Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Your church five years from now

This past Saturday I led the church in which I am serving as Transitional Pastor through an exercise to help discern God's vision for the church. This is an important step for any church to take when seeking new pastoral leadership, and it's one every church should do every 5-6 years anyway. Knowing God's vision for a church is key to that church enjoying maximum ministry effectiveness. Pursuing God's vision is always going to be more effective than merely drifting along hoping something good happens.

An important part of the process I use has each participant spend about 30 minutes answering a series of questions I give them. This is done three times during the course of the day. Sometimes they are given Scriptures to read and reflect on prior to answering the questions. After the 30 minutes they come back to their small groups and discuss among themselves what they have heard God say to them in the process. Then they report to the larger group.

It's always rewarding to me to hear them go around their tables talking about the future of their church. Every time I lead a church through this process I wonder how long it has been since they have had such discussions. I get excited as I listen to them talk about their dreams and hopes for their church over the next five years because this is not a conversation that happens to many churches.

As the day comes to a close we begin to talk about we have sensed God is leading the church to become and do in the next five years. Sometimes, that is very clear to the participants and a vision statement can be formed. Other times, it's still not clear, but the church now has something to work on. At the least, they have had important conversations that may not have occurred in the church in many years.

I'm glad to announce that in the recent event the participants were able to develop a vision statement. We actually went beyond our time limit as we worked on the wording, but no one seemed to care. It was exciting to watch as they continually sought out the best way to word their vision statement so it would be clear.

Now, when the pastor search team begins interviewing candidates they can be very clear to that individual what the church's vision is for future ministry. They can look for the person who will best be able to lead them in pursuit of that vision. That will be a big benefit to the church as it calls a new pastor.

Now we begin more work as church leadership begins to determine the best ways to achieve this vision. With a clear God-given vision we can now begin to do strategic planning to help us develop goals that will enable us to achieve that vision. This will help the church better focus its resources and efforts. If the church can maintain this focus I believe it has exciting days ahead of it.

Your church doesn't have to go through a formal visioning process although it would be a good thing if it did. Any church can gather to talk about what they would like to see be and do in the next five years. Who are the people your church is most likely to serve five years from now? What ministries would you like to see in your church five years from now? Who are the people groups your church might need to target? What has to change to allow these things to happen? Answering these questions, and more, would greatly benefit any church serious about its ministry and its impact on its community. How long has it been since your congregation has had this kind of conversation? Do you think it might be time?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Mission support and denominational differences

I read an article last week stating that a large Southern Baptist church in Texas was putting their mission giving to the denomination in escrow while they discuss their concerns with the direction of the SBC. We are talking about $1 million so it is a substantial sum of money that is being at least temporarily withheld.

Although the article singled out some actions and public statements made by an official in the denomination, the pastor claimed that the congregation's concerns go beyond one person. You can read the article here if you are interested.

I am not Southern Baptist and do not plan to speak to any issues this church may have with their denomination. My concern here is the withholding of mission money for any reason. Over the past few years we've seen a number of churches withdraw from our denomination (American Baptist Churches, USA) and others significantly reduce their mission giving, or eliminate it completely, over concerns they had with decisions that were being made at the national level. Regardless of denomination, this is wrong.

This is the equivalent of church members withholding their tithes and offerings because they disagree with the pastor or a decision that has been made by the church. No pastor would want church members doing that so why would a pastor encourage the church to do that to their denomination? I have worked with two churches who had people stop giving to the church in an effort to force the pastor to resign. In both cases it worked. When I was called in afterwards to work with the churches I told both of them that such action is spiritually immature and unbiblical. I consider the withholding money designated for mission work to also be immature and unbiblical.

At a time when we need to be sharing the Gospel more than ever why hamper the work of missionaries and judicatories by withholding money because you disagree with something that was said or done? I don't see that the church has any disagreement with missionaries in the article, so why hinder their ministries by taking this action?

There are two possible actions that a church could take. One is to work to correct the problem. The other is to leave the denomination if the conflict is too great to resolve. Either of those would be far more biblical and ethical than withholding money because you disagree with an issue.

Again, I am not singling out this particular church or denomination. They are just the latest to make the news for this type of action. As a judicatory leader I saw this happen over and over again in the churches I served. Because of such action denominations and judicatories are facing serious financial shortfalls and cutbacks resulting in fewer staff and less resources to assist churches. Nobody wins in this scenario.

I can tell you that denominations are not perfect, and neither are their leaders. Denominations are no different than churches in that regard. Mistakes will be made. Honest people can also disagree on some issues. When they occur we need to extend grace while addressing our concerns. Unless our differences involve heretical teachings or actions mature Christians should be able to work together to further the Kingdom of God.

I would encourage every church, regardless of denomination, to pray long and hard before deciding to withhold its mission support. Too many innocent people who had nothing to do with the issues are hurt when churches take such action.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

God's vision, not ours

I have published a number of articles in this blog over the years about the importance of vision in a church. Working with numerous churches over the years I found that a very small percentage of them had any semblance of a vision, and those that did seldom referenced that vision in their planning or ministries. The majority of these churches flounder around week to week hoping something good will one day happen in their church and wonder why it seldom does.

Vision is essential to a church, but it's also essential that the vision is revisited occasionally. A church should look at its vision at least every 5-6 years to make sure it is still relevant to the ministry needs that exist within and around the church. Also, any time a church is going through a transition is an important time to revisit the vision. Certainly, when a church is seeking new pastoral leadership would qualify as a significant transition time.

This is where the church I'm currently serving is at. They called me to serve as their Transitional Pastor when their previous pastor resigned. One of the things I am doing is leading the church in vision discernment. As I explained to them, it is important to understand where God is leading a church before the church calls a new pastor.

Previously, we spent an evening determining the Core Values of the church and another evening identifying its Bedrock Beliefs. This coming Saturday we will spend the day in a vision discernment exercise. It will be an important day in the life of the congregation and we are praying for a good turnout of people to help in this process.

One of the challenges we will face is common to all churches doing vision discernment. It will be hard to make the distinction between what we are hearing God say and what our individual preferences might be. Most people entering into such a discernment process will bring their own thoughts of what a church should be and do to that process. It is easy to want to filter everything done during the exercise through those individual ideas. The challenge will be to be open to what God is saying regardless of how that might relate to our personal thoughts.

Vision discernment is messy. As Baptists we prefer to discuss things (endlessly at times) and take a vote. The majority rules. While this often works in most things, that is not discernment. Discernment is listening to the still, small voice of God to see how He would lead. The pastor's vision, the deacon's vision, the desires of the largest financial contributor are all irrelevant. What is God saying? Where is He wanting to lead this congregation? What is He wanting to do in and through this church? These are the critical questions that lead to discerning a vision from God, and that is the only thing that ultimately matters.

I'm looking forward to this Saturday because we have excellent people who attend this church who truly wants to follow God's leading for their ministry in the community. I think it will be an exciting day.

What is your church's vision? How long has it been since you revisited it? How does it impact the decisions that are made in your church? Is it God's vision for your church or is it something you copied from another church's web site or was given by a previous pastor? These are questions that any church that wants to enjoy God's blessings on its ministry needs to answer.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What is the most important thing a pastor can do for those he or she serves?

I written before about the impact Eugene Peterson's book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, has had on my ministry. In the book he mentions that while pastors are judged by their people for the visible tasks of ministry, the most important tasks are those that are often not seen by others. These are what he calls the angles of ministry, and only when the angles are right can we do ministry with integrity. These angles are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction.

Although this book has influenced me, like many pastors I sometimes get so busy with the visible tasks that I find it easy to neglect the angles, and God has to remind me again of what is most important. He did this recently when I was reading an article that asked "What is the most important thing a pastor can do for his or her congregation?" The answer was to pray for them.

I often find that when God speaks it's not long until I have the opportunity to respond. A few days after reading that question and answer an individual approached me at a store and shared a private prayer concern and asked me to pray for their family. That evening I began to pray about their situation, and as I prayed I began thinking about others in our church family that needed prayer. I began to pray for them as well, and then I thought of a recent tragedy in our community and began to pray for the family affected by it.

My primary spiritual gifts are preaching, teaching, and leadership. I am working in my natural giftedness when I'm involved in any of these tasks. You'll immediately notice that these are all ministry tasks that are done in public. The angles Peterson talks about do not come natural to me. In fact, at times I can become jealous when I read about some of the saints of old who spent hours each day in prayer or in the study of Scripture. But, just because these do not come natural to me does not mean that they are less important nor does it mean that I can ignore them. It does mean that I must discipline myself to ensure that I do pray for those I serve, that I do spend time in the Scriptures, and that I am involved in giving spiritual direction.

This also means the pastor must spend time with the people in order to know how to best pray for them. The pastor who never leaves the office can only pray in generalities, and that's not enough.

I love to talk to people about God, but I think Peterson would argue that it's more important to talk to God about the people. And, I think he's right.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Have you been called to the ministry?

While serving as a judicatory minister in our region for 14 years I saw it become increasingly more difficult to find pastors for our churches. Smaller churches often seek bivocational ministers to serve in their churches, and these tend to be found primarily near the location of the church. Few pastors are going to move from New Jersey to serve a small, bivocational church in Indiana. Our search for a pastor for these churches was usually limited to within about a 20 or so mile radius of the church. That really limits the number of potential candidates for these churches.

It wasn't much easier to find fully-funded pastors for our larger churches. A typical pastor search process for these churches often took 18 months or more. This was often frustrating to the church members who can't understand why it takes so long to find a pastor who then begins to put pressure on the search team, and this can result in calling someone the church really doesn't want.

This problem is not going to get better any time soon. We continue to have large numbers of pastors approaching retirement age. I recently read that around 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month for various reasons. Many denominations are pushing the planting of new churches, and this is often attractive to younger ministers who prefer doing that to dealing with the sacred traditions found in many existing churches. All of this means that we are going to see more churches fishing in a shrinking pastoral pool trying to find the right pastor for their church.

While this has long troubled me, one thing continues to encourage me. This has not caught God by surprise. I believe He is calling individuals to the ministry to meet the needs of both our existing churches and the new ones being planted. The problem is that some are not hearing that call. This is where we who now serve in ministry come in.

I cannot call anyone into the ministry. That is God's work. What I can do is to talk to persons I believe have ministry gifts and ask them if they have ever felt God might be calling them to use those gifts in a pastoral role. I'm in the ministry today because my pastor asked me that question back in the 1970s. That led to discussions between him and my wife and I which, two years later, led me to say yes to the call I had felt off and on for many years. Chances are, if you are serving in ministry today, it's because someone once challenged you to pray and consider that God might be calling you. We now have the obligation to do that for the next generation of ministers God is calling.

Growing up in Baptist churches I heard the same invitation every week at the end of the worship service. People were invited to come forward if they wanted to be saved, if they wanted to rededicate their lives to Christ, if they wanted to move their membership to this church, or if they felt the call to "full-time Christian service." I almost never hear the fourth one any more, and I wonder if that is one reason we are not seeing more people respond to God's call on their lives. Of course, today we need to add "bivocational ministry" to "full-time Christian service" because God is calling many specifically to serve Him in a bivocational role.

I want to encourage pastors reading this post to consider making that part of your invitation. In addition, we need to identify persons God might be calling to ministry and just ask if they have ever sensed such a call on their lives. As I said earlier, we cannot call someone into the ministry, but we can encourage people to pray about and consider such a call on their lives.

For those of you not currently in a ministry role, have you ever felt God might be calling you to serve Him in that capacity? If so, I encourage you to begin praying about that and talking to people who can give you Godly counsel. Feel free to contact me if you have questions. Our churches need individuals who have God's call on their lives to serve them in various ministerial roles. You might be one of those individuals.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Some fully-funded pastors should go bivocational

One of the bloggers I enjoy reading is Thom Rainer. He addresses so many topics of interest to church leaders, and his research and insights are always spot on. In a 2015 article he gave eight reasons why some full-time pastors and staff should go bivocational. You can read the entire article here. I will just list the reasons he gave and you can check out his article if you want more information.

  1. Opportunities to develop relationships with non-believers will be greater.
  2. Full-time pastors and staff often get missionally stale in their "holy huddles."
  3. Smaller churches are increasingly unable to afford full-time pastors or staff.
  4. The digital world is offering more opportunities for flexible secular jobs than ever.
  5. More churches are moving toward multiple teaching/preaching pastors.
  6. More churches would like to expand staff, but don't have the resources to do so.
  7. A bivocational pastor or church staff can have greater freedom than in a person in a full-time role.
  8. A bivocational pastor or staff person has transferable skills.
I would add one more reason to his list. When a pastor is bivocational it often frees up more money that can be spent on ministry. In many marginal fully-funded churches a very large percentage of the church's income is used to fund the pastor's salary and benefit package leaving little to be used for other purposes.

However, as you can see from the above list, finances are not the only reason a pastor should consider becoming bivocational. There are other good reasons why a pastor might want to become bivocational.

As I've often said in this blog, I believe we will see the numbers of bivocational ministers continue to increase in the coming years. They are going to be involved in pastoring churches, planting new churches, and working in staff positions in churches and para-church organizations. I would also not be surprised if we do not see more bivocational ministers involved in judicatory and denominational roles in the next few years. We're already seeing this beginning to occur, and I predict we'll see even more as denominations continue to struggle with their funding.

Anyone preparing to enter the ministry should carefully consider that at some point in his or her ministry bivocational ministry will be a real possibility. It might be wise to pursue education in another career field in addition to preparing for the ministry. Dual degrees are now being offered at some seminaries. Gaining experience in another career before entering the ministry might also be wise. I've had more than one fully-funded pastor tell me that he would need to become bivocational if he remained at his church, and he was scared because he didn't know what else he could do besides ministry.

I spent 20 years as a bivocational pastor. No one can tell me it is not doable or not rewarding ministry. It is very doable, and my time in that church was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I've ever done. The call to bivocational ministry is a special call from God upon a person's life, and He only calls those He knows can do the job. That's one reason bivocational ministers will always be my heroes!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Losing friends on social media

I just unfriended another individual on Facebook. Typically, there are only two reasons I do that. They either use vulgar language or have a number of friends who do, or they continually post political articles that go over the top. I don't need the vulgarity on my social media, and if people cannot communicate without being vulgar I really have no interest in talking with them. The political articles have just gotten out of hand since this election cycle. Most of them are inflammatory and add nothing to any worthwhile discussion. Others are articles from fake news sites that people want to promote. This last individual posted numerous such articles, and I just got tired of seeing them on my page.

I am an equal opportunity unfriender in that I've unfriended persons on both sides of the political spectrum. The election is over, and if all a person wants to do is whine and pout about it they don't need to post their articles on my FB page. I also have no use for persons who keep fanning the flames with fake news stories intended only to make people mad.

What makes this frustrating is that most of my social media friends are probably Christians. I say probably because I do not personally know all of them. I accepted them as a friend because they were friends of some of my friends who I trust or they are involved in ministry in some capacity.

Christians need to be especially wary of what they post on social media. We've all heard that we might be the only Gospel some people ever see, and what we post on social media is helping some people form opinions about God and Christianity that are not good. Even if someone posts articles that end up on your page that are filled with vulgarity, rude comments, and lies, that will reflect on you and ultimately on your faith. That may not be fair, but it is the reality in today's world.

It's fine to express your opinions. Otherwise, all we'll have on social media is pictures of cats. But express your opinion well, and remember that you don't have to respond to everything you disagree with on social media. Contrary to what some people believe, it is permissible on social media to read something with which you disagree and walk away without saying anything. Believe it or not, not everyone deserves your opinion.

Social media is a great communication tool and a good way to stay connected with people you may not often see. It can also be a positive tool for Christian outreach. But, social media can also create major problems if not used wisely. I hate losing friends, but if that is what I have to do to keep my social media positive and relevant then I will continue to weed out the negative people. So should you.