Friday, December 9, 2016

You can't lead sitting on a fence

Studies have found that many pastors do not see themselves as leaders. In fact, many of them do not want to lead. That's a shame because pastors are called to be leaders in their churches. Maybe their reluctance to lead has to do with a misunderstanding of what a church leader is to be.

Church leaders are not dictators nor are they CEOs. They are servant-leaders who recognize they are there to serve their churches and the communities in which their churches are located. In Mt. 20:28 we find Jesus reminding his disciples "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve...." That is the model for pastors and other church leaders. We are not called to our places of ministry to be served but to be servant-leaders.

Another reason some pastors are reluctant to lead is that they've never been taught how to lead. As I've written before, many seminaries do not train pastors to be leaders. They train them to be managers. They are taught how to keep the machinery running and the church operating. They are taught how to prepare sermons and provide pastoral care. They are taught how to work within their denominational polity so as to not create waves. They are taught many good things, but they are not taught to be leaders.

A third reason I've found that keeps many pastors from leading their churches is that they have an intense desire to be liked. They don't want to upset anyone or cause any dissension in the church. If you have an insatiable desire to be liked by everyone you will find it impossible to lead. Inherent in leadership is the need to make tough decisions, and some of those decisions are not going to be popular with everyone.

I have found that many in church leadership are great at sitting on the fence. They remind me of the politician who was asked his opinion on a controversial issue. He responded that some of his friends favored one viewpoint and others supported the opposite viewpoint. When he was again asked his opinion he said he agreed with his friends.

 You can't lead sitting on a fence. There comes a time when a leader must make tough choices. Leaders have to sometimes say things that are hard for some to hear. Leaders have to take risks if they are to effectively lead their organizations. Some Christians will threaten to leave the church if they do not get their way. Leaders have to be willing to watch them walk away if they want to lead the church forward. Leaders refuse to be held hostage by church controllers. Leaders will take a stand and defend it.

Although everything I've just written is true, we must be careful. Timing is everything. Just because someone is the pastor of a church does not mean he or she is a leader in that church. In most churches it takes time before the pastor actually is able to lead a church. This is especially true in smaller churches. We also have to be careful that we don't try to force our ideas on congregations. Trying to force church members to do something they don't want to do is like trying to push a rope. We also have to determine which mountains are worth dying on. Sometimes the rewards of accomplishing something isn't actually worth the risks involved in doing so.

This is what servant-leadership is all about. We do not need to tiptoe around on eggshells, but we do need to work with the people in our churches to accomplish the tasks God has given us. We never want to come across as arrogant or mean-spirited or give the impression that we will get our way by whatever means possible. We are there to serve, not demand, but at the same time we are to lead.

 No one ever said leading a church is easy, but if this is what God has called you to do, then lead. Get off the fence and lead your church to accomplish the vision He has for it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Pray without ceasing

We know the Bible says that we are to pray without ceasing, but prayer is one of those things the church often talks about more than it actually does. The fact is, we're too busy to pray much. Life gets in the way. Sometimes we are so involved in church activities that prayer gets left by the wayside. This can especially be a problem for pastors and other church leaders. Besides, just how much time should we devote in prayer? How in the world could one pray without ceasing anyway? You can't spend all your time on your knees.

It's interesting to look at some of the spiritual giants from the past and their attitudes towards prayer.

Martin Luther once said, "I have so much to do today that I'm going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to get it all done."

We know from the book that bears his name that Daniel prayed three times a day. So did E. M. Bounds, who was an influential pastor around the time of the Civil War. Some of his books remain classics on prayer.

George Whitfield, an important evangelist in both England and the United States, prayed an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, and an hour each evening.

Maybe someone would argue that these individuals lived in a simpler time without all the demands of modern society which meant they had more time to pray than we do today. That would be true. They weren't distracted by televisions, games of the week, movies, and many of the other things that seem to pull people away from spending time with God. They were also not blessed (?) with all the time-saving devices of our modern society such as computers, smart phones, social media, etc.

Their distractions were more in the order of having to make their own bread, growing their own food, cutting their firewood to heat their homes plus serving their churches as pastors and evangelists. I think we need to be very careful to assume they had more time to pray than we do today. The safer assumption is that they took prayer more seriously than many of us do today and sought out times to pray.

I am in no way insinuating that each of us needs to pray three hours or more a day although that would not be a bad thing if you do. God does not love us more if we pray more. I can assure you that I do not spend anywhere close to three hours a day in prayer. In fact, there are times I struggle to pray as I should as much as anyone.

What I am saying that that most of us would do well to make prayer more of a priority in our lives than we do. We need to become more intentional about blocking out times to pray. We also need to realize that we will often accomplish more in our prayers than in anything else we do.

Pray without ceasing. Look for opportunities to pray. If you hear a siren going down the street, stop and pray for those first responders and for those they are going to serve. If you're stuck on the interstate behind a line of cars due to a wreck ahead, pray for those persons involved.  You may not know the situation or what they need, but God does. If you see someone struggling to cross the street, don't honk at them to hurry up. Pray for them. When someone asks you to pray for them, actually do so. We may not pray three hours a day, but each of us can be in an attitude of prayer where we are looking for opportunities to pray.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Toxic people at church

In yesterday's post I addressed the problem of toxic people in our personal lives. Such people, as I pointed out, will prevent us from becoming the person God wants us to be and from achieving the purposes for which He created us. Also, if we are not careful, they will pull us down to their level and cause us to become toxic ourselves. The best way to overcome toxic people is to just ignore them. Walk away. Find new friends and develop relationships with healthier people.

But, what if you are a pastor or church leader and those toxic people are in your church? It's not always easy to walk away, and in most cases we shouldn't, but what can we do to protect ourselves from their toxicity?

First, and foremost, we must set boundaries in all our relationships and especially with the ones we have with toxic people. Dr. Henry Cloud wrote an exceptional book on this issue called Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Since many of us struggle with setting appropriate boundaries for different relationships in our lives, I often recommend this book as one that everyone needs to read.

One of the first things to remember about boundaries is that we really cannot set boundaries or limits on other people. We can only set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly. Those boundaries are not going to immediately cause them to act differently. They will just change the way we respond to their actions. In time, we hope setting appropriate boundaries will cause them to consider their actions and change, but the initial boundary is to protect us from their current misbehavior.

As church leaders we know that our churches are going to attract people with problems. That is as it should be. The church was never intended to be a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners, and we are all sinners. However, some check in with more problems than others, and some are more toxic than others. We have to protect ourselves from that toxicity or we will find ourselves soon unable to help anyone. Setting proper boundaries help provide that protection.

Pastors often struggle with setting boundaries. Most of us go into ministry as a result of sensing God's call on our lives. We want to help others, and if we set boundaries we can begin to feel as if we are failing them. By the way, some will accuse us of ignoring them or not wanting to help them if they run up against some of the boundaries we've set. Be prepared for that!

However, we are not failing them. We are helping them by allowing them to assume more responsibility for their lives. We are also helping ensure our own well-being by not being drawn into every mess in their lives. Healthy boundaries are beneficial for everyone. In fact, refusing to set boundaries really isn't helping those we think we are helping.

There's not space in this post to go into great detail about setting boundaries. If this is a need you have I highly recommend reading this book. It is an incredible resource for anyone who needs to have better boundaries in their lives.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Dealing with toxic people

Our community has a minimum security women's prison. Many of these prisoners are allowed to work outside in the community cleaning the roadsides, mowing grass, working at the animal shelter, and doing other work. Of course, they have a guard with them to ensure they don't walk off, but it's worked well for our city and I would imagine the women enjoy being able to leave the prison to do outside work.

I often pass these work details and wonder how these women became incarcerated. Specially, I wonder how many of these women got into trouble because they began to run with the wrong crowd? On a couple of occasions I've heard some of these women share their testimony, and this seems to be a common theme. They developed a relationship, often with a guy, that became toxic and they ended up committing a crime that landed them in prison.

Fortunately, most toxic relationships do not end in prison sentences, but they do have a negative impact on our lives. Toxic people cannot stand for anyone to enjoy any measure of success in their lives. Toxic people are often very sad individuals, and they want others to share in their sadness. They are very negative people, often perpetual victims in their own minds, who blames others for all their problems. They use people for their own purposes and think nothing of throwing them away when those purposes are finished. They always look for ways to pull others down to their level. They are often very needy individuals who look to others to validate their existence or to care for them. Toxic people are very skilled at hooking others with guilt. In the end, they will suck the very life out of other people if allowed to do so.

We all encounter toxic people in our lives. Sometimes a relationship doesn't become toxic at first but develops into one later. I recently ended a Facebook friendship with a couple of people. For much of that friendship we shared common interests and ideas with one another. After the recent election, their posts became very negative as they continually whined about how their candidate lost. I could understand their frustration for a few days after the election, but their negativity continued day after day. People were responding to their posts and the discussions were becoming more heated. Finally, I decided to pull the plug and end the relationship.

Of course, that's much easier to do on social media than in real life. On social media you can end the relationship with a couple of mouse clicks. It's messier in real life, but if you are in a relationship with a toxic person it needs to be done. A person will never get ahead if there are people holding you back.

We need people who encourage us in our lives, and we need to be such people for others. We need people who will cheer us on and believe in us. We need people who will love us unconditionally, and yet be willing to point out areas where we come up short.

In the few passages we read about Barnabas we find him being a source of encouragement. When Paul was converted and wanted to join the disciples in Jerusalem those disciples were fearful of him. Barnabas stood up for Paul and convinced the disciples they could trust him. Without that early trust Paul's later ministry may have looked much different.

At the same time, when Paul refused to let John Mark go on a second missionary journey Barnabas supported John Mark. He and Paul got into a heated discussion over the issue and eventually took John Mark on a missionary journey while Paul took Silas and went another direction. What an encouragement that must have been to John Mark, and yet we do not sense a breakdown in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas. They simply went in different directions, and later, towards the end of his life, Paul sent for John Mark as "he is useful to me for ministry."

In our personal lives we must avoid letting toxic relationships infect us. If we find ourselves in such a relationship, and it does not appear that it will become healthy, it's best to walk away. Life is too short to allow a steady stream of negativity to impact our lives. While walking away from such relationships is often not pleasant, it must be done if we want to be able to enjoy our own lives to the fullest and accomplish the things God wants to do in and through our lives.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Religious liberty and the media

As I was trying to write an article on the current state of religious liberty and the media I came across this one. It was much better than what I had written so I thought I would share it instead of mine. Click on the link to read the article.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fake news, spam and sermons

There is a lot of useless information out there. Fake news sites have been blamed by some, including President Obama, for the defeat of Hillary Clinton in our recent election. These sites publish fake stories and place them on social media where many of them quickly go viral. Because they confirm what people on both political sides want to be true, they share them with others, and these stories take on a life of their own. Many of these fake stories are spread through Facebook which has promised to clamp down on them.

It's a shame that many of these fake stories are spread by Christian people. In the recent election my Facebook was filled with such stories being shared by Christians on both side of the political spectrum. While some of these stories sounded plausible, many of them were so far out there that one would think no discerning person would spread them without confirming whether or not they were true. I'm concerned that some of these stories are written just to see if gullible Christians will believe them.

And then there is spam. Every day my computer is filled with spam emails. I've been able to block many of these on my computer, but because Apple doesn't care about spam these emails still make it to my I-Phone and I-Pad. Every evening I have to spend several minutes deleting all the spam messages on these two devices. I see many complaints on the Internet about Apple's refusal to correct this issue. Since they've not addressed it I can only assume they don't care about the inconvenience. It's about time to get a new phone so this will be one of my considerations when I start looking.

This post isn't really a rant about fake news sites and spam. It is meant to be a caution to those of us who speak to our congregations each week. People are inundated everyday with false and misleading information. When they come to church they need to hear a message that is filled with truth and hope. After listening to bad news all week from the various news channels they want to hear something positive, something that will inspire them and fill them with hope in something eternal.

Yes, sometimes we have to speak on difficult subjects. Sometimes we are going to step on toes, but even these messages do not have to be negative or delivered in a mean-spirited manner.

Several years ago I realized that my sermons had become rather negative in recent months. As I reviewed my sermons during that time I was convicted about my negativity. The next Sunday I apologized to the congregation for this and promised that I would be diligent in making sure that did not happen again. Even when I need to speak on difficult subjects I can do so in a positive way and not come across as beating up the people.

We also need to ensure that we use reliable resources as we prepare our messages. It's very easy in this time of social media to grab information from one of these fake news sites to use in an illustration. If we do that it will eventually undermine our credibility, and people will begin to question everything we say.

If God has entrusted you to preach to His people He has given you a tremendous privilege and an even greater responsibility. Those who teach are under greater judgment. This is not a call that should be taken lightly. Speak the truth in love. Do so with authority and only after careful study and much prayer.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Do you want a great church?

"A great commitment to the Great Commission and to the Great Commandment will grow a great church." This has been a slogan at Saddleback Church in California for 30 years. Pastored by Rick Warren, this church reaches over 20,000 people each weekend. The church has over 200 ministries, but each of them are focused on either the Great Commission or the Great Commandment.

The church has a bad habit of chasing fads. We are always looking for the new thing that will grow our church. Church leaders run from seminar to conference trying to learn the secret to make their church great. We seem to think if we can learn the secret of this growing church or that one we can just duplicate what they are doing and reap the same benefits.

In his 2001 book Carpe MaƱana Leonard Sweet writes, "The church has tried everything except the one thing that is needed. It has tried to be an inclusive church. It has tried to be a confessional church. It has tried to be a program-driven church. It has tried being a purpose-driven church. It has tried to be a seeker-sensitive church. What if it tried to be a spiritual church?"

A spiritual church doesn't need gimmicks to reach people. It merely attempts to do what Jesus taught us to do in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Fulfilling these two directives is the mission of the church, and when a church is focused on doing these two things it will be a great church.

Smaller churches, in particular, need to be very careful they do not overextend their resources. This includes both their financial resources and their human resources. Many smaller churches are attempting to do too much, often in an effort to compete with larger churches in the area. When this happens they find themselves spread too thin and not doing anything very well.

Most smaller churches would accomplish more by doing less and by focusing more on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Anything that is not tied to these two things should be eliminated in smaller churches and in most other churches as well. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be distracted by trying to do other things.

If you want to be part of a great church focus on fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. When your church is reaching people for Christ and serving people in His name, it will be a great church.