Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Others have faced your struggles before you

In 1967 I went away to Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. The first week was especially hard. An experienced recruit who was half-way finished with boot camp was in charge of us during that first week, and he was determined to make it as difficult for us as it had been for him. It's probably safe to say that all 80 of us in our company hated him...until the last evening he had us.

The next morning we would leave processing and go across the highway to really begin our boot camp experience. Before we turned in that final night he called us all together and admitted he knew he had been difficult on us. He said it would only get harder when we went across the road the next morning, but he wanted us to remember one thing. We would never be asked to do something we could not do, and we would never be asked to do something that tens of thousands of sailors had not done before us. He assured us that the things we might be asked to do may seem impossible, but they were not.

I've never forgotten that advice. It serve me well during my 12 week boot camp experience and throughout my four year enlistment. I still remind myself of those words of wisdom even though it has been 48 years since they were spoken to me. Life can get hard sometimes, and it's helpful to remember that others have  faced the same challenges I've had to face, and they came through those challenges victorious.

Like every bivocational pastor, I faced numerous challenges during my ministry. There were times I felt like giving up. A few times I wasn't sure I could do what needed to be done, and there were times I wasn't sure it was worth it even if I could. Then God would remind me that He would never ask me to do something I could not do and that thousands of other bivocational pastors had not done before me. That reminder never failed to renew my strength and my commitment to the calling God had given me.

No doubt, you have had those challenges that threatened to overwhelm you. Family and friends may have even told you that it's too much and you need to give up. Please don't do that. Whatever you are going through, you are not the first one to experience it. Others have overcome the same challenges that you face, and you can too.

My latest book, The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide, tells the story of ten ministers I have coached over the years. These ten were chosen from the many I've worked with because the challenges they were facing will be common to many of us in ministry. In our coaching sessions each minister has the opportunity to tell me what he or she wanted to work on in that session. We tried to identify the main issue and find solutions to address that issue. At the end of each chapter, the ministers tell how they benefited from our coaching relationship and the victories they enjoyed over their challenges.

Chances are good you will find some of your challenges in their stories. You may even find that the solutions that worked for them will also work for you. At the very least, you'll be encouraged to know that others have faced the same issues you face and were not destroyed by those challenges. Remember, others have faced your struggles before you and found ways to emerge victorious over them. So can you.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Church Leadership Institute

This past Saturday our region's Church Leadership Institute graduated five students. Each of these graduates completed the entire three year program earning both the Certificate in Christian Leadership and the Diploma in Pastoral Ministries.

Each of our graduates had family, church, and work responsibilities, but they were willing to give up every other Saturday to attend classes and complete their studies in order to learn how to better serve their churches and the Lord. This is an incredible level of commitment.

When we began the Church Leadership Institute (CLI) fourteen years ago we had an idea of what we wanted to accomplish. These five people, and all our graduates, have far exceeded those expectations. Some are now pastoring some of our smaller, bivocational churches. Others serve in staff positions in their churches while many others are filling important lay leadership roles in their churches.

As I've said many times in this blog, everything rises and falls on leadership. As the leadership level in any organization raises, the potential of that organization rises as well. CLI is helping raise the leadership level of the churches in our region, and it has been exciting to watch the impact this has had on those churches.

Due to my retirement at the end of this year, this is the last CLI class I will see graduate as the director of the program. It has been an honor to be involved in something that has had the impact CLI has had. I am very excited about the future of CLI as new leadership brings new ideas that will improve the program. Some changes are already being discussed that I believe will make CLI more accessible and better.

One change that we implemented just a couple of years ago was that we decided to make this training opportunity available to anyone regardless of church affiliation. Prior to that we only offered CLI to persons who attended one of our American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky churches. We have now opened it up to anyone who wants to learn how to provide more effective leadership to their churches regardless of denominational affiliation.

If you are a member of a church in Indiana I encourage you to check out CLI on our region website, www.abc-indiana.org or contact Jennifer Greene at our region office at 317-635-3552 X221 for more information. If you are a pastor who recognizes the need to train your lay leaders, we can help you do that. Encourage them to enroll in CLI. I think you'll find it will make a difference in your church.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The joy of serving a smaller church

Studies regularly show that many seminary graduates today refuse to serve a smaller church. There are a variety of reasons for this, but I think these individuals are missing a great blessing.

Regular readers of this blog know that I served as the bivocational pastor of a small church for twenty years before being asked to serve our judicatory. My first book was published in 2000 with the working title of The Joy of Bivocational Ministry. When the publisher changed the name to The Tentmaking Pastor: The Joy of Bivocational Ministry I managed to convince them to at least leave my title in as the subtitle.

A pastor friend of mine who served a fully-funded church at the time asked how there could be joy in bivocational ministry. He felt such ministry would be impossible, a belief many people share.

I know some pastors of smaller churches who do feel they are asked to do the impossible. Working with as many small churches as I have over the past three decades I know some can be very difficult to pastor. In fact, in recent weeks I've stated in this space that some do not deserve a pastor and should close due to the way they treat pastors and others. But, that was not my experience and is not the experience of many other bivocational pastors I know.

As the pastor of a small church I was able to be a presence in people's lives. I could be with them in both the good times and the difficult times. I wasn't expected to keep office hours, manage staff, attend countless meetings, oversee a large bureaucracy, and act as the CEO of a corporation. My view of pastoral ministry was to serve people and help them grow as believers in Christ, and I was able to do that in a small church.

The church I served all those years loved me and my family. They gave me a lot of freedom and overlooked a ton of mistakes, especially after I demonstrated my love for them by staying for a few years. We were able to develop a mutual trust and appreciation for each other that made ministry there a joy.

I was able to see people come to Christ and grow in their faith. I watched as people developed their leadership and ministry gifts and had a part in that growth. God trusted me with these people, and I still feel joy as I think of how some grew into mature believers.

In the book I mentioned above I share how the church struggled when I first went there and some of the things we were able to accomplish before I left. I take credit for none of those accomplishments. As I told the congregation before I left, my main contribution was to hang around long enough to help them believe in themselves as much as I believed in them. I give God and our congregation credit for the good things that happened, but I still feel great joy as I think about those things.

A pastor may find greater prestige serving a larger church and find it easier to climb the ministerial ladder of success. He or she will enjoy greater financial advantages serving a larger church. I would imagine many pastors of larger churches enjoy the ministry they are called to. I certainly do not want to imply that serving a smaller church is superior to being the pastor of a large church. I will, however, state again that there is great joy in pastoring a smaller church. Some who refuse to do so do not know what they are missing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Coaching for bivocational ministers

One of the things I look forward to doing after my retirement at the end of this year is to spend more time coaching bivocational ministers. A few years ago I received training to be a coach and learned how helpful it can be to have a coach.

As part of our training we received coaching for a year, and it so happened that I was facing a crossroads at the same time. There were two paths that looked equally inviting so I used my coach to help me choose the better path for me. From that experience and the training I received I became convinced that having a coach could be a huge asset for a minister.

Good coaches don't give advice. They are not counselors. They are not consultants. They are not even mentors. They ask questions. Powerful questions that force the person being coached to look deep within himself or herself for the answers. Coaching begins with the premise that we often already know the solution to our problems, we just need help in bringing that solution to the surface.

Since receiving the training I've had the opportunity to coach a number of ministers, both bivocational and fully-funded. I chose to coach a number of bivocational ministers as my DMin thesis and write my dissertation on the results of that coaching. That dissertation became my latest book,The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide. I think the title of the book is unfortunate because it doesn't indicate that the book is about coaching ministers, but it is the title the publisher selected. However, the content of the book is what is most important, and the content describes ten coaching relationships I've had with ministers, the issues they raised, and the solutions our coaching relationship helped them identify.

Coaching isn't just for persons with problems. It can be very helpful any time someone feels stuck and isn't sure which direction to take. Coaching can help someone who wants to raise his or her leadership skills to a higher level.

For a long time I've wanted to have more time available to coach ministers, but my current ministry has limited the amount of time I could commit to that. As I prepare to retire from that role at the end of December I am praying that coaching opportunities will occur.

If you feel having a coach could help you more forward with your life and/or ministry, contact me. At least read the book. You may find that your challenge is addressed in that book and you may find solutions there to help you overcome the challenges. At least, after reading the book you'll better understand coaching and can determine whether it is something that can benefit you.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Excellence, not excuses

In my small church workshops I challenge the attendees to focus the ministries of their churches on one or two things they can do with excellence. Many smaller churches are trying to do too many things. Often, they are still structured as they were when they were a larger congregation and trying to do all the ministries they did back then, or they are trying to compete with the larger churches in the area in an effort to attract people. Either reason will get a small church in trouble. They simply don't have the resources to offer a lot of ministries. Such churches offer all kinds of excuses why some programs or ministries are not effective, and fingers are pointed, but the bottom line is they just do not have the resources to do more than a few things.

When a church tries to do more than their resources allow they end up doing a lot of mediocre things. Great ministries are built around excellence, not mediocrity. Despite what many people believe, a small church can enjoy an excellent ministry, but only if they focus on doing those few things they can do with excellence.

Leaders in smaller churches need to take a hard look at their structure. How many of your committees and boards are really necessary? Committees and boards focus on making sure things are done right, but are they doing the right things? Does their work actually contribute to achieving the mission and vision of the church? Committees and boards do maintenance work; you need to free people up to do ministry. I would guess that most churches could eliminate 80 percent of their committees and boards, and no one would be able to tell the difference.

How effective are the ministries your church currently offers? Many of those ministries exist today because at one time they provided excellent ministry opportunities for your church, but have you evaluated their effectiveness today? Things change, and what was effective in the past may not be effective today.

When I was growing up the churches in our area offered two-week Vacation Bible School, and our small church was full of kids both weeks. Later, when I was a pastor, churches offered one-week VBS. Today, I see churches offering weekend VBS, one night a week for a month VBS, and other alternatives. Still, many complain that it's hard to get the kids to come because there are so many other things for them to do. Maybe it's time to consider if this is really a good use of our resources.

I'm not picking on Vacation Bible School. This is just one example of how things have changed over the years. I know many churches that still have vibrant Vacation Bible School programs, and it would be a mistake for those churches to eliminate that ministry. But, what about your church? Is this a vibrant ministry in your church or is this one that needs to be changed or even eliminated for something that might be more productive?

Many smaller churches will have much more effective ministries if they can focus on a few things they can do with excellence rather than trying to be all things for all people. For some churches, that may mean doing only one or two things, and that is alright if they can be done with excellence.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Controllers will kill your church

In yesterday's post I commented on churches that close and pointed out that when a church no longer has a vision for ministry it should consider closing. Some of the churches are already spiritually dead and remain alive thanks to endowments, denominational support, and the fact they don't need much to stay open.  Such churches might better serve their communities by becoming a legacy church and giving their resources to another ministry that is better ministering to the community. To learn more about legacy churches I recommend an excellent book, Legacy Churches.

There is another type of church that should consider closing its doors. This is the church that is led by controllers in the church. In some churches, the same controllers (or controlling family) has ran the church for decades. Such churches often have a revolving-door pastorate as the ministers soon recognize the dysfunction that exists in the church. New people may come but seldom stay long until eventually the congregation consists primarily of family members of the controllers. When this happens, no one is going to confront the controller, and the dysfunction only grows.

Sometimes pastors believe they can survive the controllers, but this often requires so much compromise that the pastor has to leave to maintain his or her integrity. Some pastors think they can challenge the controllers only to find themselves terminated as others who thought the same thing experienced. These churches are responsible for many pastors leaving the ministry disillusioned, hurt, and angry.

Jesus told his disciples that they would go to some places where they would not be received. In such places, they were to shake the dust from their feet and move on (Mt. 10:14). I believe there are churches when this advice still applies today.

I have seen such churches do great harm emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually to the pastors and their families. I have seen some wonderful pastors beat down trying to turn-around a controller-led church. More than once I have told pastors that they were doing harm to themselves and their families and needed to leave before things became even worse.

Unless the congregation wants the controller stopped and is willing to confront him or her, nothing in the church will change. A new pastor will not successfully challenge a controller, and most pastors won't remain long enough to do so. It is my belief that such churches can only be turned-around by the congregation, and most congregations do not have the stomach for the fight that will be required to change things. After all, they've already lived with it for all these years so why would anyone think that they are going to challenge the controller now.

These churches do need to close. They give the church a bad name in the community and do great harm to the cause of Christ. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to close as long as the controller lives or other family members are willing to take up the cause and become the next generation of controllers. About the only thing we can do is to recognize their dysfunctions and stop supplying them with pastors. At the infrequent times they do ask for help denominational leaders need to offer them the help they really need and refuse to resource them further until they begin to take steps towards health.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Should your church remain open?

We often read figures that tell us that 3,000-5,000 churches in the US close their doors every year. When I share this figure in some of my seminars people's eyes open wide in shock. Some of them fear their church could be next. Others believe that it is a terrible thing for a church to close its doors. Perhaps it is, but for some churches it's probably the best thing that could happen.

I argue that no church closes because there's no work for it to do. They close because they have lost any sense of vision for ministry. Every church began because someone or group had a vision for a church in that community. They could see a spiritual need that only a church could address. Such a vision drives the direction of the church, but if that vision is lost or new visions are not discerned, the church soon loses its sense of purpose or mission. It begins to drift and soon will find itself drifting towards a survival mentality.

Such churches can exist for an extended period of time, even decades. As we know, small churches don't need a lot to remain open. As long as they can pay their utilities and find someone to serve as their pastor for what they can pay, they can remain open. But, one needs to ask if that is good stewardship of God's resources. Is keeping the lights on and the doors open good stewardship, or does God expect more from His church?

These churches are often already dead but are being kept alive by means of life support. Perhaps such support comes from denominational support. Sometimes they are kept alive thanks to endowments they received in better times. However, the reality is that there is no life in these churches. The Bible tells us that without a vision the people perish. A church without a vision needs to either spend time seeking a fresh vision from God or it needs to consider closing its doors and turning its assets over to a ministry that is better serving its community.

Several years ago I read an interesting book by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond titled Legacy Churches. They describe how a struggling church can give birth to a new church that will carry on the values and beliefs they hold that will continue to bless and impact the community. A legacy church views its closing not as a failure, but as an opportunity to start something new that will continue to bring hope and life to the community. It takes wisdom and courage on the part of the leadership and congregation to become a legacy church, but to leave such a legacy is a great act of love to the community your church has served for many years.