Thursday, October 30, 2014

Smaller churches facing difficult times ahead

For 20 years, beginning in 1981, I served a small, rural church as a bivocational pastor.  I left that ministry to accept a judicatory role that works with dozens of smaller churches as well as larger ones.  I've written eight books on bivocational ministry and issues affecting smaller churches.  I love small churches and have seen first-hand the tremendous ministry they can offer.  But, I am also worried about the future of many of these churches.

We are told that approximately 100 churches close their doors in the US each week.  Most of these are smaller churches that no longer had the ability to continue to do ministry.  In reality, many of them had not done ministry in years and perhaps decades.  For all practical purposes, many of these churches died years before they closed their doors.  Because their decline happened so slowly, many within the churches did not even realize they were in trouble until it was too late.

Thom Rainer has written an excellent little book called Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive.  I bought the book yesterday and read it before going to bed.  It is a small book packed with vital information that anyone involved in smaller churches needs to read.  Rainer estimates that approximately 300,000 churches in the US are not healthy with half that number falling into the very sick category.  The prognosis for these churches is not good, and their death is almost inevitable unless the congregations are willing to make significant changes.  Rainer does not spend a lot of time addressing what churches can do to return to health, but that was not the intent of this small book.  He has written elsewhere about that as I have in my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues.

Rainer identifies one problem some of these churches face that, although I have seen it, I never really understood what was happening.  The problem occurs when a community changes and the church doesn't.  Perhaps the community changes racially, or economically, or in some other way.  Rather than welcome those changes, some in the community move away.  Because this is "their" church they are willing to drive in each Sunday for worship before rushing back to their new community.  The church never makes any attempt to reach out to the new people coming in to the neighborhood, but this doesn't affect the church too much as long as the members are willing to drive back each week.  However, the second and third generations of these families do not have the same connection to this church.  As they grow up they see their parent's church declining and having little appeal to them.  They begin looking elsewhere, closer to their homes, for a place to worship and serve.  Fewer and fewer people are able or willing to make the drive, and the church has already told those in the community that they are not welcome.  Eventual death is inevitable.

Another serious problem facing these churches is the growing difficulty they have in finding quality pastoral leadership.  Studies repeatedly find that many pastors are unwilling to serve in smaller churches.  Too often, these churches end up calling someone who has no ministerial training and no real leadership ability.  (I should add here that this described me when I went to my church.  I had no education beyond high school and no experience leading a church.  However, I recognized my need for education and within a few months after beginning as pastor I enrolled in a Bible school and continued my education beyond that.)  This can work out, and I have seen some of these pastors provide excellent ministry to their churches, but I've also seen many examples where things just kept getting worse for the churches because of the people they called to be their pastor.  It will take a quality leader to turn around a sick church, and without such a leader that turnaround will not happen.

While there is much more than could be said, I will make only one more comment in this post about the difficulty smaller churches will face in the days to come.  Many of them are living in the past when things were good.  In many communities, the church was the center of activity.  People automatically attended church services on Sundays and many returned on Wednesday night.  If people moved to a new community they often sought out a church of the same denomination they had always attended.  Most of the church's young people lived in two-parent homes and could be counted on to attend the youth gathering on Sunday evenings.  None of these are true today, but many churches still want to pretend that they are.  They continue to program and schedule like these things are all still true in the 21st century and then complain when people do not attend their functions.  Unless these churches are willing to take a serious look at how they operate they will soon find themselves among those who lock their doors for the last time.

No church has to die.  Even those close to closing their doors can catch a fresh vision from God and become a strong ministry presence in their communities.  But, this will not happen without such a vision and a willingness to live into that vision regardless of the cost.  For some churches, the cost will be too great.  They will hold on to their dysfunctions until there is no one left to open the door.  However, there are others who will find a renewed purpose and will accept the challenges that will be needed to live out that purpose.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When your days are shorter than your "to-do" list

Just about everybody complains about being too busy today.  There are so many things demanding our attention that it seems like we are constantly running and going nowhere.  This is often true for bivocational ministers who are trying to balance the demands of a job, a ministry, a family, and if there is any time left over they would like to spend a little time with God.  Of course, without that time with God we will eventually find ourselves drying up on the inside until we have nothing to give to our families, our job, and our ministries.  Oh yea, I haven't even mentioned having any "me" time so we can do some things that we enjoy doing for ourselves.  How do we cope when our days are consistently shorter than our "to-do" lists?

I've addressed this in my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.  There are things we can do to intentionally address the various demands on our lives and live a healthier and more fulfilling life.  Since coming back from a two-week vacation this past weekend I've had people ask how I could take off for two weeks.  I just smiled and told them to read the book!

Jon Acuff, in his excellent book Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average and Do Work that Matters, shares a five-step secret to getting it all done.  This is great advice for persons who are overwhelmed by all the things they need to accomplish.

  1. Admit that you can't possibly get it all done.
  2. Give yourself the grace to accept that as reality, not failure.
  3. Do the things you can do with your full attention.
  4. Celebrate what happens during Step 3 instead of obsessing over the things you didn't get to.
  5. Repeat as necessary.
This is great advice from a great book.  I recently finished re-reading this book and will read it again next year.  I frequently recommend it to young people starting out in life and to those of us who are a little more seasoned but sometimes feel stuck or trapped.  I think it is a must read for persons serving in bivocational ministries.

Often, those in bivocational ministry struggle with doubts about their calling.  They hear the people who question their commitment and/or abilities.  They look at their (usually) smaller congregations and wonder if their service is really making a difference.  Then there is the fear.  They fear they are short-changing their families.  They fear the stress that often comes from ministry will damage their health.  They fear that their critics may be right: maybe they do lack commitment and/or abilities. The list goes on.

Actually, instead of beginning the above sentences with "they" I should have used the word "we."  I've been in bivocational ministry since 1981, and I've experienced each of these doubts and fears on more than one occasion.  But, I've also learned a few things along the way.  I've learned that God does call persons to serve in bivocational roles, and that calling is just as valid as the call to fully-funded ministry.  I've learned that my ministry does make a difference to the persons I serve and to the Kingdom of God.  I've also learned that I don't have to check everything off my "to-do" list to be an effective minister and pleasing to God.  I can't do it all, and that's OK.  I can live a balanced life, and that's even better.

Acuff affirms all these learnings and blesses me with even more insights about how to overcome a life that can quickly become overwhelming and out of balance.  It is a book I wish was available when I was a much younger minister.  It may have saved me a few sleepless nights.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Election 2014

One week from today will be the mid-term elections.  Thirty-six Senate seats will be up for election as will all 435 seats in the House of Representatives.  Thirty-six states will be electing governors in this election as well.  In addition, there are numerous mayors and other local politicians running for office.

The mid-term election is always an important one and especially when it comes in the sixth year of a presidency.  It is always a referendum on the President's policies even though the President is not on the ballot.  Many Republicans have been quick to point out that a number of Democrats have asked the President to not campaign for them as they are trying to distance themselves from his policies.

As a pastor for twenty years I consistently urged my congregation to be involved in the political process.  At a minimum, I encouraged them to vote for the candidates who best represented their values and whose policies seemed to be best for the nation.  That meant they needed to be informed voters who understood what the candidates stood for.  It is quite frightening to watch some "on-the-street" interviews of persons who plan to vote and realize they have not a clue what the issues are or the values of the individuals they are planning to support.

I avoided partisan politics, not because I don't have strong views on many of the issues facing this nation, but because as a pastor I did not feel it was appropriate for me to publicly support candidates.  My own father ran for a local office one year, and I even refused to allow him to put a sign in my yard for that very reason.  I voted for him and privately supported him, but in my public statements I try very hard to avoid being partisan towards an individual or a party.

This election will be important to our nation and to the Christian community.  I'm certain you've read about the lawsuit in Houston that would require several local pastors to turn over their sermons and other correspondence that addressed the Equal Rights law passed in that city.  That is only one example of government interfering with the freedoms our Constitution provides for persons of faith.  How did our nation, founded as it was on Christian principles and values, get to this stage?  Speaking just from a political perspective, it is because we have failed to elect men and women to office who would uphold those rights.  (There is much that could also be said about the spiritual climate in the church that may be even more to blame, but that is the subject of another post on another day.)

For years I have heard that many politicians do not care about the opinion of Christians because so many Christians do not vote.  Certainly, when they need our support they court the favor of Christian leaders, but once they get the support they need for a particular issue they toss us aside like yesterday's newspaper.  That will not change until Christians recognize they have a duty to vote and support godly people for political office.  Many today are trying to silence our voice in the public square, but we have a voice and it's time that voice is heard regarding the issues that matter most.

If you are a pastor I encourage you to urge your people to vote in this election.  Let their voices be heard at the ballot box.  Challenge them to be informed of the issues that matter most to them and to know how each candidate stands on those issues.  Remind them that words are cheap at election time, and the only true way to know what a candidate believes is how they have responded to those issues in the past.  There are godly men and women in both political parties running for office at every level of government, and these are the persons who deserve the opportunity to serve their nation and community in the offices they seek.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Back from vacation

You may have noticed a lack of posts on this blog for the past couple of weeks.  (At least, I hope you did!)  My wife and I spent that time on vacation at Panama City Beach enjoying perfect weather, fresh seafood, and some much needed rest and relaxation.  During that time we celebrated our 48th anniversary which made it an even more special vacation.  I did absolutely nothing that even resembled work including writing on this blog and posting articles on Twitter.  The ones that were on Twitter during our vacation were scheduled in advance a week before we left for our vacation.

Early in my ministry we seldom took such vacations.  Part of it was due to finances, but much of it was due to my just not wanting to get away that long.  For some reason I guess I believed that if I was away bad things would happen.  Talk about arrogance!  I guess I just didn't think God could do it if I wasn't there.

Looking back I believe that my not taking time away was one of the contributing factors that led to my bout with clinical depression in the mid-1980s.  We are not the Energizer Bunny.  We are not made to keep going and going.  We need time to get away from the regular activities of our lives to refresh ourselves, and if we are not willing to do that for ourselves our bodies and emotions will eventually shut themselves down in order to protect us from ourselves.

Unfortunately, I meet too many pastors who continue to think as I did.  One friend of mine has struggled with what I believe to be depression for several years.  He has served his church for years and has enjoyed a very productive ministry, but it is obviously taking a toll on him.  He never takes all the vacation his church provides for him.  I've urged him to take a sabbatical, and leaders in his church have told me they have offered him one, but he refuses.  I worry about him and his family.

Other pastors show me their schedules and brag about how full they are as if their overbooked schedules are a badge of honor.  I ask them what happens if an emergency occurs?  How will you fit that into your full schedule?  They just look at me not understanding that it is only a matter of time before something occurs that isn't scheduled in their neat, tidy little Day Planner.

When I first actually began taking real vacations it would take me two or three days before I could relax enough to enjoy it.  Two days later we would return home.  Obviously, something needed to change!  For the past few years we've been taking 10-12 day vacations which provides much more time to relax.  I've also purposely slowed things down as much as possible a few days before leaving for vacation to make it easier to relax.  Now, when I arrive at the beach I can sit back in my chair and just enjoy the sand and the sea.  I'm relaxed from Day One.

This year some of our grandchildren were at the beach as well which made this vacation a little different than previous ones.  The older ones wanted to try the old man in a game of pool in the common room until they learned that the old man had spent many hours of his misspent youth in pool rooms.  They weren't any happier after a few games of ping pong either.  They were happier after convincing me to try my hand at Paddleboarding in the ocean.  I only fell off the board three times before finding my balance, but I also refused to go out from the shore as far as they did.

One of these days I'll be gone, and no one will talk about the church committee meetings I attended and the wonderful prayer I gave at the Women's Mission Circle banquet.  However, my grandchildren will probably talk about the week they spent at the beach with their Papaw, and my wife will remember how we celebrated our 48th anniversary sitting on the beach, holding hands, and watching the ocean waves.  Rest, relaxation, and the making of memories.

How did you spend your vacation?

Friday, October 17, 2014

The benefits and dangers of technology

As a pastor starting out in 1981 my prize piece of technology was a used Underwood upright typewriter.  It was approximately the same weight as an aircraft carrier anchor and about as easy to move.  That typewriter typed out a lot of sermon notes, church newsletters, and papers when I enrolled in Bible school.  Those were the "good-old-days" of carbon paper and White-Out.

In the late 80s I replaced the typewriter with a word processor.  It was a huge step up even if it did only display two lines of work at a time.  About this same time, I was introduced to computers at the job I had in the factory.  My employer even offered computer classes.  My first class was to learn DOS,  That wasn't the most exciting class I've ever taken, but that one was followed by several classes on Microsoft Office.  I soon purchased my first computer, Office, and a dot-matrix printer.  (To install Office in those days required about 20 floppy disks, about one full day, and an immediate upgrade to install more memory on my computer!)  Since those early beginnings I've owned a few dozen computers, printers, and other electronic devices all intended to make work easier.  But does it really?

Last night I was up until 1:00 am trying to find and remove a virus that kept changing my home page.  Despite having firewalls and a virus detector this one found a way to sneak into my computer.  What makes it more frustrating is that a Google search revealed that this particular bug is often found after downloading programs from some rather popular sites, and I had downloaded a program from one of those sites just the day before realizing I had a bug.  The program was a spyware detector that I have used in the past!  Earlier this year I had to take both my desktop and laptop to my computer guru to remove a virus that I couldn't find.  As good as he is, it took him two days to find it as it had buried itself deep into my systems on both machines.  To this day, we do not know how they got into my systems.

Hacking is another problem for those of us who depend on our computers a lot.  Many ministers now take advantage of free wi-fi offered many places to do their work outside the church office making their computers even more at risk.  I don't blame them for that.  If our community had a Starbucks or Panera Bread I would probably make that my second office.  Still, the danger of someone hacking into your computer while it's connected to free wi-fi is very real in such places, and one must exercise great caution.  My ministry requires me to travel some, and one of the first things I do when I get to my motel room is to connect to their wi-fi to make sure I've got a connection.  To protect myself there are a couple of things I do.

One, is that I do not stay connected other than when I'm actually working on the computer.  Some people will connect and leave their computers on.  I will go online, do what I need to do, and shut down the computer.  At least that limits the amount of time a potential hacker can access my computer.

A second thing I do is that I never do financial transactions on my laptop.  A hacker will not find credit card numbers, bank accounts, or other personal financial information on my laptop.  Since it is for work I have been determined that I would not use it for personal business to ensure that information cannot be obtained from it while I'm traveling.

A third thing I do is to change my passwords periodically, and I try to use strong passwords.  1234 is not a strong password.  Neither is your name.  I recently saw a used computer being sold at an auction.  When the computer was turned on it showed that it was locked.  The user name was on the screen and was the first name of the previous owner.  No one knew the password to open the computer, but a high school student sat down and typed in the person's last name as the password, and the computer opened.  Who knows what personal files or information the buyer might find!  Be smart and use strong passwords that can't be broken in five seconds.

Computers and other technologies can be a great asset to a minister, but, unfortunately, they can also cause problems.  Identity theft is a major problem today, and there is no way to completely protect yourself from hackers.  There also doesn't seem to be any way to completely prevent viruses from getting into your computer system.  We just need to be smart and proactive.  Have good virus detectors on your computer and have them automatically scan your computer on a regular basis.  it's also a good idea for you to run a scan manually once a week.  Change your passwords and use passwords that are not obvious.  Be very careful about how you use public wi-fi.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Education and the bivocational pastor

This past weekend I read a post by a pastor-blogger I follow that was discussing his plans to pursue a theological education.  He was addressing two concerns he had: his age and finances.  He confessed he was concerned because he was in his mid-30s.  He was also committed to not going into debt to earn his degree, a commitment I wholeheartedly endorse.

Neither of these are issues that cannot be overcome.  Obviously, he cannot do anything about his age, but what he can do is not wait until he's any older to obtain an education.  I was in my mid-50s when I earned my master's, so I don't think he'll have any problems.  Age is often little more than an excuse one gives for not seeking more education, but that's all it is: an excuse.  It is certainly not a valid reason.  Once I finished my master's degree I decided to pursue a DMin and did not complete that degree until I was 62.  At our graduation it was announced that one graduate was in his 80s so I don't think I really accomplished anything special!

One of the major problems facing seminary graduates today is student loan debt.  It is not uncommon for a seminary grad to leave school with $50,000 or more in student loan debt.  That can be a huge drain on a pastor's salary and is one of the reasons so many leave the ministry within a few years after completing seminary.  What's so sad about this is that much of that debt, if not all of it, can be avoided.  I completed three degrees with no student debt, and believe me when I say that I am not a wealthy individual!  I did it by taking classes as I could afford to pay for them and looking for any money that might be available for education from other sources.

I worked on my bachelor's degree while serving as a bivocational pastor and working full-time in a factory.  The company for whom I worked paid the tuition of any class that would benefit the company, and that included the vast majority of the ones I took.  Because I was both working full-time and pastoring a church I was limited to 2-3 classes a semester.  Between a small number of classes and having my tuition paid it was an easy matter to cash flow the remainder of my expenses.  Yes, it took longer, but so what?  That's much preferable than spending the rest of your life paying off student loans.

The judicatory I serve in has an education fund for each of their staff, and I was able to use that money to help finance a portion of my master's and doctoral work.  Once that money was gone I had to cash flow the remainder, but that certainly helped pay a lot of the cost of those degrees.  Again, I spread the classes out and took them as I could afford to pay for them.  Chances are, you can find some financial assistance as well if you decide to pursue education, and even if you can't, take your time and avoid student debt.

Of course, the most critical aspect of pursuing education is the why.  When I first began as a bivocational pastor of a small, rural church I really didn't feel that it was necessary to go to school.  However, after a few months as a pastor I decided that having some education beyond high school could only help me be a more effective minister, and that's when I began going to school.  Although, the blogger mentioned above did not explain why he now feels he needs a theological education, I would guess his reasons are very similar to mine.

Interestingly enough, I read another blog article this week that addressed the importance of a pastor also being a theologian.  Because of my current ministry role I am in a different church almost every week, and I can tell you there is a lot of bad theology being taught from pulpits.  In most cases, I don't think the pastor is intentionally trying to mislead people.  He or she just doesn't know what they are teaching is wrong because they've never been taught good theology nor have they been taught how to properly study and interpret the Scriptures.

Occasionally, I would share with my congregation that the Bible was very clear that as a teacher I would be held to a higher standard.  I was responsible to teach sound doctrine.  That was one of the primary reasons I made the decision to begin my education and to become a life-long learner.  That was my why.

There is no doubt that going back to school as a non-traditional student has its challenges, but one who is called to the ministry must always be asking if that is something that God is asking him or her to do.  I cannot answer that question for you.  I can tell you that every class I took  helped make me a better minister and gave me more confidence in ministry.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Stop complaining about problems and do something about them

There is a lot of hang-wringing going on in many churches today.  We are worried about the lack of young people in our congregations.  We are concerned about the declining attendance and finances we see in many churches. We complain about how we are losing the culture wars today and the little impact Christian values and teaching has on today's society.  We rightly point out how society is attempting to make faith a private affair that has no place in the public square.  Christians are being forced to set aside their personal beliefs to accommodate the wishes of people who hold to different world views.  At a recent pastor's meeting I attended one of the pastors asked what I saw as the future of the church.  I cited these issues and others and responded that the church in America is facing difficult days ahead.  The reason for these difficult days is because most churches are willing to wring their hands, remember the "good old days," and do nothing else.

If you want a better future for your nation, your church, your family, your business, or for yourself then you have to become proactive and create that future.  It does no good to complain about the problems if we are not engaged in correcting them.  If you're concerned about the lack of young people in your church, then do something about it.  Make whatever changes need to be made in your church to make it more attractive to the people you want to reach.  My guess is few churches will do that because to make those kinds of changes often make the older members of the congregation uncomfortable.  Too often, these folks prefer to stay comfortable and complain.

I have read that a minimum of 50 percent of the population in every county in the United States is unchurched, and in some areas it is as high as 80 percent or higher.What is your church doing to intentionally reach out to these individuals to share the gospel with them?   Denominations report a continual decline in the number of baptisms in their churches which suggests that we are not doing a very effective job of evangelism.  Is your church wringing its hands about this problem, or are you doing something about it?

Likewise, what are you doing about addressing the social issues you are concerned about?  Is your church taking a biblical stand on these issues?  Too many churches are silent on these issues.  While they may spend a lot of time in the safety of their Sunday school classes complaining about what is happening in society, many of them are unwilling to go public with their concerns.  At the same time, some go too far and demonstrate an ugly spirit towards those with whom they disagree.  That is never necessary.

Christians who do not vote have no right to complain about social issues or a decline in morality.  Proverbs 29:2 tells us, "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn."  How do many bureaucrats and judges get their positions?  They are placed there by the persons elected to office.  These people would not be chosen for those positions if their worldviews did not match that of the one selecting them.  It's not hard to grasp that if we want people of high moral character in decision making positions we need to elect righteous, godly people to office who will then appoint similar persons to their positions.  When conservative Christians stay at home on election day, they forfeit their opportunity to vote into office persons who would best reflect their positions on the moral and social issues of the day.

However, I also need to say that I do not believe that our salvation will come in on Air Force One.  The Bible is clear that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities of the air.  In other words, our primary battle is a spiritual one.  Therefore, I believe that we must be actively seeking to elect godly men and women into office AND we need to be actively engaged in prayer to defeat the spiritual forces that oppose the work of God and the church.  Many churches have done away with prayer meetings, and many that still exist are rather anemic and weak.  The church needs to repent of its complacency and lack of spiritual fervor and pray that revival would first sweep through the church and then out into our nation.

As bad as things appear to be at the present, they are nothing compared to what the first century church faced.  Yet, within a few years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ they became known as the people who turned the world upside-down.  Filled with the Holy Spirit those Christians boldly proclaimed the gospel everywhere they went.  Threats and prison could not stop them.  They were determined to tell the world about Jesus Christ.  We can follow the example of these first-century Christians or we can sit around and wring our hands.  Which will you choose?