Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Every week has a Sunday

In my first semester of Bible school I took a class that really impacted my entire ministry. The first day of class the instructor told us that he did not give tests. My first thought was I was really going to like this class! He then explained that he required four papers due on certain dates. If the paper was not turned in for any reasons we would receive a zero. No excuses accepted. None. Zero.

He explained that each of us were there preparing to be pastors. We needed to understand that every seven days we would be expected to stand in our pulpits and deliver a sermon. Our congregations would not care what else had occurred that week. They would accept no excuses. Every week had a Sunday, and we needed to be prepared for that. It was a lesson that I never forgot.

Saturday night specials are never fun. There's no enjoyment in realizing on Saturday you don't even know what you're going to preach the next day much less have it prepared. We know when we're not prepared to preach, and our congregations know it as well. They may be too polite to say anything...for a while, but if we continually neglect our sermon preparation we will eventually hear about it.

The best thing I did was to plan my preaching out at least a quarter in advance. I was flexible enough that if something significant happened I would change my planned message and prepare one to address the event, but that didn't happen as often as some might think.

By planning my sermons weeks in advance I could spend more time in the actual preparation rather than spending half the week deciding what to preach. I could also give this information to our worship team so they could design the entire service around the theme of the message. This allowed for a much better flow to the service.

I share how I did that planning, and many other tips for easing the pressures of ministry, in my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. Order your copy and find ways to make your ministry more productive and less stressful.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Election 2016

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post for this blog that looked at the changes taking place in the church. I compared the church of today to a trapeze artist. The performer must let go of the safety of the swing he or she is holding onto in order to leap to the next swing. It is when the trapeze artist is in between the swings that he or she is in greatest danger. The church today is in between the swings. We are having to let go of the familiar, what we know, to be able to catch the other swing. That second swing is unknown to many of us, and that is what makes is frightening.

The political system in America is in a similar state today. I doubt that anyone would have predicted the events of this political season. Donald Trump not only ran against the Republican establishment, but he did and said some of the most outrageous things that should have ensured his defeat. He is now the Republican nominee for President.

Hillary Clinton has been investigated throughout her primary by the FBI for the way she handled her e-mails and national security information as the Secretary of State. Another investigation covered her actions in the Benghazi attack. The FBI concluded she violated numerous laws and put some Top Secret information in potential jeopardy, but since she didn't know what she was doing they recommended she not be prosecuted. The Benghazi investigation found that she and others had been warned numerous times by her own advisers that additional security was needed at the diplomatic compound but had taken no action. Two episodes of such incompetence would hardly qualify someone for the highest office in the land, but this week she will be the Democratic nominee for President.

Both candidates lack the support of key elements of their respective parties. Leading Republicans refused to attend their convention, and Ted Cruz' refusal to endorse Trump will follow him throughout this election. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's primary opponent, complained throughout the primaries that the Democratic National Convention had stacked the deck against him getting the nod. This past week e-mails were released showing his complaints to be valid. The DNC had ensured Clinton would be the nominee. The chair of the DNC was forced to resign because of her role in undermining the candidacy of Sanders. The day after her resignation she joined the Clinton election team. This was way too much for the Sanders' supporters many of whom are refusing, at this time, to support Clinton.

For either nominee to claim the moral ground in this election would be a travesty. Republicans are always looking for the next Ronald Reagan as the Democrats continue to seek the next John F. Kennedy. Both have settled for far less.

Many evangelicals have publicly stated they will not vote for Trump because of what they perceive as his lack of morals and decency. I wonder how many of them also refused to vote for Mitt Romney because he was a Mormon and then spent the next four years complaining about President Obama. They seem unable to see that not voting for Trump is a vote for Clinton.

Some on the far left fringes of the Democrat party are saying they will not vote for Clinton because her VP nominee is not progressive enough. Sanders supporters claim they will not vote for Clinton because of the way their candidate was cheated out of a fair primary. One of my fears is that because of the candidates we may see a poor voter turn-out and have a new President elected by a very small percentage of voters who will then claim a mandate to force through his or her plans. That may not be good for the country.

Not only is the church going through a time of major transition, so is the political system of this nation, and virtually every other aspect of national life. This is a time the church needs to pray and come together for the good of this nation and its future role in the world. Personally, I do not believe God is done with America, but we have far to go to become the nation we once were. The church needs to take 2 Chr. 7:14 seriously and ask God to send a spiritual revival to this nation.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The person across the table is not your enemy

I recently finished reading Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss. The author is a former FBI hostage negotiator and now owns a consulting business that trains Fortune 500 companies through complex negotiations and has taught negotiation at several leading business schools and universities. There is much in this book that church leaders can learn that will benefit them the next time conflict occurs in their church.

One of the lessons I found very helpful is that the person across the table is never the problem. The issue is the problem. The person across the table is actually your partner in trying to resolve the issue.

If we could learn this we could avoid much of the anger and the other negative emotions that too often occur in church conflicts. Too many church conflicts force people to choose sides and to look at the other side as the enemy. When this happens the church loses. No matter how the issue is resolved, the church loses when its members begin to see one another as the enemy.

Another valuable lesson I learned is that it's OK to say no. Too often we avoid saying no to something that we are certain will damage what we're trying to do to avoid conflict. We've also been taught that in negotiations we want to try to get the other person to say yes to everything we ask. If you doubt that, listen to the questions you're asked the next time a telemarketer calls. Every question is designed to get a positive response from you. They do this in order to get you to give them the big yes when they try to sell you their product or service.

Voss insists that saying no actually starts the negotiation rather than ending it. In fact, he even recommends helping the other side feel comfortable saying no to reduce barriers and allow more effective negotiation.

A word of warning...this book does contain some language. There's not much, but if you find that offensive you may as well not read the book. But, I do believe there are some real helps in this book for the Christian leader who will face conflict at some time in his or her ministry (and that's all of us!). You'll also find some advice you can use the next time you buy a car or make any other large purchase!

Friday, July 22, 2016

The first 100 days as a new pastor

Once when I was being considered for a new position I spent some time thinking what I would do in the first 100 days if I was offered the position. I wasn't, but it was still an excellent process that I went through. I had actually identified a full page of things I would do during that first 100 days that I felt would get me off to a good start.

Years ago pastors were told to do nothing that first year. Enjoy the honeymoon and get to know the people. That's still good advice...to a point. It is critical that a new leader spends time getting to know the people, but that first year should not be a time when the pastor does nothing. One of the things a new pastor should do, if the church has not already done so, is to lead the church through a vision discernment process. This will accomplish at least two things.

One, you'll get to know the church as they work through vision discernment. The process I use to lead churches seeking a fresh vision is to first help them identify the core values and bedrock beliefs they share as a congregation. That not only gets them talking about these things, often for the first time in many years, it helps the new pastor better understand the church.

This will also help the new pastor begin to identify the steps the church needs to take to achieve this vision. As these steps are identified the pastor better understands how he or she needs to prioritize his or her time and how to lead the church.

The first 100 days is also the time for the pastor to establish personal boundaries and to teach the church those boundaries. The temptation for a new pastor is to try to do it all when we first start at a new church, but this only sets up unrealistic expectations for the congregation. As Dr. Phil says, we teach people how to treat us. If we begin by teaching the congregation that we will do it all, five years later they will still be allowing us to do it all.

We need to be talking with church leadership about the things we can do and those things we expect others to do. Before I entered the ministry our church called a new pastor. In our first deacon meeting he asked for our expectations of him, and then he shared his expectations of us. It was an excellent discussion that laid the foundation for his ministry in that church. Each of us needs to have that conversation with our lay leaders when we begin a new ministry.

It is always exciting to begin a new ministry, but it's critical that the new ministry gets started right. How we handle that first 100 days will play a large part on how effective our ministries will be.

If you about to begin a new ministry you may want to read The First 100 Days: A Pastor's Guide by T. Scott Daniels. It can also be a good resource for someone wanting to re-start his or her ministry in a current church. Sometimes we can start over.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Connect with God, at home and in the community

For the past few days I've been privileged to be part of the General Baptist 2016 Summit in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The theme of this summit has been "Connect...with God...At Home...In the Community." It ended last night after three days of wonderful meetings, informational workshops, and excellent worship. Attendance was great, and there has been a magnificent atmosphere throughout the event.

This year I was invited to lead three workshops: "The Healthy Small Church." "Bivocational Ministry for the 21st Century," and "The Healthy Pastor." I've had the opportunity to meet some wonderful church leaders who are passionate about what they are doing as well as the opportunity to learn from other speakers at the plenary sessions.

I always enjoy working with General Baptists. Several years ago I participated in two leadership events hosted by Oakland City University, a GB related school and made connections with several of the leaders of this great denomination. One of the reasons I enjoy working with them so much is their commitment to the Great Commission and to the local church. Another reason is the cross-section of people who attend their meetings. It seems that they have many young pastors and church leaders who are really on fire for ministry. I always enjoy continuing our conversations after a workshop because they are like sponges wanting to soak up more information. Quite frankly, I learn a lot from them and am always energized by our interactions.

The focus of this conference was on connecting with people. We can't influence people if we don't first connect with them. Too many churches want to do ministry but really don't know the people they are called to serve and how they can best serve them. When we first connect with them and learn their needs and hopes we will be better able to provide meaningful ministries to them.

I also greatly appreciated the focus on connecting with our families. Sometimes our families get left out when we think about doing ministry. As I've often said, if we fail our families we will have failed as ministers. This conference understands that and there was a major emphasis on connecting with our families and ensuring that our family relationships remain strong.

Of course, none of this really matters if we haven't first connected with God. Our relationship with Him is foundational for everything else we do. Without that relationship with God as our foundation everything else is building upon sand.

The final service was very moving as several people responded to the invitation to consider God's call to ministry and to the mission field. A number of young people to answer that call signifying a great future for General Baptists as it moves into the future.

I want to thank Franklin Dumond for inviting me to participate in this year's Summit and to everyone who worked so hard to make it happen. Great things are happening in this denomination and even greater things will continue to happen in the future.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Who cares about a speech?

I have to be upfront and admit that I did not listen to Melania Trump's speech that is causing such an uproar in the media. Some claim that about three lines of the speech were lifted from Michelle Obama's convention speech a few years ago. Others are now saying that President Obama, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton all plagiarized from others in speeches they delivered in 2008.

First, convention speeches all sound very similar. After all, how many ways are there to tell everyone how wonderful a candidate is and how much you love America? That's why I don't bother listening to them. For the most part, they are canned speeches that follow set formulas that seem committed to getting lots of applause without providing any real content.

Second, what really makes the difference if someone uses a few sentences someone else used in a previous speech? I doubt that you said anything yesterday that someone, somewhere has not previously said some time in the past. I'm sure I didn't. The comments in question can be heard in just about every valedictorian speech ever given at a high school graduation. It's not like either woman was announcing some major scientific discovery.
 
What the media and some "stars" are doing is focusing on something so minor that it isn't worth discussing and trying to act like something horrible has happened. There are serious issues facing this nation that are much more important than a brief speech given by a presidential candidate's wife. When the conventions are over and the candidates start talking about substantial issues then it will be time to take note of what is being said.

But, what does this have to do with churches and ministry? The same thing too often happens in our churches. We focus attention on minor issues that have little to do with anything important and ignore more serious issues that may be occurring. For instance, we might spend a lot of time debating the purchase of a new hymn book and no time at all addressing the lack of baptisms happening in our church.

A few years ago a lady called me greatly concerned about what she felt was inappropriate dress by the pastor. He no longer wore a suit when he preached. She went on to complain that the deacons didn't wear suits when they served communion. She said they looked like they were going golfing instead of serving communion. To say she was upset would be putting it mildly.

This was a church that had declined by about half in a few short years. That decline had nothing to do with how the pastor and deacons dressed but was due to a number of issues that had caused great division in the church. Instead of being a growing church that was reaching people for the Kingdom of God, they had become a divided church that was declining and becoming more dysfunctional. Rather than address the real issues that might improve things in the church and have an impact on the community, a few in the church was concerned about how people dressed.

No doubt, this is going to be an interesting election season, but let's concentrate on things that really matter and not get sidetracked by minor issues that have no real bearing on anything of substance. This nation has serious problems. Let's demand the candidates address them and then we can decide which one seems most likely to turn things around. Our churches face serious challenges. Let's address those and quit nit-picking minor issues that add nothing to ministry.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Advantages found in a smaller church

When I lead my workshop on "The Healthy Small Church" I ask the attendees to share what people think of when they think of small churches. The answers I get are always the same regardless of the denomination I'm working with, and they are always negative. However, I believe there are some advantages found in smaller churches, and it are these traits that we need to focus on when leading our smaller churches.

Smaller churches offer a sense of community. We live in a time when people do not know their neighbors and often feel very alone. I am convinced that churches that offer a sense of community will be able to reach more people for the Kingdom of God, and smaller churches can naturally offer that community. Large churches have to form small groups to provide that sense of connectedness. Small churches are already a small group! Granted, there are some small churches that are very closed off to new people, but a healthy, small church will provide a sense of community to those who are connected to it.

People have an opportunity to serve in a smaller church. In fact, I often joke that a Baptist church will work someone to death until they learn to say no. Although it is true that people today are less likely to join an organization as a member, they are interested in being involved in things that are important to them. Small churches give people the opportunity to serve, to engage in meaningful ministry that makes a difference in people's lives.

A third advantage is that small churches communicate quickly. If there is a death in the church or community, that word gets around quickly. If someone needs help others soon know it. and people respond. I realize that negative communication also gets around quickly, but the positive aspect of this far outweighs the negative.

People in smaller churches share common experiences. This is one reason there is that sense of community. The church I served as pastor for 20 years was made up of blue collar, rural, mostly retired people. Those were the groups that we continued to reach throughout my ministry there. Because we shared common experiences it was easier to assimilate new people into the congregation. While there is nothing wrong with new people outside your demographic coming into your church, you will often find that those who share the most in common with you will be the ones most likely to become part of your fellowship.

Finally, people are more important than programs or performances. You normally do not have to try out to sing in the choir of a smaller church! Just show up for choir practice. Relationships are key in the smaller church. Everything else takes a back seat. Small churches are loathe to do anything that will damage relationships in their churches. While this can be a problem sometimes, it is also a strength of the church because it supports that sense of community that exists.

We could list many more advantages found in smaller churches, but these are enough to demonstrate that there are many positives to be found in such churches. Focus on these positives and build your ministry around them.