Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Have you made it easy for your heirs?

This may seem like an odd post for a blog dedicated primarily to small church related matters, but it really isn't.  As many of you know, last year I obtained an auctioneer's license.  In addition to my ministry, I conduct an average of one auction per month.  In many ways, I see my work as an auctioneer as an extension of my ministry because I am often called in to help a family dispose of an estate after a loved one has passed. Recently, I met with another family who was overwhelmed with trying to decide what to do. None of the family live nearby so it was important that they make decisions while they are here. The loss of a loved one is stressful enough, and having to decide what to do with the possessions just adds to the stress. Fortunately, there was a will and family members knew what it said and who was responsible for carrying it out.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  Too many people die without a will leaving it up to family members and the courts to decide how to divide the property. This can and does lead to serious family issues some of which are never resolved. Even when a will exists, families may not know of various banking and insurance accounts a loved one may have had. Filing systems vary widely from one person to another making it difficult for that information to be gathered. A family member once named me the executor of his estate but never told me that until less than a month before he passed away.  I literally had to go through every piece of paper in his home and business to be sure I wasn't overlooking anything important. He did have a will so the only thing I had to do was to follow it and submit the proper paperwork, but it was still very stressful trying to make sure I had found everything that might be important.

What can you do to make this difficult time a little easier for your loved ones?  First, make sure you have an up-to-date will and that your heirs know what's in it and where it's located. It is amazing how many people do not have a will. Do they think if they don't have a will that they won't die? I know many people don't like to think about death, but right now the death rate is 100 percent, with or without a will. You can make it much easier on your family if you have one. Incidentally, the cost of having an attorney prepare a will is very small so don't say you can't afford it. If problems arise because you do not have a will it will likely cost many times more to resolve them than it would have cost to have had a will.

 In that will you should have named an executor of your estate, and it's very important that you have discussions with that person letting them know where they can locate the information they will need to properly handle your estate. I have a single file that contains that information, and my family knows where that file is located. Again, the goal is to reduce the stress on your loved ones as much as possible.

A third thing to consider is downsizing as you grow older. I've talked with several retired ministers in the past few weeks who are in the process of doing away with their libraries. One told me he had sold some of his books and had given others to a young minister who recently entered the ministry. Few things are more difficult for a minister than for him or her to give up their library, but what would our spouses do with those books? I'm not ready to retire yet, but I have been thinking seriously about what to do with my own library. Although I haven't done anything yet to get rid of books, I have cut way back on buying new ones.

One other thing pastors should do is to challenge their congregations to do these things as well. None of us knows when our time on this earth is done, and taking steps to make our passing easier on our families is one way of loving them well. You may want to invite someone in who specializes in estate planning to talk to the congregation about these matters. This person would bring not only expertise, but he or she would also be an outside voice.

It's never easy to discuss these matters, but it is important that we do so. Losing a loved one is tough enough. Let's not compound their pain by forcing them to make decisions about our possessions that we should have already made for them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Should two small churches merge?

As denominational leaders consider how to best provide pastoral leadership to smaller churches the question "Should we try to merge some of our smaller churches?" will often be asked. Even lay leaders in some smaller churches ask the question when they grow tired of struggling. In the past few weeks I've been asked this question several times. Here's how I usually answer the question: In most cases, no.

Merging two organizations is difficult work. Gary McIntosh addresses this issue in his excellent book, There's Hope for Your Church: First Steps to Restoring Health and Growth. He reports one study that found that only 23 percent of businesses that merge are able to recoup the costs of the merger. Church mergers do even worse. McIntosh writes that nine out of ten such mergers typically fail. He explains several reasons for such a high rate of failure.

  • The merger is motivated by the wrong reasons.
  • The churches involved have differences in tradition, culture, styles of ministry, and theological positions.
  • There is conflict over buildings and property.
  • People have unrealized expectations.
  • One congregation moves into the building of the other.
  • The new church sees few financial savings.
  • The merged church rebuilds the previous model that didn't work.
  • There is leadership incompatibility.
  • An us-versus-them mentality often takes over.
In short, failure is often the result of having two congregations now meeting in the same building but never truly coming together as one. If one or both churches were unhealthy before the merger you will now have an even larger unhealthy church.

McIntosh lists several things that need to happen for a church merger to work well, but these are not simple and will take a period of time. Unless the churches are willing to work very hard and intentionally take the steps that can make a merger work well it is probably best to not attempt one.  And, one could argue if a church is willing to work that hard and deliberately on a merger why could it not work equally as hard to make their church healthier and more effective?

There are other options besides mergers that struggling churches can consider.  In some cases, churches will close their doors for a couple of years and then re-open with new people and new leadership. These church restarts are also not easy, but it does allow for a fresh start with none of the baggage of the previous church.  Another option is for the struggling church to become a satellite site of a larger, healthier church. McIntosh points to one study that has found that this situation often works out very well.

Many smaller, struggling churches have an aging membership. Their finances are often declining along with their attendance. It is becoming increasingly more difficult for them to find pastoral leadership. They struggle to attract new people. None of these facts are likely to improve in the near future so it is imperative that these churches begin to earnestly discuss how they will move forward in the future. One way to begin that discussion is to read the book I mentioned above and begin to discuss it with the leaders and members of your congregation.

Monday, September 15, 2014

SBC names a Bivocational and Small Church Advisory Council

The Southern Baptist Convention recently named a Bivocational and Small Church Advisory Council to provide insight and counsel to the SBC Executive Committee and to serve as a bridge back to the pastors. You can read the Baptist Press news release here. This action is one that other denominations would be wise to copy.

It is no secret that the numbers of bivocational ministers are growing in nearly every denomination today, and those numbers are likely to continue to increase.  Despite this, many denominations do very little to connect with their bivocational leaders. Their focus remains on the larger churches, and the voices of their bivocational ministers are often not heard. It should come as no surprise that many bivocational ministers feel little or no connection to their denomination and its programs, and if the pastor is not connected it is likely that the churches served by these pastors will have little connection as well.

Exact numbers of bivocational ministers are impossible to determine. The annual reports of some denominations are not designed to capture that information very well, and in many denominations a significant number of smaller churches do not bother to fill out the annual report anyway. (Another sign of being disconnected!) Many leaders of various denominations with whom I speak estimate the numbers range from one-third to one-half of their churches are being served by bivocational ministers. That is a large percentage of churches to ignore and may be one reason so many denominations are struggling.

An advisory council seems like such a simple step to take to help avoid neglecting the needs of so many churches. However, it will only work if this council truly has the ear of denominational leadership. Sometimes, councils and boards are created to merely rubber-stamp the plans of the leadership. They are created for the appearance purposes only and have no significant role to actually play in the life of the organization. If this happens, bivocational ministers will catch on pretty quickly and become even more disenchanted with their leadership.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Christian higher education is more important than ever

As students return to college campuses Christian students are finding that they are quickly becoming second-class citizens in many of those institutions. More and more universities are "derecognizing" Christian groups that meet on their campus.  For one of the latest examples you may want to read Ed Stetzer's article in Christianity Today. This is one more example of diversity gone wrong.  The liberal mantra is that no one has the right to attack the beliefs of anyone unless those beliefs reflect conservative evangelical thinking. Why any Christian family would want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to a secular university to attack the beliefs they have spent years trying to instill in their children is beyond me.

I attended a liberal university in the mid-1980s. I was an adult in my 40s with two children working a full-time job, pastoring a church, and had recently graduated from a Bible school. My values and beliefs were pretty solid, and I had the maturity to not accept every thing that came out of the mouths of our esteemed professors. That was not the case with many of my fellow classmates, often right out of high school, who assumed that these learned professors must know what they are talking about. It seemed like every class, regardless of the subject, found some way to promote evolution as a scientific fact, and the professor had to introduce that the first time the class met. The class I took on "Religion and Ethics" was really interesting. Much of the class time was spent with the instructor and me arguing with one another over her biblical interpretation and theology. The only thing we agreed upon was that we did respect the fact that each of us had formulated a belief system that we could defend, a fact she pointed out to the young students in the class that they had not done. Of course, any student who did have an evangelical belief system would have found those beliefs challenged.  That was 30 years ago; I can't imagine what pressures Christian young people face today in secular universities.

Ravi Zacharias told the story in a recent podcast of the time when one of the people in his organization was sent to the dean of her university.  Her offense was asking a professor why he continued to denounce Christianity.  Zacharias said the dean told the student that her parents had indoctrinated her for eighteen years and now the school was trying to educate her!

Some schools that call themselves Christians are little better. One pastor whose three children attended the same Christian college became concerned with the theology that was being taught in their classes. He contacted the president of the school to ask some questions and was told he had no right to question what was being taught. All three girls immediately withdrew and enrolled in another school.

Does the university your child attends, or will attend, offer a Christ-centered education that prepares a person mentally and spiritually to succeed in their chosen field? Does it help them mature in their faith rather than attempt to destroy it? Does it teach them that true leadership is servant leadership? Does it instill a value system in them that will prepare them to conduct themselves ethically in all they do? Will it prepare them to be the leaders our nation desperately needs? I believe this is what most evangelical Christians would want for their children, and this is what Christian higher education can provide.

If you are a pastor I encourage you to talk to your young people and their parents about the value of Christian higher education. Encourage them to at least talk to Christian colleges and universities about the opportunities they offer students. Let's give our Christian young people every opportunity to succeed in life, and I believe that begins with getting them a good education at a school that honors Jesus Christ in all it does.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What can I do if I need to become bivocational?

Every few weeks I receive a phone call from a pastor who is concerned about the finances of his or her church. This concern is often centered on the prospect that he or she will be asked to become bivocational. The pastor usually has some questions about what that looks like. It's not uncommon for the pastor to state that he or she really doesn't know what else they can do. In some cases, ministry is all they've ever done.  After high school they went to college and then on to seminary to prepare for ministry. Other than summer jobs they've never worked in anything but ministry-related work.

Sometimes I am able to help them identify some ministry skills they have that might be transferable to other employment. One pastor told me his major in college was education and his original career choice was to be a teacher until God called him into ministry. I asked him why he couldn't become a teacher if his church did ask him to be bivocational. At the very least, he could probably find steady work as a substitute teacher, and if this was something he enjoyed it could work out very well for him and the church.

Although it doesn't work for everyone, being self-employed can be a great option for a bivocational minister. It certainly allows the minister to have more flexible hours that allows him or her to be more accessible to the church when needed. The articles I post nearly every day on Facebook are usually divided between being ministry related and small business related. The reason I do this is that I am interested in both subjects, and I know many of my readers are owners of small businesses.

Often, a bivocational minister will find that a hobby or interest can become the springboard to a successful small business. For several years I have enjoyed going to auctions and buying antiques and collectibles that I resell on E-bay or in my booths in a local antique mall and in a flea market mall. That interest led me to become a licensed auctioneer, and I now have an auction business in addition to my ministry.  I would caution anyone thinking about turning a hobby or interest into a business to read The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It. This classic will explain some of the challenges that small business owners have to overcome when starting a new business. You may also want to read an e-book I wrote titled Mistakes: Avoiding the Mistakes that Will Close Your Small Business.   That book describes the mistakes I made that forced us to have to close a small business that we owned and the lessons I learned from those mistakes.  After reading these two books if you still feel ready to start a small business you are more likely to be successful.

While transitioning from being a fully-funded pastor to a bivocational one is never an easy transition it will give you opportunities to meet new people and minister to them in ways that serving in a church will not. For instance, a lady called me one evening saying she had to hand over the keys to a house she had sold in a few days and could not move everything into her much smaller apartment. She didn't know what to do and was advised to call me. I was able to take her extra items and sell them at auction. Not only did she not have to worry about what to do with her extra furniture, she also received a nice check to help with her moving expenses. During the course of our conversation I had the opportunity to let her know I was a minister. The very next week I was asked to be the auctioneer at our local United Way annual meeting to kick off this year's fundraising effort. My introduction to a large group of people I had never met included my previous pastoral ministry and my current role in judicatory ministry. What a great opportunity to connect with some of our community leaders!

If you believe your church may ask you to become bivocational, don't panic. Take some time to look at your skills and gifts and see which ones might transfer into a secular position. You may want to seek some guidance from someone who has already made this transition or you may want a coach to help guide you through this transition. Don't look at it as a negative but see it as a new opportunity to connect with and minister to people who may have never come into your church.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What is your faith based on?

I find that people have some very interesting ideas about Christianity, and these ideas are not limited to just those people outside the church.  Many who call themselves Christians seem rather confused about what it means to be a Christian and some of the basic beliefs of their faith.  While there are numerous areas of Scripture that are open to interpretation, and I believe in extending grace in those areas, there are some teachings in the Bible that are foundational to the Christian faith.  My concern is that many in the church could not identify those foundational doctrines and therefore would have difficulty in defending their faith to others.

The apostle Paul makes a distinction between feeding people milk and feeding them meat.  Milk, he said, is reserved for those who are new in the faith: baby Christians who need to be taught the basic truths of Christianity.  Those who are growing into Christian maturity require meat, a deeper understanding of the teachings of the faith.  The problem, he identified, was that too many Christians preferred the milk and did not want to be challenged with the meat.  This problem remains today.

A church that is fed a constant diet of milk is likely to be a church that does not take discipleship seriously.  Its members will have a faith that may be a mile wide but only an inch deep.  If problems and persecution comes these people may find their faith will not sustain them.  We hear regular reports of Christians being tortured and killed simply because they are Christian.  I wonder how many in the west would be able to withstand that type of persecution.  Although we may not see that type of persecution, we should never think it could never happen.

What we do see now on a regular basis is the inability of Christians to defend their faith against those who do not share their beliefs.  I'm convinced this is one reason more Christians do not share their faith with others.  They are afraid, and rightfully so, that people will ask them questions or challenge them and they will not know how to respond.

As ministers we have an obligation to feed the people in our churches meat that will enable their faith to grow deeper.  We need to challenge them and their thinking and to generate discussions about some of the doctrines and aspects of Christianity that we often tend to ignore.  As their faith deepens they will be less fearful of sharing their beliefs with others.  A deeper faith will also be seen in the way they live their lives which will encourage others to ask about the hope that lies within them.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Find a fresh vision

Last night I enjoyed an evening with the leaders of a small church who want to identify a fresh God-given vision for their future ministry.    The church has just began a search for a new pastor, and I encouraged them to first seek a vision for ministry to help them better identify the gifts and passions they will need from their new pastor.  The church leaders agreed and invited me to lead that process.

The session last night focused on the core values of the church.  I explained how core values shape the decisions individuals and groups (churches) make.  Any vision they identify must be congruent with their core values so it was important to begin by identifying those values.  Another evening session will look at their bedrock beliefs, and a third session (all day on Saturday) will be spent in Bible reading, prayer, and group discussions.

Although I've led this in several churches, last night's session was very enjoyable.  The people were engaged, and when I divided them into small groups for discussion they were very focused on the task at hand.  This church has been drifting for some time, and the congregation seems determined to become much more focused on doing intentional ministry in their community.

This church has been like a majority of the churches in North America.  They have been content to drift along Sunday to Sunday hoping that one day something good would happen.  Hope is a very powerful component in anything we want to do, but it makes a terrible strategy.  It is much better to identify God's vision for your church and develop ministries around that vision.  This latter approach provides the church with a much more focused ministry and allows it to move forward with a purpose and passion that often leads to a more effective ministry.

Without vision a church can do nothing but drift along with the currents.  Even worse, if a church does not have a common vision around which the church is committed it will have competing visions.  This often leads to conflict as these competing visions will eventually bump heads.

Let me ask a simple question: does your church have a unifying vision that directs the ministries of your church?  If I was to visit your church this Sunday could anyone in your congregation be able to tell me that vision without having to look at a piece of paper?  If the answer to these questions is no then your church is not functioning according to a God-given vision.  Chances are your church is drifting along with few results to show for its efforts.

The good news is that God has a unique vision for your church, and the even better news is that he wants you to know what that vision is.  It will require some effort on your part to identify that vision, and you will have to be willing to live into that vision once you know what it is.  As you think ahead to 2015 perhaps the best thing you could do is to begin a discernment process that will you know what God wants to do in and through your church in the coming year.