Friday, September 30, 2016

Leaders and impatience

I will admit it. By nature, I am not a patient person. I don't shop; I go buy things and leave, and I get all knotted up inside when I get behind a shopper slowly walking down the aisle, leaning on his cart while talking on the phone. I think microwaves take too long. I want my check on the table as soon as I take my last bite at the restaurant. When I'm busy with a project the last thing I want is a phone call from someone who takes forever to go into great detail about something I'm not particularly interested in. The good news is I'm better than I was. The bad news is I still have a long way to go!

Although it took a few years I finally learned that anything worthwhile that happens in a church will usually take much longer than it should have taken. I've read that it takes up to five years for a new idea to become part of the DNA of a congregation. Until that time the congregation will always feel a tug to go back to doing things the way they used to. Church leaders should never underestimate that pull because if they let down their guard momentarily they will find the change has been abandoned and things have returned to the status quo.

I've also learned that people don't move as quickly as I do, and I'm not talking about just through stores. In every church you will have early adapters, but you will also have some who need time to process new ideas. If you do not give the latter group the time they need you are likely to meet resistance. It's more important to get their ownership of the idea than to rush forward and have to deal with the resistance.

Some pastors get into trouble in their churches due to their unwillingness to go through proper channels. Being impatient to implement their new idea they do so without referring it to the board or team that might have oversight in that area of ministry. Sometimes the new idea works well, but the pastor loses the confidence of people in the process. Long-term, that is not a good trade-off for the pastor or the church.

The one thing that has helped me become a more patient person is remembering how patient God is with me. He pursued me a long time before I finally gave my life to Him. I have failed Him many times since becoming a Christian, but He is always quick to forgive. I can be stubborn and want to go my own way, but He is there is gently lead me back to the right path. When I think how patient God has been with me I am able to be more patient with others. The good news is that I have learned that being patient brings far greater success in everything I do than impatience.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Healthy Pastor

Last night I received a text from a Facebook friend in the ministry who shared with me that he was using my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry in a seminar he was doing for the pastors in his association. Earlier this year another association had asked me to lead a seminar for them based on the information in that book, but our schedules wouldn't allow it this year. I hope this indicates that church leaders are beginning to find this book because most of the seminars and conferences I'm asked to lead are based on other books I've written.

Much is written about the pressures facing church leaders today. We know these pressures are a primary reason so many church leaders are prematurely leaving the ministry, yet I see few denominations and judicatories proactively addressing the problem. Most of the conferences I see offered are how to grow churches and how to address church challenges; few are designed to help pastors deal with the pressures they face.

Pastors are some of the loneliest people I've known. Many are afraid to have friends in the churches they serve, and there seems to be little time to develop friendships outside of the congregation. Some fear sharing their challenges with other pastors, and even more refuse to talk to their denominational leadership about specific challenges they face. I've had some tell me they were afraid there would be repercussions if they revealed to me some of the struggles in their lives. With few friends to talk to and a fear of sharing struggles with their peers, who do they have to help them through those struggles? It is not a healthy situation.

One of the most common problems faced by church leaders is the time crunch many feel. Most pastors I know work more hours than anyone should expect, and many of them feel they still don't accomplish everything they should. Unfortunately, some in their congregations believe the same thing and let them know it. At the same time clergy families wonder why they can't have more of their spouse's and parent's time. As one pastor's wife asked, "How can I compete when my husband's mistress is the church?"

I address these, and many more, challenges faced by many church leaders. While we cannot eliminate the challenges we face in the ministry, we can do much to reduce it. We can also better manage those challenges so they create less pressure on us and our families. That's what I try to do in this book.

If you are a church leader who is feeling the pressures of ministry I think this book can help you. If you know one who struggles buy him or her a copy of this book. I thank my friend for using it to help his fellow pastors deal with the pressures of ministry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tear down the walls

In a 1987 speech President Ronald Reagan called upon the Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down the wall that divided Berlin, Germany. In 1990 the dismantling of the wall began with West Germans free to cross over into East Germany. Although it took two years for the wall to be completely removed, Berliners were free to move back and forth throughout their city for the first time since 1961.

Walls are meant to separate and divide people. Some walls are good and appropriate such as those found in a house. Our houses allow us privacy and protection, and both are good things. Other walls, such as the Berlin wall, are not good when they prevent people from enjoying the freedoms they deserve.

Not all walls are visible, and some of the most destructive walls are the invisible ones we create to isolate ourselves from others. A person struggling with depression may create such barriers to keep others at arm's length. At a time when we need other people the most we sometimes shut them out with these invisible barriers.

Churches also build invisible walls that determine who is allowed in and who is kept out. Of course, with few exceptions, we do not intentionally try to keep people out, but often our man-made rules and behaviors often do just that. A friend of mine told me years ago that she finally convinced her husband to attend church with her. Everything went well until after the service when a member informed him that he would be expected to wear a suit the next time he came back. He never returned. Yes, I know that was in another time, and that would seldom happen today, but we still have those artificial barriers that keep people out of our churches. More importantly, they keep people away from God.

In a doctoral class I took we were challenged to identify the walls that surround our churches and tear them down to allow people in. The professor insisted that every church has such walls. Even though we may not know they exist, they are there, and we would do well to identify and remove them. He pointed out that we don't have to worry about how to grow our churches. If we just remove the walls our churches will grow, and, more importantly, people will find God. The cross of Jesus Christ should be the only stumbling block people have to encounter in their search for God.

If our churches want to impact their communities we not only need to remove the walls that are keeping people out, we need to build bridges into our communities to invite people in. The tearing down of the walls and the building of bridges both involve intentionality on the part of the churches.

What walls exist in your church that are keeping people out? How much longer will you allow them to stand?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Preach to the hurting

Someone has said that if you preach to the hurting you will never lack an audience. How true that is! Yesterday morning our choir sang There is a Balm in Gilead. As I went to the pulpit to preach following their special I thought how thankful we are that there is healing available for each of us. Just prior to the choir's special we had a time of prayer, and many in our congregation shared prayer needs they had. There was a wide variety of needs expressed, and I thought that the balm the choir sang about could address every one of those needs.

While preparing a sermon I remind myself that there will be hurting people listening. I want to offer them hope. I can't take away their pain, but I can point them to the One who can. I cannot bring healing into their lives, but I can tell them that Jesus Christ is the Great Physician who can heal the worst of the issues that bring pain into our lives. I can also often demonstrate that the challenges they are facing are in reality symptomatic of the spiritual issues they are trying to resolve.

Congregations are full of people trying to make sense of life. About the time they think they have it resolved something new challenges their thinking. A person struggling with long-term unemployment may wonder what the future holds. A parent with a child that has drifted away from the way it was raised brings many questions for that parent and a sense of dread for the fate of that child.

Many sitting in the pews try to mask their pain. Outwardly, they appear to have it all together. They smile the biggest, they sing the loudest, but when they lay down at night their fears and pain rise to the surface. Do not let those masks fool you. Behind them are hurting, fearful people who need who need the healing that only God can provide. It is our job to point them to that healing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Would your church be missed if it closed its doors?

What would happen if your church closed tomorrow? How long would it take for the people in your community to know your church was no longer providing ministry to the community? Other than members of your congregation, would people care if your church closed?

With about 100 churches in the US closing every week these are fair questions to ask. The answer to these questions might even determine if your church should remain open.

Several years ago when I was beginning my work as a Resource Minister I was asked to meet with the Pastor Search Committee of a small, rural congregation. They had given me directions to the church, but the directions weren't real good. Since I didn't know where the church was located I left early so I could find it before dark.

I followed the directions, and they did not take me to the church. I continued driving around the country roads looking for the church or at least a sign but found neither. I even stopped at two houses and asked where the church was located, but no one could tell me. It had grown dark, and it was now thirty minutes past the time we were to meet. I decided the next place I found to turn around I would do so and return home. The place I found to turn around was the church parking lot. The really sad thing about this story is that the two houses I stopped at were within a mile of the church, but the people at neither house knew where the church was located.

This was a nice little country church with nice people, but they could close their doors and it would have minimal impact on anyone other than the members of their congregation. If people near your church do not know where you are located it says something about the impact your church is making in your community.

Another church called me when their pastor became ill. The church had about a dozen people attending but only three were members. One of the members questioned whether they would be able to get another pastor or even remain open. This was a very troubled church so I asked about the church's reputation in the community. She admitted it was very poor. This was another church, that if it closed its doors, would not be missed in the community.

Both of these are sad situations. I don't know the stories of these churches, but I am sure that both were founded because someone had a vision for ministry in their communities. I do remember years ago when the second church was nearly filled every Sunday with worshipers and had an active ministry in the area. I don't know what happened, but somewhere along the line people lost their vision for ministry, and the church began a long, slow decline.

It's sad to see a church close its doors, but all things do have a life cycle. If a church no longer understands its purpose and has no vision for ministry, it's probably time to close and allow new ministries to begin who have a fresh vision for ministry. I'll ask the question again, if your church closed its doors, how long would it take people to know it?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Preaching to needs

Someone once said that if you preach as to hurting people you will never lack an audience. Yesterday I preached on "Dealing with Grief," and found those words to be true. Numerous people came after both services telling me about grief issues they were currently addressing. Last night at our Bible study we discussed the morning message, and several more shared their stories.

The message itself was intended to be very practical. After sharing how grief follows the loss of anything significant in our lives, I pointed out some events that people often do not associate with grief. I went through the five stages of grief and talked about some of the wrong ways people sometimes respond to grief. I also shared some of the steps we can take to properly address grief and emphasized the need we have to be gracious towards ourselves and to others who might be grieving.

One well-known pastor once spoke against preaching to people's felt needs, but I do not agree. As I read the account of Jesus' ministry I find Him responding to the needs of people throughout His ministry. He healed the blind, the leper, and the lame. At one point He asked one man what he wanted Him to do for him. He met people where they were.

Certainly, there were times when Jesus refused to merely address the felt needs of an individual. When the woman at the well asked about water Jesus offered her living water. When the crowds asked for bread He offered them living bread. In both cases He understood that their true need was much greater than their felt need, and He offered to meet that true need.

Pastors are called up to do both as well. While we present a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the means to meet the deepest need in a person's life, we also must address the felt needs of people.

Studies continually point out that people desire preaching that addresses real issues. This doesn't mean that people want their ears tickled. They want to know that Christianity speaks to real life. So many have rejected the Christian faith and the church because they believe they are irrelevant to the real world. Part of our role as ministers is to demonstrate through our preaching and ministries that Christianity is relevant to 21st century needs.

Jesus said that He came to bring us life and life more abundantly. Not only does He bring us the opportunity to enjoy eternal life with Him, He also desires to minister to our current needs. Our preaching should reflect this.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Has Christianity failed you?

The title of this post comes from the title of Ravi Zacharias' book Has Christianity Failed You? I began to re-read it this morning as part of my devotional time. Many are leaving Christianity and the church because in some way either the faith or the church failed them. That failure may be due to Christianity not being what they thought it was or it may be because they began to have intellectual problems with its teachings. It could also be because the church failed them in some way.

Many years ago when I was serving as a deacon the pastor and I visited a single mother in an assisted living apartment complex. Her young daughter had made a profession of faith at our VBS, and we wanted to follow up with the mother regarding baptism for her daughter. While the mother was pleased at her daughter's decision to become a Christian and was willing for her to be baptized, she did not want her daughter to become a member of our church.

A few years earlier she had been very active in another church in our community. Her husband left her and filed for divorce. She said the Sunday after the divorce was public she went to church and felt she had walked into a freezer. Few people would speak to her. Everyone avoided her like she was a leper. After a few weeks of this treatment she never went back to church again. When she needed the church it turned its back on her. Her story is not an unusual one.

While working on my DMin degree I coached a number of pastors for my thesis. When I asked one pastor what ministry dream she had she replied she would like to minister to people who had been hurt by the church. She was serving in a small church at the time, and I responded that if she began such a ministry she would not have a small church for long.

Sometimes people feel God has let them down. Perhaps they prayed and God did not answer their prayer. Many of us create a God in our image, and when we find that he does not fit that image we walk away disappointed. Others begin to struggle with the Christian faith when they began to ask questions that no one seems willing to answer. This causes them to suspect that Christianity is intellectually dishonest.

There are a host of reasons people may feel that Christianity has failed them. How could your church minister to these people to help bring them back to the faith and church?