Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Match Lighters" and "Fire Stokers"

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, entitled; "One Hundred Years of Ministry," to be published by Greenleaf Press in the Fall of 2011. I thought, viewed as a cameo, that it might be of interest as an exclusive preview to my blogreaders. Thank you for your continued prayers for me as I endeavor this writing project...

“With many other words he warned them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)

Jesus’ disciple Peter was a person who loved to initiate new things. He was a natural born leader - a person who helped bring about a major change in the way the church related to the world, indeed, the way the church was manifest in the world. Peter was an emotional person, quick tempered, and quick witted. Peter loved the large groups that gathered to see Jesus. He loved the miracles, the healings, the attention that the Roman government gave Jesus. Though Peter was at once repulsed by the last moments of Jesus’ life, he at the same time was strangely attracted to them. Peter did not slink into the desert after Jesus’ arrest, but hovered around the temple courtyard fires, like a groupie at a rock star’s concert. Peter was a “match lighter.”

Thomas, on the other hand, was not a “match lighter.” Thomas was a cautious person. Historians aren’t certain, but Thomas could have been an assistant to Judas as a member of the finance team on the board of the “twelve disciples.” Thomas made sure there was enough money to keep Jesus’ ministry going. Thomas probably helped to arrange accommodations for the disciples when they traveled. It was possibly Thomas who, among a handful of other disciples, warned Jesus that he should probably bring his talk to a close, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” (Matt. 14:15). Thomas never liked to make decisions unless he had weighed all of the evidence first, and debated all of his options. Thomas’ nickname was the twin – a designation which might have pointed to his tendency to not want to take a position, as much as it might have suggested that he “was a twin.” Thomas wasn’t swayed, necessarily, by big crowds, important people, mass hysteria or group demonstrations of Spiritual outpouring. Thomas, was a “fire stoker.”

My ten years of experience in being a pastor, and the experiences of all three generations of pastors before me, has taught me that every healthy church needs an equal balance of “match lighters” and “fire stokers.” The two designations speak for themselves. Match lighters are people who light the match. They get the fire started, where before, there was no fire burning. They are self-starters. They are usually extremely charming, sometimes even seductive (even to their own detriment). They are more emotional, and more grandiose in their church perspective. They like larger crowds and enjoy the attention that ministry sometimes affords. Match lighters like new projects. They lay awake at night thinking up intricate schemes for the organization of a special worship service or a ministry event that will make people all say, “Wow, that was amazing.”

“Fire stokers” are, of course, the opposite. Fire stokers are the ones who make sure there is enough wood throughout the night, to keep the proverbial “home fires burning.” If you have ever had the job of keeping a fire burning all night long, it is no small effort. It requires diligence, perseverance, planning, and most of all constant care. In general, fire stokers don’t like new ideas, new plans, new projects. Big ideas sometimes scare them. However, they are the ones who keep institutions afloat. They are the ones who figure out how to pay the bills, keep the lights on, manage the calendars, avoid getting in trouble with the law, and just keep a general sense of presence and perspective about life. Fire stokers keep the home fires burning.

Most mainline denominational churches (I am speaking out of a primary understanding of Presbyterianism), suffer from an over abundance of “fire stokers.” For years, they have kept the fires in their churches burning, mostly through austerity efforts to cut budgets, streamline programs, scale down staff, and modify ministry approaches. Because of them, the church still exists. Ironically, also because of them, the church might not survive long term. Too many years of fire stoking simply leads to a depletion of wood and natural resources. Fire stokers are good at working with the commodities that exist, rather than creating new ways to create heat. Interestingly, most Finance committees and Building Committees are comprised of fire stokers. The very nature of their job is to figure out ways to keep the church’s resources from drying up too soon.

When Highlands Church first started, we actually had an overabundance of match lighters, rather than fire stokers. Where most churches don’t have enough match lighters, we were on the verge of having too many. Our church was all propane and no fire retardant. It was all outreach and action and outward expansion, and no inward stability, self reflection or discipleship growth. About the second year of Highlands Church’s existence, I knew we were in trouble. If we didn’t get rid of a few of the “match lighters” on the staff quick, and replace them with some “fire stokers” we were in trouble. Too many “match lighters” and a church goes up in smoke.

One last point on this. It is a fascinating fact, and sometimes a frustrating one, that fire stokers and match lighters, generally don’t like one another. Fire stokers see match lighters as being too spontaneous, too frivolous, too out of the box. Match lighters see fire stokers as being too conservative, too safe, too cautious. The job of a healthy head of staff, pastor, or church leader is to make sure that the balance between the two types of leaders is never out of kilter or out whack. Match lighters will always have something bad to say about fire stokers, and vice versa. The key for a good leader is to see that both are essential to the health and progress of an organization, and to understand whether a church, at a particular juncture, needs to light a match or simply stoke the fire.

Jesus had both match lighters and fire stokers on his leadership team – he had Peter and Thomas. We should too!

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