Friday, April 24, 2015

How will the world know?

Several years ago I read of a new pastor in a community who began to make friends with some of the people in that community who did not attend church. As his relationship with these folks developed he asked each of them why they didn't attend church. He invited four of them to share their stories with the congregation he served. For four weeks each of them in turn shared their story of why they did not attend church.

One was the local sheriff who told the congregation that his department was called to the homes of as many Christians as non-Christians. He felt that if what they believed was true it should change the way they behaved.

The next week the speaker was a lesbian social worker who grew up in a pastor's home. As a child she had witnessed the difference between what church people said they believed and how they acted.

The third person was an official from the local school system. He could not understand why Christians were known more for what they opposed than for what they supported. His experiences with Christians had been mostly negative.

On the final Sunday a local waitress spoke. She told the congregation how everyone at her work hated to work on Sundays. They found church people to be rude and demanding, their children out of control, and to be very poor tippers. As she explained, she can't raise her children on Gospel tracts.

As you might expect, not everyone in the congregation was pleased with this series of messages. Some walked out never to return. What this pastor wanted to do was to show the congregation how unchurched people often saw those who did go to church, and how this influenced their thoughts about both the church and, more importantly, about Christ.

I developed a sermon using this story called "How will the world know?" Scripture is clear that people will know we are Christians by our love. The way we treat one another as well as those outside the church has an impact on how others view the church and Jesus Christ. The way we live our lives will often be the first gospel message some people will hear, and in some cases they will not be interested in hearing a second.

More of us needs to have the courage of the pastor in the above story. I'm sure it pained him to hear the stories of those who were not involved in church. Yet, if we do not ask to hear those stories how will we know what we need to change in order to reach more people? What stories might you hear if you began to ask people in your community why they are not involved in a church? How might you use that information to improve your church's outreach?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

At the end of the year, what has changed?

Most churches have a lot of activities going on. Larger churches usually have something happening at the church seven days a week, and sometimes multiple things. Even in smaller churches there are various activities occurring throughout the year.

A good exercise might be to take the church calendar at the end of the year, review all the activities that have occurred, and then determine how much of an impact those activities had. You may be surprised by what you find.

Many of the things churches do are done out of tradition. Although nobody remembers why the church began a particular activity, it continues today because no one can remember a time it wasn't done. Unfortunately, no one takes the time to evaluate the effectiveness of the activity by looking at how that activity has impacted the church or community.

If the activity does not provide the church with a good return on investment, this does not automatically mean that the activity should be eliminated. Maybe a different approach would produce better results. Maybe it won't, but unless you are willing to experiment you'll never know. And, if you don't take the time to evaluate the results of the activity you will never know that it may not be the most productive use of your time and resources.

A key word for me in recent months has been intentionality. Too often, churches are content to drift along hoping something they do will produce good results. Drifting seldom produces the results you want. Moving forward with intentionality is usually much more effective. Knowing where you want to go and having a plan for how to get there is much better than drifting and hoping you end up in a good place.

Churches can stay busy and yet accomplish very little. Unless the activity is leading somewhere, it is not likely to have a lot of impact on the church or community.

Barbara Corcoran of Shark Tank fame used to fire the bottom 25 percent of her sales force each year. She recognized that these were not earning their keep and was a drain on her organization. What if the church took the same approach to its programming and activities? What if we evaluated everything we did at the end of the year and eliminated the bottom 25 percent that produced the least results?

This may be a radical idea, and it won't be easy for people to give up some of their sacred cows. Some of the things that churches do can be difficult to measure, but I think we must at least try. At a time when many churches are struggling with human and financial resources, we cannot continue to keep programs and activities that are no longer effective.

In many churches, the week between Christmas and New Years is often a slow time. This could be a great time to sit down and begin to evaluate everything your church did that year and see what adjustments need to be made. Become more intentional about doing the things that give you the greatest results, and at the end of the following year you will probably find a lot has changed in your church.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sometimes a church must die

A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from a church member telling me that their pastor had recently announced his retirement. She was asking me to help the church find a new pastor, and then she told me their church was averaging about 10 people on a typical Sunday.

Not long after that a pastor called to ask for information on a church that had contacted him about becoming their new pastor. He said his current church had about six people attending.

A church that is down to about 20 people on Sunday mornings recently asked their pastor to leave. It will soon begin a search for a new pastor.

In my 30 plus years of working with churches, many of them smaller churches, this is a scene I've witnessed many times. But, we are seeing this kind of situation occurring more frequently now. In some situations, these are good churches that have seen a steady decline in attendance through no real fault of their own. The church I pastored saw half its congregation leave when the US Army took a large section of ground for a munitions testing range. People were uprooted from their homes and farms. Roads were blocked with military fencing. As the people moved away to begin their new lives they found new churches closer to their homes to attend.

Part of my ministry responsibility is to assist our churches in their search for a new pastor, but the reality is that this is becoming more and more difficult. This is even more true for these small churches that have been in decline for years. As I talk with leaders from other denominations I find the problem is not limited to our tribe.

What is the future for these churches? They are really down to two choices. They either have to find a fresh vision from God for ministry and determine they have the human and financial resources to fulfill that vision, or they will have to close. That closure might not happen right away. They may find a layperson in their congregation to provide pastoral leadership, but if they are not able to create new ministries in their church during that time they will eventually run out of people and have to lock their doors.

Some are so far down the decline side of their life cycle they may not be able to survive even if they do identify a new vision for ministry. Their current membership may not have the energy or skills to accomplish that ministry or the needed funding may not be available. In such a situation, perhaps the best thing to do is to celebrate the ministry of the church and turn their remaining resources over to their denomination to be used in new ministries elsewhere. That seems to be better stewardship than simply running through their finances while they try to keep their doors open.

Of course, it's not always easy to know which is the best decision for a church. I know one church that was down to three people when they began looking for a new pastor. They found a retired pastor who had a great reputation in their community who was willing to go there. Within a few weeks the church had about two dozen people attending services there, and it continued to grow from there.

Making the decision to close or to seek new ways of doing ministry is a difficult decision that requires much prayer and discernment.  Approximately 5,000 churches in the US close their doors each year. If that is the decision of the church it is important to celebrate the ministry the church has provided over the many years it has been serving its community and to end its ministry with dignity.

Jesus said in John 12:24, "I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."  Sometimes a church must die in order for new life to spring forth.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Talking to your church about finances

Most of the churches that I work with share a common expectation when it comes to the pastor's salary and benefit package. When the finance committee begins to discuss it and when the budget for the coming year is about to be discussed in a business meeting, the pastor and family are expected to leave the room.  For some reason, adult Christians can discuss anything in front of the pastor except his or her salary.

In some churches, the pastor is not allowed to request anything regarding salary or benefits. Other churches specify which board or committee the pastor is to approach when making such requests. But, when the final package is being discussed, the pastor is not allowed to participate in that discussion. I consider that to be unfortunate.

Pastors need to be able to talk to people in the church about their finances. Their situations change which means that their salary package may need to change as well.  Sometimes it's not a matter of needing more money; their situation might be addressed by changing the designation of some of the money the pastor receives.  For instance, early in my pastorate I wanted to move closer to the church.  In order to do that I asked that the church designate part of my salary as housing allowance to make it possible for us to buy a home. The amount of money I was being paid did not change, but that change in designation meant I was paying less taxes making more money available to purchase a home. Incidentally, every pastor who does not live in a parsonage should receive a housing allowance.

Some churches have no idea how their pastors are struggling financially. I know of several pastors carrying a huge amount of student loan debt but does not want anyone in the church to know it.  Others are struggling due to medical expenses or some other financial challenges. How many pastors leave the ministry for better paying jobs just to pay their bills? If you are tempted to criticize a pastor for doing this, chances are you've never been harassed by bill collectors and struggling to provide for your family.

Churches and pastors need to do a better job of talking about the pastor's finances. There needs to be much more open and honest dialogue about what the pastor needs and what the church can provide. If such discussion is not permitted in a church this may be a sign that the church is not healthy and has some deep trust issues that need to be explored. If a church insists on keeping all financial discussions secret from the pastor and the majority of the church family, it is fair to wonder what other secrets exist in the church. As I wrote recently, a church is only as healthy as the secrets it keeps.

If such discussions have not occurred before, it may be helpful to invite a denominational leader or consultant to come and lead the discussion. An outside ear and voice can sometimes help reduce the anxiety that such discussions can create.

However you do it, make plans now to begin having open and honest discussions between the pastor and church leaders about the financial needs of the pastor and his or her family. Both the pastor and the church will benefit from such discussions.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The pastor's life must be a disciplined life

At one point in my life I was serving as the bivocational pastor of a small church, working a full-time job in a factory 50 miles north of my home, and attending a Bible school 50 miles south of my home. In addition I was a husband and a father to two active children. It is safe to say that my life was interesting.

In one of the classes I took at the Bible school we were required to write down everything we did in half-hour increments for a week. It's a great exercise if you want to see how you spend your time. When the professor read my chart he remarked that he found it difficult to believe anyone's life was as structured as mine. I explained my situation to him and told him I had no choice but to live a very structured life.

Pastoral ministry is one that requires a certain amount of discipline and structure if one wishes to be effective and productive. Sundays come every seven days, and most pastors are expected to be prepared to share at least one message on that day. No matter what else may happen, your congregation expects a sermon from their pastor. That means time must be spent each week in sermon preparation.

I pastored one church for twenty years. Planning and preparing sermons was one of the things I enjoyed most about the ministry. Usually. I must be honest and admit that there were some weeks I didn't want to study and prepare a sermon. There were some weeks that I had so many demands on my time that it was hard to find the time to prepare. There were other weeks I just didn't want to. I wanted to do other things.

There is a trend among some younger pastors today to not visit the people in their churches. I think that is a mistake. It is in those visits that relationships are built, and in smaller churches those relationships are vital to effective ministry. I tried to visit our members and guests on a regular basis and almost always if they were in the hospital or facing some difficulty in their lives. However, I must admit that sometimes I didn't want to.

There were numerous times in my pastoral ministry when I did things I really didn't want to do, but I knew they were necessary if I wanted to serve my people well.  John Maxwell shares a quote in his book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential, "The successful person has the habit of doing the things that failures don't like to do. The successful person doesn't like doing them either, but his dislike is subordinated to the strength of his purpose."

Effective pastors will spend the time studying and preparing messages that challenge and encourage their congregations because that is what God has called them to do. They will take time to be with people in their churches and communities to develop the kind of relationships that give them the right to speak words of hope and comfort into their lives. It requires discipline on the part of the pastor to do these things when he or she would rather be doing something else.

Every pastor will have times when his or her motives or actions are misunderstood and people begin to question those motives or actions. It takes great discipline to know when to speak up and when to remain quiet. Sometimes, for reasons known only to us, we are not able to defend ourselves and must remain quiet in the midst of accusations. In such times we must be disciplined enough to share our thoughts with God alone.

Pastoral ministry is not an easy calling. We will often be required to do some things we would prefer not to do. We must be disciplined enough to do them anyway if we want to be true to our calling and to the people we serve.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

We become like the people we hang around

1 Corinthians 15:33 warns "Do not be deceived: Evil company corrupts good habits." The apostle Paul understood that we tend to become like the people we spend the most time with. I thought of this biblical truth recently while reading a business blog that promoted the same idea. The author of that blog wrote

  • If you hang around with five confident people, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five intelligent people, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five millionaires, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five idiots, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five broke people, you will be the sixth.
The same principle is true for those of us in church leadership.

  • If you hang around with five leaders who are growing, you will be the sixth growing leader.
  • If you hang around with five leaders who are always complaining about their churches, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five Christians who are growing in their faith, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five Christians who hold to sound theology, you will be the sixth.
  • If you hang around with five Christians who are willing to compromise their faith, you will be the sixth.
We could go on and on. If evil company corrupts good habits, then it is also true that good company promotes good habits. Either way, the people we spend time with are going to have an impact on us for good or evil. Therefore, it is critical to spend time with people who are going to help us grow and achieve the vision God has given us.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

2015-2016 bivocational ministry conferences

Seven years ago I had a sabbatical during which I talked with leaders from several denominations. I was interested in finding out what was happening with bivocational ministry. Without exception, every leader said that bivocational ministry was growing in their denominations and each of them admitted that training such leaders was a challenge. Some were more intentional than others about offering training to their bivocational leadership, but each of them admitted that more needed to be done.

For the past several years I've been privileged to have led numerous conferences and seminars for bivocational and small church leaders. Regardless of denominational affiliation, I've found that most bivocational leaders face the same challenges and the same is true of smaller churches no matter what name is above their door. It has been a joy to work with so many different denominations to help train their bivocational and small church leadership.

Requests are starting to come in now asking about my availability to lead workshops for bivocational and small church leaders in 2015, and I'm sure I'll soon start hearing from denominational leaders wanting to schedule something in 2016. If you think I might be able to help your small church leaders and the churches they service, I encourage you to contact me soon to get on my calendar.

I currently offer several seminars:
  • The Healthy Small Church (This has been my most requested.)
  • Bivocational Ministry for the 21st Century
  • Transforming the Small Church from Maintenance-Minded to Missional
  • The Healthy Pastor: Maintaining Balance in the Ministry
  • Church Hospitality: A Key to Seeing Your First-Time Guests Return
In addition to these, I have developed some special presentations that met specific needs such as keynote messages. I would be glad to do that for your special needs.

If you are a denominational leader, I would be glad to talk with you about presenting one of these seminars to your small church leaders. If you are a pastor and feel that one of these would be a help to you, please forward this article to one of the leaders who could arrange for me to come to your area. Perhaps you are not part of a denomination. I would encourage you to contact other independent pastors in your area to see if they would like to host of one of these events.
In an effort to maintain balance in my own life, I only schedule a few of these events each year.  My schedule tends to fill up fairly quickly so I encourage you to contact me soon if you think I may be able to help your bivocational and small church leaders.