Tom Olbricht: Reflections on My Life

For several weeks, I have been reading portions of Tom Olbricht’s new book Reflections on My Life: In the Kingdom and the Academy. Olbricht serves as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion, Pepperdine University. For many years before serving at Pepperdine, he taught at Abilene Christian University.

I bought and am reading this book for one reason: my deep love and respect for Tom Olbricht. I entered Abilene Christian University in the ’80s to work on a Master of Divinity degree. My first semester I was in the New Testament theology class taught by Olbricht. From then on, I took every class under him that I could possibly take. His love for God and the church was evident. For him the theology of the Bible was not something to be discussed at a distance but was in response to the God who loves us forever.

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The book chronicles much of Olbricht’s life in great detail. Through this autobiography, the reader gets a feel for Olbricht’s experiences throughout his life in both the church and the academy. His travels and interaction with preachers and professors get much attention. As I read through various parts of the book, I continually came across names of people I knew very little about but had some interest in because of their work as professors or preachers.

One of the strengths of the book is Olbricht’s ability to tell a story. In fact, his passion for details serves to add color and flavor to these stories. One can almost hear the sound of his voice on these pages.

Not only does this book give insight into Olbricht’s life it also serves as a history of churches of Christ during a significant time in the 20th and 21st centuries.

I am grateful for Tom Olbricht’s ministry both in the church and in the academy. His teaching left a deep imprint on my thinking, my theology, and my ministry. I will be forever thankful.

  

Wanted: Moments of Grace

It was an embarrassing moment as a young minister.

Charlotte and I had been living in Abilene while I finished seminary. I had just completed my studies and moved to north Alabama where I began preaching for a church. Now, I was a full-time minister for a congregation.

I was overwhelmed and had no idea what to do.  So, I began doing what many young ministers do: I watched several experienced ministers to learn how to do this work.

One preacher I had been watching seemed to put a lot of energy into welcoming guests.  He was at the large urban church near where I grew up.  Some hotels get four and five stars for a rating.  This church would probably rate five stars in somebody’s review. People in my circle talked about this church as if they were the group that seemed to do most things right.

I did notice that they seemed to do things smoothly, unlike me.  I handled things awkwardly at times.

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One of my first Sundays I introduced a new family and asked them stand. After all, I had seen the minister at this church do the same.  I then moved on to introduce another new family.  Upon introducing them I asked them to stand.  The couple stood, but I noticed the man had a puzzled look.

“Jim, I’ve been a member of this church for a number of years.”

I froze.  I wanted to hide.   


3 Suggestions to Help You Persevere

One of the questions every Christian ought to wrestle with is: “Will I finish well?Persevere.jpg

Life with God is very much a journey. You would like to know that everyone will eventually finish. However, many do not. Some started off with you and rounded the first curve but for whatever reason didn’t finish. What happened? Think long enough and you can probably come up with names.

Some emotionally checked out long ago. They are in the pew but that may be about it. They are here but not fully present. Consider these words from Charles Spurgeon:

You know what one cold-hearted man can do, if he gets at you on Sunday with a lump of ice, and seizes you with the information that Mrs. Smith and all her family are offended and their pew is vacant. You did not want to know of that lady’s protest just before entering the pulpit, and it does not help you. Or, even worse, after the service it can happen. What terrible blankets some professors (professing believers) are! Their remarks after a sermon are enough to stagger you . . . you have been pleading as for life and death and they have been calculating how many seconds the sermon occupied and grudging you the odd size minutes beyond the usual hour.

Will you and I finish well?

Consider why some people fail to finish well.


“I have had too many disappointments.” Sometimes a disappointment impacts your will to persevere.

Maybe you are dealing with a chronic illness. You wonder if you will ever be any better.

Perhaps you have a child who seems to learn everything the hard way. What bothers you the most is that you are not sure that she is learning. You have great anxiety about her total indifference to the Lord.


“I have experienced too much disappointment with churches.” The disappointment that you experience in the church impacts your ability to persevere. You see and experience what should not have happened. It is hard for you to be hopeful or encouraged. You find that you are surrounded with others who have shared this same experience. Your negative thoughts feed on one another, and it is an endless cycle.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (p. 10) wrote the following:

Every time I move to a new community I find a church close by and join it – committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s people. I’ve never been anything other than disappointed. Everyone turns out to be Biblical through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faceless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring, moralizers, glamorous secularizers.

“I have failed way too much.” The problem of your own failure impacts your perseverance. Your own sin can contribute to this loss of vital optimism. You have made some poor personal choices. In moments of weakness and vulnerability, you did something you really regret.

In his book Mid-Course Correction: Reordering Your Private World for the Next Part of Your Journey, Gordon MacDonald refers to some people who have lost their “vital optimism” – the spirit possessed by a person who believes the best is yet to be. Reality can chip away at our lives and erode our dreams.

The truth is that God in Christ is greater than whatever obstacle might stand in our way.


Today:

1. Lean in to your your life. Don’t hold back.

2. Push forward. With God’s Spirit in you, the wind is at your back.

3. Take at least one step in the right direction. Quite often, we know what the next step ought to be, but we hesitate.

Question

What has been particularly helpful to you in persevering? Is there anything you wished you had learned sooner?

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Each Thursday, I write a post focused on the needs of church leaders. The following is the first in a series of habits for church leaders (in particular) who wish to grow and develop.

Habit #1 Practice self-awareness.

With whom am I spending time? I have to monitor just how much time I spend with negative, critical people. Too much time spent with others who are constantly griping and complaining will sure enough drain me of energy. I have a friend who described one preacher as so negative that his sermons on grace had a negative edge. Yet, I can’t listen to (what seems like) an endless stream of negative talk because it really does impact me.

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What am I putting into my mind? On a typical day, I talk (email, phone call, personal conversation) with people about matters that are very serious. Someone has learned that they have cancer. Someone else is deeply concerned about personal financial debt. Still another is wrestling with marriage issues. At the end of the day, it is easy to go home and immerse myself in the national news, which much of the time is going to be very negative. As a result, I have to be very intentional about what I put into my mind. I can’t think about sad and tragic situations all of the time.

Often I make sure I watch something funny on television. I might watch a good ball game. I might read a biography, especially one that is not filled with tragedy. What I put into my mind really does matter.

Whom am I resenting? Unresolved conflict and resentments can be such energy drainers! It is amazing how much energy I can spend thinking about a person I am frustrated or angry with. Occasionally I need to ask myself, “How much time do I spend thinking about old resentments or things that long ago should have been forgiven?”

When do I re-create my body? I generally work out at the gym four times a week. My motivation for doing this is not my weight nor is it because I am a health nut. My motivation is rooted in the way it makes me feel when I am regularly working out versus how I feel when I am not. If I am not getting some kind of exercise, it really does impact how I feel. Not only do I feel sluggish, but I also tend to have less energy and motivation, particularly in the afternoons.

Some ministers get their emotional strokes by talking about how hard they work. They go on and on about what everyone has asked them to do and how busy they are. There are ministers who do not even take a day off. Not taking time to rest, to get away, and to recharge will eventually catch up with a person.

Monday Start (Resources for the Week)

Do you have a dream?

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This may be one of the best posts Jeff Goins has written: “When You’re Scared to Death, Do Something Anyway.” I really enjoy reading Jeff’s posts. You might enjoy this great interview with Jeff Goins.


Pictures of the day

You might enjoy these pictures from The Telegraph (UK). I especially like the first one.


Do you read fiction?

I confess. I read very little fiction. I am wondering if I should not be reading more. See this post from Scot McKnight.


What they are thinking

You might be interested in this chart from Scot McKnight’s blog entitled “What Young Adults Care About.”


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How to Kill Your Ministry

1. Live an insular life. Live as if you were on a remote island. You have probably seen ministers like this. Some live this way within their own congregations. Others exist like this within their fellowship or denomination. They live and function with their lives centered around concerns that are small and unrelated to kingdom issues. Toxic.jpg

As a result, my concerns become either the intramural concerns of a particular group/denomination or the local concerns of my congregation. As a result, I fail to see the larger issues and concerns that impact the world.

An insular ministry can be toxic! It will shrink your thinking and dwarf your faith. This is a slow death which is often painful for the congregation to endure. Unfortunately, its victims are often unaware of its presence until it has become a chronic condition.

Nothing has been more refreshing to me than to explore the issues and concerns of the world through reading, conversations, etc. If I don’t do this on purpose, my thinking will be reduced to the immediate. One way to begin is with drinking coffee and eating lunch with some people who think beyond your immediate context. Start with college students or if you are fairly young with an older, thoughtful person. As they speak about their concerns, listen intently – not to answer but to understand.

What You May Be Missing by Nursing Your Discontentment

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The house was huge.  

It seemed like the house covered much of the block.  I was in college working for a company based in the Dallas area. On the instruction sheet were directions to this home located in an exclusive part of Dallas.  I was going to the home of the daughter of the president of this company.   I didn’t know what was in the envelope.  I just knew that I was supposed to have it signed and return it.

I pulled the car in front of the house and walked to the service entrance and rang the bell.  A woman answered the door.  She apparently was a part of the domestic staff.  She told me to follow her.  We walked through a very long room.  I looked through the plate glass window to the outside and couldn’t believe how big the yard was.  Swimming pool, gardens, etc.  It was huge!

A woman was sitting on a couch.  She looked very somber.  She looked as if she had been crying.  I handed the brown envelope to her.  

It was then that I realized I was delivering her divorce papers.  

I thought about how quiet this house was.  It was a big house.  It was a beautiful house.  It was a house like no other I had ever been in.  Yet, here was this woman who was in tears over what was happening.

Monday Start (Resources for the Week)

You May Be Thinking About Technology and Relationships.
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This TED talk made me think. Professor Sherry Turkle speaks about why we seem to expect more from technology and less from each other.


You May Be Thinking About Ministry.

Gene Wilkes (a great guy!) has written an important post: “4 Things I Learned in 25 Years of Ministry.” Ministers really ought to read this post.

Rick McKinley interviews Eugene Peterson (video). “‘Pastor’ is not a job description; it really is a life that is shaped in a certain way.” Eugene Peterson really makes me think about ministry.


You May Be Thinking About Your Faith.

Lanny Davis (attorney and political commentator) has written a fine post. “What Chuck Colson taught me about using the word hate.‘”


Perhaps You Are Thinking About Your Life.

Kara Alexander has written a very thoughtful post about raising small children and the tendency to enroll them in numerous extracurricular activities.

Here are some very practical ideas for living a missional life. Josh Reeves has written: “25 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your Neighborhood.” Be sure to read his second post as well: “25 More Ways to Easily be Missional in Your Neighborhood.”

Are You Under Pressure?

Pressure.

How many times have you said “Right now I am under a lot of pressure.”

Many years ago, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was performing in Detroit’s Kobo Hall.  The key event was the high-wire act performed by the Walenda family. They were probably the greatest high-wire workers of all circus history. The act the Flying Walendas performed in those days was the four-level pyramid: four or five people on bottom, three or four next, then two, and then one little girl on top. Their act was unprecedented.

Night after night the four-level pyramid would make its way from one end of the wire to the other. They had performed this feat all over the world.

As the show came to an end, this particular evening, the Walendas, as usual, got ready for their feat. The lights were turned low, and the people were very quiet in expectation of the moment. This four-level pyramid began to make its way across the wire. About two-thirds of the way across, one man on the bottom, Deter Walenda, felt his knees begin to tremble and then shake.

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Each Thursday, I post something I think might be helpful or encouraging to church leaders. (You might also find it helpful to read an earlier post about some of the real mental and emotional challenges in ministry.)

Habits that will help you keep your sanity as a Christian leader:

1. Have a strong sense of call. Is this your vocation (calling) or is this just a career? Do you have a sense that God has been working in your life all along, preparing you for your ministry? Prayer and a sense of God’s providence are incredibly important.

2. Deal with the elephants in the room. Name them and write them down. What is sucking the life and energy out of our minister group or elder group? What are the elephants in the room? What is an obvious problem among our church leaders and yet we remain silent?

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3. Make a decision, no matter how small, and follow through. Indecision is a huge energy drainer. Even decisions that may seem relatively small, but are followed by taking one step forward, can give great encouragement and energy to a congregation.

4. Focus on your own functioning, instead of focusing on everyone else. Move away from “if only” thinking. Instead, focus on what you are going to say, what you are going to do, and how you will choose to spend your time this week. If you will focus on your emotional growth, your spiritual growth, and your growth as a leader, you will experience less stress.

5.  Be a lifelong learner. It may be tempting to rely on your giftedness. You may want to prove to people that you have what it takes. Others rely on their formal education. However, that too can go by the wayside quickly.

Lifelong learners intend to grow, develop, and mature. Much learning is “on purpose.” We are at an advantage when we desire and intend to learn. For example, I have learned much from reading. I can point to several biographies and a few other books as well that have been important in my growth and development. Yet, there are many other ways to be intentional about learning.

Lifelong learners have learned and are learning. There is nothing arrogant about acknowledging that I have learned something. I have lived, thought, and studied for a number of years. I can honestly say I have learned a few things about life and ministry. At the same time, I continue to learn and have much to learn.


6.   Create an encouraging environment. Commit to create an encouraging environment among the other church leaders in the congregation. It is awfully hard to develop an encouraging environment in the congregation when the leaders don’t have that commitment among themselves. This has implications for how ministers/elders talk about one another in one another’s absence. It also has implications for how we talk to one another.