Monday, December 10, 2018

Finding pastors for smaller churches

Many people have written in recent years about the struggle smaller churches have in finding new pastors. I have done so as well in this blog. Studies have found that many seminary trained ministers are not interested in serving in smaller churches. For 14 years I served as a Resource Minister with our denomination. One of my responsibilities was to assist our churches when they needed to call a new pastor. This was always difficult when the seeking church was a smaller one.

The problem was compounded when the church was used to having a fully-funded pastor and wanted to continue doing so. The truth was that most of these fully-funded pastors were not fully-funded. They were able to serve those churches because their spouses worked and often provided the benefits, such as insurance, for their families that the church could not provide. These churches were living in a fantasy world thinking they had a fully-funded pastor when they didn't. Somehow they never connected the fact that most of these pastors left after 2-3 years for churches that did offer salary and benefit packages that would support their families. Now, as they begin seeking new pastoral leadership they find that many ministers are no longer willing to accept their fantasy.

This isn't to put these churches down. It is intended to point out the reality of the situation these churches are in. Before I retired from my position I worked with one church that had a fully-funded pastor but realized their next pastor would have to be bivocational. As one of the members explained to me, they could afford to pay a decent salary, but they could not afford the insurance or other benefits most ministers require. I appreciated their honest appraisal of their situation, and it made it easier to help them find their new pastor.

Where will smaller churches find their pastors as we continue into the 21st century? Like the church above, many of them will need to seek bivocational leadership. Some churches think that is taking a step backwards, but it is not. Bivocational ministers have proven more than capable of serving churches. I have published several books on bivocational ministry that can help the interested reader better understand what a bivocational minister can bring to the church.

Another option is to seek someone within the church to serve as pastor. This will often be a bivocational person as well. The only difference is that it is someone already well known and respected in the congregation. I had a few churches take that approach, and it worked out very well. These persons may not have the training many churches would prefer, but there are numerous ways such training and theological education can be obtained today.

A third option is to call a retired minister. I know most churches want a 35 year-old pastor with 20 years experience, but you will be making a huge mistake if you refuse to consider a retired person. A church once told me they wanted a young pastor with new ideas. I responded that many young pastors don't have new ideas. All many of them know is what they learned in seminary from professors who haven't pastored a church in 20 years. I know many older ministers who have far more new ideas about ministry than some younger ones.

Retired ministers not only have the education; they also have the experience to know how to serve a church. They've been through the battles so they know how to avoid many of them. Another benefit about calling a retired person as pastor is that most of them are not going to be looking to move in the next couple of years. They have no interest in climbing the "ministerial ladder of success" as I like to call it. This means they may remain at the church longer than some younger pastors.

Smaller churches can still find pastors if they broaden the criteria they use when seeking one. Rather than develop a rigid checklist of what you want in a pastor, be open to the person God may be sending you. God always has a person for a church. Don't miss that person by looking for something else.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Charlie Brown's Christmas

We watched Charlie Brown's Christmas last night. Even though I've seen it dozens of times it still makes me laugh and warms my heart. Like many of us, Charlie Brown is tired of the commercialization of Christmas, but it seems there is little he can do about it. It's not until Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas can Charlie Brown escape the holiday blues.

With Linus telling the biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ I'm surprised this classic Christmas special is still being shown. I'll be even more surprised if someone doesn't condemn it as offensive or politically incorrect. In recent weeks we've seen Veggie Tales condemned as racist and dangerous to children due to the fact that the vegetables are various colors. Here's a news flash to the California college students who issued the condemnation: Vegetables are different colors! We've also seen radio stations stop playing Baby, It's Cold Outside because a handful of listeners found the song sexist. The book series 50 Shades of Grey has sold over 100 million copies, and this 1944 song has been declared sexist! We live in a strange world.

My prayer is that, like Charlie Brown, many will find the true meaning of Christmas to be encouraging. The holidays are always a difficult time for some people. It is a very stressful time with lots to do. The holidays also triggers painful memories for some people. We need to be aware that not everyone will have a wonderful Christmas season and find ways to come alongside those who might be hurting to offer comfort and love.

This is a time for churches to be especially aware of people who struggle during the Christmas season. It's easy to get caught up in our Christmas pageants and programs and forget that some people are alone and hurting. There is often much talk in churches during the holiday seasons about families, but let's remember that not everyone has a family to be with during the season.

The birth of Jesus Christ should bring hope to all people. Born in humble circumstances His birth was first announced to shepherds watching over their flocks in the field. This may not mean much until one learns that shepherds were not the most respected people in that society. This reminds us that Christ came for all people. No person, regardless of their situation, is excluded from the love, the hope and the acceptance He came to offer. Let's make sure that message gets out this Christmas season.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Majoring on the minors

It seems the House of Representatives first priority is to obtain the tax records of President Trump when the Democrats take over in January. What a waste of time! In the first place, any bill they pass to accomplish that will not pass the Republican controlled Senate, and if it did it would be vetoed by the President. Once again, our elected leaders are willing to waste time and money to accomplish nothing.

In the second place, are there not far more important challenges facing America than the president's tax records? Frankly, I could care less what the president made, and I don't know anyone who does except for a few people who are still bitter that Clinton was defeated. I am much more concerned about the ongoing wars and their cost in human lives, the violence that is rampant across our nation, the epidemic of drug abuse that is destroying families, the increased numbers of suicide, our crumbling infrastructure, the plight of the American farmer, the problems we have due to the large numbers of illegal aliens coming into our country and a host of other problems. It seems to me that the House has far more important things to do than to waste their time trying to get President Trump's tax records.

Third, it seems if it is so crucial to American democracy to know how much the president filed on his taxes it should be just as important to know how much each member of Congress filed, their finances before they were elected to office, their finances today and the sources of that money. When I read reports of the wealth of certain members of Congress, many of whom are demanding this inquiry into the president's tax records, I have to wonder how one can earn that amount of money they've accumulated since entering office. Maybe Congress would like to do an inquiry on its own members just to assure the American people that everything is on the up-and-up in Congress.

While there are many reasons behind this action from the House, it is another example of how people supposedly in places of leadership waste time majoring on the minors instead of focusing on what should be priorities. It happens in government, it happens in the business world, and it happens in churches.

The Great Commission is very clear about the mission of the church. Evangelism and discipleship should be the focus of every congregation regardless of size. This is what we are called to do. Yet, look at any church budget and see how much of that budget is set aside for evangelism and discipleship. Look at any church calendar and determine for yourself how much time is spent on evangelism and discipleship. The church today is focused on many things while evangelism and discipleship is often set aside, and we wonder why our churches continue to decline and our member's lives are little different than the lives of those who are not Christians.

Until the church recaptures its biblical mission it will continue its decline into irrelevancy. A lot of organizations provide social services. There are a lot of places people can go for entertainment. What many churches think is important to offer people can be obtained elsewhere, but there is no place that offers the life-changing message of the Gospel but the church. It is the preaching of the Word of God that brings people to a relationship with Jesus Christ, and it is the teaching of that Word that helps people grow as disciples. There is nothing wrong with the church offering these other things I've mentioned, but its primary focus must be on the mission God gave it. Let's not lose sight of what should be our primary purpose.

I also hope our political leaders will return to what should be their primary focus which is addressing the real challenges facing our country. I'm growing quite weary of watching them act like spoiled children and wasting their time and our tax dollars focusing on minor issues while our nation continues to suffer real problems.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

41 - A true statesman

We lost a great American a few days ago when former President George Bush passed away. A veteran, he held numerous political offices before being elected as President of the United States. Few men were as prepared as he was for the role due to his wide range of political experiences and the offices he held. He was a very humble man who some feared would not be able to overcome his humility to succeed in the rough-and-tumble primaries, but when he was nominated many political experts said he gave one of the most powerful acceptance speeches they had heard. Even more important than his accomplishments was his love for family. He was never afraid to express that love in ways that made people believe he met every word of it because he did.

One other thing that has been mentioned repeatedly since his passing was that he was a true statesman, something that is seriously lacking in today's political world. He was not afraid to work with Democrats to get America's work done. He was not afraid to speak honestly about what needed to be done and to do what was needed to accomplish the task. I'm not sure we have anyone in political leadership today that is a true statesman. His son, George W. Bush, did not have that quality to the degree that his father did. Presidents Clinton, Obama and Trump certainly would not be confused as statesmen. It is a trait desperately needed in America today.

It was a sign of that statesmanship when we saw him and Clinton working together to raise money for areas hit hard by natural disasters. Today when we see our latest former president still interfering with American policies and attacking the one who replaced him, it is another demonstration of how much we need statesmen in leadership today.

Bush had such high approval ratings just a few months prior to running for reelection that it has always surprised me that he did not win that election. The public turned on him as the economy began to cycle down, and Clinton took full advantage of that. You might remember the mantra of that election was "It's the economy, stupid." People forget that the economy goes through regular cycles, and in a down economy they are quick to blame whoever is in office. They also forget that the most important thing a leader brings to his or her office is character. Yes, the economy improved during the next president's term of office as it would have anyway, but the character factor took a nosedive and became an embarrassment for our nation.

It also hurt his reelection effort when he approved a tax increase after his famous statement, "Read my lips. No new taxes." It's very difficult for a political leader to make a promise like that not knowing what the future might bring. No doubt he knew when he approved that increase that his critics would howl and accuse him of lying to the American people, but he also knew it was needed at that time. He would do what he thought was the right thing and let history decide later whether he was right or wrong. The American people turned against him, but I think history will be much kinder to his presidency.

I pray one day that we will return to having leaders with the statesmanship qualities that our 41st president had regardless of which political party they may represent. We need men and women of decency, people with gentle spirits who put the needs of the nation ahead of their own to lead our nation. We need people with faith in God who are more committed to doing the right thing than what will ensure their reelection. Unfortunately, the older I get the less hopeful I am that we have such people today. I pray I am wrong.

Friday, November 30, 2018

What do smaller churches have to offer?

Much of what is said about smaller churches is not very positive. People talk about how they are resistant to change, how they are dying, how they have limited resources and cannot offer the ministries and programs larger churches can. Having worked with smaller churches throughout my ministry I've heard all of these and much more. What amazes me is that people cannot seem to see the positive things smaller churches offer. Let me share just a few of these.

Smaller churches offer a sense of family. They provide people with relationships with other people. Larger churches have to develop small groups to offer the same relationship possibilities that are naturally found in smaller churches. There's nothing wrong with the small groups, but it does require people to be part of such a group. That sense of family just comes naturally in the smaller church.

Smaller churches value people over performances. You typically do not have to audition to sing in the choir in a smaller church. Just show up. The pastor may not have the latest degree from the most prestigious seminary in the nation, but he or she visits the people and genuinely loves them, and they love the pastor. Some of the community kids are not quite "church broke," but they are loved by the members of the congregation who care for them as their own.

In smaller churches you are more likely to be with people who are just like you. I served as pastor of a small church for 20 years that was mostly made up of farmers, blue collar workers and retired people. When I first went there only one person had a college degree, and it wasn't me. I often explained that we were not the church God would use to reach the professors of a nearby college, but that we would likely reach people who were a lot like we were.

Smaller churches communicate quickly when people need help. It doesn't take long in a small church for everyone to know when someone is sick or been in an accident. Funeral dinners are quickly arranged, and meals are taken to homes when members get sick.

Although it's true that some smaller churches can resist change, they are also able to be more flexible than larger churches. A person doesn't normally have to jump through four committees and three boards to get permission to do something. Large churches often remind me of the aircraft carrier I served on while in the Navy. It took miles to turn that thing around. Smaller churches are more like the bass boat I used to own. It could turn on a dime.

While I could list more, I'll just mention one more. In smaller churches people feel like they have a part in what's going on. People care that they are there. In some larger churches people come to the service, speak to their small circle of friends and leave. Few even notice they were there or not, and it doesn't make a lot of difference if they weren't.

I have nothing against large churches, but I do get weary of hearing people say only negative things about smaller churches. These smaller churches have much to offer and play a vital role in the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Distractions lead to destruction

When historians describe the factors that led to the downfall of the Roman empire they can find several, but one of the major ones was the political complacency of the average person. The people stopped caring about the political leaders and their antics. They were more interested in the "bread and circuses" those leaders provided. The bread represented the things necessary for life, and the circuses provided them with the entertainment that they craved.

Does anyone recognize the comparison between what happened then and what it occurring today? We have a welfare system that provides just enough to give people the basics but not enough so they can lift themselves above the poverty that holds them in its clutches. Those who are dependent upon that system will vote for anyone who guarantees the system will continue despite any moral or character failings those people might possess.

At the other end of the spectrum tax loopholes are provided for the wealthiest among us to ensure they keep the vast majority of their wealth. It's ironic that the political leaders who cry the loudest about how the rich should pay more are the same ones who help pass such laws and, in fact, often benefit from those loopholes to hold on to their great wealth. Somehow this fact is seldom mentioned, and if it is, it's ignored by the masses.

Then we have the circuses. Cities that struggle to provide basic services for its citizens spend millions of dollars to build new stadiums and arenas to attract various sports teams. Many of these stadiums are packed out for each event as people come to support "their" team.

For those who can't afford the rising costs of tickets to attend those events we have the movie industry, TV, social media, comedy clubs, and other outlets to provide entertainment. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with entertainment, but it is often little more than a distraction to keep us from thinking too much about what is happening in our society. When a people is content with its "bread and circuses" and fails to observe what is happening in its culture it is a people that is heading to destruction.

This problem is not limited to our nation and its current problems. "Bread and circuses" are a problem in many of our churches as well. In this context the bread represents meeting the needs of our members. Too many church members are satisfied as long as their needs are being met. When the pastor makes an acceptable number of visits to the members and keeps the church machinery running smoothly most church members are content. No one bothers to ask what impact their church is making in its community or why the church isn't seeing people come to Christ.

Our churches enjoy its circuses as well. In too many churches entertainment has replaced worship. Self-help sessions have replaced theological sermons. The pastor preaches to win the applause of the people rather than the approval of God. When the service ends exactly on time and everyone leaves feeling better about themselves many church people consider it a good Sunday. And now that this is checked off their to-do list they can go on to enjoy the remainder of their week.

Being satisfied with "bread and circuses" in our churches are a major reason our churches have little impact today. It's also one reason why so many of our members are theologically illiterate. They are not being challenged to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, to serve their communities and to grow deeper in their understanding of the Word of God. The distractions of the "bread and circuses" keeps them from thinking too deeply about any of this.

Our nation and our churches are in trouble and facing even more serious problems in the near future if we do not wake up to what is going on. We need to quit being distracted by the "bread and circuses" offered by both our national and church leaders and begin to demand more from those leaders. If they can't provide the leadership we need to turn our nation and our churches back to what they need to be then we need to replace them with people who can.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Fake news

The term "fake news" was not one used by many people 4-5 years ago, but it has become a popular one today. We often hear President Trump complain about fake news. During the past presidential election there seemed to have been a lot of fake news spread especially through social media.

Fake news is information that is intentionally spread even though it is not true. It is different from satire and parody as they are  intended to amuse, not intentionally mislead people. Anyone who spends much time on social media such as Facebook has seen numerous fake stories circulated as true. I have often criticized Christians for repeating these stories that were long ago proven false. Repeating such stories makes us appear gullible and uninformed, complaints non-Christians enjoy making about us.

Certainly, the media does spin their stories to support their biases. One morning I was working out at a local gym that had several TVs on. Among the numerous programs being shown at the same time were CNN and Fox News. Even though they might be reporting on the same story, the two reports could not be more different. Watching them side-by-side was incredible.

However, there is another aspect of fake news that is even more alarming to me. It is the power of the media to control what information is given to the public. The fact is the media no longer reports the news; it makes the news. The editors, reporters and anchormen determine what information should be shared with the American public and what information should be withheld. A story is not news until they declare it to be news.

I just finished reading Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy by James Fallows, a journalist and former editor. In the book Fallows points out the many ways the media have grown increasingly out of step with the American public and why it has lost credibility with many of us. What makes the book even more amazing is that it was written in 1996! The problems he identified with the media then has only grown worse today.

He points out many ways in which the media fails the public. One is the way the news is presented. Rather than going into detail to provide people with background information and doing an in depth examination of issues, we are given snippets of information 3-4 minutes long before going on to a completely unconnected story. The public is never given sufficient information to know how to think about the news item. It's no wonder people are so uninformed when it comes to the major issues confronting us today.

Another problem is the superior attitude many journalists have of themselves. Especially the ones in New York and Washington give the appearance they are far superior in intellect and understanding of what is going on than the average person. The fact is the leading anchor people who appear in the hot spots reporting on what is going on are using the material the people on the ground have worked on for days. They fly in, receive the material reporters have developed, report it as if they are all wise, and fly out to the next "breaking story."

Of course, since they are so much in the know they can know what is going to happen before it does. The author points out that virtually every prominent journalist and political analyst declared Bill Clinton's campaign finished at various times when accusations about his behavior made the news. Sound familiar? They did the same thing during the last presidential election about Trump. If you want to be entertained watch videos of the people covering the election for the various media organizations when it became obvious that Trump would be elected president. They were shocked! Their reactions are hilarious. The problem is there is no penalty for them being wrong. A few days later they began to covering the mid-term election and predicting who might win there and what that might do to President Trump's agenda.

This incredible book demonstrates that we do have a major problem with fake news. It's not merely that journalists report fake stories, although some do. It's the way they determine what's news, what information is given to the public and the way that information is given.