GCI Update

A Christmas Carol

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

joeandtammyA few years ago, Tammy and I attended the play A Christmas Carol based on the novella with that title by Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote the book in 1843, largely to expose corruption in the British government, which favored the wealthy and oppressed the underclass with laws that often sent the poor (including Dickens’ father) to debtors’ prison.

You’re probably familiar with the book’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Drawing on the life of a man he had known, Dickens portrayed Scrooge as an outrageously selfish man who runs a “counting house” (accountant’s office). Acting on fears held since early childhood, Scrooge became obsessed with wealth, costing him the love of his fiancée and sending him into a downward spiral of selfish loneliness. The name Scrooge has become part of our language for someone who is selfish, miserly and unkind. Here’s how Dickens describes him:

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice…. Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

Marley’s Ghost
original illustration from A Christmas Carol (1843)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In Dickens’ story, which begins on Christmas Eve, it appears there is no limit to Ebenezer Scrooge’s selfishness. He has a clerk, Bob Cratchit, a very poor man with a large family. Bob’s young son, Tiny Tim, is crippled from birth, and in Scrooge’s mind, should not be taking food and heat from others. When Bob, who is forced to work in a cold office, attempts to stoke the fire, Scrooge denies him access to the coal.

That afternoon, Scrooge’s nephew Fred invites his uncle to a Christmas party. Scrooge refuses the invitation in the rudest terms. When two men come into the work place asking for a charitable donation, Scrooge throws them out. And when people wish him “Merry Christmas,” he responds with the now infamous exclamation, “Bah humbug!”

No question about it—Ebenezer Scrooge hated Christmas! But then his attitude changed.

After returning home from work on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, an equally greedy person who claims he has come to Scrooge to spare him from the fate coming his way. He says Scrooge will be visited by three spirits. The first is the “Ghost of Christmas Past” who takes Scrooge back over his life showing him significant events that made him what he is today. The second spirit, the “Ghost of Christmas Present,” takes Scrooge to see Bob Cratchit’s family enjoying Christmas despite their lack of material possessions, then to nephew Fred’s party, and then to a few other Christmas events where Ebenezer starts to see a different side of Christmas. The third spirit, “The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” takes Scrooge to various groups of people who are talking about Ebenezer’s death.

As a result of these visions, Scrooge repents of his self-righteous, cynical, deplorable worldview and mistreatment of others. He sees himself with clarity and sees the love of the Cratchit family he has long mistreated. He notes how well they love despite how badly he treats his employee, Bob, and he is especially touched by Tiny Tim, who toasts to Scrooge’s health even as his own fails him. The story ends with Scrooge, who having experienced a complete change of heart, wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, gives a big raise to Bob Cratchit, donates to various charities and changes the way he views life.

While I don’t usually write about things like ghosts and spirits of Christmas, A Christmas Carol strikes me emotionally for several reasons. As most of you know, for much of my life I did not celebrate Christmas. Perhaps some of you will relate. Not only had I bought into the absurd idea that pagan celebrations of the winter solstice made Christmas a pagan holiday, I also believed Christmas could not be the actual day of Jesus’ birth. As a result, I refused to wish others “Merry Christmas” and generally had a “Bah Humbug” approach to all things related to Christmas. I was more like Ebenezer Scrooge during the Christmas season than I care to admit. I thank God for changing my perspective.

She Shall Bring Forth a Son
by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

To the many Old Testament prophecies pointing to the birth of the Messiah, the New Testament Gospels add details about the actual birth, telling about angels making proclamations, heavenly hosts singing praises, shepherds bowing in worship, and wise men from the East giving gifts—all because the Son of God had become the Son of Man!

There is certainly no New Testament justification for having a “Bah Humbug” approach to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. We celebrate because the Light of the Cosmos came to a world of darkness and brought us into his light. We celebrate because, through the Incarnation, God became one of us so we could live for eternity as his beloved children. For all these reasons, during the Christmas season we celebrate the birth of Jesus with joy, enthusiasm and love toward others.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge who rejoiced in his deliverance at the end of A Christmas Carol, I rejoice knowing I’ve been delivered from the bondage of nonsensical arguments and joy-killing legalism—a bondage that, sadly, continues to hold some people in its vice-like grip. I pray you experience the joy of your deliverance daily, and particularly at Christmastime.

Loving and celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus,
Joseph Tkach

P.S. Tammy, Stephanie, Joe and I wish you and your family a wonderful Advent and Christmas. May God continually remind you just how much you are loved and may your response be one of continual praise and thanks to him.

To read the other letters in my five-part series on Christmas, click on a number: 13, 4, 5.

GCI: on mission with God in 2015

Here is a video in which GCI President Joseph Tkach provides highlights of GCI, working together, “on mission with God” in 2015.

On YouTube at http://youtu.be/2M1KGaMkZl4.

Experiencing the Trinity retreat

GCI members from Mississippi, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin gathered recently in Titusville, Florida, for Experiencing the Trinity—a retreat facilitated by Odyssey in Christ ministry. The 72-hour retreat was held at the St. Stephen Christian Retreat and Conference Center. Five GCI members attended in person and two joined in online.


Retreat participants were led through teaching sessions and spiritual exercises that created an environment for experiencing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in close, personal ways. From an extended time of silence, to meditative prayer and praise, to creative expressions in community and transforming prayer, the participants came away, as Carolyn Lane said, “with valuable tools for deepening our daily walk with the Father, Son and Spirit. We truly experienced being in the presence of God in a very intimate, tangible way, which left us thirsting for more.” In the words of Tom Fallon, “we were visited and dwelt in by the very real presence of the Holy Spirit.” John Novick commented that the retreat “was a magnificent 72-hour journey with God that can change one’s life forever.”

Avoiding clergy burnout

Reproduced here is a recent post on The Surprising God blog. It addresses a topic of concern for all pastors and those who love and care for them.

In a chapter of The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological PraxisRay S. Anderson addresses the very real danger of clergy burnout. Dr. Anderson notes that this phenomenon often is “a symptom of theological anemia” (p. 284). By that he means that when pastors burn out, it’s often because their approach to ministry lacks grounding in a robust incarnational and Trinitarian theology. In short, they see themselves working “for” God, rather than “with” the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. Because of this, they tend to take too much upon themselves and that places them at risk of burnout. It’s ironic that the very people who have devoted their lives to sharing the message, My Redeemer Lives, operate as though Jesus is not truly present and alive, and not truly active in accomplishing, through the Spirit, his continuing ministry on earth in fulfillment of the Father’s mission to the world.

My Redeemer Lives
My Redeemer Lives, by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

Sadly, some (many?) pastors find themselves weighed down by a sense of inadequacy that, if unchecked, can lead to a sense of despair over never being able to satisfy the demands placed upon them. This becomes a vicious circle where, as Anderson notes, “the minister can only seek to atone for spiritual failure by throwing herself even more into the work of ministry.” Anderson comments further on the steps in this debilitating circle:

The demands of ministry produce a sense of inadequacy. Inadequacy carries the overtone of spiritual weakness. You turn to God in desperation, seeking some relief, escape, if not renewal. Failing here too, you find nothing to do but throw yourself more deeply into the work of the ministry. And the cycle repeats itself.(p. 285)

Faced with this burden, some pastors “grin and bear it,” feeling, in their drivenness, that this burden is a necessary (even admirable) aspect of pastoral ministry. Anderson warns:

“We are driven” is not only an effective advertising slogan for automobiles but a shrill echo of the divine call sunk deep into the psyche of a minister who seeks salvation through ministry. (p. 286)

“Salvation through ministry”—an absurd concept to all pastors (at least in their formal theology), but an operating principle for some in how they view their calling to pastoral ministry in practice. As Anderson notes, those entering pastoral ministry are encouraged to do so as a “divine calling,” with the implied understanding that this call, being unavoidable and thus inevitable, is one’s fate. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” they proclaim to themselves and to others, quoting Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:16 (ESV). Unfortunately, rather than understanding their calling as a call “to ministry” it becomes a call “to the ministry.” Though this shift may seem innocuous, it can be devastating as the person hears a call “to do things for God” rather than their actual call, which is “to God” himself. Anderson comments:

Here, I believe, is the source of the “quiet despair” that can seep into our celebration of the sacred task and turn it into a joyless marathon of sheer endurance.” (p. 286)

With this misguided approach, ministry becomes “an insatiable and unrelenting master we serve in the name of Christ” (p. 287). In Anderson’s view, what is needed to break the vicious circle that leads to clergy burnout is the theology of ministry modeled by Jesus himself:

When [Jesus] reached the point of exhaustion from teaching and healing, he had the freedom to stop and to spend time alone or with his disciples. His instincts told him that his freedom from the [ministry] claims on him was upheld by the same gracious Father who gave him the freedom and power to teach and heal…. (p. 287)

In contrast to Jesus’ theology of ministry, many pastors, quite unfortunately, ground their ministry in a different, quite unhealthy, theology. Anderson comments:

It is bad theology to have to love the world more than God, and to confuse our service to God with our being sent into the world. It is bad theology to interpret the calling of God in terms of the needs of the world, rather than in our being sent to the world to do God’s work and reveal his glory….

A theology that cripples and destroys the self-esteem and sense of worth of a minister is not made better by “success” in ministry. A theology allowing no “sabbath rest” for the one who does the work of ministry is a theology of the curse, not a theology of the cross. A healthy theology contains healing for the healer and freedom for the fighter of God’s battles. A healthy theology, of course, is a theology of a loving God who knows that to be God is to be responsible, even for our faltering and fallible efforts. (pp. 287-288)

Anderson faced a time in his own ministry when he was on the precipice of the abyss of burnout. Thankfully, he came to understand Jesus’ theology of ministry and was delivered. Note some of his comments:

Through the realization of my inadequacy when only the grace of God could suffice, I experienced in a new way the reality of God as the source and sustaining power of my “call” to be a minister. My ministry no longer could be equivalent to my salvation or destruction….

No longer was I living on the edge of that terrible marginality in ministry, where the abyss always looms threateningly over and against every action. Driven back by obstacles, confronted with failure and frustration, attacked by symptoms of overstress, I experienced the healing of God’s goodness from within….

We who are called of God for Christian ministry are called first of all into the sabbath rest that Christ himself completed through the offering up of his own humanity in obedient, faithful service to God. With our backs straight up against the rock of his healed humanity, we reach out to meet human needs, do battle with evil and take the Word of God on our lips to proclaim his salvation. No temptation has ever overtaken us, says the Scripture, that has not already been experienced and healed in Jesus (Hebrews 4:15). I venture to say that no injury can ever be sustained in the work of God’s ministry for which there is not already healing waiting at home. (pp. 288-289)

Pastor, are you now experiencing or headed toward clergy burnout? If so, Anderson offers some advice from his own experience:

  • Turn to Jesus. He is the source of all good theology. He is the paradigm for pastoral ministry.
  • Explore the inner correlation between ministry and theology: “A ministry that produces dissonance and distress in the minister is theologically impoverished.” (p. 289)
  • Consent to be one of the sheep as well as being the shepherd, thus “experiencing absolution for our sins of being a minister and the affirmation we need to continue to minister.” (p. 290)

I’ll close this post with a prayer adapted from Anderson’s comment on p. 290:

Father, we pray that you grant us all a healthy practical theology of pastoral ministry that rests on the truth that all ministry is your ministry, through Christ, by the Spirit. May this knowledge console, empower and equip us to live out the calling you have given us by your grace. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

Restructuring? Here are some tips

Here is a summary of a helpful ChurchLeaders.com article by Ron Edmondson on the topic of restructuring organizations (churches included).

11.23-STRUCTURE-331x221When an organization’s strategy changes, restructuring is often necessary. Doing so, however, can be painful and disruptive if not handled carefully. How do avoid problems? Here are five suggestions:

1. The change should make sense with the organizational DNA.

Be careful altering something in a way that could disrupt the fiber, core or root foundation of the organization. DNA is formed fast, but changed slowly—and sometimes never. It’s who an organization is and who people have come to expect it to be. It’s hard to disrupt this without disrupting future potential for growth.

2. The structure added should not impede progress.

Structure should further enable the completion of the vision, not detract from it. Structure should consider the future potential for long-term sustainability of the organization.

3. It should accommodate or encourage continued future growth.

Structure’s purpose should be to help the organization continue to grow over time. Structure should make things more efficient—not less. Enable not control.

4. It should hit the center of acceptance.

Leadership is never about making people happy. But, at the same time, if you want the structure to be sustainable and helpful it must meet general acceptance—which leads to the last suggestion.

5. People should understand the why.

People are more likely to accept structure when they can identify its value and their area of responsibility (or at least the value to the overall organization). As Zig Ziglar often said, “If people understand the why, they will be less opposed to the what.”

Leon Cooper

Leon Cooper, pastor of GCI’s congregation in Cottonwood, Arizona, was hospitalized recently due to congestive heart failure. He may need surgery to install a pacemaker. Please pray for Leon and for his wife Mary Lou.

Cards may be sent to:

Leon Cooper
194 E Rancho Vista Way
Cottonwood, AZ 86326-6213

Union & Ministry with Christ

Recently here in GCI Weekly Update, we published an eight-part series from Gary Deddo titled Union & Ministry with Christ. That series has been turned into a single article titled The Christian Life and Our Participation in Christ’s Continuing Ministry. Find it online at http://www.gci.org/christian-life.

Without Purse or Script by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)
Without Purse or Script by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

Coming in 2016: a new Equipper

EquipperGCI-USA Church Administration and Development made the following announcement in the December issue of Equipper:

As we complete the 10th year of Equipper, we’re pleased to announce that we’ll soon transition from a printed publication to a digital format. Each month, subscribers will receive an email with links to the full issue, which may be viewed online (the same format we use to publish GCI Weekly Update). All who currently receive Equipper by email will automatically be subscribed to this new version of Equipper. If you’d like to be added to the subscription list, email your request to Ted.Johnston@gci.org.

New Sermon Summary feature

One of the features that will be found in the new Equipper is called Sermon Summary. There you’ll find short summaries of sermons that correlate with the annual (Western) Christian worship calendar (following the Revised Common Lectionary). To give you a foretaste of that feature, here’s a sample sermon given during Advent last year. It was written by Lance McKinnon who pastors the GCI congregation in Dallas, Georgia (Atalanta area).

Sermon for Advent 2: The Beginning of the Beginning Has Begun 

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8, NRSV)

Mark begins his Gospel with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Whether he intended this as the book’s title or simply its first sentence, it serves to frame all that follows as “the beginning.” This is curious, as the next few verses speak of the past as well as the future. So when exactly is “the beginning”?

The “good news” Mark speaks about is a term that carries the message of victory from the battlefield. The victory he is alluding to is the one claimed by Jesus our Lord for all of creation. He has been victorious through his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. This victory amounts to a “new creation” and is thus a new “beginning.” This “beginning” applies not only to the point of time he defeated sin and death on the cross, but to all time, past and future. Our past has been claimed and redeemed and our future is secure in his victory.

We can participate in this new beginning, this new reality, by living it out in the present in union with Jesus, the ruling King and Lord of all. His kingdom, which is characterized by faith, hope and love, is the ruling reality we respond to. Instead of responding to the past out of guilt, we respond with the faith of Jesus, trusting that the Father has created a new beginning for us, allowing us to leave the past behind. Instead of looking to the future with fear and worry, we live in hope of the future coming of our Lord. And instead of living in the present with anxiety, we live in the love the Father has for all his children. As we do, we live in the reality of the kingdom established through his Son, our Lord and Savior. For us, the beginning truly has begun!

Note: we’re looking for pastors and other preachers who would like to contribute summaries of expository sermons (focused on a single passage of Scripture) for publishing in future issues of Equipper. The format and length shown above is what we’re looking for. Please email yours to Ted.Johnston@gci.org.