About ten years ago, I joined a friend of mine on a mission trip to Cuba. My friend had built a very close relationship with a group of pastors and churches in the western part of this island nation. I was assigned to one of those churches in a small town and was immediately received by the young pastor and his wife who welcomed me with open arms into their home for a week, and what a week it was! I was overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of the people.

The main church building was right next door to where the pastor lived. It was a small, beautiful structure, typical of the island architecture, but in need of repair and badly in need of paint. This was true of homes and buildings all over Cuba. Outside of Havana, practically everything needed painting! Another thing that strikes a first time visitor to Cuba is the feeling that you are in a time warp. Everywhere you look, you see old Fords and Chevrolets. I felt like I had stepped back into the my childhood days in the 1950’s. Cubans who were fortunate to have a vehicle usually drove one of these pre-revolution cars. It was amazing to see. I was told that they kept these relics running by finding parts wherever they could from other old cars. It took a lot of “wheeling and dealing” and no little amount of ingenuity to keep these rolling museum pieces going. Occasionally, you would see an abandoned car on the side of the rode, stripped of everything, its empty frame rusting away.

In Cuba my eyes were opened to so many things about the church. The believers in Cuba, like other believers in so many areas of the world, worried little about material things. The government there didn’t make things easy either. For example, new construction for church buildings was almost unheard of. But new churches were springing up everywhere in the form of house churches. While I was there, I preached at four different house churches in the area in addition to the main church. There was an excitement and a sense of true joy among the believers that was so refreshing to witness. As I talked to my host pastor, I learned that their focus was on reaching people and discipleship. He told me of plans for more house churches starting soon. The movement of God and the work of the Holy Spirit was evident. It was so close to what we see in the book of Acts, and so far from what we see in the American church.

In this period of transition for me, I’ve taken a step back from my thirty plus years in the thick of the American church to do some soul searching, reflection, and study, and what I see in the American church is a lot like the Cubans and their cars. We spend a lot of time and effort just tweaking an old system to keep it running. In American, we live in a time warp. To a large degree, we’re still doing church like we did in the 1950’s and 60’s. The world and culture has changed so much, but here we are in 2011 looking like an old Ford or Chevy. We’re still running somehow because we’re pretty good at finding replacement parts when something breaks.We just keep overhauling the old system when what we need is a new system altogether.

No doubt the revolution of 1959 has devastated Cuban society in many ways, but, in time, the church has emerged with new life and vigor. This is a testimony to the promise of God and the prevailing mission of the church. The church is man’s connection to God’s redemptive mission by his grace and call to join him. I believe in the church, but I believe the church as many of us have known it is broken down. After a while, despite our “wheeling and dealing” and despite our cleverness and ingenuity, the church of the 20th century will be no more than an abandoned car on the side of the rode.

There are hopeful signs that a new church movement is underway in America – a movement in which believers are Kingdom-focused and churches are more concerned about mission than maintenance.

Loneliness in Leadership

August 15, 2011

The saying, “It’s lonely at the top” reflects the fact that part of the nature of leadership is a sense of being all alone – a kind of loneliness. Some leaders are better equipped emotionally to deal with the lonely feelings and challenges of leadership than others. Some leaders even seem to thrive in times of loneliness. Carl Sandburg wrote, “Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Lincoln never saw a movie, heard a radio, or looked at TV. They had a ‘loneliness’ and knew what to do with it. They were not afraid of being lonely, because they knew that was when the creative mood in them would work.”

Other leaders, many pastors included, are not so inclined to accept this loneliness and use it to their advantage. We identify more with Albert Einstein who once said, “It is strange to be known so universally and yet be so lonely.” (It may be the only way we identify with Einstein!) While none of us are universally known like Einstein, we are widely known in the church and community simply because of the position we hold as pastor, yet we are lonely, in part, because we are known for our position more than we are known as a person.

The demands of leadership create and even require times of loneliness. On the other hand, the loneliness of leadership demands real, life-giving friendships and deep relationships with those who know and love us as people first and  leaders second.

(Adapted from The Pickled Priest and the Perishing Parish.)