Thursday, June 23, 2016

The pain of pastoral termination

Last night I received an e-mail from a pastor telling me he had been asked to resign from the church. It was a fairly short message primarily asking for prayer, but the pain he was feeling was evident even in the few words he sent.

I was blessed to have not gone through that as a pastor. However, I worked with enough pastors who did experience that to give me a sense of what they and their families went through. Most will go through all the normal grief process plus have the added burden of wondering how they will provide for their families and struggle with questions of their call to the ministry. Some never recover and leave the ministry completely. Others remain in the ministry but remain wary lest it happen again. Most will work through their pain and remain in ministry, but it will still leave scars.

I do not know the circumstances of what prompted this most recent event, but somehow there was probably some unmet expectations the church had of the pastor. Sometimes these are unrealistic expectations, sometimes they are not conveyed well to the pastor, and in some cases the pastor understands the expectations but is unable to meet them.

One of the things I have noticed was that often there was a good pastor and a good church who were not a good match for one another. Every pastor cannot serve every church. Early in my pastoral ministry I received a call from a denominational leader asking if I would be interested in starting a new church in an urban area of a large city. I've spent my entire life on farms and in farm communities. I know nothing about urban ministry other than what little I've read. I thanked the caller but explained that I would likely not be a good fit for this church start. As Clint Eastwood said in one movie, "A man has to know his limitations."

What should a pastor do when asked to resign? A good ending will make it more likely that you will have a good start in your next place of ministry.

  • Leave graciously. There's no sense in burning bridges or to unleash a scathing attack on the church. Such behavior has a tendency to follow you later.
  • Seek support. I promised the person who contacted me that I would keep him and his family in prayer. Hopefully, he has also contacted denominational leaders where he serves to gain their support.
  • Allow yourself to go through the grief process. You've lost something important so it's normal to grieve. Work through each of the steps but refuse to get stuck on any one of them. If you find you are unable to move through the process find someone to help you do that.
  • Try to not become fearful. Many churches do not provide pastors with sufficient severance pay in these circumstances so you may need to get a temporary job while your work through your emotions and through the process of finding another place to serve.
  • Reflect. One of the worst things that happen in such circumstances is that you don't learn anything. Are there things you could have done differently to have prevented this? Did this catch you unawares? What are your primary ministry strengths, and was this the best place to use those strengths? You may want to take advantage of a ministry assessment center to help with this reflection.
  • Trust your calling. Scripture tells us that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. Just because things did not work out well in this place does not mean God has withdrawn his call on your life.
  • Spend extra time with family. They are hurting and may even be more concerned about the future than you are. They need you to be strong even while you grieve. Remind one another that in ten years you'll look back on this as a difficult time but that God proved himself to be faithful. 
  • Pray. That should go without saying, but sometimes we forget to pray when we need it the most. Be very upfront with God about what you are feeling and what you need.
Pastoral terminations and forced resignations are always very painful times. Even doing everything I've suggested won't make them any easier to go through, but they will help you go through. As I shared in yesterday's post, God has promised to uphold you by his righteous hand. Rest in that promise.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Working without a net

Most of the time when I'm working at my desk I have Pandora playing on my computer. I do have a Southern Gospel channel on my station list as well as the Blind Boys of Alabama, but most of the channels are secular. Several of them are Blues channels, a couple of them are older Country channels, and there is one Classic Rock and Roll.

Yesterday I was playing the Country Outlaw channel when I heard an old song by Waylon Jennings, "Working Without a Net." One line in the song says, "Some want you to fly, some want to see you fall." I thought how that also describes the way some people feel about their pastors.

Most people want to see their pastors succeed because if the pastor succeeds so does the church. However, in some churches there are a few who want to see you fall. I've never understood that mindset, but I assume if the pastor fails it somehow justifies their own short-comings. If the individual holds some position of power, perhaps the pastor's failures helps to strengthen their hold on that position. Again, I really don't understand why some would enjoy watching the pastor fall, but I've met some who seemed to take a measure of pleasure when their pastor proved to be human.

Since these people do exist in some churches, what should the pastor do? First, a pastor cannot operate out of a fear of failure. We are human, and if we attempt to do great things for the Kingdom of God there will be times when we fail. Some of our great ideas will prove to not be so great after all. Our failures do not define us unless we let them.

Second, remember that the vast majority want to see you succeed. As they trust your heart they are willing to forgive those times when your plans didn't work out as you thought. When such times occur be willing to admit them to the congregation, and you'll find most folks will surround you with love and understanding.

Third, accept the fact that we do work without a net. At least, we do not have a physical net. But, always remember that Is. 41:10 reminds us, "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; will uphold you with my righteous right hand." We do have a safety net available. God has promised to uphold us in His righteous hand. There is no greater security than that.

Finally, there's little we can do about those who would like to see us fail. Love them, pastor them, and ignore them. Except in very unusual circumstances they will never support you or anything you want to do. Worrying about what they think will limit your effectiveness as a pastor. Keep your focus on those who want to see the church move forward and on the vision you believe God has given you. If you do this and fail, you'll have the most secure safety net you'll find anywhere.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The coming pastor shortage

Before retiring as a judicatory minister I assisted dozens of churches as they sought a new pastor. It was always a challenge to find a pastor for smaller churches, and it became increasingly more difficult to find pastors for medium and larger churches as the years went by. As I talk with church leaders telling me their struggles in finding qualified pastors willing to serve their churches I realize this problem is growing worse.

Unfortunately, I do not see this improving any time soon, if ever. Growing numbers of pastors are approaching retirement age. Many seminary trained pastors refuse to consider a call to a smaller church. There are not enough students in seminary today to fill the empty pulpits that already exist, and many of these students do not plan to enter pastoral ministry. Some current pastors are drawn to new church planting as a way to escape some of the problems found in existing churches. For several years we have seen about 50 percent of pastors leave the ministry within five years of graduating seminary. When you add all these together, plus other factors not mentioned, we have far fewer pastors than we have churches with nothing on the horizon that will change this.

What are churches to do when it is time to call a new pastor? Some churches are so healthy and growing that their biggest challenge will be to be sure they call a pastor who will keep them moving forward. However, for many traditional churches they will be forced to consider options that may make them uncomfortable. Some of these options are:

  1. Many smaller churches will be calling bivocational pastors and/or bivocational teams to lead them. We are already seeing this happening across many denominations, but this trend is only going to increase, especially if the church is determined to remain an independent body.
  2. Two or more small churches may decide to merge into one larger congregation. This seldom works as well as people hope. Too often after such a merger there is one church with two congregations that never really merge together. If a merger has any hope of being successful it will usually require that all the congregations sell their properties and obtain a new one. The thoughts of selling "our church" usually ends the talk of a merger.
  3. Because bivocational pastors can be difficult to find in many cases a church may want to consider calling a lay leader from within the church to serve as pastor. There are numerous ways in which such persons can receive pastoral training, and because these lay leaders already have the trust of the congregation, this can work very well.
  4. For many years the United Methodists have been willing to share a pastor between two, three or even four small churches. This is an option other churches need to consider. I know many churches want their own pastor, but the reality is that this may not be a realistic expectation in the near future.
  5. Many churches need to take a hard look at their refusal to call a woman pastor. Are you sure your objections to women in ministry are theological or are they cultural? Have you ever really studied what the Bible says about women in leadership roles in the church or are you just repeating what someone told you a long time ago? 
  6. Churches need to look at what they present to a prospective pastor. Does your church have a history of being hard on pastors? Some do, and these churches will find it almost impossible to call a new pastor until they change their bad behavior. If a church is dysfunctional, the word gets out, and smart pastors avoid such churches like the plague.
  7. Some churches may be so far down the decline side of their church life cycle that they will never be able to call a pastor. Such churches either need to find alternative ways to operate or made the tough decision to close.
None of these options mean that your church has settled for inferior pastoral leadership. I know that some people will view these as representing a failure on the part of a church, but that isn't true. They are realistic ways of dealing with a problem that isn't likely to improve in the near future. As changes occur in every aspect of society we have to find ways to adapt to those changes. This addresses a change we are seeing in pastoral leadership, and if we cannot adapt to this change we will see many of our churches without that leadership.

Some of these options may be more acceptable to a particular church than others, but this is a conversation that needs to occur in many churches, especially smaller ones. It's a conversation that should take place even before your current pastor leaves, and he or she will leave. Every pastor is a departing pastor from the first day he or she arrives at the church. One way or another, your current pastor will one day no longer be your pastor. Now is the time to begin discussing how the church might respond when that time comes.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Finding my books

I recently put a link to one of my books on a Twitter feed. An individual told me the link was to the book on Kindle and he wanted a hard copy. He asked if it was available on hard copy. It is.

All of my ministry books are published in paperback and can be found on amazon.com, CBD, and in many Christian bookstores. My first book, The Tentmaking Pastor: The Joy of Bivocational Ministry, is out of print but you can find used copies for sale on Amazon. They also sell it for Kindle devices.

The only book I've written that has not been published in hard copy is a business book I wrote called Mistakes: Avoiding the Wrong Decisions That Will Close Your Small Business. It is available for Kindle devices from Amazon and on NOOK at Barnes and Noble's site.

If you scroll down to the bottom of this site you will see you can also order my books directly from me. You will need to send me a check as this site isn't set up to accept credit cards, so it's a little inconvenient, but I did want to make this option available.

Each of my books were really works of passion for me. The ministry books focus primarily on issues specifically faced by smaller and bivocational churches and leaders. This particular ministry has been my focus throughout my 35 years of ministry. When I served my church as a bivocational pastor for 20 years I found there was very little in the way of resources especially designed for us. People tell me my books have been helpful to them which is very rewarding to me.

The business book came out of my personal experience of having to close a small business we owned. As I reflected back on what happened I realized that the primary reason the business failed was due to mistakes I made as its leader. I wrote the book to help others avoid those same mistakes.

I'm working on a couple more books at this time and hope to complete at least one of them by the end of the year. Please keep me in your prayers as I continue my writing.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Penetrating society

This election campaign has been unlike any seen in modern history. It's been long on nasty personal attacks while little has been said about addressing the real problems facing America and the world. The two persons chosen to represent their parties are among the least qualified to serve as President of the United States that we have seen in a long time. It was said a long time ago that a nation gets the government it deserves, and in my opinion this election demonstrates just how far this nation has fallen. Like many Americans, I will go to the polls this fall to vote, but I'll do so holding my nose.

Both candidates will seek support from Christians and will claim to be "one of us." Neither reflect the moral values and beliefs found in Scripture, but there will  be churches and church leaders who will embrace both candidates as "one of them." This shows how far some of our churches have fallen as well.

Scripture teaches that believers are to be light and salt in our world. Salt and light have penetrative qualities. Salt penetrates meat to keep it from ruining. Light penetrates darkness so we can see clearly where we need to go. The church is to penetrate the world to help keep it from ruin and to shine a light into a darkened world so people can see clearly the direction they need to go. It is obvious that we have failed to do that.

I grow weary of Christians complaining about the state of our society while they do nothing about it. We have sat on the sidelines for decades allowing secular philosophies to gain control of the minds of the people. Rather than taking the teachings of Christ into the world we gathered in our holy huddles each week waiting for the world to join us there. Doing this we have given to the enemy the political system, the educational system, the financial system, and the family system of our nation. Our only hope, many think, is for Christ to come back and unleash judgment upon the world.

That is not the only hope. We don't know when Jesus will return, but until that happens we as followers of Him are to occupy the land. We are still called to be salt and light. We are to penetrate every aspect of our society with the teachings found in Scripture.

Christians need to penetrate the educational system of our nation. In order to do that Christian men and women who sense a call to higher education need to prepare themselves theologically and philosophically for such work. The same thing needs to happen in the public school systems. We need Christian men and women on school boards, in teaching positions, in administration, and as superintendents. Many Christians now serve in such positions, but we need more.

This needs to happen in the legal system, in the business world, in the financial world, and certainly in the political system. If Christians cannot gain influence within the political parties then it is time that we create a third party that will actually have a chance to win elections. If there was ever a year when a viable third party candidate had a chance to win national office, this is it. Unfortunately, it is too late for that to happen in this election, but now is the time to begin preparing for the next election.

Such penetration will take a long time to accomplish because we have sat on the sidelines for too long. But, it will never happen if we don't begin now. Our task is not to sit safely in our "sanctuaries" while the world around us crumbles. Christ has called us to go into our world and penetrate it with the Gospel. It's time we did so.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The second reformation of the church

In yesterday's post I discussed how each Christian is ordained for ministry at the time of his or her baptism. Every believer has been called to minister and given spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit to enable us to do ministry. The role of the pastor is not to do the ministry of the church but to equip each member of the church to minister according to the gifts given to that person.

Greg Ogden, in his book Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God wrote "It has been broadly observed that the first Reformation of the early 1500s placed the Bible in the hands of the people and that the Second Reformation will place the ministry in the hands of the people." This is occurring in churches across the country, especially in those served by bivocational pastors.

In a bivocational setting there is a lot of ministry that will not get done if the pastor is expected to do it all. There simply isn't enough time. By definition, a bivocational pastor has another job. It may be a part-time or full-time job, but in either case this pastor is not always available to do "church work." In my experience I have found that in healthy bivocational churches members of the congregation are willing, and even expect, to minister when the pastor is not available.

However, returning the ministry to the people is not merely a pragmatic action because the pastor is not always available. It is the biblical model for ministry. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons we have not emphasized the ministry of the laity for the past several decades. As a result we have perpetuated an unhealthy family system.

Ogden explains, "In the healthy family, the goal of parents is to grow children into responsible, self-initiating, caring, and serving adults. The church, on the other hand, has more often that not viewed the role of pastor as parent and the people of God as dependent children who need to be constantly cared for. As a result, the children remain perpetually children."

He goes on to note that too often the church and the pastor have entered into an unhealthy conspiracy of dependency which has been equally unhealthy for both. Pastors are burning out and leaving the ministry at frightening rates, and churches are continuing to decline in attendance, finances, and impact on their communities. It is vital that we rediscover the equipping role of the pastor and the ministry role of the congregation.

How would a pastor go about equipping his or her congregation to do ministry?

  • Begin by casting the vision for such ministry. Be sure to begin with the why before you go into the what or some people will think you're just trying to get out of work. Because the church has operated in the old, incorrect model for so long this initial phase will take time in most churches.
  • Change your role from teacher/caregiver to that of a coach. This may be a difficult change for the pastor, especially one trained in seminary for a very traditional form of pastoral ministry.
  • Train your leaders. Ogden suggests a pastor should spend 80 percent of his or her time with 20 percent of the congregation who has the greatest ministry or leadership potential. I agree with this. In the old model we often spent 80 percent of our time with the 20 percent of our congregation who had the most problems. We need to reverse this.
  • Help people identify their spiritual gifts. There are numerous surveys to help you do this. Challenge them to work most in the areas where God has gifted them.
  • Model ministry to those you are equipping. Invite them to go with you and participate in various ministry activities. In time, you will be able to send them to minister to these needs. In fact, they will be able to take others with them to help develop them as ministers as well.
  • Demonstrate your trust in them as ministers. Believe in them. They may not do things the same way you would do them, but that's OK. 
  • Do not underestimate the desire of the church to want to go back to the old way of doing things. Remember, it's what they knew for decades, and there is always a pull to return to what we've known. Don't allow that to happen. Keep this vision before them. Celebrate and publicly recognize those in the church who are doing good ministry.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ordained at baptism

In 1982 a group of pastors and lay leaders met to ask me questions about my beliefs  before making a recommendation that I be ordained to the ministry. The recommendation was made and a couple of weeks later I was ordained by my church and our association.

The truth is that I had been ordained years earlier, but it was an ordination that is not often recognized. We don't usually associate ordination with baptism, but in reality God does ordain us to ministry at our baptism.

One of the tenets of my Baptist tradition is "the priesthood of the believer." We believe that we have all been called to minister and have been given spiritual gifts through which such ministry can occur. However, this is often talked about more than actually done.

Far too many in our churches are willing to sit in their pews every week and evaluate the work of the minister rather than engaging in ministry themselves. The mindset in these churches is to call a seminary trained pastor who will them be responsible for the ministry of the church.

The problem with this mindset is at least two-fold. One, there is far too much ministry that needs to be done for one person to do it. The second, and more serious problem, is that such a mindset is not biblical. The Bible is clear that the work of the pastor is to "equip the saints to do the work of ministry."

Each of us who call ourselves Christians are called to be engaged in ministry. This responsibility cannot be satisfied with us providing financial support for a professional to do that work for us. We are each called to be on the front lines of ministry.

This does not mean that we are all called to preach or lead a church. As mentioned above, we have all been given unique gifts to enable us to minister so our ministries will each take on different characteristics. One may have the gift of teaching while another has the gifts of mercy and healing. Their ministries will look different, but when each are serving in the areas of their giftedness it adds to the overall ministry of the church.

Even when some churches emphasize lay ministry the idea too often is that lay members are to be helpers to the pastor. That thinking is wrong and needs to be turned around. The pastor is to assist the lay persons in the work of their ministries. The role of the pastor is to equip each person in his or her church to perform their ministries in their daily lives.

I am convinced that each believer is Jesus Christ was ordained for ministry at their baptism. The pastor's role is to help each person fulfill their calling as ministers. Until the church recaptures this biblical mindset it will continue to limp along relying on the professionals to do the work each believer has been called to do.