Listening to John Ortberg

The last workshop I went to at the Renovare Conference in San Antonio this past week was a conversation with John Ortberg. I first heard of Ortberg when he was on staff at Willowcreek church. He’s now served as pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian for a number of years.

Two questions in particular interested me. One person asked how you hold Willowcreek and Renovare together, that is, how do you hold together a hard-charging emphasis on leadership and evangelizing seekers with a deep commitment to spiritual formation? The ethos seems to be very different.

I agree with Ortberg that both emphases are valuable. We need to lead change in organizations: quantitative change that brings people to faith, and qualitative change that leads to holiness and mission. We also need personal growth – in holiness and obedience to Jesus. It’s the feeling broadly associated with each that is most different. We think spiritual formation is nice, emphasizing grace and faithfulness, while leadership is tough, emphasizing effectiveness and results. If our spiritual formation is merely nice, it’s not spiritual formation in the way of Jesus. If our leadership is merely tough, it’s not Kingdom style leadership.

A second, a related question came to Ortberg: “What do you know now that you wish you knew thirty years ago?”  The main point he emphasized in his answer was a freedom to not be primarily a leader. Though his gifts lie elsewhere, he’d been taught that if he’s a pastor, he’s supposed to be a (if not the) leader. But he lacked leadership gifting. Looking back he would have honored and employed his wife’s leadership gifts much sooner.

It seems like a luxury of larger church environments to be able to allow job specialization along lines of gifting. As pastor of a small church, I have to do many things – some I’m good (gifted) at, some I’m not. Otherwise essential functions won’t get done. Perhaps as our smaller churches migrate from the engrained clergy/laity dichotomy to a spiritual gifts understanding of ministry, we’ll be able to do more specialization.

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