Maybe I could have reasoned they were my enemies and pray the imprecatory Psalms over them. Maybe I could count it as persecution. Maybe I could have planted seeds of discord in the staff, parents and students and try a divide and conquer strategy. 

Or not.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Does Romans 13:1 only apply to the government rulers? I don’t think so.

Let no bitter root grow

Being fired by a Christian brother or sister is a terrible experience. I was sitting in a room with four people who took little pleasure in letting me go. They knew what it meant for my young family. Some of them were and still are close friends. I had actually taught or coached three of the four’s children. We had a relationship. They were parents, spouses and friends. They had prayed for me and the person who made the decision thought he was making the best possible decision.

There were also the colleagues - those who liked me and were on “my side” and those that were not. Again - all believers for whom Christ had died. For me, Hebrews 12:14-15 came to mind: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Even for the people who treated me terribly, I was responsible before God to be at peace with others and not let bitterness grow. 

Six years later I can say that I have prayed with all four of the people that were in the room with me and keep in contact with two of them. As for the others who pushed for me to leave, I have prayed for reconciliation but life has taken us different places and I have no idea where they are. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matt 5:9).

As a man and the only one who receives income for work, this was especially important for my family. I needed to provide a safe and calm environment for my wife and kids. They needed me to not be angry, anxious or full of contempt. They needed me to lead.

If it keeps happening, you really need some perspective from others your trust

I got some good advice from a wise man when this happened. He told me that if this only happened once it was not a big deal. If it happened again it was a cause for concern. If it happened 3-4 times it was a big red flag.

If you constantly find yourself being let go from ministry positions it is probably a sign that you need some perspective and feedback. It could be that you are not cut out or gifted for the type of jobs you are applying for. You may be taking jobs beyond your competency. You might need to learn to actually love people and not just on your own terms. It could be that you don’t know how to discern a situation that is a good fit for you. Whatever it is, find some friends and get some perspective. 

The Lord will take care of you, even if it’s your own fault

I had an immediate problem in that I had no job in April of 2008, which was beyond the hiring cycle for most churches and schools. It’s difficult to not be anxious when you walk into your home you purchased right before the market crash, look into the eyes of your wife who had just had a baby and tell her you were fired. Would the Holy Spirit carry me through?

In June of that year, I pitched the idea of Training Leaders International to a pastor at the church I attended. In July, I began an interim pastorate that lasted two years. And though the Lord extracted quite a bit of flesh from me, TLI was launched and now serves pastors around the world. 

The firing taught me a lot about myself, which the Lord used to shape me. The pastorate was one of the greatest blessings of my life. These two events are what prepared me to found and lead TLI. The truth is, TLI would not exist if I had not been fired, nor would I have been ready to lead it. So Lord - thank you for firing me from a job I loved.

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Getting PhDs to the Mission Field

Jan. 14, 2014By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

Seminaries and graduate schools around the world are asking for PhD holders to come as missionaries and teach Bible and theology.  I know of one major seminary in Europe who posted their openings in a major evangelical magazine, only to find no takers.  Why is this and how can we help?

Why They Are Hard to Find

1.  God has not called them.  This is simple enough.  To go to another culture with your wife and kids usually requires God to uproot you in some way that is so clear that you believe God is leading you to the field.   

2.  Some think raising money is below their degree.  I only write this because I have heard it so often.  Raising support is for the M.Div. students, so I have been told.  It is for the staff of some campus ministry or for helping orphans and those on the margins of society. I know of many that would rather work at Starbucks or UPS than ask people for their support to go overseas. 

3.  It is a career killer, or maybe better an inhibitor.  You can't participate at ETS/SBL. Your library (if you have one) is more limited.  The education level of the students (in some cases) is at a much lower level then what you find in the US (though that seems to be changing for the worse here).  Their colleagues might not be as educated and able to provide them helpful feedback or sharpening of ones own skills.

4.  It may involve learning ANOTHER language.  Most PhD students have learned Greek, Hebrew, German and French and now we are asking them to potentially teach it all in another language.  This is a real challenge.  Who wants to spend 2-3 years trying to master Japanese in order to teach Greek when your mother tongue in English after having spent years toiling with participles?

5.  You don't have very many friends who can support you.  One reality that faces graduates is that in the last six years you have probably lived in three different locations, and in each locations you probably did not make a lot of friends.  You have spent a lot of time in libraries or have probably only gotten to know your fellow classmates.

6.  You can still teach modular classes overseas without leaving your job in the US. 

7.  Debt.  Plain and simple, going to school costs a lot of money.  Very few escape with a PhD and less than $45K of school loans from the various institutions they have attended (at least in my experience).

How The Church Can Help

1.  Pray God calls them (or me or you).  There is such a great need for well-trained, godly, pastoral cross-cultural teachers.  

2.  Challenge the belief that fundraising is not for them.  Have them read Steve Shadrach's Viewpoints.  It could be that one of the reasons people have a hard time asking for support is because they do not think the people around them are generous.  That is fair.  That means we should be even more open in our generosity and encourage them to go by pledging our support.  

3. Seminaries in the west must talk to students about the global Church and do so often.  It is not enough to talk about it in the Missions 101 class.  It should permeate all of our classes.  Maybe seminaries should offer some full rides to students interested in teaching in developing countries.

4.  Churches should talk about being missional not just in their community, but around the world.  They should also disciple these students and get them into small groups with people in the church who are not theology students, but serving the Lord in different career paths.   

5.  Create a way to get rid of the debt.  I have prayed that some donor would come to TLI or set up on their own a fund that would pay off the debt of PhD's if they committed to 5 years of service overseas. Medical doctors have a program like this.  I believe this incentive would unleash many into service. I am thankful for places like Eternity Bible College and Bethlehem College and Seminary that are focused on keeping the costs low.

I am sure there are many reasons people do not go and many more ways we can help them.  This is just a starting point.

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Fetus or Child? Two Years Later

Nov. 21, 2013By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

Two years ago I wrote this:

My wife is five months pregnant.  Last month we went for an ultrasound to see the baby and have the doctors check to make sure everything was progressing nicely.  We had done this three times before and were excited.  As we met with the doctor and ultrasound technician they referred to what they saw as "your child."  They must have said it 50x during the ultrasound as they referred to "your child's hand," "your child's heart," etc.  

But then something changed.  

Another doctor was brought into the room and for 5 minutes he stared at the baby's heart.  The room was completely silent.  He then began to tell us that there was a tumor on our child's heart and started to run down all the scenarios we were now faced with.  Then the doctor said to us: "If the fetus is abnormal and that is management problem for you, you have the option to terminate your fetus."  The slight change in wording tells the story.  I was in too much shock to respond.  But later it dawned on me what he had done. The child my wife was carrying was only a child if we wanted to keep it, as if it was our choice!  However, if we did not want the baby, it was only a fetus.

Three weeks later we came back for another ultrasound.  The growth on the heart was not a tumor, but a normal variant.  In the doctor's eyes, our child was a baby again.  In our eyes, nothing had changed.

I have pondered this event many times now as I have held my son over the last 20 months. I am still in shock over it. Not a suprised kind of shocked. More of sadness and digust. As my wife and I have considered that conversation multiple times over the years, we have felt a large pull to help the Right to Life movement. We however are handcuffed (in a wonderful way) right now with four children and my job and are not able to do very much. So now, here are a few things for busy people to fight for the life of children not yet born:

1. Pray. Pray for the moms who are considering the abortion, the families who want to adopt the children and the doctors who want to murder them. 

2. Engage. Engage your pro-choice friends in sane and calm arguments. Scott Klusendorf's book The Case for Life might really help you in this regard. The best argument to start is a simple one: Ask what the person you are debating what they think the mother is carrying. How they answer that question will guide your conversation. You never know how winning one person over to the pro-life side may impact the life of a child.

3. Make some money. Figure out a way to make more in order to buy an ultrasound machine for a pregnancy center or help a couple with the costs of an adoption. Continue to debunk the myth that Christians stop caring for babies after they are born.

4. Think about adoption. Connect yourself to real needs. You might not be able to adopt (like us) yet. But it may come soon.

5. Love your own kids. They are sweet little image bearers in need of a great and merciful Savior. I don't want to be known as an advocate for an unborn child and not an advocate and provider for my own!

Is there more that could be done? Yes! Do we have the emotionial and practical time to do anything else? No. But it is a start.

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Second-Handing and Your Bag of Tricks

Aug. 27, 2013By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

Some of the best advice I have ever received came from my advisor Scott Manetch in seminary. He warned me not to use a "bag of tricks" when I got into ministry.  He explained how most pastors stay at a church for 3-4 years and then move on.  One reason, he suggested, was because many pastors only had three years worth of sermons, ideas and programs in their bag of tricks. When the pastor ran out he would move on to another church and recycle everything again.

The root of this (I think) is being a second-hander.  We may push children to make their faith their own, but pastors seemingly must do the same.  Here are seven signs that you are setting yourself up to be or already are a second-hander.

1.  In school, when you are assigned an exegesis paper, you run to the commentaries and your conclusion first.  You short-circuit your own work and effort by not staring at the text over and over again.  Time is of the essence so you hurry through the process.  The result - you have just written a paper on Romans 8 that is almost identical to Doug Moo's commentary.  You get a good grade, you learned something about the text, but you skipped the process of learning.

2.  Speaking of languages, you rely on your computer software to parse everything for you.  Even when called upon in class, you look hard into your computer screen and then say what the program tells you.  Teachers would be smart to not allow computers in exegesis classes!

3.  You get assigned a text to preach and you immediately go to The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God websites for help. You listen to a few sermons, make an outline, add a personal story and boom, you are done!  Funny thing - it sounds just like John Piper's sermon last week.  I remember being in preaching lab while in seminary and three people had the same sermon.  To say pastors continue to use other people's sermons in an unhelpful way is an understatement.  Just read here. By the time you preach on Sundays, your sermons really are just insights from your three favorite preachers.  

4.  You would rather read book reviews than books, books about the Bible instead of the Bible,and books on prayer instead of praying. Books reviews are helpful. So are commentaries and books on prayer. But these are secondary sources, not primary.  

5.  You rely on what you learned 10 years ago instead of what you learned over the last 10 years. The Bible is not fresh. All of your insights are from mentors and teachers before they unleashed you on the Church.  You may have bought books at a conference or from a great online deal, but you only read a few, if you are lucky!

6.  When you awake in the morning, you run to the blogs and news to hear what people say about Scripture instead of reading it for yourself.

7. All of your ideas are someone elses.  This includes ideas for what your church is involved in. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is bad if you find that you are reduplicating the same plan in different contexts with different people.  

I believe what happens in the process of using secondary sources first, is that you become a caricature of what you had hoped to become.  You imagine yourself to know far more than you do. But honestly, the roots of Scripture are only an inch deep. You can not be a firmly planted tree by streams of water without delight and meditation. One thinks of the end of C.S. Lewis's Four Loves as he reflects on his own experience of God:

God knows, not I, whether I have ever tasted this love.  Perhaps I have only imagined the tasting.  Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have reached.  If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there.

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Cultural Hermeneutics Applied

Aug. 21, 2013By: Philemon YongAuthor Bio

In the book Vernacular Hermeneutics[1], David Tuesday Adamo has a chapter on “African Cultural Hermeneutics.” His aim is to make a case for the practice of cultural hermeneutics in Africa. He goes further to apply this method to the Psalms. Adamo’s chapter illustrates what I call the danger of cultural hermeneutics and shows why this emphasis should be rejected if we are to continue to maintain the truth of Scripture.

Adamo argues that,

In African indigenous culture, the means for dealing successfully with traditional problems like disease, sorcerers, witches, enemies and lack of success in life, have been developed. Western missionaries taught African Christians to discard these indigenous ways of handling problems without offering any concrete substitute, except the Bible. Charms, medicine, incantations, divination, sacrifices and other cultural ways of protecting, healing and liberating ourselves from the evil powers that fill African forests were hurriedly discarded in the name of Christianity. Yet, we were not taught how to use that Bible as a means of protecting, healing and solving the daily problems of life. The Euro-American way of reading the Bible has not actually helped us to understand the Bible in our own context (p. 66).

Three things stand out in this above statement. 1) Christianity is a Western missionary thing. 2) Missionaries discarded African traditional practices and only replaced them with the Bible which is not a concrete substitute for dealing with their problems. 3) Africans should have been taught by the missionaries on how to use the Bible for protection, healing, and solving daily problems. Implied in Adamo’s argument, then, is that African cultural hermeneutics will enable Africans to interpret the Bible in a way that brings back such practices and makes use of the Bible to do what charms, medicine, incantations, divination etc. did in the culture.

Adamo’s approach (in line with those who argue for African cultural hermeneutics) is to begin with the African experience, then search the Scriptures to see if there is anything in it that could solve problems faced in that context.  He states,

Faced with some peculiar problems as African Christians, we searched the Bible consistently with our own eyes in order to discover whether there could be anything in the Bible that could solve our problems. In the process of reading the Bible with our own eyes, we discovered in the scripture great affinities with our own worldview and culture. We discovered in both the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament resemblances to events similar to African experience, especially painful experience (p. 67).

Applying his African cultural hermeneutics to the Psalms, Adamo points out that the Psalms, interpreted from the African perspective, can be used protection, healing, and success in life. Before the advent of Christianity, the indigenous tradition of Africa used incantations and charms to protect themselves against enemies and evil. Given this cultural context, he comes to the Psalms and applies his cultural hermeneutics approach. He argues that the Christianity brought by missionaries did not meet the need of Africans for protection, healing and success. What the missionaries did not give, African indigenous Christians found by searching the Bible.  As he puts it,

“Using African cultural hermeneutics to interpret the Bible, they [African indigenous Christians] found secret powers in the Bible, especially in the book of Psalms. They used the Bible protectively, therapeutically, and successfully to fill the missing gap left by Eurocentric Christianity” (p. 74).

One wonders how Adamo sees the Bible, that he uses it as he describes.

Applying his methodology of cultural hermeneutics, Adamo identifies three groups of Psalms for the African indigenous churches. They are: 1) Protective Psalms (Psalms 5, 6, 28, 35, 37, 54, 55, 83, and 109. He argues that these are protective Psalms and thus should be used against enemies and evil. They can be used in the African context to defeat the evil plans of enemies. 2) Therapeutic Psalms (Psalms 20 and 40 [for swollen stomach]; 51 [to heal barrenness]; 6 [to relieve from pains and worries]; 1 [to prevent miscarriages] etc.). 3) Success Psalms include Psalms 4; 8; 9; 23; 24; 46; 51; 119:9-16; 134 (for success in examinations or studies).

In the end, Adamo has replaced the African traditional practices with the Bible. Rather than hearing what the Bible says to the African indigenous church, he wants the African indigenous belief system brought into the Bible. Cultural hermeneutics, then, is finding in the Bible those aspects that agree with the cultural practices and then using them, even to the point of using the Bible as a charm to protect from evil.

Adamo’s work may sound trivial to Western ears, but is a worry because what he says is reflected in so much of what is published in African theologies these days. Such hermeneutics will keep people comfortable in their belief systems, and they will never see the need to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior.

Cultural hermeneutics as a topic of discussion may be appealing to scholars, and the push for cultural sensitivity might keep us from challenging such arguments, especially when made by Africans. But that would be disastrous for the future of the church in places like Africa. We must know about these issues, as they serve to show the serious need for proper theological education.



[1] Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, ed.  Vernacular Hermeneutics (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

 

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