Thursday, October 5, 2017

When the church becomes a battlefield

Serving as a judicatory leader for 14 years allowed me to see things in churches that should never happen. In yesterday's post I referred to bullies in the pulpit who use their position as pastor to browbeat their congregations into doing whatever they want. These people are especially skilled at using Scripture to prove their point or to challenge anyone who dares stand against them. They misuse their calling, if they ever were called to the ministry, to promote their own agendas, not God's.

These individuals are skilled at dividing church members until it becomes "us" versus "them." Of course, the pastor's group is convinced they are right, and those who refuse to go along with them are wrong. Worse than that, they also are led to believe that the ones who oppose what the pastor is doing is defying God. "Touch not God's anointed" is a common rallying cry even when "God's anointed" is leading the church down a path of destruction. I've seen once strong, healthy churches decline to a pathetic shadow of what they once were, and I'm sure Satan is standing in the shadows gleefully laughing at what he was able to accomplish.

I've also seen church members who once worshiped together and enjoyed spending time with one another suddenly turn against each another. Just recently I heard of some comments one member of a church made to another that were shameful and degrading. These individuals had worshiped together for many years, but this unwarranted attack has led to a serious breakdown in their relationship. To make this even worse, the one who made the attack is oblivious to what he did. He has so little self-awareness that he does not understand the pain he has caused the one he attacked.

While coaching a small church pastor a few years ago I asked her what would she like to do in ministry more than anything else. She responded that she would like to begin a ministry to people who have been hurt by the church. I laughed and responded that if she found a way to do that her church would not remain small for very long!

In every community there are many, many people who have been wounded by churches they used to attend. In some cases, they were able to move on to other churches, but far too often the wounds are too deep, and they simply walk away from the church forever.

Scripture is very clear that shepherds are to love, care for and feed the sheep, not beat them into submission. We are to teach the truth in love, not use the Scriptures as a club to force compliance. The Bible is very clear that those of us who serve as leaders in the church will answer to God for how we served those entrusted to us by God. Some pastors will have much to answer for.

We also note that Jesus prayed for unity among His people, and Scripture gives numerous warnings to those who create disunity and disharmony among the people of God. The church is never to be a battleground. Our battle should be against the forces of darkness, not against one another. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Neither can it be an effective witness for God.

If your church is becoming a battleground, please call in support to help it address the conflicts. If you are part of a denomination, they will have people who can help you deal with conflict. If your church is independent you can call in consultants to address the issues. Whatever you do, don't let it continue thinking that maybe it will get better. It won't, and your church's ability to do ministry may well be affected for decades.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bullies in the pulpit

When I served as an Area Minister a good friend of mine called one day saying their new pastor did nothing but beat them up every Sunday from the pulpit. My friend attended a healthy small church, but I had been hearing there were problems there since this pastor arrived. Their long-term treasurer had been removed by the pastor when he refused to pay a bill that was not budgeted and had not been approved by the congregation. Several members had already left the church. The church had stopped supporting its denomination because the new pastor didn't like the denomination. Evidently, as tensions escalated in the church the pastor was using the pulpit to try to beat the congregation into submission. I decided to visit the church.

My friend was right. I had attended this church numerous times in the past and always enjoyed the service. Not this Sunday! The pastor spent 45 minutes blasting the congregation. I almost walked out a couple of times and could not imagine why anyone would accept that week after week. Since I represented the denomination he didn't like, there was nothing I could say to him. I watched the church dwindle down to where there are now less than two dozen attending there now. Of course, he left some time ago. This once healthy church is in serious danger of not surviving.

I'm not sure why some pastors believe they need to beat on their congregations. As shepherds, pastors are to lead their sheep, not beat them. Something is seriously wrong with a pastor who feels the need to constantly criticize his or her congregation.

There is also something wrong with a congregation that accepts such pastoral leadership. Congregations are to respect their pastors and allow them to lead, but that does not mean they are to allow their pastors to abuse them. That is what this was: pastoral abuse. No congregation should have to endure that.

I'm sure my friend who called wanted me to intervene and either stop the pastor's misbehavior or have him removed from the church. In our tradition, we do not have the authority to do that. The congregation calls the pastor, and only the congregation can remove the pastor.

The problem in this particular church is that people would talk to the pastor individually. When he refused to listen or respond to them, they would leave the church. I suggested that if the bulk of the lay leadership were dissatisfied with this pastor's behavior that they confront him together and make it clear that they were not going anywhere and they were also not going to tolerate abusive behavior. Unfortunately, they did not do that which is why the church is in danger of closing now.

There is a fine line here. On the one hand, Scripture is clear that we are to follow those in authority over us. At the same time, Scripture is also clear that shepherds are not to abuse those placed under his care. When such abuse happens a congregation must be willing to confront the pastor and demand that it stop. There's been a lot of talk lately about stopping the bullying that goes on in our society. Let's also stop it in the pulpit.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Plan your own life

We are now at the start of October, and I've done something I've done for years. I ordered my 2018 planning calendar. For my younger readers who keep everything on their smart phone or tablet, this is an annual ritual you don't have to follow. However, I prefer paper over technology to schedule my life, so I have to order a new planner each year.

As a bivocational pastor I soon learned that time management was essential to being effective in the many roles of someone in my position. When I went on staff in our judicatory time management became even more important.

In our November staff meeting we would list all the things we knew would occur in our region for the coming year. I would write those down in my planner. I often referred to these items as the "pay the rent" requirements. These were things I needed to attend or do as part of our region staff. But, once those were noted in the planner, then the planner belonged to me. It was then that my wife and I could schedule vacations. I could then begin to fill the calendar with local events that would occur in the area I served. I could also schedule my days off and reading days. Reading days?

Leaders cannot spend all their time leading. We need time to take in new knowledge and learn new skills. We need time to sit and think. A pastor who spends every waking minute working on sermons, attending meetings, and visiting everyone in the church will soon wear out. If a pastor never takes time to fill his or her own tank, that pastor will soon be running on empty.

I have to admit that I learned about reading time later in my ministry. It was during my doctoral studies. I quickly realized that there was so much reading required for the program that I had to schedule blocks of time for reading. Once my "pay the rent" items were written in the planner, and I knew what reading was required for a particular course, then I could schedule 2-3 hour blocks during the week just for reading. If a request for my time was made during that schedule reading time I would just explain that I already had an appointment. It never created a problem. Of course, if it was a genuine emergency I had space to respond to it and would then schedule reading time for a later date.

My wife and I enjoyed a date night during my pastoral ministry. That was also put in the planner. We selected Friday evenings as our date time, so every Friday my wife's name was written in the planner for the evening hours. Again, if someone wanted to meet or call me during that time I would explain that I already had an appointment and would need to schedule them for a later time.

If you don't plan your life, someone else will plan it for you, and chances are they will not have the same priorities for your life that you have. By planning ahead and ensuring that your priorities are given preferential treatment on your schedule you will feel less stress, enjoy better relationships with those closest to you, and be more effective in everything you do.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Real life bivocational ministry

For my entire ministry I have been bivocational. Even while serving as a judicatory minister in our region I owned and managed a small business. People often ask what kinds of jobs are suitable for a bivocational minister, and I respond that almost anything that is legal, moral, and offers the flexibility that allows you to minister is suitable. I have found bivocational ministers doing everything from teaching grade school to universities, serving as policemen, running a business, working in a factory, sales, etc.

In my own life while serving as a bivocational minister I have worked in a factory, owned and managed a small business, and now own and operate an auction business.

I suppose one of the things I've enjoyed about being a bivocational minister is that it has kept me in the public. There's no danger of a bivocational minister getting caught up in a church cocoon where everything he or she does is surrounded by people who share your faith. In those environments I have an opportunity to not only be a witness for Jesus Christ, but I often have the opportunity to minister to people where other ministers would not.

For instance, a couple of years ago I was asked to sell some things at auction for a lady. When I went to look at what she wanted to sell I mentioned that I was a minister. She then began to tell me about how difficult her life had been for the past couple of years. Her boyfriend had committed suicide. Her son was having serious personal issues. It sounded like a soap opera. I asked if I could pray for her, and she agreed. After praying I asked if she had a church, and when she said no I was able to direct her to a good church in her community that would love her and minister to her. The very next week a similar incident occurred with another individual.

I had never met either of these individuals before, but they were willing, almost eager, to tell me of their personal pain once they learned I was a minister. Neither had a church and may have had little interest in spiritual things, but in the midst of their pain they allowed me to pray for them and direct them to good churches in their areas. And because both needed to raise money I was able to help them do that by selling some things they no longer wanted at my auction.

Next Tuesday I have another auction. Several consignors have brought items for me to sell. Some need the money; others need to downsize and get rid of things they've had for years. It is an opportunity to minister to people. On Sunday I will preach at the church where I serve as their Transitional Pastor, and on Monday I will begin moving things to the site where I have my auctions. Tuesday night I'll sell the merchandise, and by the end of the week the people will have their money. This is what bivocational ministry looks like in the real world, and I love it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Taking responsibility

By now you've probably heard that Hillary Clinton has published a book that explains why she lost the recent presidential campaign. In the book she evidently blames just about everyone for her loss: Bernie Sanders, Matt Lauer,  James Comey, the Russians, WikiLeaks, President Obama and VP Biden and even female voters. For some reason she seems unable to take any responsibility for her loss herself.

Since the election I've been amused at how the Democrats have been in a panic over the results. Even before the new President was sworn into office there were talks about impeachment. After all, they had rigged the primary so no one but Clinton could get the nomination, and when Trump became the Republican nominee I'm sure they thought they had the election won. Trump wasn't a politician. He said some really stupid things at times and was certainly not politically correct in most things he did. He had very low trust rating. The problem was, so did Clinton.

After the election I believed that if Democrats had ran anyone other than Clinton they would have probably won the election. People did not trust Clinton. There were too many unanswered questions about Clinton's handing of Benghazi and the blatant lie she told about what incited the attack. There were other questions about her truthfulness such as the time she claimed she landed in Bosnia under sniper fire when video clearly showed just the opposite was true. Many people rightfully questioned the vast wealth the Clintons amassed after leaving the White House, and of course there were the missing emails, some of which contained classified information. The Democratic party had many people who would have been a more viable candidate. People may not have liked Trump, but they had even more concerns about Clinton.

One of Clinton's problems is illustrated once again in this book. She simply cannot accept responsibility. Even when she says she is responsible that statement is always followed by a "But...," at which time she shifts the blame to someone else.

What does all this have to do with persons in ministry? None of us enjoys admitting when we've made a mistake. Taking responsibility for our mistakes isn't easy or fun, but it is the adult thing to do. Trying to shift the blame to someone else just compounds the problem. And, when we try to avoid responsibility we really aren't fooling anyone.

A key element of leadership is admitting when we're wrong, and we will be wrong many times. That's the nature of leadership. If you never make mistakes you're not leading, you're managing. Leading dares to venture into new territory, and not every venture works out the way we want.

Zig Ziglar used to say "Failure is an event, not a person." Failing at some task does not make a person a failure. It simply means the individual did not succeed at that particular effort. The wise thing to do is to admit the failure and begin to look for a better way that will succeed.

People know when we've messed up. The good news is that many of those people are willing to forgive when they see us take responsibility for our mistakes. Few people expect us to be perfect, so they are often willing to forgive us if we are willing to admit those mistakes and take ownership of them. Admitting responsibility for our mistakes will actually cause people to trust us even more which is essential to a successful ministry.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Do you love your church?

When I served as a judicatory minister one of the things that bothered me most was when I would talk to a pastor who had nothing good to say about his or her church. I sometimes felt the pastor literally hated the church he was serving. In some cases the pastor was nearing retirement and staying until retirement came. Other pastors were asking my help in finding them another church to serve.

Certainly, some churches can be difficult, and some of the people in our churches can be hard to love, but I never understood a pastor who seemed to resent or despise the church he or she was serving. If they truly believed God had called them to that place, then there must be a purpose for them being there.

Several years ago H. B. London, Jr. wrote The Heart of a Great Pastor, a book I would recommend to any pastor. In that book he said that if you are serving in a great place it is because someone stayed there to make it a great place. If you are serving in a difficult place, then perhaps God has called you to stay there and make it a great place. In my 35 years of ministry I think those may be some of the most important words a pastor can hear. We need to stop looking for that perfect place and determine to thrive where God has planted us.

In order to do that, we must first love the place we are serving. People can tell how you feel about them. You can smile all through the morning worship service, but you won't fool your congregation. They can tell your true feelings about them.

Someone once wrote that the first question many people, especially in a smaller church, has for their pastor is "Pastor, do you love us?" If they believe the answer is in the affirmative, they will gladly follow you. But, if they feel the pastor is just using them as a stepping stone to the church they really want to serve, or if they feel that the pastor really doesn't care for them, they will resist everything the pastor suggests.

Also in the smaller church, it takes time for them to decide if their pastor loves them or not. Many of these churches have been abandoned by their pastors so often that they are gun shy. Your love for them will have to be demonstrated not just with words but by your actions as well. If the church has been deeply wounded in the past by their pastors it can take years for them to trust another pastor. Here is where London's words take on even more importance.

Pastor, do you love your church? I hope you do. The Son of God loved your church so much He gave His life for it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Your life can influence others

Last week I met for breakfast with some men I worked with at Cummins Engine Company. All of us took early retirement back in the 1990s, but we get together every other month at a local Cracker Barrel to check on each other. The numbers vary each time, but our enjoyment of being with one another isn't influenced by how many people show up.

What makes these men so special in my life is how they influenced my decision to become a Christian. When I first met them on the assembly line I was not a Christian. These men were, and they were not ashamed of their faith. They never tried to push their beliefs on anyone, but they lived out those beliefs in all they did.

There came a time in my life when things began to get a little intense. Somehow, I knew that I needed God in my life although I wasn't sure how to verbalize that. One morning before our shift started I asked one of these men if he had anything on faith. He reached in his tool box and gave me several tracts and pamphlets. I read them all that evening, and the next day I asked for more. I began to ask questions. I did not have a Bible so one of the men gave me an old Bible he had in his tool box. Within a few short weeks I asked Jesus Christ into my life. I seldom see these men except at our bi-monthly breakfast, but I think of them often and the impact they had on my life.

After my wife and I were saved we began to attend a church where we became pretty active. After going there for about a year the pastor asked if I would teach a new adult class the church was going to start. A few months into teaching the class we traveled together for a training event. On the way he asked if I had ever felt God might be calling me into the ministry. I admitted I had but had not shared that with anyone. He encouraged me to pray about it, and a few weeks later visited my wife and I to answer any questions we might have. It was a year or so later, after he had left our church, that I finally yielded to that call of God on my life.

For the past 40 years I have been a Christian because people modeled for me what a Christian was and were willing to gently answer my questions and love me into the Kingdom. For the past 35 years I have served in the ministry because a pastor spoke into my life and encouraged me to pray about what God wanted to do in my life.

The most effective evangelistic outreach today isn't found in large crusades or church revivals. It doesn't usually happen when churches pass out tracts door-to-door. It happens through relationships. It happens when people see God's people living lives that are different from theirs and they begin to ask why. It has become a modern day cliche, but it's true: Your life may be the only Gospel some people ever read. Your life can influence others to invite Jesus Christ into their lives.

Virtually every minister I know entered the ministry because someone challenged them to consider that God might be calling them to do that. Perhaps one reason some churches now struggle to find pastors is because we've quit challenging people to pray about the possibility that God is calling them into the ministry.

Your life can influence others. In fact, I will take it a step further. Your life WILL influence others. Now for the question: What kind of influence is your life having on others?