Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Ministers and retirement planning

Over the years I've heard that retirement is not found in the Bible so there is no justification for ministers to consider ever retiring from the ministry. While I will admit that we should not abandon God's call on our lives, that does not mean that we will serve in a ministry position throughout our lives. Because of health reasons, limitations as we grow older, or the sense that our ministry skills are no longer effective in a changing world, most of us in ministry will retire at some point. To not plan for that eventuality is foolish on our parts.

As a judicatory minister for 14 years I met several pastors who wanted to retire but could not for financial reasons. They had very little in savings, and their Social Security would barely cover their monthly expenses, especially if they had debt. Some of these pastors resented having to continue working, and they were not doing their churches any good by their continued service.

Many of these pastors had been fully-funded throughout their ministries, but their salaries were meager at best. In many cases their churches did not pay into any kind of retirement account on their pastor's behalf leaving them at the mercy of Social Security. However, when your income is low your Social Security payout is going to reflect that as well.

Those of us in bivocational ministry may be better able to fund a good retirement. Not only do we have outside income paying into Social Security, we often have more disposable income to invest in retirement planning. The secret is to not dispose of it before doing so!

As one reaches a certain age (like me!) he or she wishes they had done some things differently. One of the things I wish I had done was to begin early in my working life living on 75 percent of my income. That would leave 10 percent for my tithe and 15 percent to invest in retirement. One of the things I've learned late in life is that investing 15 percent in a good retirement account throughout one's working life will often lead to over $1 million dollars in retirement. And that's not even including Social Security!

I know many will argue that it's not possible to do that. It is possible but it's not easy, especially if you started out living on 120 percent of your income and you've piled up a bunch of debt that has to be paid off before you start saving for retirement.

Seminaries need to teach every ministerial student a course on personal finance. Of course, most won't because if they taught the course no one would take out student loans and they would lose income. But, their students would have a much better idea of what to expect financially in the ministry and how to prepare financially for each phase of ministry including retirement.

If you feel that you are sinking financially it's time to do something different. I would suggest start by reading The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey and following the Baby Steps he presents in the book. By doing that you can begin to better prepare for retirement. Believe me, you and your family will be thankful you did.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Healthy churches needed to advance the Kingdom of God

Since the publication of my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues I've had the opportunity to lead several conferences and workshops for numerous denominational groups. I've responded to many emails from pastors with questions about how to help their churches become healthier. Church health is very much on the minds of many Christian leaders today. This is probably why this is the best selling book of all I've written.

A few years ago one judicatory evaluated each of their churches based upon the health of the congregation. They found that the majority of their churches would be classified as unhealthy. Only a few were rated as very healthy with the remainder somewhere in between. Helping their churches become healthier became one of their goals.

Every church has a life cycle that can best be represented by a bell curve. The top of the curve represents a church on a plateau. As the church begins to move down the right side of the curve it slowly becomes unhealthy and goes into a decline. Health can be restored to a church anywhere in its life cycle, but the further it goes down the right side the more difficult it becomes to help it become healthier. It will finally reach a point on that right side when its main goal is survival, and it will then be very averse to doing anything that might help it regain health.

The goal of a church leader should be to address health issues on the left side of the curve when the church is growing. Even then it may begin to develop some symptoms of disease. but the earlier these symptoms are detected the easier they are to correct.

What the book does, and what I do in the seminars based upon the book, is to identify some of those symptoms and share ways to resolve them. In the final chapter of the book I list several diagnostic questions to help church leadership give their church a check-up. I recommend that the pastor and leaders work through those questions each year to give their church an annual check-up. Again, the sooner problems are found the easier they are to correct.

The good news is that any church can become healthier than it is today. A healthy church will be more apt to be a growing church. It will have a more outward focus which means it will be more involved in ministering to its community. A healthy church will accomplish much more for the Kingdom of God than an unhealthy church will. The Kingdom and our world needs every church to be a healthy church.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Millennial leadership in the church

There will soon be a paradigm shift as millennials begin stepping into leadership roles in every organization including churches. Many of us currently in church leadership were trained to manage organizations. Millennials will not be content to manage. They want to lead. They want to make a difference.

According to a study reported in a U.S. News and World Report 2015 article, 91 percent of millennials aspire to be leaders. Sixty-one percent of these aspiring leaders "want to challenge and inspire their followers with a sense of purpose and excitement." This is exciting as we continue to lament the lack of true leadership in many of our churches. At the same time, many currently attending church are pretty comfortable with the status quo. Although many claim they want to see new things happen in their churches, many do not react very well when they are challenged to do new things. It will be interesting to see how this will play out.

These leaders are impatient. They are the generation that was raised to expect instant gratification. They also seek to collaborate with others. They like consensus, and we know that it's not always easy to achieve consensus in many of our churches. We definitely know that churches, and especially smaller churches, do not make quick decisions when it involves change. Again, it will be interesting to see how millennial leaders deal with the realities of working in many of our existing churches.

Millennials are also not real excited about preparation. As one millennial leader put it: We like playing in the game, but we hate practice. You can read the entire article here that looks at this in more detail.

When I read this article I immediately thought about a Facebook post I responded to yesterday. A church consultant discussed a growing trend he's noticed. Many of the churches today who contact him seeking his help in finding new pastoral leadership no longer ask about what seminary the potential candidates might have attended or indicate that a seminary education is even required.

On the one hand I am not surprised. Smaller churches in particular have been more interested in whether or not the person can do the job than if they've earned a particular degree. Based on my FB friend's experience, some larger churches are now in that camp as well. If the article above is true, and I believe it is, this will fit in well with the millennial mindset.

On the other hand, I am concerned about the future of the church if we completely discount theological and ministerial education. A good leader can grow a church, but what kind of church will it be if it lacks sound doctrine? I'm excited about the passion that millennial leaders often have, but I also want them to be solid in their understanding of Scriptural truths and be able to present these truths to those who sit under their teaching.

There is no doubt the church is going through a transition right now, and I don't think anyone at this stage really understands what the church will look like when it comes through the transition. I do believe it will look much different than it does today. I also believe that we will see many churches coming through this transition with millennial leaders as their pastors, and I believe that will be a good thing. I just pray that sound doctrine and theology are not lost in the transition. If it is, whatever comes through will no longer be the church.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Class reunion #50

This past weekend was our class reunion. It has been 50 years since we graduated from Madison Consolidated High School. We had a large turnout of about 130 people attend the graduation some coming as far away as Australia and Thailand. I had not seen some of these folks since our graduation.

I had been asked to do a memorial for our classmates who had passed away. There were several. I recalled how each of them had impacted our lives in greater or lesser ways during our four-year high school experience. I also reminded my classmates of some of the joys and even the heartaches we experienced during those years.

Some of our teachers also attended, and I commented on how blessed we were to have teachers who cared about us. Sometimes they cared more than we cared about ourselves. They were dedicated to the teaching profession and more than willing to help any student who sought help.

It was a fun evening, and it also reminded me of the fact that we are all influenced by the people we come in contact with. The people with whom we work, those with whom we attend church, our neighbors and family, and even some with whom we have little contact all impact our lives. We are shaped by those relationships, and we have the opportunity to shape the lives of others through those relationships.

Some interpret the Great Commission as an order to go out to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think a better interpretation is "as we are going" we are to share Christ with others. In other words, as we go about our normal lives, as we interact with others in the various aspects of life, we are to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ. We are to reflect Him to others in our conversations and other interactions with people. We are to model Christian values and principles in all our interactions. And, when we have opportunity, we can share the Good News with those ready to receive it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

What is an acceptable standard of living for a pastor?

A number of years ago when I was the pastor of a church a member commented one day about a pastor she knew who started driving a new Cadillac. She was offended by that and said she hoped she never saw me driving such a car. I assured her I would never do that because if I could afford a Cadillac I would probably buy a Mercedes. She was not amused!

One pastor friend of mine was bivocational and very successful in his other job. A few people became jealous of his success and constantly bought up what they believed was his extravagant lifestyle. (It was definitely not extravagant although it was comfortable.) He traded for a new truck every couple of years and told me he always got the identical truck so his critics would not notice he had a new pickup.

We've all read about some celebrity pastors who do seem to live an extravagant life with enormous houses, luxury cars and private jets. What no one ever talks about is whether or not they are generous with their finances. For instance, my friend basically supported one or two ministries in that church out of his own finances. Some of these celebrity pastors accept no salary from their churches due to being successful authors or having other outside income. This provides the church with additional money to be used for ministry. A few have said that they give a major portion of their income to various ministries outside of their own churches as well. Seldom does anyone talk about that when criticizing these pastors.

I am certainly not a prosperity preacher, but at the same time I do recognize that God might choose to bless some Christians, including pastors, more than others financially. I would have a problem with a minister who deceives his or her people to enrich his or her personal bank account. Just because they tell me God has shown them that I'm supposed to send them "seed money" so I can be blessed that doesn't mean I'm going to do it. I'll wait until God tells me to send the money!

At the same time, if a minister prospers because he or she becomes wealthy due to hard work and honest effort I'm not going to protest or assume they must be doing something dishonest. It's not uncommon for a bivocational minister to earn much more in outside income than is earned as a pastor. Even fully-funded pastors who live on less than they earn and invest wisely can become quite wealthy later in life. Why should such persons be chastised for being wise stewards?

We still have too many in churches today who believe that pastors need to be humbled by receiving little salary and trusting God for what they need. I'm sorry, but your church is what God intended to use to provide for the pastor and family, and if you are not providing a salary that allows them a comfortable living in your community you are guilty of clergy abuse.

At the same time, we have even more who are quick to judge a pastor who seems to have "gotten above his raising" to use a common term in my part of the country. Small people with jealous hearts often watch to make sure the pastor isn't living a lifestyle they believe is unacceptable for a pastor. They are also guilty of abusing their pastors.

Rather than judge a pastor by the car he or she drives why don't we look at their work and what they preach. Instead of discussing how little we can pay our ministers let's look for ways to ensure that their ministries are not distracted by financial worries.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Do all to the glory of God

1 Corinthians 10: 31 tells us that whatever we do we should do to the glory of God. I wonder how a pastor might prepare his or her sermon next Sunday if the Lord announced He would be attending the service. Would more thought go into the worship service? I've seen singers get nervous when they realized one of their heroes was in the audience. If you are a member of a Praise Team would you feel prepared to lead worship or sing a special if you saw Jesus sitting in the congregation? I think sometimes we forget that He is there. Every Sunday.

This means that everything we do must be done with excellence. Notice I did not say with perfection. Mistakes happen. Perfection is an impossible standard and not a healthy one to pursue. People who insist on perfection will often be very disappointed. However, we should seek to do all things with excellence. We serve an excellent Lord, and our service to Him should be done with excellence as well.

Excellence is also the way we have our greatest impact on our communities. A great ministry cannot be achieved through mediocrity. This is why I tell small church leaders that smaller churches can often accomplish more by doing less. Too often we try to do too many things in an effort to compete with larger churches in our areas. We do not have the resources to compete with them, and that is never God's intent for us. He has a vision that is unique for our church, and it is that vision that we are to pursue.

A church that tries to exceed its resources by doing too many things wears its people out and has minimal impact on its community as well. By identifying God's vision for our particular church and focusing on the two or three things that can enable us to achieve that vision we will find that we will make our greatest impact on the lives of others.

By following the Pareto Principle I estimate that most churches could eliminate 80 percent of what they are doing and accomplish more in the long run. When we work in the areas of our natural strengths we are much more effective. Identify those ministries that are a natural fit for your congregation and community and focus your efforts and resources on them. People's lives will be changed and God will be glorified as well.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

We don't need more entertainment

I recently saw a picture on my Facebook page that had the caption "Ditch the man cave and bring back the study." I don't have a man cave, but I do have a study so that post really spoke to me.

Personally, I have nothing against man caves. The only problem I see is that they are primarily about entertainment. I also have nothing against entertainment except I think we spend too much time pursuing entertainment and too little time thinking and studying. I also think this is why our nation and many of our churches are in the trouble we are in.

For several decades now we've seen this nation continue to go down morally, ethically, financially, relationally, and just about any other way you can think. As we've taken this downward plunge it seems we've also seen an upswing in entertainment. We now have 24/7 television programming, professional sports seasons that seem to last longer and longer, computer games that can quickly become addictive for many people, social media, and other sources of entertainment that seem to keep us from thinking about what's really important to the future of our nation and our families.

Man caves are just the latest symptom of this "entertain me" society with its media areas, various gaming systems, wet bars, and whatever else some wants. Rather than spending time with good books and thinking about important things, we numb ourselves with our toys and entertainment.

Pastors are not immune from this either. As a judicatory leader for 14 years I had the opportunity to be with many pastors in their studies and was often shocked at the lack of good resources they had available. Few lacked the latest in computers and other electronics, but many did lack serious books and other resources they would need for effective ministry. Some may question if they had these resources on their computer. Certainly, there are some excellent resources available for computers, but many of these pastors were unaware of them or didn't invest in them. I know because I asked.

If we are serious about wanting to turn this nation (and our churches) around it may be time to get rid of our toys and begin to read and do some serious thinking about what's really important. Maybe if we begin to do that we'll quit drinking the Kool-Aid our politicians are trying to give us and begin to demand the quality of leadership our nation deserves. If we continue our current pursuit of entertainment then we are probably already receiving the quality of leadership we deserve.