Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The unseen work of the pastor

In the past I've mentioned how much Eugene Peterson's book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity has impacted my ministry. Like many pastors, I enjoy the public aspect of ministry: preaching, teaching, leading. These are where my spiritual gifts lie, and it's here that I'm most comfortable. These are also the things that serve as the basis for how congregations judge their pastors. However, Peterson points out in his book that the real work of ministry is found in the angles of ministry which supports the visible, public aspects of ministry. He identifies these angles as prayer, scripture reading, and spiritual direction.

Peterson writes "Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith." Recently, a fair amount of my ministry has focused on providing such direction as I've been involved in helping an individual discern God's call on his life and how to best pursue that. Another individual has talked to me about feeling overwhelmed with issues and questions about future steps he should take in his life. Other individuals have recently approached me needing spiritual direction in their lives as well.

Some pastors approach such questions by taking on the role of a counselor. I'm not sure that's wise because, frankly, most pastors have never been trained to do counseling. One seminary class on pastoral care does not make one a counselor. However, a minister can provide spiritual direction.

Any pastor can listen. Any pastor can take seriously a person's request to pray for them. Any pastor can provide spiritual direction.

The problem is that spiritual direction takes time away from other tasks that we think demands the pastor's attention. It can interfere with a pastor's study time or the time he or she spends planning for endless meetings. Because much spiritual direction is done in private it doesn't lead to public affirmation by the larger church body.

As I said earlier, I enjoy the public aspects of ministry and find that my primary gifts are in those areas. However, as I reflect back over 37 years of ministry some of my most rewarding times are found when I was providing spiritual direction to individuals. I regret not setting aside time to do more of it.

If you've never read Peterson's book I highly recommend it. You may find it will shape your future ministry more than you might imagine.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Clergy and taxes

It's that time of the year again. Tax time! This morning I have a question to ask of my readers. Some have contacted me recently saying they are being told that the housing allowance for clergy is limited to 50% of their salary. I heard that last year from the treasurer of one church who said he had been told that at a financial seminary he attended for church leaders. However, he serves in a church with a fully-funded pastor.

In the past it was my understanding that since a bivocational pastor had additional income outside the church he or she could designate up to 100% of their church income as housing allowance as long as it could be justified and did not exceed the fair rental value of the property plus some other expenses. Does anyone know if the tax code has changed in this regard?

As you prepare to do your taxes this year I do encourage you to have a discussion with your accountant or tax preparer to be sure they understand clergy taxes. When I went into the ministry I took my taxes to the accountant I had always used for my business. She insisted that she was very familiar with clergy tax law and did tax returns for numerous clergy persons. I then found out she had never heard of a housing allowance for clergy. I found a new accountant.

A good friend of mine who also served as a bivocational pastor kept insisting there was no such thing as a housing allowance for clergy. His accountant told him that for years. Finally, my friend learned such an allowance was allowed, and he had overpaid his taxes for all those years.

Don't be afraid to seek the advice of more than one accountant when it comes to your taxes. If you can find one who specializes in clergy taxes that's even better. Sometimes a nearby seminary or Bible college can direct you to such an accountant. The key is to seek that advice before you file your taxes.

Now, back to my earlier question. Can anyone tell me if the tax code has been changed to limit clergy housing allowance to 50%?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Churches can change if....

One of the most common misconceptions about churches is that they are opposed to change. While it's true that many churches are change-resistant it is not true that they will not change. There are many reasons for their resistance, and if the pastor and other leaders understand these reasons they are more likely to lead their churches in significant change.

Churches are resistant to change when they do not trust their leaders to lead that change. One of the primary reasons for this lack of trust, especially in smaller churches, is the rapid pastoral turnover many of them experience. Why allow a pastor to lead a change effort when he or she is unlikely to remain there for more than 2-4 years? As an Resource Minister in our region who worked with many pastor church committees I was often frustrated by the large number of pastor profiles and resumes I received that showed a track record of changing churches every 2-4 years. It was no wonder these pastors seldom accomplished anything of significance in their ministries.

If you want to successfully lead change in your church you must be willing to commit to being there for an extended period of time. It can take up to five years for a change to become part of a church's DNA, and if you aren't willing to commit to seeing that happen it is unlikely you will lead that church in any significant change.

Another common reason leaders are unsuccessful in leading change is that they fail to create a sense of urgency for the change. John Kotter, in his excellent book Leading Change, was the first to highlight that for me. Without that sense of urgency people are not interested in changing as they see so real value or need for the change.

The first thing a leader must do is to demonstrate what is likely to happen if the change does not occur and the advantages the church can experience if the change does occur. Until the rewards for the change surpass the costs of the change, they are going to be resistant to any suggested change.

I would encourage every pastor and church leader to read Kotter's book as he lists several more things that need to happen for effective change to occur. In the meantime, commit to remaining at your church for an extended period of time and identify ways to create a sense of urgency around the change. You are likely to find your church more willing to implement that change.

Friday, January 5, 2018

New books for a new year

The past couple of days I shared my top 10 favorite reads for 2017. Today I want to let you know what I'm reading now and some of the books on my to-read shelf. The books I'm currently reading are

Knowledge and Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga. The author is  Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Notre Dame. The majority of his books are written for fellow academics. I heard this was one written for the general reader. I definitely do not want to read any he wrote for academics! Although I find this a difficult read, it has been one that is most interesting and helpful.

Whatever Became of Sin by Karl Menninger. This book was written in 1973. Menninger illustrates how many of the things that were once called sins became illegal acts. This made those acts subject to the courts rather than the church. Later, another shift occurred when many of these acts were classified as diseases. When this occurred the person committing the acts came under the care of the doctors and psychologists. Each of these shifts removed the act further and further away from being an act of transgression against the commandments of God. I do not agree with everything the author discusses in the book, but it does help me better understand why many people now reject any notion that they are sinners in need of a Savior.

Ghosts in the Fog by Samantha Seiple. For decades the US government denied reports that the Japanese invaded Alaska during World War II. This book tells the story of this invasion. I am finding it an incredible story and read about half of the book in one sitting.

Some of the books on my to-read shelf are

Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright
Praying the 23rd Psalm by Elmer Towns
Night by Elie Wiesel

I also plan to re-read a number of books in my library this year. It's time to revisit some of the books that have impacted my life in the past to see if I can glean some new nuggets of gold from them.

I hope you have a reading plan for 2018.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Top 10 books of 2017 II

Today I will complete my list of my top 10 favorite books of 2017. If you missed yesterday's post that included the first five books I encourage you to check it out. Here are the remaining five. Again, they are in no particular order.

Messy Grace by Caleb Kaltenbach. This is a fascinating story of a conservative pastor with gay parents. Raised in the gay lifestyle he came out to his parents as a Christian and later became a pastor. No issue is more divisive in today's church world as the issue of homosexuality. If your church has not discussed how it will relate to those involved in that lifestyle, you need to do so, and this book can help that conversation.

Taking Pascal's Wager by Michael Rota. This is an incredible book on apologetics that demonstrates how reasonable it is to accept the truth of the Christian faith. This book is not a simple read, but it is one that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you are a minister with preaching responsibilities, it will give you a lot of great material to share with your congregation.

A New Kind of Apologist by Sean McDowell, ed. One of the reasons this book made my top 10 list is that it addresses topics often ignored by traditional apologists, the kinds of issues faced by pastors and churches today. Over twenty leading apologists contributed to this book.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter. The title alone should make you curious. It did me! The author demonstrates how many of today's products are made to be irresistible to consumers and how addictive they have become to millions of people. The good news is that he doesn't stop there but also shows how we can reverse that to improve our own health and that of our families.

Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis J. Backwith and Gregory Koukl. Many today insist that there are no absolute moral values. One behavior is considered no better or no worse than another. The authors attack that idea in the introduction by pointing out that under such a belief system Mother Teresa is no more moral than Adolf Hitler. They continue attacking the idea of moral relativism throughout the book. I found it to be an excellent read.

Tomorrow I'll share some of the books I'm currently reading and some titles on my shelf waiting their turn. Will any of them make the top ten list for 2018? You'll just have to check back next January to find out!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Top 10 books of 2017 I

One of my goals for every year is to read 50 books. This year I missed it by three. Each year at this time I like to share my 10 favorite books from that year's reading. Today and tomorrow I will share that list. You will note that several of them are books on apologetics. That has been a focus of mine for the past few years, and 2017 was no exception. In today's post I'll mention five of the books and share the other five tomorrow. They are in no particular order.

Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians by Mark Coppenger. The author is a professor of Christian Apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Christianity has no shortage of critics in today's times. This book pushes back at those critics to demonstrate the moral superiority of Christian belief.

Goliath Must Fall by Louis Giglio. We all face giants in our lives that rob us of the life God desires for us to enjoy. Giglio reminds us that defeating those giants requires us to keep our eyes on Jesus.

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albon. I seldom read novels, but two of them made my top 10 list this year. I found this book told a fascinating tale of a man condemned to spend his time in a cave for centuries listening to voices asking for more time. His involvement with two individuals led to him saving their lives and his as well.

The Noticer by Andy Andrews. This is the other novel I found fascinating. It involves the story of an old drifter who notices things that others do not. As he shares his "perspective" on what is going on in people's lives they find the hope they need to turn their lives around.

Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend by Andy Stanley. Personally, I'm not comfortable with everything Stanley writes in this book, but that's the problem isn't it? We think it's all about us, and it's not. Perhaps one reason more of our churches are not reaching the unchurched is that we are not willing to give up our comfort level. This book will challenge you.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The start of a new year

I want to wish all my friends and followers a very Happy New Year. I pray that you, your families, and your churches will be especially blessed throughout 2018. Like every year, there will be some exciting things happen in our lives, and there will be some challenges. I want to remind you that our Lord Jesus Christ will be with you in both circumstances. He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us, and He never will.

Like most years, yesterday on the first day of the year I spent time cleaning my desk and files. Some things were moved out of my desk into filing cabinets. Some things were thrown in the trash while other personal items were shredded. I at least like to start the new year with a clean desk and a, relatively, clean study.

A few days ago I reviewed what items were already entered into my 2018 calendar, and it looks like January is going to be a busy month. Our church has several meetings and planning events scheduled. I'm blessed to serve a church as their Transitional Pastor that is not waiting for a new pastor before planning for new ministries and improving the way we are currently doing ministry.

The start of the new year is a good time to remind a church of the vision God has given them, and that will be the focus of my message next Sunday. If your church does not have a current vision for ministry the start of a new year is a good time to discern such a vision from God. Without such a vision churches merely wander around in the wilderness hoping something they do makes a difference. How much better is it to be focused on fulfilling the vision God has for your church!

The start of the new year is also a good time for leaders to think about what they are going to do to intentionally grow spiritually. No pastor or other church leader can take people further than he or she has gone. It is imperative that every church leader seek ways to continue his or her spiritual development.

Our church has entered into 40 days of prayer and fasting starting with January 1. We've encouraged our members to take one day to pray and fast for the church, for the new pastor the church will call, and for one another. Many of our members have signed up, some for more than one day. We believe this will not only bring God's blessings to our church, it will also aid in our congregation's spiritual development. Not only do church leaders need to be engaged in activities that lead to spiritual growth, it is imperative that every one in the church is growing as well. We are expecting to hear some exciting stories about how this time of prayer and fasting has impacted lives!