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?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Live out your dash

Last week was quite a challenging week.  My schedule was already full, and then three friends of mine died.  One was the husband of a fellow auctioneer; one was an individual I worked with at a factory job; and the third one was a member of the church I pastored.  All were Christians.  All died of cancer.  I had lost touch with one of them and was not aware he was sick until his wife called to tell me of his death, but I had been in regular contact with the other two.  In fact, I had visited one of them in the hospital just a few days before he passed.

In recent months I've came across a challenging question several times.  On one's tombstone we usually find a person's date of birth, a dash, and the date of death.  The challenge is what do we do during the dash.  That dash represents the duration of one's life.  What really matters is what do we do during the dash between our birth and death.

Scripture tells us that God has a plan for that dash.  In Jeremiah 1:5 God told Jeremiah that even before his birth he had been set apart as a prophet to the nations.  I do not believe that is limited just to Jeremiah.  I am convinced that each one of us is born for a purpose.  The Bible teaches that each of us have been given spiritual gifts that are to be used to minister to others.  That ministry is the reason we were born.

However, each of us were also given a free will and the freedom to choose whether or not we would accept the purpose for which we were born.  It's sad that some choose to squander their lives and never even seek to know that purpose much less attempt to fulfill it.  Such people drift through life, living from day to day, and when they reach the end of their lives they see only missed opportunities with no time left to redeem those opportunities.

None of the three friends who died last week were life-long friends so I do not know the details of their earlier lives.  But, what I do know of their lives was that they lived in the dash.  They impacted the lives of their friends and families and made the world a better place.  I have no doubt each of them have heard the words we all want to hear: Well done, good and faithful servant.

What has God called you to do during your dash?  Many of my readers are bivocational ministers.  I know how difficult and challenging that can be at times.  During my 20 year bivocational pastorate there were many times I wanted to give up.  It just seemed too much.  But, I couldn't escape the fact that I knew I was called by God to this role.  I couldn't quit.  This was my dash, and I needed to fulfill it.

Perhaps God has called you to provide lay leadership to your church.  I know there are probably times when you feel unworthy and incapable, but I want to remind you that your calling is as valid as that of your pastor. God calls some of us into pastoral roles and others are called to provide lay leadership to our churches.  Both are valid calls that should be honored and fulfilled.

I want to encourage you to live out your dash to the fullest. With God's help, complete your mission here on earth so when your time comes to enter into eternity you can do so without regret.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Blog post #1000

It's hard for me to believe that this is my 1000th post on this blog.  At times, I've written four or five articles faithfully each week while there have been stretches when I've only written one or two a month.  A couple of years ago I decided if this blog was going to be helpful then I needed to be more regular in posting on it, and I have tried to do that.  Some weeks it's hard to think of four or five issues to address and other weeks I just have not had the time to post that many.  Still, I've attempted to write on things that I hope my readers will find interesting or helpful.  My whole purpose of this blog was to provide information that would be helpful to those in church leadership (especially those in bivocational ministry) and to encourage them in the work God has called them to do.

A secondary purpose was to provide a place for small church leaders to dialogue about the issues that were addressed in the blog.  I felt that we could learn much from one another.  Unfortunately, that dialogue has seldom occurred.  It is a rare post that generates even one comment from readers.

I must admit that I am at somewhat of a crossroads with this blog.  The number of people who follow it is very small, and the number of people who actually read the posts is even smaller.  About 1/3 of those who follow the blog read the posts.  Occasionally, that number will increase, especially if carries one of my posts on their site, but the numbers are still very low.

This leads me to some conclusions, each of which have caused me to wonder recently whether to continue to invest in the amount of time it takes to create these articles.  Either the posts are not helpful to the readers, the people who should be reading this blog are not aware it exists, or a majority of the people I am trying to reach are not interested in having resources aimed at their particular needs. Based on the number of bivocational ministers serving across denominations today the number of people following this blog should be much greater than it is if it was truly adding value to people's lives and ministries.

By the end of October I will be making a decision about whether to continue with this blog.  I really need to hear from my readers for your input.  I also need to see the number of followers increase between now and then if I am to continue.

I am not upset by any of this, but I don't want to continue doing something if it is not meeting a need in people's lives.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Do not allow others to limit your ministry

As a judicatory leader I am sometimes called to resolve problems between pastors and churches. While none of these are simple to address, the ones that cause me the greatest difficulty are the ones where people simply will not allow the pastor to lead them.  I have seen pastors terminated for the smallest of mistakes by church controllers who seem to be out to get any pastor who accepts a call to serve their church.

To preserve anonymity I will not disclose the situation, but I once spent several meetings with a church board and pastor over a matter that was so minuscule I couldn't believe we were even discussing it.  After several meetings that went nowhere I finally asked the board if the pastor should leave or be allowed to stay. They barely decided that he could stay, and a few weeks later reversed that decision.

We are losing 50 percent of our seminary graduates within five years after completing their education partly due to such treatment.  That is a huge loss to the church, and I believe it is a mistake for a minister to turn away from God's call on his or her life due to the actions of a tiny minority of disgruntled church folk.

Fortunately, the pastor mentioned above didn't leave the ministry.  He continued in ministry, pursued a PhD from a well-known seminary, and is now teaching in another well-known seminary.  I've often chuckled to myself when I've thought about this small church of less than forty people that rejected a person for being unqualified to lead them and today that same individual is a well-respected biblical scholar who is helping prepare the next generation of ministers.

We in ministry cannot control the actions of small-minded people in our churches, but we can control how we respond to their actions.  Rather than walking away from God's call on our lives when treated unfairly we need to spend some time discerning how God's call might have changed.  God is never caught by surprise when his servants are poorly treated.  It may be that he has already opened another door or, in the case of the pastor mentioned above, he may be leading you into another field of ministry.  Sometimes we are so caught up in our current ministries that we cannot see those new opportunities until we find ourselves under attack in our current situation.

That does not minimize the pain associated with poor treatment.  I've never known a pastor who rejoiced when treated unfairly in his or her place of ministry.  It hurts, and sometimes it takes a period of time to work through the pain enough to begin a discernment process that will help us understand God's will for our lives.  But, that is what we must do.  Just because a small, vocal group does not want us to be their minister does not mean that God is through with us. Even as we were being formed in the womb God had a plan for our lives, and the actions of a few does not change that.

Do not allow others to limit your ministry.  Your calling comes from God.  Let him set the parameters for your ministry.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why don't some churches get it?

A few weeks ago I was talking with a pastor and asked the usual question: How are things going at the church? He replied he had resigned a few weeks earlier. This had long been a troubled church, but under his ministry it seemed like things had improved. I learned that below the surface the same issues continued to bubble. Rather than fighting a battle he felt he could not win he resigned to do ministry elsewhere.

After over 30 years in the ministry I still do not understand some churches. Can they not see how dysfunctional they are?  I've come to the conclusion that some of them can't. They have been like this for so long they have come to accept it as normal. I sometimes want to ask them the Dr. Phil question, "How is that behavior working for you?" Individuals in the church may see the problem, but they are unwilling to confront the problems so they either learn to live with them or they leave.

You can ask most of these churches what they want for their church, and many of them would tell you they want to grow and have a vital ministry in their communities. However, their dysfunction ensures that will never happen. People have enough dysfunction in their lives without having to be involved in a church that lives in continual drama.

Some of these churches believe if they could just call the right pastor their problems would end, but the problem isn't with the pastor. The person I mentioned earlier is a very competent minister who couldn't break through their dysfunction. The problems in such churches are internal with deep roots that run throughout the congregation.  You usually don't have to scratch the surface very deep in many of these churches to find a controlling family or two, weak lay leadership, and an apathetic congregation. That is a recipe for disaster in any church.

Such churches are an offense to the Kingdom of God.  Not only are they unable to offer any kind of effective ministry to the community, they turn the unchurched away from all churches. People are prone to judge all churches by the behaviors they see from the dysfunctional ones and assume the church, and God, can do nothing to change their lives.

I'm not sure there is much that can be done to help these churches.  Until they are willing to admit and address their dysfunctional behaviors nothing is going to change. Sometimes this means that some people will need to leave the church. It will certainly require that attitudes will have to change, and in most cases it will require a change in leadership. Obviously, none of these are simple and each of them will create a lot of pain in the church. Few dysfunctional churches will be willing to endure that level of pain.

We live in a time in which we need strong, healthy churches. I wish these dysfunctional churches understood how much the Kingdom needs them and what an impact they could have if they could once again become a strong, healthy church. For now, most of them don't understand that. They just don't get it.