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.

Monday, September 29, 2014

God continues to do great things in small churches

This past weekend we held our region biennial.  Part of the program included leaders from three of our churches telling how God was using them to impact their communities.  Two of the churches were smaller.  One speaker was a bivocational pastor whose church had 24 people on the first Sunday he preached there.  Today, it runs about 130, and he is still bivocational.  However, the stories were not about numbers; they were about ministry.

We heard stories of these churches identifying needs in their communities that were going unmet and their resolve to meet those needs.  One pastor told of how his church began a clothing give-away several years ago and about the truckloads of used clothing that was distributed.  Today, that has evolved into giving new clothing to kids who need clothes to begin school each fall.  An interesting thing about this ministry is that it could be expanded but no other church in the community wants to assist them.  We heard about a church that provides free food at special events in their community and prepares free meals monthly to help feed its community.  We heard how a church that had gone through significant conflict learned a process for making decisions that has helped them go through transitions without such conflict.

Each of these churches were in different geographic areas of our region, they were different sizes, their pastors had different levels of theological education, and they were each serving in communities that differed from one another, but each had one thing in common.  They had become very intentional about what they were doing.  They had identified needs in their communities that other churches were not meeting (and had little interest in meeting), and they did something about it.  Not everything they tried worked, but at least they were attempting to make a difference.  Some of their initial efforts worked but needed to be improved.  As they evaluated their efforts they were able to identify ways to improve those efforts allowing them to serve even more people.  Too many churches open their doors each Sunday hoping that something good is going to happen.  These churches are very intentional about their ministries in the communities, and good things are happening.

Another common theme was that the funds became available to meet those needs.  Church leaders often complain about the low level of giving in those churches, but that is often due to the low level of ministry that exists in their churches.  One of the churches is beyond full on Sunday morning and needs new space.  They have designated one Sunday's offering to be set aside in their building fund, and they chose the first Sunday's offering, which is the largest in many churches, to go to their building fund.  This has not hindered their ministries because people are excited to attend and give to a church that is making a difference in people's live.  Another church reported that 20 percent of their income is now going towards mission work in the denomination and in their community.

My prayer is that those in attendance came away from this meeting looking for ways to minister to their communities.  Any excuses they may have had in the past is no longer valid.  If these churches could do the things they are doing, so can any other church.  So can your church!  All it requires is taking the time to look around and find ministry opportunities that exist around you, spending time in prayer asking what God would have you do, and then taking a step of faith to minister to those needs.  Your initial efforts do not need to be perfect.  Just begin, and then you can make adjustments later to improve what you are doing.  You will probably become very surprised at what God will begin to do through you.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Training lay leaders for our churches

For the past 12 years the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky have offered the Church Leadership Institute (CLI) to its region to help their churches train lay leaders.  Last Saturday another seven students of the program graduated with dozens of family and church friends in attendance.

CLI is divided into two tracks.  Track One consists of eight courses, each consisting of four classes each, that teaches intros to both the Old and New Testament, Theology, Church and Baptist History, and various other subjects we believe will be helpful to church leaders.  Those who complete this track receive a Certificate in Church Leadership.

If a student wants to continue his or her studies Track Two offers five additional courses that teaches about pastoral care, preaching, leading worship, and more leadership.  These graduates earn a Diploma in Pastoral Ministry.

Most of our students are already lay leaders in their churches who want to learn more and grow in their leadership.  A few enter the program as bivocational pastors in our churches who have not had a formal ministerial education.  Some feel called to bivocational ministry while they are in the program.  We now have several CLI graduates pastoring churches in the region.

When we first began all our classes were held on the campus of Franklin College.  Each class met on Saturdays for six hours. When our fall term began this year we were at five different sites in the region making it even more accessible for students to attend.  However, it has been amazing to see people willing to spend hours on the road to attend classes. We had one carpool of students who drove over two hours each way to attend CLI.  One recent graduate drove down from Michigan while another comes from Ohio. Each of them has said that their CLI experience was so rich they would do it again.

At the recent graduation each of the graduates were given a few minutes to share what CLI has meant to them.  Most spoke of instructors who challenged them and taught them how to think and make their faith their own. They spoke of the friendships they made with fellow students. Some admitted their fear of returning to a classroom after being out of that environment for years, but also how much they had learned and grown from the experience.  Several wished there were even more classes they could take.

Our CLI has undergone several changes since it began.  As mentioned earlier, all our classes met at one site until just a couple of years ago.  CLI was just open to members of our American Baptist churches, but we have since opened it up to anyone regardless of denomination or church affiliation who wants to attend.  Originally, we just offered Track One, but as students began to complete that program they were asking for more so we added the second track.  We are currently looking at additional ways to improve CLI, but one thing has not changed and that is its purpose.  We want to train and develop the leadership serving in our churches. This includes both the lay and pastoral leadership.

Most students enroll for the entire program, but some are only interested in specific classes.  We offer a course for youth ministers that some want to take but are not currently interested in the entire program.  A pastor may feel that a refresher course in preaching might be helpful and would enroll in just that one course. Our American Baptist polity course is one way for persons seeking ordination to complete the polity requirement so they enroll in that course.

If you live in Indiana or a surrounding state and are interested in learning more about CLI you can check it out on our region website, www.abc-indiana.org, or contact me.  You do not have to be an American Baptist to enroll in CLI.  If you live elsewhere and wish you could be involved in a training program like this, check with your judicatory leaders.  Many of them have similar programs that you may not know about. If you are called to church leadership, either as a layperson or minister, you need to sharpen the gifts God has given you, and CLI is a great resource to help you do that.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Do you love your congregation?

After the resurrection Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. Congregations ask the same question of their pastor, and this is especially true in the smaller, family churches. The truth of the matter is that many of these churches have not felt loved by their pastors, in some cases, for many years. They have seen pastors come and go. Many of them feel used as if they were just one rung on the ministerial ladder the minister needed to take before being able to move on to the next size church. If a family in your church was abandoned every year or two by a spouse or parent it is very unlikely they would feel loved by that person. This is how many smaller churches feel. It's one thing to say that you love someone; it's something else entirely to demonstrate that love. Churches, like individuals, want to be shown they are loved. Whether they voice it or not, they are continually asking, "Pastor, do you love us?"

I recently tweeted a link to a quote that said, "You can preach a good sermon without loving your church, but not a great one." When you love your people you are engaged in their lives, and that engagement will lead to sermons that speak to the deepest needs of people's lives. One criticism unchurched people have about the church is that they do not see it as relevant to their lives. They see us answering questions that no one is asking. Their criticism is sometimes justified, and the reason for that may be that we in leadership are not sufficiently engaged in people's lives to know what questions are troubling them. When we love our people we will be sufficiently engaged.

When we love our people we better understand why they do some of the things they do. This helps us be less critical of them when they make decisions that we may wish had been different. There are pastors who are constantly criticizing their congregation, and when I am with those kind of pastors I know he or she really does not love the people enough to try to understand them. If you find that you are always complaining about your church it may be a sign that you need to leave them. A critical attitude seldom leads to effective leadership.

There is another side of this coin. When you love your people, they often love you in return and will be more forgiving of your mistakes. Perhaps the reason your congregation isn't perfect is because they have a pastor who isn't perfect! I know I wasn't. I gave our church many reasons to question my leadership during the twenty years I served there, but they were gracious people who loved me and were willing to overlook my faults.

How long has it been since you've told your congregation publicly that you loved them?  Periodically, I would include that in a morning message. I might say something like this, "Sometimes you all drive me up the wall, but I want you to know that I love you and care very much for each and everyone of you." It would get a chuckle, but it also reminded them that their pastor loved them. We all like to hear that we are loved, and a congregation is no different.

It's equally important that we demonstrate our love. That means being with them in the good times and the hard times in their lives. It means bragging on them when they have an accomplishment in their lives. It means that we are willing to sit all night in a hospital room with a grieving family. It means forgiving them when they demonstrate a critical spirit and working with them during times of disagreement.

"Pastor, do you love us?" It's the most important question you can answer for your congregation.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How does worship impact your view of God?

When I was doing my DMin one of the privileges I had was to have Elmer Towns as the professor in two of my classes. I had always appreciated his writings, but sitting under him in class made me appreciate him even more. He loves teaching, and he loves the Lord, and it showed in the way he taught his classes.

As part of my devotional reading I am re-reading his book Praying the Lord's Prayer for Spiritual Breakthrough: Daily Praying the Lord's Prayer As A Pathway Into His Presence. Near the end of the book he writes this about worship:

Remember that when you magnify God, you do not make Him bigger or better. Your worship is like putting on reading glasses. Your glasses do not make the letters larger on the paper, but only in your eyes and mind. When you magnify God, you see Him "bigger," so you understand things better.

Perhaps the reason so many people have such a limited view of God is that they have failed to worship. This is even true for Christians. They may attend church and participate in the services, but their minds and hearts are elsewhere. They leave the service unchanged, and their view of God is unchanged as well.

I have long taught that the purpose of worship is to enable people to experience God in a way that is meaningful to them. If they are involved in a meaningful worship experience it is going to change them, and it is going to change their view of God. They will see him "high and lifted up." They will begin to have a glimpse of his incredible love for his creation and experience that love for themselves. They will see him, not as a cosmic Santa Claus, but as the creator and Lord of the entire universe.

Several years ago a group of us attended a Promise Keeper's event. During the worship one of the men in our group began to cry uncontrollably. I had known this gentleman for a number of years and had never seen such emotion from him. We thought maybe something was wrong, but he explained that the music and worship had just become overwhelming. Although he was a dedicated Christian, in that moment God had broken through and had given this gentleman a new revelation of his glory. It was a powerful moment for each of us, and it came as we were engaged in worship.

In my current ministry position I have the opportunity to visit different churches nearly every week. In some, it is evident that little effort was spent in developing the worship service. In some cases, it is thrown together whenever the pianist arrives that morning, and it shows. Your people deserve better. They deserve a worship experience that will allow them to touch God. If you want your people to have a higher view of God create a worship experience each week that will lead to such a view.

One of the challenges for pastors and other worship leaders is to lead worship and experience worship at the same time. We typically have many things on our minds as the service progresses making it difficult for us to worship God. Your ministry responsibilities is no substitute for worship.  It is just as important for us to experience worship as it is for the members of our congregation. That is one reason it is so important that ministry leaders have regular times of private worship. For some of us that may mean going on periodic spiritual retreats. Each of us needs regular times of devotion when our reading and prayers are not for others but are only designed to draw us closer to God. Being faithful at that will help maintain the proper view of God.

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.