Monday, May 2, 2016

Sharing with bivocational ministers

This past Saturday I was privileged to share with Church of the Nazarene bivocational and small church pastors from the Michigan District. That morning I shared a workshop on "The Healthy Small Church," and after lunch I shared on "Transforming the Small Church From Maintenance-Minded to Missional." We had a great day with a lot of questions and discussion among those attending.

This event was the idea of District Superintendent John Seaman. John and I first met when I was a speaker at PALCON in 2010. He has a deep appreciation for bivocational ministers and wanted to offer them some training opportunities that would address some of their particular challenges. This fall I will return to lead two more workshops.

It is exciting to me that more and more judicatory leaders are seeking ways to offer training to their bivocational and small church pastors. These leaders recognize the growing numbers of such ministers and their importance to their churches. They also realize that these pastors face unique challenges and need training to help them address those challenges.

This recent conference was my third one for this year, and I have seven more currently scheduled for 2016. Seven different denominational groups have invited me to speak to their bivocational and small church leaders this year. There has been a very good turnout at the three previous events, and I look forward to the remaining ones on the schedule. It is exciting to meet these pastors and lay leaders, hear their concerns, and try to answer their questions. These are sharp folks who are doing a great work for the Kingdom of God.

There is still time for your church or denomination to get on my schedule this year, and it's not too early to be thinking about 2017. I was surprised at how quickly these 10 events were booked this year.

Before leaving Michigan I was invited to preach at Elmdale Church of the Nazarene on Sunday morning. We had a great service with some wonderful people. Their pastor, Nate Gray, has been at the church for six years and reminded the congregation when he introduced me of how my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues had been instrumental in turning their church around after he came. It's always nice to know that something you've done has had a positive impact on others. I was blessed by being with this growing congregation and getting to know this young pastor and his family.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Your entire worship service is your message

Some pastors believe that everything that happens prior to the sermon is merely an introduction to the main performance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, our messages are conveyed through the entire worship service. If the service is well planned it will point to the One whose truths you will be communicating in your message. This is why it is so important that the pastor and the worship planning team work together in developing the service each week.

When I was a pastor I tried to give our worship leaders the title, text, and theme for my messages at least a month in advance. This allowed them to develop a worship service that would complement the message and bring the whole service together in a meaningful way.

The one thing I wish I had done differently was to incorporate more elements into the service even if it meant that there would be some Sundays there would be no sermon.

Our music was fairly basic. I often joke that we could have never built a ministry around our music, but what we did was done well. Music is the most important ingredient in a good worship service. It influences who your church will reach. Rick Warren correctly states that when you determine your music style you will also have determined who your church will and will not reach. It also prepares the soul for the message.

I visit too many small churches whose music ministry seems to have been an afterthought. The musicians have limited talent, the singing is anemic and uninspired, and there seems to be no flow to the service. Some churches have told me they are using the best talent they have. I would suggest they begin asking God to send them some talent. Believe me, I have extremely limited musical ability, and when I can tell that about every fourth note is off, it's off! It's an unnecessary distraction to the service and a stumbling block to attracting new people.

Multimedia wasn't available during my pastorate. The closest we came was overhead projectors which we did use occasionally. If I was pastoring today I would certainly use multimedia. We are a visual society. Talking heads do not communicate well to everyone. Add media to the sermon and it will have a greater impact. The cost of video projectors and laptops is now low enough to be affordable for any size church.

I would give one warning. Use multimedia wisely. You may not want to use it every Sunday. Have lots of white space on your slides. Media can also include objects, noises, etc. so mix it up to make your message stand out even more.

Several years ago I began to tell more stories in my messages rather than giving three-point sermons. I find that stories connect with people and make messages more memorable. The parables Jesus told were stories. If he found them helpful to get his point across we probably will as well.

Depending on the available talent in your church you can also use drama, puppets, liturgies, and other means to get the message across. Be creative. Remember that the purpose of worship is to allow people to experience God in a way that is meaningful and life-changing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The hardened heart

In the book of Mark Jesus was confronted by a man who had a withered hand. He asked the religious leaders if it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil. No one would answer. The text goes on to say that Jesus looked at them with anger at the hardness of their hearts before He healed the man's hand.

I can't help but think that He may also look upon much of what the church does today with anger. Like the Pharisees of his time, we too often prefer our rituals and traditions over the opportunities we have to touch people for the Kingdom of God.

Such churches live in the past preferring their memories to a vision of the future. After spending 14 years in judicatory ministry and visiting in many churches I've seen many with large pictures hanging on their walls showing hundreds of people attending church events 40-50 years ago, but they could not tell you the last time anyone was baptized in their church. They point to these pictures with great pride, but they cannot point to a vision for doing ministry in the future.

In his commentary on the book of Revelation John MacArthur, Jr. wrote

A church is in danger when it is content to rest on its past laurels, when it is more concerned with liturgical forms than spiritual reality, when it focuses on curing social ills rather than changing people's hearts through preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, when it is more concerned with material than spiritual things, when it is more concerned with what men think that what God said, when it is more enamored with doctrinal creeds and systems of theology than with the Word of God, or when it loses it conviction that every word of the Bible is the word of God himself. No matter what its attendance, no matter how impressive its buildings, no matter what its status in the community, such a church, having denied the only source of spiritual life, is dead.

If any of this sounds like your church, it's time to take a serious look at the heart of your church. A church in this condition will need a heart transplant or it will eventually die, and while it's waiting for the inevitable it will accomplish little of significance for the Kingdom of God. What will it take for a church to receive a change of heart.

  • The church must be confronted with the hardness of its heart. This is what Jesus tried to do in the Mark passage, but the religious leaders refused to repent and instead sought ways to destroy Him and His ministry. The same may happen to you.
  • The church must repent of its hardness of heart. Prayer will be an essential part of this repentance. God is more than willing to forgive us our sins if we will first acknowledge them and repent. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a powerful promise to the church, and as we repent of our sins we need to stand on this promise.
  • The church must begin to see people through the eyes of God. Until they matter as much to us as they do to Him, our repentance will not be complete.
  • The church must seek a fresh vision from God as it prepares to move into the future. Your church started due to a vision, and if it is to continue to have an effective ministry it will need a God-given vision that is fresh for today and the future.
For more helpful thoughts on this subject I refer you to my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Training for bivocational ministers

In my last post I discussed the need for denominations and judicatories to begin to intentionally develop pools of potential bivocational ministers to serve their smaller churches. Just identifying these individuals is not enough. We also need to provide the training they will need to be effective in this role.

Many of the people we identify as possible bivocational ministers will not have any kind of formal ministerial training. Since they have other jobs they may not be able to pursue a typical seminary education. Such education may not be what they need most anyway, but they do need to have training available to them.

When I joined the staff of the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky one of my portfolio responsibilities was a program called the Certified Lay Ministry training. The way it was structured was not working so after a few months we eliminated this for another program we called the Church Leadership Institute. I led a great committee consisting of educators, lay persons, and pastors who developed an outstanding program that has not changed much since its inception. Although originally designed primarily to train lay leaders, a number of people competing the program have gone on to serve as pastors in our bivocational churches.

Similar training programs are found in numerous denominations and judicatories. However, some areas still lack any kind of training for bivocational ministers. This will have to change or these areas will struggle to find qualified persons to serve in these churches. Not every person serving in bivocational ministry will avail themselves of such training, but the best ones will, and they are the ones who will serve their churches well.

Various schools such as Campbellsville University's School of Theology are now offering online programs specially designed for bivocational ministers. I predict we will see more schools offer such opportunities in the future, and denominations may want to partner with these schools to help train their bivocational ministers.

Every judicatory needs to consider offering one or two training events each year specifically for their bivocational leaders. Obviously, most of these will need to be held on Saturdays. I'm leading about a dozen of these events this year for numerous denominations, and it's exciting to see more denominations and schools hosting such events each year.

Just as it's important to be intentional about identifying persons who might have God's call on their lives to become bivocational ministers, we must be intentional about offering them training to help them succeed in their ministries.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Where are the bivocational ministers?

This past evening I had a conversation with a denominational leader who asked if I knew of a pool of bivocational ministers. It's not the first time I've been asked that question as these leaders are finding it difficult to find such ministers for their churches. Unfortunately, there is no such pool of which I'm aware.

The denomination in which I've served has a formal listing of pastors who are open for placement, but there are very few bivocational ministers on that list. The reason for this is that bivocational ministry tends to be very geographic. It's unlikely that a minister will come from New Jersey to pastor a bivocational church in Kansas. I've found a good rule of thumb is that most bivocational pastors will be found within a one-hour drive of the church. If they have to travel much more than an hour it really lessens their ministry in the church.

As more and more churches move towards calling a bivocational pastor it is imperative that denominations and judicatories begin seeking such persons to serve these churches. Otherwise, these churches will be tempted to call persons who may not be qualified to serve as pastors. I've seen too many instances where small churches have taken a warm body just to have a pastor who turned out to cause much harm to the church.

I'm convinced that many smaller churches will find their future pastors within their own membership. I've seen several instances when a church called a gifted layperson to be their pastor, and in many cases it has worked very well. Such persons already are trusted by the church and in the community. Because they have roots in the community they are more likely to remain as pastor for an extended period of time, and this is usually good for the church.

Denominational leaders can work with pastor search committees to discern if there might be someone in the church who could serve as pastor. Calling someone into the ministry is the work of God, not of denominational leaders, but we can approach people and ask if they have ever felt that God might be calling them to such ministry.

We also need to be looking in both our larger and smaller churches for others who might possess ministry gifts and begin discussions with them about serving as bivocational ministers. Pastors are often the best persons to initiate these discussions, and as they find people who do sense a call of God on their lives this can be made known to their judicatory leaders.

Every judicatory needs to develop several pools of potential bivocational ministers so they will have people available when their churches begin searching for new pastors. The time to develop these pools is yesterday, but today is not too late! Someone in every judicatory needs to have the responsibility to intentionally focus on this growing need or our smaller churches are going to struggle to find suitable pastors.

Once we have a pool, even a small one, we must find ways to offer training. That will be the topic of my next blog post.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Freedom of the pulpit under attack

We live in a time when religious freedoms are under growing attack in the United States. This is especially the case for those who hold to conservative Christian values. Ten years ago few would have thought that SCOTUS would determine that same-sex marriage was a Constitutional-given right. Even fewer would have guessed that states, courts, and school districts would demand that people be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice. Virtually no one would have believed that government agencies would monitor the sermons preached from the pulpits of this nation and fire those whose messages did not meet their political correct litmus test. That kind of thing only happens in Communist and Socialist countries, doesn't it? Not any longer.

The Georgia Department of Public Health fired Dr. Eric Walsh from his position as a district health director due to sermons he preached as a lay minister with the Seventh Day Adventist church. Shortly after his hiring in 2014 a team from the Department began investigating his sermons. A few days later the Department announced it was rescinding the job offer which Dr. Walsh had already accepted.  You can read more about this here.

This situation should give pause to every bivocational pastor. If you take a biblical stand that does not meet with the worldview of your employer your job may be in jeopardy. Dr. Walsh has sued the Georgia Department of Public Healthy, but there is no way in today's political climate to guess how this will end. If he loses, evangelical bivocational pastors may face increased scrutiny in the future.

Of course, every pastor and every Christian should be alarmed at this assault on religious freedom. We have gone from being a nation who holds to religious freedom to one that practices religious tolerance, and anything the government merely tolerates one day can be challenged the next.

This should serve as a wake-up call to American Christians, but I am not hopeful. We have been asleep for the past 50 years and generally apathetic as our nation has become more and more secular. The majority of us do not vote in elections. We do not hold our elected representatives accountable. They are much more afraid of offending large corporations and losing their financial support than they are of losing the votes of conservative Christians.

Even worse, we have not seen a religious revival in this nation in many years due to the apathy of Christians and their leaders. We have become content to gather in our "sanctuaries" and play church games. Maybe our "sanctuaries" are not so safe after all. 2 Chr. 7:14 still says that God will heal the nation when His people humble themselves, confess their sins, and pray.

Evangelical Christians must do two things if we have any hope of restoring this nation to its Christian foundations. We must become informed voters who vote our values, not our financial interests. Many of us need to run for public office and be willing to stand up to the special interest groups who want to shape our nation according to their worldviews. We need to hold our elected officials accountable and vote them back out if they refuse to listen to us.

More importantly, we have to pray for a spiritual revival in this land. Ultimately, a nation's salvation does not come from the White House, the State House, or the Courthouse. It comes from God. God is no longer willing to wink at our apathy. In the Old Testament when He judged a nation he sent warning after warning, each a little stronger, trying to turn that nation back to Him. Eventually the warnings stopped and judgment fell. We are experiencing such warnings in America now, each one a little stronger than previous ones. If the church and this nation do not heed those warnings we can expect God's judgment to fall upon us as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Who will fund your church ten years from now?

There is an elephant in the room that many churches are trying to ignore. It has to do with their future finances. Many small, struggling churches survive financially today because of the faithful giving of people in the past. When churches were full of the Builder generation the giving was strong enough to allow many of them to save significant sums of money. Now, after several years of decline, many of these churches regularly dip into those savings to pay current expenses. What happens when that savings is gone and the last of the Builders and Boomers are gone?

It's well known that the Builder generation strongly supported institutions such as churches. Even many of us in the Boomer generation, once we returned to the church, have been pretty faithful financial supporters. However, that has not been the case with many of succeeding generations. As younger generations have reached adulthood they have often been saddled with excessive debt, including student loans, and were facing a combination of shrinking wages and rising costs of living. Those factors, coupled with a lack of interest in institutions in general, have led them to give much less to their local church. Even those who are generous givers often split up their giving between their church and other charities and groups they want to support.

A few years ago I was speaking with a denominational leader whose primary role was to work with the churches of that denomination to help them realize what the financial future looked like for churches. He said most of the churches have no idea, and those who do want to pretend it won't happen to them. We can pretend all we want, it is the reality facing many of our churches, and now is the time to begin preparing for it.

What can churches do in light of expected reduced giving in the future?

  • Avoid debt. Be sure you really need to build that new addition or undertake that capital project. If you do, cash-flow it. The Bible tells us that the borrower is slave to the lender. Churches are not the exception. The last thing you want if your giving drops is a large mortgage payment.
  • Teach biblical stewardship. Many churches are very reluctant to hear sermons about money. Some have insisted their pastors never discuss money from the pulpit. Those are the churches that need to hear about stewardship the most. Many denominations have sound, biblical stewardship programs that you can use. Don't wait until the church needs money to talk about money. Stewardship is part of discipleship. Talk about it in that context.
  • Invest in God's kingdom. As a pastor I often reminded our church that God honors churches that honors missions. When we had very little money we still gave 10 percent of our offering to our denomination's mission program. I told our church that we can't expect people to tithe if we as a church don't tithe. When our finances became stronger we increased that giving to 15 percent of our offering. The more we gave the more came in. We were never able to outgive God.
  • Take a close look at staffing needs. In many small and medium size churches salary and benefits for pastoral staff often take up the majority of the church's income. That leaves little money for ministry and other expenses. Many of these churches are now looking to call bivocational people as pastors and for staff positions. Many churches are using more volunteers in some positions.
  • Finally, accept the reality that your church could be affected by reduced giving in the future. Begin to talk about that now and take the steps appropriate to your church to counteract that possibility.