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The Myth Of The Self-Made Man

Have you ever put together a relational biography? A relational biography describes the special people that God has used in your life over the years to get you where you are today. Try it. You’ll be amazed to discover just how much you owe to the influence of others over the years. As it turns out, I owe them just about everything! What follows is a list of but a few of my creditors, past and present.


For better or worse, our parents, more than anyone else, set the trajectory for our lives. In my case, it was for better. I was an only child of two older parents (my Jewish father had been married and divorced three times to the same Jewish woman before he married my Gentile mother at 50 years of age!). Mom and Dad filled our little home with love and security. My father died when I was 16 years old, but he had stopped working eight years earlier, and I had more one-on-one time with my dad during those eight years than most children have in a lifetime. My parents left me a priceless legacy of goal-orientation, personal responsibility, and overall optimism about life. I never once saw my parents wallow in self-pity or play the blame-game, in spite of periods of deep suffering over years.

At the practical level my folks left me another legacy: a little beach cottage in Hermosa Beach, California. Joann and I have lived there since 1984, raising both daughters in a 750 square-foot house with one bathroom. The economics of inheriting a house made so many things possible: (a) Joann remained a stay-at-home mom on a pastor’s salary, (b) we had money for date-nights and romantic getaways which have, in turn, made our marriage better, and (c) I was able to pursue a terminal degree in Christian Origins at UCLA that ultimately set me on a life-long vocational trajectory.

And then there are Joann and the girls. I would truly be a gutter rat without their influence in my life. God really does use the women in our lives to socialize us guys to become productive human beings! My daughters increasingly speak into my life as young adults, but, of course, most in the influence has (hopefully!) gone in the other direction—from me to them—over the years. Not so with Joann, my wife of thirty years. Joann is the person who has made me what I am today in so very many ways. I’ll try to limit myself to two examples here. The first is practical in nature.

Joann simply has no desire for ‘things’—a fancy house, clothes, cars, jewelry—that other Christian women seem to think are so indispensable to their comfort and to their social identity. Joann buys her clothes at Ross and the like, and she feels no need for a luxury SUV to keep up with our Hermosa Beach neighbors. This has been utterly liberating for me economically, since I have never felt any pressure from Joann to sell my soul (and our marriage!) into bondage to the banal trivialities of our consumer culture (fishing tackle & keyboards excepted, of course!).

Secondly, and most importantly, Joann believes in me and my gifts, and she has supported me in my educational and vocational adventures more than anyone else on the planet. Her encouragement along the way has turned moments of self-doubt into hope and times of victory into family celebrations. Her love has carried me through the years like a steady, warm breeze in the sails of a ship moving through waters both calm and turbulent. Joann is simply my best friend in the world. And what a great pastor’s wife she is! Those who know me well will tell you that I am not a people-person. [Pretty ironic for a guy whose academic specialty is early Christian community!] Joann, on the other hand, touches people one-on-one in ways that are simply amazing. Her relational gifts have freed me up, in turn, to use my teaching gifts as God intended them to be used among His people.


Church folks have also been a determining factor in my life and ministry. A music minister named Paul Isensee challenged me to get involved in ministry (1978). A whole church (Community Baptist) affirmed my gifts along the way and helped to put me through seminary and a doctoral program (1980-96). John Hutchison provided a model of what pastoral ministry is all about (1986-90). Duke Winser invited me to join him as a co-pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship (1996). Margy Emmons has opened my heart to worship over the years in ways it had never been opened before. OCF’s elders (Brandon, Carlos, Chris, Dan, Denny, Mark, & John) continue to provide the most relationally healthy leadership environment imaginable for a minister of the Gospel. And my fellow-elders at OCF are some of my best Christian buddies, as well.


I also remain deeply in debt to mentors and colleagues in academia. A piano teacher (Michael Sellers) told me to get back and finish what I’d started, after I dropped out of college for a season. A Greek teacher (Bill Welty) chased me out of an unaccredited seminary (Grace Graduate School, Long Beach) to an accredited one (Talbot), because he saw in me an aptitude for biblical languages. Don McDougall, a Greek professor at Talbot, modeled what was to be my own bivocational calling to both the church and the academy. Scott Bartchy, my Doctorvater at UCLA, opened my mind to a whole new approach to the Scriptures, and he has become a dear friend over the years, as well.


More recent ‘creditors,’ filling the pages of my relational biography on the vocational side, include the likes of Drs. Mike Wilkins, Clint Arnold, & Moyer Hubbard, current and former supervisors at Talbot. These guys have conspired to create what is truly a near-ideal work environment. Clint does all the dirty work (administration), leaving faculty primarily to focus on the fun stuff (research & teaching). Moyer kindly schedules all my courses on two days each week, so that I can commute less and have more time for writing and for church ministry.

And Mike? Well, Mike and I are on different schedules at Talbot, and we live 50+ miles apart, so we aren’t real close friends. But the debt I owe to Mike Wilkins for my quality of life and the joy I get from teaching at Talbot is a profound one. Mike served for years as Talbot’s ‘gate-keeper’ where faculty hiring is concerned. That means that the relational atmosphere that faculty experience among their peers at the school of theology is, in many ways, ultimately Mike’s doing. Those in the know will tell you that Mike has a nose for arrogance. Mike flat out will not hire an applicant who is ‘full of himself,’ no matter what the guy’s CV looks like. The result? Talbot professors enjoy an amazingly supportive collegial atmosphere that is a genuine anomaly in higher education. Paul says ‘knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’ (1 Cor 8:1). Because of Mike’s careful gate-keeping over the years, we have a whole lot of the latter—and almost none of the former—at Talbot School of Theology.

CONCLUSION: There, in a nutshell, is a brief overview of my relational biography. And, once again, I am brought to my knees in gratitude for the people that God has brought my way over the years. Hey, maybe I’m a ‘people-person,’ after all!

The moral of the story is that we are all people-persons when it comes to the debt of gratitude we owe to others for who we are today. None of us can say, ‘I am a self-made man.’ God has not set up His universe to run like that. ‘Where is boasting? It is excluded!’ All is of grace, even (especially!) the people God has placed in our lives.

Write your own relational biography. You’ll find it to be a humbling and joyous experience. Finally: May God help us to influence others in the ways others have influenced us!

Posted by Joe Hellerman with

Plurality Leadership: Final Installment


This concludes our series on plurality leadership. Next week we will begin a number of posts dealing with various other issues in our lives as followers of Jesus.

People who are used to a lead-pastor model often wonder just how plurality leadership cashes out, when it comes to making hard decisions and leading the church. What follows is a behind-the-scenes look at our meetings, our relationships with one another, and the decision-making process. I have slightly edited several pages from the last chapter of Embracing Shared Ministry.

Except for the fact that five of us draw a paycheck every couple weeks, OCF knows no distinction between its seminary-trained pastors and those on our board whom other churches might refer to as elders or (in churches without elders) deacons. Indeed, in order to discourage the kind of minister-versus-layperson mentality traditionally associated with the terms ‘pastor’ and ‘elder,’  all eight of us are designated as ‘pastor-elders’, and we encourage our church to view us that way.

Our weekly meetings are the key to the success of the whole enterprise. OCF’s pastor-elders gather together for an hour-and-a-half each Wednesday morning. We have no business agenda. We simply share our lives and pray for one another, and we go through the prayer requests that your folks submit each week.

OCF currently has eight pastor-elders. Our tenure ranges from five years on the team to more than thirty. I have been part of the team for twenty-two years. You can imagine the kind of community we have developed by faithfully meeting and praying for one another, for so long, on a weekly basis.

Over the years we have shared in countless joys and sorrows, big and small. We welcomed a number of new children and several grandchildren into the world. We have fervently prayed for shaky marriages in our extended families. And we grieved together when one of our brothers lost his wife to a long battle with cancer.

We generally reserve decisions and actions related to church programs and ministry for another context, meetings that we hold one Saturday each month. It is here, at these Saturday gatherings, that the community we cultivate on Wednesdays pays big dividends to our church family as a whole.

Power plays? Authority abuse? Not a chance. Denny, John, Brandon, Chris, Mark, Dan, Carlos, and I know each other too well—and we love each other too much—to let anyone get away with politicking or posturing. It is really quite amazing what happens when decision-making arises organically from a relational soil of mutual trust, respect, and admiration.

We struggle through the same kind of overwhelming challenges that confront other church leaders. Disgruntled and divisive church members, immorality, financial crises, a major building program, hiring and firing staff—we’ve seen it all. And like any team comprised of opinionated leaders, we have had our share of strong disagreements along the way.

The community we cultivate on Wednesdays, however, allows us to tackle church crises on Saturdays—and push through divergent viewpoints to consensus—in ways that we never could, if we were a typical church board, devoid of caring relationships, meeting monthly solely to do church business or, perhaps, to rubber-stamp the limited vision of a sole pastor figure. Among OCF’s pastor-elders, community is the bedrock of consensus:


Does This Really Work?

People who are new to OCF, and to our team leadership model, repeatedly ask, How does this actually work out in practice, when a difficult and potentially divisive decision must be made?

There are no absolutes where the decision-making process is concerned, and different groups of individuals will inevitably interact with one another in different ways. At OCF, our pathway to consensus typically runs as follows:

  1. We each weigh in with our convictions or opinions about the issue at hand.
  2. We listen carefully to each person’s viewpoint and to the rationale for his perspective.
  3. We seek to be highly sensitive to the general direction the discussion is going, trusting that the Holy Spirit is superintending the process. 
  4. A pastor-elder whose viewpoint becomes increasingly out-of-step with the trajectory of the discussion willingly defers to the growing consensus of the group.
  5. Once a decision has been made, we unanimously own it.

And, of course, we pray our way through the process. Not once, during my twenty-two year tenure on the board, have we ever had to vote formally on an issue.

God’s Perfect Will?

Here is a final observation that will perhaps strike a number of you as counterintuitive: the way we make decisions as a community of leaders is at least as important to God as the ultimate decisions we make. Indeed, I have become convinced over the years that God is generally more concerned with the process than with the outcome of our Saturday leadership meetings.

I often find it difficult to discern God’s will when we are making decisions in our meetings. Perhaps you have the same experience in your own ministry. While some decisions are clear-cut, it seems that in most situations there are probably a number of viable alternatives, several of which would be pleasing to God. In still other situations, I suspect that God has no preference at all.

Persons who believe otherwise, and who seek vigilantly to ascertain God’s perfect will for every key decision, run the risk of completely missing a biblical reality that is indispensable to healthy team leadership. In contrast to the lack of clarity often associated with the outcome of the decision itself, God’s will for the relational integrity of the process—humility, mutual respect, brotherly love—is crystal clear throughout the Scriptures.

It is, of course, quite Western to be preoccupied with outcome at the expense of process. But I don’t believe it is biblical.

Indeed, it has been my experience that the Bible seldom speaks directly to the decisions that face us in church ministry. Scripture always speaks directly, however, to the manner in which we are to go about making those decisions together.

The upshot of all this for decision-making by consensus is that I am less and less inclined to confuse my personal convictions with the will of God on an issue, and I am increasingly willing to defer to group consensus when I represent the sole minority opinion at one of our Saturday planning meetings. My brothers on the board take the same approach. For we are quite confident that if OCF’s pastor-elders engage the process with integrity, God will be pleased with the outcome.

Posted by Joe Hellerman with