Permission pastoring

One of the core ideas Seth Godin has brought into public conversation is “permission marketing.” Here’s how Seth defines it:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

The nugget of wisdom Seth drops at the end of that same blog post is pure gold:

If it sounds like you need humility and patience to do permission marketing, you’re right. That’s why so few companies do it properly. The best shortcut, in this case, is no shortcut at all.

It occurred to me a few months ago that this same idea applies to pastoring people. I can only pastor people who give me permission to do so. People who let me into their lives, trust me to speak into their lives, and stay in relationship with me even when I tell them hard things. John Wimber used to say something to this effect:

You find out if you’re someone’s pastor when you tell them “no.”

I have found that to be true. I also find a lot of people saying a lot of things (usually on social media) that presumes permission to speak into the lives of others that they don’t have. These religious vigilantes can’t speak life into the lives of others because permission is lacking. Giving moral and spiritual ‘advice’ shouldn’t be as flippant, crass, and mean as it often is these days. Humility, patience, and permission are good cures for these ills.

Permission is the third key component in being able to speak into someone’s life spiritually. First, you must be sent by God (we tend to refer to this as a “calling” in the religious circles I’m familiar with). Second, you have to embrace that calling and go. Third, people have to receive you and give you permission. And that permission is seldom permanent. They can take it back any time (often after you’ve told them “no”) and move on.

A little over three years ago, the elders of Vineyard North invited me to become their pastor. It felt like a God thing so Amy and I said yes and began the process of gaining the permission to pastor. A wise veteran Vineyard pastor told me somewhere along the way that it takes 3-5 years to actually become the pastor of a church. I’m finding that to be true as well and I think this is part of what he meant by that. It takes time to gain permission, to earn respect and trust, to prove that I’ll keep showing up and doing the work.

And it’s been an adventure. Two years ago today, we hung the antique doors that lead to the sanctuary in our little building in downtown Wake Forest. We chose that location because the elders had received a prophetic word before I became pastor about the church flourishing downtown and this is as close as we could get to that spot. We’ve turned it into a lovely space where sweet, intimate worship happens pretty easily. Each step we take, every time we enter through those doors and meet together, we’re incrementally building the trust and permission it takes to serve each other, to pastor each other.


Then one year ago today, we were at Falls Lake for our annual baptisms. I’m deeply grateful that adults have asked me to baptize them and that parents have asked me to baptize their children. That’s a level of trust and permission that is humbling.

This coming Sunday we’re celebrating our church’s 10th Anniversary. We’ll be at Falls Lake Sandling Beach #5 again for baptisms, a cookout, swimming, music, and a day of fun. And another chance to build trust, to earn permission, to take one more step forward. There are no shortcuts in the kingdom of God. There is only the long, slow work of faithfulness in the same direction, of serving people who have given me permission to pastor them. I am grateful for that and for them and for what God has for us in the coming years.

Let’s pastor the people God has called us to serve and who have given us permission. And let’s let everyone else be. Religious vigilantes don’t do anyone any good. Permission pastoring is much more effective.