Discover what it takes to foster a transformative ministry in today’s ever-changing spiritual landscape. Join me, Margie Bryce, for an insightful discussion with Reverend Alex Lang, whose candid revelations in “Departure: Why I Left the Church” have resonated with leaders and congregants alike.
We tackle the gritty realities of nurturing a congregation’s growth against the grain of tradition, diving into Alex’s journey and the pivotal impact of adopting either a growth or a fixed mindset in church leadership. This episode is a candid examination of the daunting, yet rewarding, path of guiding a faith community through modern challenges.
The church isn’t just a place of worship; it’s a living, breathing entity that must evolve with the times. As we peel back the layers, we confront the fixed mindsets that often hold congregations back, discussing the integral role pastors play in either cementing or challenging the status quo.
I share personal experiences that underscore the importance of critical thinking in discipleship, aiming to inspire a faith that’s as dynamic and transformative as the life of Jesus. We also probe the generation gap in perceptions of faith, assessing how actions—or a lack thereof—may betray the beliefs professed by many.
For anyone grappling with the complexities of faith, leadership, and personal growth within their spiritual walk, this episode promises to shed light on a path forward, marked by authenticity and an expansive view of the divine.Support the show
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Hey there, Margie Bryce here bringing you the Crabby Pastor podcast, and I don’t think you’re going to be too surprised to know that it’s too easy today to become the Crabby Pastor. Our time together will give you food for thought to help you be the ministry leader, fully surrendered to God’s purposes and living into whatever it takes to get you there and keep you there. So we’re talking about sustainability in ministry. Join me for these next two episodes where I am going to be interviewing Reverend Alex Lang. And he was sort of made famous, if you will, on the internet by an article he wrote in. I know I picked that up on my Facebook group, sustainability for Ministry Leaders. It was called why I Left the Church and it went rabid around everywhere. So Alex agreed to come on and chat because, as I read through that, you know there was the usual sort of stuff that pastors carp about when we get together. But towards the end, there was some commentary about and a contributing factor to why he left the growth mindset versus the closed mindset. And that’s what we’re going to explore for this episode and the next one. And I want to kind of give you a heads up. This is like a 3,000 mile view downward upon the church and how we lead the church. And the other piece of it is that, as a pastor, it doesn’t take long for you to sense that where you want to go and the places you’d like to take this congregation to experience God in deeper ways is not where they quite often want to go themselves, and they seem rather entrenched in wanting to do things the way they’ve always been done around here and on and on and on, or some have even been quite so blatant and I’ve heard this said by a congregate. You know, just keep things going the way it is until I die, and after that who cares? So I mean this is a challenge for us as ministry leaders, because we go into ministry to serve the purposes of Jesus, to help people understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and, as some of my readings have you know, continue to affirm and I’m sure they do for you too that a church is to be a disciple-making factory where we are chronically trying to help people understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus out there in the wide and crazy world. So I wanted to give you a bit of a heads up about where we’re going because this is some big picture of thinking that Alex and I got into great conversation, so much so that it’s going to be this episode and the next one. So join us. Well, you will be glad that you tuned in to this episode of the Crabby Pastor and I’m your host, margie Bryce, and I am here with Reverend Alex Lang. Now, maybe you know that name, maybe you don’t I have no frame of reference for that, but he was the author of an article that just went viral, called Departure why I Left the Church, and he left first Presbyterian of Arlington Heights, and wrote a whole treatise about, from his perspective, why he left. And we’re really not going to talk about that exactly. We’re going to talk about a component of that that I thought was really fascinating. But, alex, I’m going to let you just kind of introduce yourself in any way you’d like.Alex Lang: 4:14
Well, thanks for having me on. I appreciate you inviting me to be part of your podcast. And yeah, I’ve served in the church for about 20 years. I started when I was 23 working in the church and I’ve served 14 of those years in ordained capacity. So I was four years as an associate pastor in Harrisburg, pennsylvania, and then the last 10 years of that was here in Arlington Heights as the head of staff at first pres.Margie: 4:43
Where’s Arlington Heights?Alex Lang: 4:46
It’s a suburb of Chicago, so it’s the Northwest suburbs.Margie: 4:50
I wasn’t sure if it was that or Virginia. I don’t know why, but I didn’t know.Alex Lang: 4:54
And I grew up in Virginia actually.Margie: 4:55
Oh, did you? Yeah in the town of Fredericksburg.Alex Lang: 4:58
That’s where I’m from. It’s a civil war town and my family went to the Presbyterian church at Fredericksburg, which I always joke. Most places it’s like first pres, second pres, whatever right. They call themselves the Presbyterian church at Fredericksburg, as if there would never be another in town.Margie: 5:19
I’m from, predominantly raised in, southern Maryland. So, I get the civil war thing totally. We were like 20 minutes to Washington DC. I would be a great tour guide to Washington DC because of all the times I toured down there as a student in middle school and high school and even elementary. But what I wanted to just quickly ask you is the article and how much traction it got. How many views did you finally see that it was getting when it went viral?Alex Lang: 5:53
Yeah, so when I set it out the first day, the first day, it ended up getting like 8,000 views, which I thought was remarkable, because most of the time my article gets about 70 reads.Margie: 6:07
I’d be happy with that number, yeah.Alex Lang: 6:10
Yeah, so I was like 8,000. This is crazy. And then it popped up the next day it went to over 100,000. And by Labor Day weekend it had gone over 200,000. It now sits at 390,000. So it’s definitely tapered off quite a bit since that kind of first week that it went viral. But it was definitely a surreal experience to see something that you wrote which really I assumed nobody would read, to then spread in the way that it did. It was quite unexpected.Margie: 6:46
Yeah, I picked it up in my self-care and sustainability Facebook group because I just I, of course was fascinated with that, because I’m concerned about self-care in the lives of ministry leaders and building sustainability and leadership issues, because you have to lead yourself well first to be a leader. So I trolled through it and there was the usual suspects sort of you know, the unrealistic expectations, the unseen damage. You covered all that. But when I got down to the growth mindset versus fixed mindset, I thought, oh my goodness, I have lived that and that, to me, was one of the heartbreakers. You know you go into ministry to serve the purposes of Jesus and finding that it was a challenge to get the people to buy into that idea was, you know, cognitive dissonance. And I looked it up. You know it’s living with I think we’re doing this, they think we’re doing that, and I have to live in that tension. And that sounds really lovely. I’m going to live in the tension, but it’s not. It’s hard, it’s very difficult. So I was wondering if you could walk us through some of that. So we’re going to talk about the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset, and why don’t you start by giving us some kind of description of the fixed mindset?Alex Lang: 8:16
Yeah, so a fixed mindset is people who don’t like to be challenged. So they perceive failure to kind of be the limits of their ability, and they tend to be scared of learning new things, particularly if that education, if it disrupts their worldview. And in my I don’t know about your experience, but my experience I actually think this is a lot of people in the institutional church. They don’t want their thinking challenged. They’ve come to church to reinforce what they’ve always believed, and so I think that the job of the pastor, from their perspective, is not really to push them to grow, but to kind of reassure them that they’re on the right track and so and so something that I said in the article was that I think that what this means is that if you’re going to learn something, it should support the party line, it should comfort their investment of resources in the church and, in particular, they want to know that whatever their investing is going to pay off down the line somewhere, usually in terms of afterlife. Now, in my church I was.Margie: 9:27
You know what I’m thinking of when you’re saying that. I’m sorry, I hate it to interrupt, but I was thinking about how all those beautiful cathedrals were built in in Europe because people were making an investment, hoping that their loved ones would not, would get out of purgatory or some kind of sin, some kind of you know those payments.Alex Lang: 9:51
I think, yeah, the indulgences?Margie: 9:54
Yeah, no, absolutely Well.Alex Lang: 9:56
I mean and that continues on forward, when, where I think that when you think about why people give, I mean I think oftentimes there’s it’s to support the community. But somewhere behind there for I think a number of people is this idea that, well, if I’m giving to the church, that shows my investment in the kingdom and hopefully, even though there’s this idea that we are, you know, shown grace and forgiveness and that nothing can earn our way in Luther, right, nothing can do to earn your way or salvation which comes from Paul, so that I think that you do that to think, well, I’m giving and therefore there will be some type of reward later on that comes with that. So, anyways, yeah, I totally see where you’re coming with that.Margie: 10:39
You are talking about failure, though, in there, because I think there is some fear of failure, and so if they’ve failed at something you know you’ll hear this kind of thing in a meeting well, we already tried that or we already did that. And if something didn’t go as well as they want, I said well, if you’re not failing at stuff regularly, it means you’re not trying anything new.Alex Lang: 11:01
Yeah, no, definitely, and you know, failure is a lower or a fear of failure is a big part of a fixed mindset mentality, and I think that you know I actually want to take some time a little later on to jump into that, because I think that there’s there’s a lot built into why a person kind of dives into a fixed mindset, or why they have a fixed mindset. I was thinking it’s an interesting question because, like you’re, I was saying you know, a lot of people in the church have fixed mindsets, and I don’t know about you and your ministry, but for me, I was always. I always push the boundaries, and I particularly push the boundaries for me. I did it with my in the way that I pushed the thinking. So I did that. So before I like push them to do things, I would push the thinking around things. So, for me, though, I believe in a growth mindset and in a growth mindset, what that means is I’m going to pose questions, I’m going to give you information, I’m going to let you determine the answer, and I made it clear from the beginning I don’t expect you to think the way that I do. You do not have to believe the things that I believe and, at the same time, right, I don’t have to believe the things you believe, and what I expect is is that we, with this information, we grow together, we make our own assessments and we walk together in this way, because, to me, where we’re kind of getting at is I want you to live Jesus’s life, I want you to live the things that he does, as opposed to what is traditionally the common narrative in Christianity, which is well, jesus died for me. Therefore, I’m forgiven, and if I do anything good, that’s, that’s gravy on the side I don’t have to really do anything else, whereas for me to be, to be a disciple, you have to live it, and so, by kind of disrupting those narratives, it makes you have to think about okay, do I really care about living this, or do I really just care about the end result, which is the heaven thing that I really want to get to? So that’s why I would do it. I didn’t just do it because I wanted to mess up their world. I want to do it, so they would live it out, if that makes sense.Margie: 13:14
I mean, that is kind of heavy to wrap your mind around for a minute, as I’m even listening to you. But then what also has come to mind is what Oswald Chambers says is are you attached to your ideas about Jesus or are you attached to Jesus? Yes and and and then I think to some of you know younger generation, I’m thinking you know people that I know in their 30s and and have looked at. They say you don’t really believe this and this and this and, and you sit there and you say, well, yes, I do believe that, but right now and in some places, the evidence is kind of thin about. You say you believe it, but then where is the evidence? You know, like they used to say, is there enough evidence to convict you of being a disciple of Jesus? I don’t know, Maybe, maybe not, but maybe we need to think more broadly about some things and then, like you said, it has an impact on you, evaluate your own faith and say, okay, am I a follower of Jesus? Like, am I living that lifestyle, or am I, you know, get saved, and sit down and say, hey, I’m good to go and it’s okay if you’re crabby, or whatever.Alex Lang: 14:34
Yeah, well, and it’s interesting, you’re bringing up the fact of younger people. So you know I’m 43. And what I know is is that many people of my generation and younger do question the narrative. You know a lot of them. If you go around and you ask them do you believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus? Younger people, a lot of them will just say no, like why would I? There’s no scientific reality to it. Because we were steeped in science growing up, which is a very different kind of I mean. I’ll just give you an example. I think this is kind of fascinating, right? So I grew up, I was born in 1979. And 1984 is when that theory about the dinosaurs being destroyed by an asteroid became. That’s when that was put out. So I grew up my entire life knowing that that likely was how dinosaurs were destroyed. You know, actually, today they’re actually upending that narrative and they’re saying well, if you look at the record, that’s actually probably a lot of them were already dead by the time they came. Irrespective, the point being, I grew up with science as part of my life, whereas a lot of people who I’m ministering to in my congregation that theory they didn’t grow up with that. They didn’t. I remember I preached about that one time. A lot of them didn’t even know that was the case, that dinosaurs had been destroyed by an asteroid. They were unaware of it because they had never learned it in school and they guess they had missed it somewhere along the way. And so I point that out to say, like, the restorative faith thing, like my whole thing, the book that I wrote, is designed for people my age or anybody who really questions, to say like hey, there’s another way to approach this, because for a lot of people, if you sit there and you say, for example, you have to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian, well they’re done, they’re out. You’ve just basically canceled them out because they are going to struggle to believe in that, the virgin birth, a lot of the things that we kind of fundamentally say you have to believe these to be a Christian. I go through and I say, actually I have a way that you can believe in Christianity, still be a follower of Jesus, and yet you can still have the science that you believe in and it’s okay and there’s a lot. I spend a lot of time in the book talking about that, but you’re bringing up a really important point, which is that for younger individuals and for a lot of people, I think that there we talk about this hypocrisy right Of people say I’m going to, I don’t wanna go to church, because those people don’t really act the way they’re supposed to act and you’ve kind of, by saying what you’ve said a little bit earlier, you stumbled onto. I think the reason why that happens is because of the fact that people often in the church just say well, I’m good to go and I can rest on my laurels and I don’t have to really worry about anything.Margie: 17:19
Mm-hmm. Well, they’ll say faith alone. Yes or scripture alone, faith alone, however they wanna phrase that, and I didn’t even disclose this earlier, when we were just kind of chatting beforehand. But I was raised Catholic.Alex Lang: 17:39
Oh, interesting.Margie: 17:40
Oh, yes, so let’s add a little. And then came to Christ while reading scripture at my dining room table going, oh my gosh, this is real, this is real. And then you encounter the construct of many churches. At the time, my first exploration was Bible study and I went to Bible site for like a year and a half and then I went to the church. And then you have to buy into their construct or you’re out. And there are many people that I not a ton that I encountered along my journey that would say, oh, you went to seminary and they would refer to it as cemetery because that’s where your faith goes to die. And then you’re gonna come out with all of these new ideas, new thoughts. I mean, if I say I said it a discussion with somebody who we talked about the creation narratives and I said you know, I think that the most important component of that is God created, god created, god created. There’s a repeated phrase in there that I think if the Spirit of God is enlivening someone to capture this, there’s a reason. So what what had happened is there were many narratives about creation. I learned that at cemetery or seminary, wherever, and they were ancient writings that captured this. But what the writer was doing was ascribing creation to God. And I don’t know. I said, you know, god could probably do it in seven days. I’m good with that, and if it didn’t happen, you know, okay. Well, this person said well, if it’s not seven literal days, my whole Bible is incorrect. And I’m thinking, but that’s 66 books by a ton of. I don’t know how you can say the whole Bible’s, you know, down the toilet because of that. And I just felt, like you know, we have difficulty taking a 3000 foot view about some things. And at the same time, I’ve worked revitalization process enough, where you sit down with church leaders and say, why do you go to this church? And they say, oh well, my grandfather came here, and then my dad, and then so now we are, and you know, and by the end of it, my colleagues, when we met afterwards I said, oh my gosh, my head is going to explode If somebody doesn’t say Jesus really soon. And so you’re working a process of helping them to recapture the essence of what we’re supposed to be about, which is making disciples and following Jesus. And what have we done here? We’ve created many institutions that just want to have their numbers and meet their budget goals and continue and I’m not saying nobody’s doing anything good in the midst of all, that it certainly is but where are our people’s mindset? I mean, you know you talk about a broad definition of sin. That’s a self centered mindset. So mindset is kind of it’s important. It really is important in that. And so what you’ve, what you did, you know, you kind of rocked my world a little bit, because I’m following what you’re saying, going okay, okay, that might have happened because I’ve started reading. I’m reading Luke and I’m sitting there saying, you know, you read Zachariah’s song, you read Mary’s song and I say to myself, hmm, how did Luke capture that? Because he wrote it so far after Jesus, and who, who remembered this word for word and put that there? You know, and you have to start thinking about something’s like that. But at the same token, do you or do you not think that Jesus can handle those kinds of questions?Alex Lang: 21:45
Yeah, well, if your faith can’t handle questions in doubt, that’s not faith. I mean, I think a lot of people have replaced faith with certainty. So, you know, faith is, you know, believing in things unknown, and I think that what they say is well, okay, you know, and it’s kind of funny, just giving what I talked about with the whole scientific thing, you know, of the crucifixion, some people might be saying, well, you certainly don’t do that with the story, and I think that it’s very interesting. You know, faith should be able to handle doubt. If you can’t handle doubt, if you can’t handle questions, then that faith is not built on anything that’s very strong. And so for me, you know, whenever my faith got kind of rocked which would happen like it still happened to this day the question I come back to is okay, how do I rebuild it? That’s growth mindset. Like, that’s the growth mindset. Growth mindset is the person who says, okay, you just fed me a piece of information that totally upends, kind of most of my thinking. How am I going to incorporate that? Not rejected, but how am I going to incorporate that into my thinking in such a way that I can now maintain the things that I feel are important. How do I have integrity to who I am but yet I allow that to be part of who I am too, whereas I think a fixed mindset again will just reject and say, well, I’m just not going to, I don’t want to even hear that piece of information because it’s too hard for me, it challenges me too much. And so I often came back to the people in my church who were very against me and the thing that I was saying I would say look you. I was like you don’t have to believe what I’m saying word for word, but you do have to consider it. You have to consider what it means to you and what. And I think that that’s a that’s a critical, that’s, that’s critical thinking which unfortunately, I feel like in our world today is becoming less and less viable among people. People are not critical thinkers in the same way, but that’s, that’s a growth mindset, mentality.Margie: 23:50
Would you say, then, that this is a component or a facet of the deconstruction that many people are talking about, and I’m not real well versed on that, except I keep seeing it everywhere.Alex Lang: 24:03
Yeah. So it’s an interesting question about deconstruction. I’m a huge deconstructionist, as you might be able to tell just from the little conversation we’ve had. I deconstruct everything and I think that, to me, what that does is it brings you, it gets you. It. Basically, it tears away all of the the details that, frankly, can confuse people, and it gets you to the core of what matters, what really, at the end of the day, matters about Christianity. And so for me, if you were to ask me that question, it’s Jesus’s message, jesus’s teachings, those things. To me they change the world across the board, and I can point to example after example after example of how those who live into Jesus’s teachings and the things that he said, the sacrifice, the willingness to give of yourself, the willingness to die to self, the willingness to love your enemy and to turn the other to all of those things change the world, and they always have and they always will. And so if you live into those things and I think to do that you ultimately have to have not just because you can sit there and you say, well, then why, if it’s just, is it just a philosophy? And I would say, on the one hand, yes, but on the other hand, you can’t really do those things unless you understand unconditional love, and that is what comes from God. That’s the place where you need to have faith. So for me, my faith is actually very simple I strip away all those things. But at the same time, I think the problem is that the institutional church has been built around a lot of those the traditions and the details, the dogma. Those are things are very, very important to many, many people, and I think that the deconstruction that’s happening as the church kind of is collapsing right now, and it’s collapsing for a lot of different reasons. But as it collapses, what I see happening is that for those who really want to connect, they’re going to connect through you be having integrity, like the people who would come to me, who were younger. They would often say you know what I like about what you talk about? It’s that I can just. I can just live it and I don’t have to think about all the other stuff that that frankly causes me to want to walk away. And so if you can get a whole community of people walking together in lockstep and living out the teaching of Jesus, I think that is going to create communities where you’re going to see forward movement, as opposed to what’s happening right now, which is a lot of the communities that are caught in the dogma tend to be collapsing on themselves.Margie: 26:41
Yeah, and. And we are to be making disciples of Jesus, people who follow what Jesus said, what Jesus did, and becoming more and more Christlike. And then I would dovetail where you talk about the energizing peace being God’s unconditional love and that we really can’t live that out, there is a spiritual component, the power of the Spirit, that enables people to live into that, because if left to our own devices, we just aren’t so swift at that.Alex Lang: 27:15
Yeah, try to love your enemy. Without unconditional love that’s not going to happen, and most people, if you have children, you probably understand some level of unconditional love, but even that can have conditions on it, depending on what happens in your family. I think that all parents would like to believe that they have true unconditional love for their children, but at the same time that can be tested, and so I think the one place in my life where I’ve experienced unconditional love is from God, and so that’s why I can say I understand the concept of loving your enemy, and absent that that would just be some type of intellectual exercise. I don’t think I could actually do it. So to me there is a very serious connection between having that encounter with a God of unconditional love and being able to live those teachings of Jesus. Those two things are integrally connected to each other, and if you don’t have it it can’t occur. In my opinion, you’re going to struggle to make those things happen.Margie: 28:18
Sure, sure. I had some kind of early on in my faith another discussion with somebody where I said to them and I was raised Catholic and then I started attending this one church and I’m in a Sunday school class and they were discussing whether one whole section of Christianity was going to hell, and I got deeply disturbed by that and I said what if you don’t know to say the words well, I’m saved, I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal savior. What if you don’t know to say that? But you have a very vibrant walk with God and there’s a spiritual element in life and by the Holy Spirit. And what if you don’t know to say that? And they said, oh well, you can’t be saved unless you say I am saved and I’m like well, I think God’s bigger than that. I mean this is like a Monty Python picture where God says are you saved? And someone says, well, I really didn’t ever boom, and then you’re flying off into the abyss or something. And I thought I just sometimes I think people behave in function as if their God is too small.Alex Lang: 29:34
Oh, I agree with that completely and I think that if we’re going to talk a little bit more about the fixed versus growth mindset, I think that if you have a big God, that’s usually a sign of a growth mindset.Margie: 29:51
Are you wondering whether your fatigue, your lack of motivation, your lack of interest is burnout Maybe? I just wanted to let you know that I have a resource on the website, margiebryce.com that’s B-R-Y-C-E MargieBryce.com, and it is a burnout questionnaire, free for you to download and kind of self assess and get a sense of where you’re at. There are questions that not only ask about what you’re going through but maybe how often you’re experiencing it and that’s that’s kind of a key to where you might be, because you have to know where you are in order to chart a course forward. And most pastors who experience pastors and ministry leaders who experience burnout rarely know that that’s where they’re at until they’re well into it. And if you’re unsure about that little statistic, so far, everybody that I’ve interviewed on this podcast who has experienced burnout, when I asked that kind of question, they’re like, yeah, I didn’t know, that’s where I was at. So again, go to margiebricecom it’s on the homepage of the website and you can get your burnout questionnaire and kind of see where you’re at. Hey friends, the Crabby Pastor podcast is sponsored by Bryce Art Glass and you can find that on Facebook. I make stained glass, that’s part of my self-care and also by Bryce Coaching, where I coach ministry leaders and business leaders, and so the funds that I generate from coaching and from making stained glass is what is supporting this podcast and I will have opportunities for you to be a part of sponsoring me and, as always, you can do the buy me a cup of coffee thing in the in the show notes. But I will have some other ways that you can be a part of getting the word out about the importance of healthy self-care for ministry leaders. Hey, thanks for listening. It is my deep desire and passion to champion issues of sustainability in ministry and for your life, so I’m here to help. I stepped back from pastoral ministry and I feel called to help ministry leaders create and cultivate sustainability in their lives so that they can go the distance with God and whatever plans that God has for you. I would love to help, I would consider it an honor and, in all things, make sure you connect to these sustainability practices you know, so that you don’t become the Crabby pastor.