Monday, March 2, 2015

Where are the future pastors coming from?

I recently met with a pastor search committee to help them begin the process of finding a bivocational pastor. One of their questions focused on the number of available pastors that they might interview, and I gave them the answer I usually give: the pool is getting smaller. Many of us currently in ministry are nearing, or already past, retirement age, and many in seminary are not planning to enter pastoral ministry.

The Association of Theological Schools surveyed 6,900 students entering their schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Only 19 percent of those students indicated they planned to have a parish ministry position after graduation. The remaining 81 percent were planning on going into counseling, social work, chaplaincy, church planting, and various specialized ministry positions. Some reported they enrolled in seminary to further their own spiritual growth, and a number of them were undecided what they were going to do with their seminary education. Less than half of the students planned to be ordained.

Other studies have found that 50 percent of pastors will drop out of full time ministry within five years after graduating seminary. While it is not believed that we have a clergy shortage at present, given the above facts we must be concerned about the number of pastors who will be available to serve the future church.

For smaller, bivocational churches the problem is even worse. Studies indicate that many clergy persons refuse to even consider serving as a pastor in those churches for a variety of reasons. Clearly, with the growing number of bivocational churches in many denominations, this is something we must address.

What can we do to ensure an adequate supply of pastors for our churches and especially our bivocational churches? Let me present an initial list, and you can feel free to add to it.

  • We must begin to lift up pastoral ministry as a worthy calling for young people to consider. 
  • We need to pray that God will point us to persons who might be good pastors and then challenge those persons to consider if God might be calling them into ministry. I'm in the ministry today because a pastor asked if I had ever felt that God was calling me into pastoral ministry. He had, but I had not told anyone until the pastor asked me that question.
  • We need to lift up bivocational ministry as a valid calling of God on a person's life. I do not believe the growing need we have for more bivocational ministers has caught God by surprise.
  • We need to look at how we train and prepare students for pastoral ministry. It is especially critical that we seek new ways to make seminary education more affordable. There is something wrong with seminary graduates leaving school with student debts of $20,000-80,000.
  • Smaller churches may need to look within their congregation for their next pastor. People who have the gifts and passion to serve as a pastor, and who sense that God has called them to that role, can be trained in a variety of ways that does not require them to put their lives on hold for three years while they attend seminary.
We cannot and must not attempt to call anyone into pastoral ministry. That is God's work. But, we can talk with and pray with persons who may sense such a call on their lives. We can walk with them through the discernment process as they consider what that calling might look like in their lives. If someone determines that God has called him or her into ministry, we can support and encourage that call. Finally, we need to assist them as they prepare to answer that call.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Do people in small churches want in-depth preaching?

Do people attending small churches want in-depth Bible preaching? Some people doubt that they do. We've all heard complaints about how many in our churches have a shallow faith and are not interested in sound biblical preaching. Maybe it's because they've not been exposed to such preaching in the past.

As I think of many of the small churches in the area in which I live, for years many of them were served by student pastors. These pastors usually stayed for a couple of years until they graduated from seminary, and then they moved on. Short tenured pastorates do not lend themselves to in-depth preaching.

Most of my regular readers know I was the bivocational pastor of my small, rural church for 20 years. My experience was that our congregation enjoyed in-depth sermon series and grew theologically as a result of them. After a few years at the church I began a habit of preaching through a book of the Bible after Father's Day. If I remember correctly, the book of Romans took about 18 weeks, Sunday morning and night, to complete. Nobody complained, and most seemed to enjoy the opportunity to go deeper in this book of the Bible. I did similar series with other books of the Bible. The series I preached on the Sermon on the Mount was another lengthy series, but it was so rich in all that it taught.

Although I was reluctant to do so, the congregation urged me to preach through the book of Revelation. I finally agreed to but only on Sunday nights. It took an entire year to complete that series.

We did other lengthy series as well.  Twice, we did a "Journey Through the Bible" on Sunday nights. We purchased notebooks that had outlines of the series for each family. This was a way to give people an overview of the entire Bible in one year. It was another rewarding exercise.

When you preach through books of the Bible you are able to go much deeper in a passage than in a single sermon. You also can't skip over the difficult passages. Every preacher has certain favorite Bible themes that he or she enjoys preaching, and we all have those topics we would prefer to ignore. When you preach through an entire book you have to cover it all. That's good discipline for the preacher and for the congregation.

Another advantage to preaching through a book of the Bible is that it makes sermon planning much easier. You don't have to wonder what you are going to preach next week; you just pick up where you left off. That is a huge time saver for a bivocational minister. You can also assure you have the study tools available to help you prepare your message. Once I determined which book I was going to preach through I would purchase two to four good commentaries on that book to assist me in my preparation.

As you think about your preaching calendar for 2015 I hope you'll consider preaching a lengthy sermon series. I think you will find that it will help your congregation deepen their faith and their understanding of the Bible.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Guard your spiritual life

Eugene Peterson never fails to challenge me with his writing. Addressing the common tendency today of many ministers to approach their calling from a managerial and secular perspective he writes in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, "The greatest errors in the spiritual life are not committed by the novices but by the adepts. The greatest capacity for self-deceit in prayer comes not in the early years but in the middle and late years."

As he notes earlier in the book, once a person has served as a pastor for a period of time he or she "can conduct a fairly respectable pastoral ministry without giving much more than ceremonial attention to God." He compares ministry to a triangle and writes that the "visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration." It is those lines that our people evaluate, and if we provide those three things we often win the approval of our congregation. However, Peterson points out that we often fail to address the angles of that triangle which he describes as prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. If we disconnect the angles from the lines we no longer have a triangle.

The challenge for many of us in ministry is that the longer we are in ministry the more we are tempted to ignore the angles. The busyness of ministry and life prevents us from times of prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. We know how to do ministry so we continue on, but without that connection to the angles we eventually find that we are functioning solely on our own power.

I have to admit that this has been a challenge for me throughout my ministry. As a bivocational pastor I've frequently found myself too busy to spend the time in prayer and the study of Scripture that I needed to function in my calling. It's never been an intentional thing on my part; it's just a problem that creeps up on me. One day I realize that my devotional life has grown weak, and Peterson's words come back to haunt me. I write this because I doubt that I am the only one who struggles in this area of life.

What happens when we ignore the angles? Frustration. Depression. Burn out. Loss of spiritual zeal. Confusion. Lukewarm preaching and living. Questioning our call to ministry. Do any of these sound familiar?

Of course, the problem is that our congregation does not see us when we are on our knees in our study. They don't see us as we study the Scriptures, not for our next sermon, but for our own spiritual development. They see us when we stop in a hospital room or attend a Little League game to cheer on players from the church. They see us when we give the prayer to open the Rotary meeting and when we stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning. They see us when we attend the many meetings on the church's schedule. It is those visible times of ministry that they see, and applaud, and for which they reward us.

However, we must never forget that God does see us when our congregation cannot. He sees and hears us when we pray. He sees us diligently searching the Scriptures that we might know Him better. He sees us when we offer spiritual direction to one who is lost. "And your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."

The reward is that we will not have to do ministry under our own power and abilities. The reward is that our ministry will be more effective, not for our honor, but for His glory. The reward will be when we enter into heaven and hear those wonderful words, "Well done, good and faithful servant...."  Do not neglect the angles.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Will it preach in Haiti?

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians  Jim, a Christian, pays Casper, an atheist to attend church with him throughout one summer. They attend some of the best known churches in America, and the purpose is to see these churches through the eyes of an atheist. Casper admits that he is open to becoming a Christian if it can be proven to him that God exists, but at the end of the book that had not happened. There is much about the book that interested me, but one of the things I found most interesting was Casper's take on much of the preaching he heard in these churches. He was not impressed.

You're invited to read the book where the names of each church are given so I'll not mention names in this post. The prosperity message he heard in some of these churches made Casper angry. He said that rather than promoting hope they "make appeals to the worst in people. They appeal to people's greed, selfishness, envy, pride...." Unfortunately, he's right.

I've never attended any of the churches mentioned in this book, but I have heard plenty of that kind of preaching. The "health and wealth" gospel can draw large crowds, but does it change people's lives? I remember reading a review many years ago of one service with this kind of preaching The reviewer said the audience was made up of two kinds of people. There were people sitting there in their furs and diamonds, smiling and nodding in agreement and many more people writing furiously everything the speaker was saying hoping that they one day would also enjoy the financial benefits of giving to God.

My question to those who preach such messages is why are you not walking through hospitals healing the sick patients lying in the beds? Why don't you take your message to places such as Haiti or Iraq or Somalia and tell those people how God wants them to be rich? If your message won't preach in those places, it isn't the true gospel.

The Gospel is good news. It brings hope to those who hear it and receive it. It points people to Jesus Christ, not to BMWs, yachts, and Rolex watches. It offers forgiveness of sins and a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It doesn't promise that the believer will escape suffering, but it does promise that he or she will never walk through that suffering alone.

Pastor, what Gospel are you preaching? The Bible tells us that there will come a time when preachers will tickle the ears of the people telling them what they want to hear. I pray you are not doing that, but that you are preaching the only message that has the power to transform people's lives. Jesus said if he is lifted up that he will draw all people to him. I pray that you are lifting Jesus up in every message you preach. The people in Haiti and Iraq and Somalia need Jesus Christ, and so do the people in your community.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pastors finding help through coaching

Product DetailsThe first pastor I had as an adult began working on his doctorate a few years after leaving our church. I was able to have lunch with him one day after he began his studies, and he told me that he was enjoying this degree work much more than the previous ones. At the time I was still working on my bachelor's degree and didn't give his words a lot of thought. Many years later I decided to go back to school for a DMin at Liberty Theological Seminary. I'm glad I did because it was also the most enjoyable time as a student I had.

My project, "Coaching Bivocational Ministers for Greater Ministry Effectiveness" was approved. I had previously coached a number of ministers, but for this project I signed coaching contracts with six bivocational pastors from the US and Canada for three months of coaching. It was a joy working with those pastors who brought a variety of issues to the coaching relationship. As part of our agreement, each of them was required to write a brief report of how the coaching relationship impacted their lives and ministries. My dissertation was written and defended. It would later be published as a book my publisher entitled The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide.

The first section of the book examines both bivocational ministry and coaching. The second section reviews the coaching relationiship I had with ten pastors, mostly bivocational, that I coached as part of the DMin project or outside that project. For each of them, the book looks at the various issues they needed addressed, some of the possible solutions we identified to each of those issues, and what happened as they applied those solutions.

These ten pastors were chosen because their issues are identical to the issues that many pastors must address. Through coaching, these pastors were able to find solutions to problems that, in some cases, had kept them stuck for months and even years. In every single case, each of them reported their ministries and personal lives were strengthened through the coaching relationship.

Sure, I wrote the book, but even if I hadn't I would still recommend it to pastors simply because it addresses the problems many of us face, and shows how real pastors found real solutions. I wrote it to help the reader self-coach when possible, and if that doesn't work to see how an experienced coach could help the pastor become more effective in ministry, in family relations, and in life.

I recently wrote a post here about how lonely some ministers feel. Too many of us are struggling with problems by ourselves, and for some of us those problems are starting to weigh us down. Unable to find an answer to those problems are causing some to leave the ministry. You don't need to do that. Find a mentor, find a coach, find a resource that can help you find the answers you need. You are too important to the Kingdom of God to remain stuck.

Friday, February 20, 2015

When people lack confidence in your leadership

In 1979 many people of my generation tuned in to listen to a speech given by then President Jimmy Carter. At the time America was facing a major energy and economic crisis, and Carter's approval rating was down to 25% which was even lower than Richard Nixon's during the Watergate crisis. For a week before the speech Carter met with various political advisers and other leaders. The plan was that his speech was to inform the American public of what he had learned and his plans for leading them out of their current crisis. Instead, much of his speech was directed at the American people for their lack of confidence in America. Refusing to admit his failures as a leader, he blamed the American people. The speech became known as the "malaise speech." Although his approval rating did improve during the next few days, it dropped again as President Carter was unable to provide the leadership the American public expected of their leaders. The following year Ronald Reagan defeated Carter's attempt to win a second term by offering America a vision that was optimistic and promised to restore our nation back to health and vitality.

Today, America faces serious challenges around the world. I started to list some of them and found that doing so took up too much space in the post. Terrorism, economic issues, immigration reform are just the tip of the iceberg, and it has grown increasingly obvious that our current administration and the legislature have no clue how to effectively deal with any of them. A Gallup Poll in June 2014 found that only 29 percent of Americans had confidence in President Obama's leadership and only 7 percent had confidence in Congress. Voters demonstrated their crisis of confidence in the mid-term elections by replacing a number of incumbents in Congress. Leading up to the mid-term elections President Obama said in a speech that his policies were on the ballot during that election, and it appears that the majority of voters were clear about what they thought of his policies and his leadership.

This blog is not about politics as much as I enjoy the subject. It is about church leadership, and especially leadership in smaller churches so what can we learn from these two political examples? One, it's not easy to lead when people lack confidence in your leadership. President Obama can continue to provide leadership through Executive Orders, but these orders are coming under fire from federal judges and even the Supreme Court. It's likely that many of them will be overturned as unconstitutional. Pastors do not have the power of Executive Orders, at least not in most small churches I know. Even if they did, that is not leadership.

This means that if people lack confidence in your leadership, you must find a way to regain that trust. You do not do that by blaming them for their lack of confidence. You do it by finding out how you lost their confidence and looking for ways to regain it. You begin to rebuild relationships and you learn to work with people with whom you disagree. After Carter's speech he demanded resignation letters from each member of his cabinet and accepted several of them from those who disagreed with him the most. Obama has chosen to ignore Congress and do whatever he pleases without their input and support. Neither tactic will work in the long run. A true leader is a servant leader, and this means that the leader must find ways to work with a broad range of people including those with whom you have disagreements.

To regain confidence in your leadership don't point out problems without having some idea of how you are going to deal with them. You don't have to have a completed plan for solving the problem, but you must have at least some steps you are going to take as you begin to address it. Stating that we have an energy crisis and suggesting that we address it by everyone wearing sweaters in the winter as Carter did in one speech is not leadership, it's admitting that as a leader I don't have a clue for solving this problem.

Sometimes there is no way to regain people's confidence in your leadership. As a pastor you may need to resign and seek a new place of ministry, but before you go to your next assignment make sure you determine what led to that lack of trust people had in your leadership.  Not all the criticism that was directed towards you was valid, but some of it probably was. You have to decide what failures did occur in your leadership and ensure that you don't make those again. You may want to use a outside ministry developmental agency to help you process what went wrong.

In my opinion, neither of the presidencies mentioned in this post were positive for our nation. However, after President Carter left office he has been involved in a number of very positive endeavors including his work with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center's efforts to promote peace and reduce conflict around the world, and a number of diplomatic efforts he has done at the request of most of the presidents who followed him. President Carter has enjoyed a very productive and effective life as a leader since leaving office. Of course, President Obama is still in office for two more years. It will be interesting to see the role he will assume after leaving office. Intelligent and charismatic, he, too, is likely to do well after leaving office.

If you have a pastorate that does not end well because people lost confidence in your leadership, that does not mean that your next ministry won't be much better. Again, find out what went wrong, correct the problems, and go into your next phase of ministry with a better understanding of how to serve the people as a servant leader.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The loneliness of ministry

One of the stresses of ministry is the feeling that many of us have of being alone. It is a fact that much of what we do is done when we are alone. Sermon preparation is often done alone as we spend hours researching our text and preparing our message. When we counsel others we are often told things that we cannot share with other people including our spouses. We may have to make decisions based on information that others do not have. We are not always free to reveal that information to other people even when we are criticized for the decisions we made. We endure the criticism alone.

This sense of being alone can have devastating effects on us and our families. If a person believes that he or she has no one to talk to it can create enough stress in our lives to change our body chemistry and cause depression. This is known as endogenous depression and can be difficult to diagnose and treat because it may not occur until after the stressors are gone.

Loneliness can lead one to leave the ministry. One study found that feeling alone and isolated was one of the top four reasons clergy gave for leaving the ministry.

Loneliness has also been connected to sexual addictions and misconduct. A study found that 75 percent of the people who left the ministry due to misconduct indicated that they were lonely and felt isolated from others.

Anything that stresses us will also cause problems in our families. We don't walk out of the church office and flip off the STRESS switch. That stress goes home with us and impacts how we relate to family members.

What can we do to reduce the pressure of feeling alone? There are several that I discuss in my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. One entire chapter is related to this problem, and the material in this post comes from that chapter. Here I will just list the suggestions made in the book for easing the stress of feeling alone.

  • Regardless of the size of church, every pastor needs to develop a ministry team to help share the burden of leadership.
  • Pastors need a prayer team who will meet with him or her on a regular basis to pray specifically for the pastor and the pastor's family.
  • We need to identify trusted colleagues with whom we can meet. This may be other pastors, a denominational leader, a coach, or a trained counselor the pastor sees on a regular basis.
  • There was a time when it was assumed a pastor would have a spiritual director. Few pastors have such a person in their lives now. Such a person could be a valuable ally to help us overcome our sense of loneliness.
  • We must never forget that we are never truly alone as God is always with us. A sense of being alone may indicate that we need to spend more time in prayer.
For more help with this pressure, and many others that pastors experience, I encourage you to read this book. You do not have to endure the various pressures you may feel in ministry alone. There are ways to address each of them. We may not be able to eliminate them, but we can certainly reduce the stress they cause us.