Friday, December 19, 2014

A church and its secrets

There is a belief in some churches that it's best to keep troubling news from the congregation.  In most cases, when church leaders keep such news from the congregation they do so convinced that if such news becomes common knowledge in the church and/or the community that it will create enormous problems.  I have seen churches keep information about clergy misconduct from the congregation and other churches do the same when they've found that a church leader has misappropriated funds or done something else unethical or illegal.  In a misguided attempt to protect the church, leaders try to keep these things a secret from the congregation.  Such secrecy seldom ends well.

A church is only as healthy as the secrets it keeps.  A church with a history of keeping secrets will be a church with little trust between the leadership and the laity.  People are not stupid.  They know when there is more going on than they are being told, and since no one is telling them what this is they have no recourse but to try to imagine for themselves what's going on.  This leads to gossip, meetings in the church parking lot, and cherry-red phone lines as church members discuss among themselves what they believe might be happening in their church.  None of these things leads to a healthy church.

Much of this can be prevented with open and honest communication.  I have found that congregations can handle the truth about what is happening in their church.  I have seen congregations presented information that was painful to share and painful to hear, but these congregations were able to process the information and move forward.  As disappointed as they might be in what they have heard at least they know they can trust their leadership to be upfront and honest with them.  As mature Christians they can work together to address the issues and take steps to make it less likely that this same issue will occur again.

What can church leaders do if their church has a history of secret-keeping that has resulted in a lack of trust within the congregation?  The best answer is to communicate.  In fact, over-communicate.  If there are problems, be up-front about them and address them.  Obviously, there are confidentiality concerns that must be protected, but at the same time there is much that can be shared with the congregation.  Don't speculate, but share what you have proven to be true and how the problems are being addressed.  Be kind and gracious, but also be truthful.

A number of years ago a church leader told me he was working with a congregation to help them get unstuck.  He thought he was making progress until one of the people reminded others in attendance that they could not do what they were discussing because of something that had happened in the church years earlier.  Newer members of the congregation knew nothing of the prior event because it was something that was never discussed.  I was never told what the event was, but even though the congregation had long ago locked it away in a secret place it was still impacting the church and limiting its ability to move forward.  That is what secrets can do to any church.  It's far better to address problems openly and correct them so the church is not held hostage by them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What will 2015 be like for you and your church?

It's always dangerous to predict the future, and no one can really say with any certainty what a coming year will bring.  The one thing we can say with certainty is that it will bring change.  It is highly unlikely that you will be the same person at the end of 2015 that you were when the year began.  It is also likely that your church will be different.

Now, you may argue that your church hasn't changed in 30 years and isn't likely to change in 2015 either, but that's not entirely true.  Especially if you are in a smaller church.  In most cases, those churches have grown older, grayer, and and attendance has probably declined for many of those 30 years.  That's change.  It may not be the kind of change we want, but it is change, and if your church doesn't change some other things the decline will probably continue.

The reason it is so difficult to predict the future is because there is no way to know what will occur that we cannot control.  Illnesses, deaths, accidents, are things that happen without our input or ability to control.  Other people make decisions that can have a major impact on us, and we cannot often impact those decisions.  Banks lend money to people who cannot repay their loans, the market collapses, and the economy goes into a tailspin.  People planning to retire find their retirement accounts gone forcing them to keep working.  They did everything right, but because of the actions of others their lives are forever impacted.  In short, life happens making it impossible to predict exactly what our lives will be like at the end of the coming year.

At the same time, it's important to know that much of what will happen in our lives in 2015 is within our control.  We can set goals for our lives and work to achieve those goals.  We can learn new skills and further our education.  We can choose to deepen our walk with God through the regular practices of spiritual disciplines.  We can make new friends.  We can choose to reduce our debt or get out of debt entirely.  We can choose to take better care of our bodies by eating healthier, getting more sleep, and getting regular exercise.  We can choose to read at least one book a month.  (According to studies this one thing will put you far ahead of the average American and have a significant impact on your life.)

Change is inevitable.  Whether you do anything or not, you will change in the coming year.  The good news is that much of the change you will experience is up to you.  Decide now the kind of person you want to be and what it will take to help you achieve that.  Now is also the time to begin discerning what God wants your church to be and begin working towards that.  Be proactive and you will find that much of the change you will experience will be positive and productive.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The pastor scholar

I have just finished reading The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry by John Piper and D. A. Carson.  These two men share their stories about how they have incorporated pastoral ministry and scholarship into their lives and ministries.  I found the book interesting and informative.

Too often pastoral ministry and scholarship are seen as two different paths, and in some churches scholarship is viewed as something to be avoided.  When I interviewed with the church that I eventually served for twenty years I was asked about my academic preparation for ministry.  At that time I had no education beyond high school.  One of the individuals on the search committee commented that he felt some of their best pastors couldn't even pronounce a lot of the biblical names right.  At that time, that church had only one person with a college education, and few, if any, in that church were concerned about scholarship.  They were looking for someone who would love them and provide pastoral ministry.

It wasn't until I had been at the church for about eighteen months that I realized that if I was to continue in ministry I needed more education than I had.  That decision led me to enroll in a Bible school and eventually to earning a DMin.

At times my blog posts may have sounded like I am anti-education, but that is far from the truth.  My concern is that a lot of seminary education does not prepare one for the realities of ministry in the 21st century and especially not for bivocational ministry.  At the same time, I believe that it is critical that one serving as a pastor be trained in how to think, how to read, and how to present the Gospel in ways that are both relevant to the listeners and theologically sound.  Persons entering the ministry should be committed to being both pastors and scholars.

Too many Christians today have a shallow faith that cannot sustain them in difficult times.  They are unable to share their faith because they do not understand what they believe well enough to explain it to anyone else.  I lay much of the blame for this on pastors who preach a message week after week with little substance because they are unwilling to do the difficult work of digging into the text and uncovering the treasures that can be found.

Those who are committed to being pastor scholars must be committed to life-long learning.  We must commit ourselves to reading and study while at the same time not neglecting spending valuable time with our congregation.  Admittedly, it's not an easy thing to balance, and it will require focus and the setting of priorities for our time. But, this is what we've been called to do.  This is what our congregations want and need from us.  We must not fail to be both pastors and scholars if we want to see the people in our churches grow and become mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time with family

One of the articles I'm linking to today on twitter discusses the importance of a pastor protecting family time during the Christmas season.  It's an important post, and I hope you'll read it, because it can be a challenge for a pastor to spend needed time with family during the holidays, and especially Christmas.

I came across the article today just a few hours after returning home from a visit with my son and his family in Pennsylvania.  My wife and I went there to celebrate Christmas with them.  When one has children living in different parts of the country one has the opportunity to celebrate Christmas several times during the month of December!  It's always too short when we visit, but we had a great time sharing stories and gifts.  But, for some pastors the Christmas season can be a frustrating time for both the pastor and the family.

Most churches have several special events planned during the Advent season, and many of them, if not all, expect pastoral participation or at least attendance.  Between small group parties, Christmas programs, Christmas Eve services, practices, and a myriad of other special events a pastor can find it difficult to be home creating the special memories he or she wants to make with their own family.

Pastoring a small church throughout my pastoral ministry I was not as involved in special programs as many pastors I know.  Our church did not have a Christmas Eve service, and, frankly, I would have resisted one if anyone had brought it up.  I know that this can be a special time in a church, but I also know that Christmas Eve was already a busy, and special, time in both my wife's and my family.  We were already stretched thin going to her family's Christmas Eve get-together early and then rushing to my family's gathering.  We never spent enough time at either to satisfy either family!  I can't imagine what would have happened if we had a church service that evening as well.

When our children got older, those extended family gatherings were replaced with our own gathering.  Again, those became times when we created some wonderful Christmas memories.  Now that our children are even older and living in different parts of the country we need several days in December just to celebrate Christmas with them and our grandchildren.  If we had church responsibilities for various Christmas activities it would really complicate things.

Church leaders need to look into the amount of time demands that are placed on their pastors and/or staff during the Christmas season and make sure that it doesn't create problems with their families.  Pastors need to protect time with their families.  That may mean that you can't make every Sunday school class Christmas party or it may require you to cut back on some other pastoral activities.  Some of the richest family memories we have are centered around things we did as a family during the Christmas season.  There will come a time when such memories will become very important to you and your family.  Make sure you take the time to make them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Your church will accomplish more by doing less

A common complaint in many smaller churches is the lack of commitment people have, but in reality I find that most such churches are actually over-committed.  They are structured for a time when they were probably a much larger congregation and have far more committees and boards than they need.  These churches often find it difficult to fill all their teaching and leadership slots and can only do so by having people volunteer for four or five positions.  If you want, you can argue that if more people would accept these positions then the few who are willing to work wouldn't have to have so many responsibilities.  However, the reality is that the Pareto Principle is alive and well in the church.  Twenty percent of the people are going to do eighty percent of the work.  Stop fighting that, accept it as reality, and adjust your workload accordingly.

When I meet with churches having this problem I assure them that if half of their committees and boards never met again, no one would be able to tell the difference.  Yes, some of these are needed in the church, but ask yourself how much real value do most of these add to your church.  How has your church been significantly impacted by the work of most of your committees?  The only reason some of them are still in existence is because they were created years (decades) ago to meet a real need, and no one has had the courage to suggest they are no longer needed.

Along the same line, many small churches try to offer too many programs and ministries for the resources they have available.  They do this thinking they must compete with the larger church in town.  That is like a Mom and Pop store thinking they have to compete with Wal-Mart on price.  It's not going to happen!  Mom and Pop, if they are to stay in business, have to find something that sets them apart from Wal-Mart and compete in that niche.  Small churches are the same way.  You cannot offer the same ministries the largest churches in your community offer because you do not have the manpower and finances to do so.  Attempting this will result in doing many things mediocre, and you cannot build a ministry around mediocre.

A much better ministry strategy is to identify the giftedness of your people, find out what they are passionate about, and then prayerfully begin to discern how God would have you use that to meet ministry needs in your community.  Believe me, there are many such needs going unmet where you live.  I am convinced that many smaller churches are uniquely positioned to meet those needs, and it is there where those churches are going to thrive.

However, you won't be able to do this if you insist on continuing to ask your twenty percenters to do more and more maintenance-type work.  They only have so much time to invest in church work so you want to use that time wisely.  Eliminate the tasks that add little if any value to the church and free people up to do ministry that will make a difference.  Then begin the task of discerning how to have the greatest impact on your community for the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pastors and the call to a ministry

As a Resource Minister in our region, one of my responsibilities is to assist our churches when they are seeking a new pastor.  I also work with pastors seeking a new place to serve.  While it is exciting to work with churches and pastors during this transitional time in their lives, there are some disturbing trends that I've noticed in the past few years.  One of those trends is the reason the pastors give for wanting to move to a new church.

Virtually every month I'll receive at least one call from a pastor who wants to relocate in our region.  The reason most often given is that they have family in the area and want to be closer to them.  I can understand that.  We have one child living two hours away and another one about ten hours away.  We would love to see them and our grandchildren more than we do.  And, I can also accept the fact that sometimes God may call us to serve in a place closer to family.  My problem is that this is nearly the only reason people give for wanting to make a move.  It seems that many clergy persons today have replaced a sense of calling with a desire for convenience.

During my two decades as pastor at Hebron Baptist Church I was contacted by numerous pastor search committees.  During one 18 month stretch an average of one church a week called me asking for an interview.  I think in all that time I interviewed with less than five churches because I never sensed that God was calling me to leave my present ministry.  Why talk with another church if God hasn't released me from where I'm serving?  When I did agree to meet for an interview it was because I began to wonder if I was missing God's leading, but after each interview I knew I was to stay where I was.

It was sometime during my 18th year at the church that I began to believe that my time there was drawing to an end.  Two years passed while I waited to see what doors God would open, and was quite surprised to find that it was in the role I have today.  I assumed it would be another pastorate but learned God had other plans.  When the opportunity was presented to me I had no doubt that God was calling me to leave my pastorate and that he was calling me to this position.  Nothing else entered into the decision except my wife's and my confidence that this was God's call on my life.

Ministers make a big mistake when they change churches and ministry positions based on anything except a confidence that God is leading them to make the change.  Now...God often gets the credit (or blame) for their decision, but I'm not convinced that God is actually behind many of those changes.  A pastor begins his ministry at a new church and announces how excited he or she is that God has called them to this place only to announce three years later that God has led him or her to another church.  For too many ministers this process is repeated ten or twelve times during their ministries.  I just don't believe God is that confused about where they are to serve!

Such ministers seldom accomplish anything of lasting value anywhere they serve.  When they retire they can't look back over a 30 year ministry; they can only look back at a string of three year ministries and find there is little to celebrate.

When God calls a minister to a place of service it will be for an extended period of time in most cases.  One exception to this is the person called to interim ministry who God will call to a place for two or three years while he or she helps the church prepare for a new pastor, and there may be other exceptions as well.  But, for most of us we need to pray and seek God's call to a place of ministry where we can put down roots and serve until we are convinced that he has called us to another ministry.  We need to be honestly seeking God's call to a place of ministry and not simply seek one to satisfy our own personal wishes and our convenience.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Practicing your sermon

Since getting my auctioneer's license last year there is hardly a time when I'm alone in the car that I do not spend a few miles working on my chant.  I do try to make sure I'm not around a lot of other cars when I'm doing this.  There's enough people in our community that wonder about my sanity, and if people started seeing me doing an auction chant in the car that number would probably increase!  Still, I find this helps me stay sharp between auctions, and I've had several long-time auctioneers tell me they still practice their chant while driving down the road.

Oddly enough, when I was a pastor I seldom verbally practiced my sermons before delivering them.  Maybe I was concerned that doing so would have a negative impact on the spontaneity of the message.  After all, what minister wants his or her sermon to sound canned?  I'm actually more tempted to preach at least a portion of my message on the way to church today, especially if I am driving some distance to where I'm speaking.  I find that doing so helps me deliver a better message.

  1. Sometimes I find that a portion of the message just doesn't fit verbally like I thought it would on paper.  It's better to learn that before you preach the sermon than to realize it in the midst of the message.
  2. Sometimes I realize that the sermon is running longer than I prefer, and this provides me an opportunity to cut out parts that add less value to the message I'm trying to convey.
  3. It always helps me better remember the message which means I am less tied down to my outline.  This allows me to maintain better eye contact with the congregation and to move more freely on the platform.
  4. Sometimes I will think of a better illustration than I was using in my prepared message which often strengthens the sermon.  I can then incorporate that illustration or story in the message.
If I don't have time to practice the entire message I want to at least practice the introduction and the conclusion.  Your audience will decide to listen to your message or tune it out based on the strength of your introduction.  I figure I only have a few minutes at the start of the message to draw them in or I will lose them so the introduction has to be strong.  Likewise, the conclusion is vital as it invites the audience to respond to what they've just heard.  I need to clearly give them the best ways to respond to the message and invite them to do so.  If the introduction and the conclusion are not strong then the middle part of the message will be much less effective.

If you do not currently practice your sermons before preaching them, I encourage you to at least try it for 3-4 months to see if it makes a difference.  Your preaching ministry is so important that it is worth at least trying this to see if it makes you stronger in the pulpit.

Since this post is about preaching...I read the other day in another blog that many ministers still find the classic On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons by John A. Broadus to be one of their favorite books on preaching.  In that book Broadus wrote, "The record of Christian history has been that the strength of the church is directly related to the strength of the pulpit.  When the message from the pulpit has been uncertain and faltering, the church has been weak; when the pulpit has given a positive, declarative message, the church has been strong.  The need for effective preaching has never been greater."  He wrote this in 1870!  How much more true are these words today?

This book has been in my library since the mid-1980s, and it had a major impact on my ministry.  You can order a copy of it here.