Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Try talking

Two years ago I was leading a workshop for a group of pastors and was discussing the need for churches to become more missional in their ministry.  I explained that we needed to do a better job of identifying existing needs in our communities and finding ways to respond to those needs.  When I mentioned that many churches really do not know what needs exist in the communities they serve one pastor raised his hand and asked, "Well, how can we find that out?"  I have to admit that I was stunned for a moment.  Knowing that I can be a little sarcastic when someone asks a really dumb question I tried to answer as calmly as possible, "Well, we can go out of our churches into the communities and ask people what they need.  We can talk to them about what is going on in their lives, and see if God gives us insight into how we might address that need.  But, it all depends on us engaging our communities and that demands that we enter into the lives of the people who live there."

I would like to take that thought one step further.  Not only do we need to go into the community to talk to people, we need to invite people into our churches to continue that conversation.  I begin one of my sermons by telling of the pastor who invited four people from the community to explain to the congregation why they didn't attend their church or any church.  Each Sunday for one month a different person came and spoke.  They ranged from the chief of police to an angry lesbian who had been raised in a pastor's home.  Some people didn't like what they heard and left that church.  Others realized they needed to make some changes if they wanted to be faithful to their call to impact their community for the Kingdom of God.

Another way to continue that conversation is to identify leaders within communities your church feels led to impact and invite them to meet with your church leaders.  A great example of this working well would be for the church that wants to develop stronger ties with the people of a different culture or race.  A church might realize that the community that surrounds it has changed its racial make-up over the years, and their church no longer reflects that community.  A good first step to change that might be to invite leaders from the new community to have regular meetings with the church leadership to discuss community needs and ways the church might address those.  A really courageous church might even consider inviting these leaders to have a seat on the church board to ensure these conversations are on-going.

These suggestions are risky, but if we want to see our churches move from a maintanance mindset to a missional one we are going to have to take risks.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that our churches continue to grow smaller while people are moving further away from God.  If we want to change these two trends we must become willing to take risks in order to do ministry.  2011 might be a good time to start.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The day after Christmas

My wife and I had a great time at our daughter's house on Christmas day.  We exchanged a lot of presents and ate way too much good food.  The grandkids seemed to enjoy their gifts, and almost everything we bought fit the intended recipient.  A predicted 4 inch snowfall didn't happen which made the drive home much easier that night.

The next morning I was trying to decide which of my churches to attend.  I serve 77 churches and couldn't decide which one to attend for worship.  One church that I had not been to in awhile kept coming to mind so I decided that was the one I would go to.

It's a small church, and the morning after Christmas the attendance was down even further.  The pastor seemed embarrassed by the small number that was there especially when I surprised him by walking in.  However, there were two there who definitely needed to be there that morning.  One was the Holy Spirit, and the other was a young woman who invited Jesus Christ into her life at the close of the service.  It was obvious that the Spirit had been speaking to her heart during the message when she briefly shared her appreciation to the church for ministering to her in the recent months she had been attending the services there.  The pastor invited another woman to the front as well stating that she had been very instrumental in this lady coming to church and, on that morning, coming to faith.  I do not know what gifts this lady may have received on Christmas day, but on the day after Christmas she received the most precious gift of all...a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Your church may not be the biggest in town, but that does not mean that you cannot see great things happen in your church in 2011.  Every day can be a celebration of the birth of the Savior, and every day we can offer people the gift that only God can provide.  Begin now praying for those people who need to receive the gift of eternal life.  Become involved in their lives and introduce them to the One who can bring them the gifts they really need...forgiveness, grace, unconditional love, and eternal life.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

I want to wish each of you a very Merry Christmas!  May you and your family have a blessed Christmas day and an even more blessed 2011.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Who is my neighbor?

This question was of course asked of Jesus by one of the Jewish scribes, and it led to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Today, in the 21st century, it is a question that needs to be asked again because the whole concept of community has changed.  We can no longer focus simply on those people in a certain geographic area because that is no longer where many of our relationships exist.  Through social media such as Facebook many people today have closer relationships with people who live thousands of miles away than they do their next door neighbor.  Community is not so much a matter of geography as it is a matter of sharing common interests.  Today I am related to people through my blog, my web site, Facebook, and e-mails.  It is not uncommon for me to talk more often to people across the country and in other countries through these various forms of media than I talk to my neighbors.  I can only talk to my neighbors if we both happen to be outside at the same time.  I can communicate with my on-line community at any time.  This is having a profound effect on churches, and I believe will have an even greater impact on how we "do church" in the future.

Many younger people today see little value in church membership.  One of the reasons for this is that they don't want to be tied down to one church.  In fact, one of the trends today is that people may be involved in two or more churches at one time. They may attend one church on Sunday morning because they find the worship meaningful and attend a different church during the week because they appreciate the depth of the Bible study.  Their children may attend yet a third church because of the quality of their youth ministry.  It's not too difficult to see that a cyber church could come into the picture as part of their spiritual life.  That church with the quality Bible study may be a cyber church, and the messages are downloaded as a podcast that can be listened to at the convenience of the listener.  I listen to the messages of 3-4 ministers each week on my I-Pod that are automatically downloaded on my computer each week.  Another scenario I can see is when a person moves to another community.  Rather than joining a new church a person may decide to remain connected to their old church back home.  Services can be downloaded or even watched in real time.  Sunday school classes may have a blog they can participate in.  If the site offers on-line giving it's easy for them to continue tithing to their old church.

All of these possibilities means the church must rethink how it ministers to its community, and in fact must rethink what its community might be.  While this presents challenges to the smaller, bivocational church it also offers some options that did not exist even a few years ago.  With a web site or blog your church can now minister to people throughout the world.  You might struggle to have more than 30 people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, but at the same time there may be many times that involved in some way with your church through the Internet.  I am now a "member"of two of the churches I serve in my Area through Facebook.  I now know what is going on in those churches just as if I attended there every week.  It's really neat, and it means that your church can now go into all the world sharing the gospel and ministering to hurting people.

Web sites can be very inexpensive.  I pay less than $20 a month for mine.  This blog doesn't cost me anything.  Through these two channels alone I touch people across the country and around the world without ever leaving southern Indiana.  Your church can do the same.

Who is your neighbor?  Today it is anyone living anywhere in the world.  Although your primary responsibility is to your Jerusalem, your church also has a responsibility to take the gospel to the end of the earth, and today any church can do that.  It's an exciting time we live in, my friend.  Enjoy it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Balancing life

This weekend I read an article about a busy female executive who struggled trying to balance the demands of her position with the demands of her family.  One day her young daughter wanted to talk, and the mother explained that she didn't have time to talk right now because she had to leave to meet with an important client.  Her daughter looked up at her and asked, "When will I be old enough to become an important client?"  Ouch!  Some of us in bivocational ministry may be able to identify with this article.

As you think about your goals and priorities for 2011 I encourage you to make time for all the important things in your life.  The needs of your family and your own personal self-care should certainly be at the top of that list.  I explained to my ordination council many years ago that my family came before my church work.  One pastor in the council claimed to have a problem with that statement.  I reminded him that the church I was serving was over 150 years old and had many pastors during those years.  If the Lord tarries, they will have many pastors follow me.  But, I am the only husband my wife has and the only father my children know, and my primary responsibility has to be to them. 

I have found that I'm seldom successful in finding time for important things; I need to make the time.  That means I have to put the weekly dates my wife and I take in my calendar in advance so other things don't fill those days.  It means we need to schedule vacations and trips to see our kids and grandkids early in the year or we soon find that there are no open weeks available for such things.  We will do that right after the Christmas holidays.  If someone calls wanting me to do something during that time I can simply tell them I am already booked for that week and we need to find another time for what they want to do.

There will come a time when our lives will end.  More important than anything else we'll leave behind are the memories we created.  I don't want my family to remember me for all the meetings I attended or any recognition I may have received.  I want them to remember the times we spent together laughing and playing and loving one another.  Make sure your life includes those times as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Discipleship in the smaller church

Our region will make discipleship its primary emphasis in 2011.  We've currently scheduled Jeffrey Jones to lead a workshp in our region in February to address the question of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.  I'm excited about this emphasis because I really feel that making disciples is something the church often overlooks or goes about it the wrong way.

For many years we've associated discipleship with education.  When church leaders are asked about the discipleship program in their church too many of them want to talk about their Sunday school or small group programs.  We offer Sunday schools on Sunday mornings, Sunday night and mid-week Bible studies, perhaps a women's Bible study during the week, and another one for men on Saturday morning.  The theory seems to be that if we fill people's heads with enough information they will become disciples.  Unfortunately, this works better in theory than in practice.

Discipleship requires education plus involvement.  People have to be given the opportunity to use the information they have been taught, and we don't want to make the mistake of believing that they must first pass all the Bible study programs we offer before they can become involved in ministry.  Jesus didn't make His disciples graduate from seminary or from a church-led education program before they could be engaged in ministry.  He sent them out to minister while they were being taught.  This is the model the church today needs to recapture.

One of the problems is that if we expect members of our congregations to attend all the Bible studies and other church functions we offer, when do we expect them to be involved in ministry?  I recently read somewhere that the average person is willing to give four hours a week to church activities.  If this is true, it would be very easy to use up all that time in church activities while never providing them the time or opportunity to be involved in ministry outside the church.

Don't accuse me of being opposed to Bible study.  I think we need to provide as many ways as possible to help people understand the teachings of Scripture.  In the process let's not overlook the value of involving people in activities that will allow them to use what they are learning.  Let's teach our people the truths of the Bible and provide opportunities for them to be involved in ministry to others.  That is the process that will produce disciples.

I would be interested in knowing how your church balances that process.  What is your church doing to develop 21st century disciples, and how effective is it?  If you don't have an intentional plan for discipling your congregation what could you do in 2011 to begin such a plan?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Intentional ministry

What is your church planning to intentionally do to make a difference in people's lives in 2011?  As I think back to the years I served as a pastor I regret the many times our church was just drifting along enjoying the journey.  We were comfortable.  We enjoyed spending time with one another.  There was very little conflict during that twenty year pastorate.  But, there were also a lot of times when we really weren't doing much to make a difference.  The times when we were most alive and most effective were the times we were focused on some specific area of ministry, and it was during those times that people's lives were impacted for the good.

I want to encourage you to spend these last few days of 2010 praying about how God would like to use your church in the coming year.  As I repeatedly say in this blog and in my workshops, I am convinced that God has a specific vision for each church.  It does not matter how large or small your church is, the average age of the congregation, the amount of money you have in your church bank account, or the style of music in your worship service.  God has a unique purpose for your church in 2011.  There are ministries that your church can offer your community that will make a difference.  I also believe that the most exciting time in the life of your church is when your congregation identifies what that purpose is and seeks to fulfill it.

The leadership cannot force that purpose upon a congregation, but unless the leadership leads in the discovery process, the church is likely to continue to drift along.  What are the steps a church can take in discerning God's purpose for their congregation?  There are many ways to approach this, but you must begin with prayer.  Earnestly ask God what your church could do in 2011 that will have the greatest impact on the most people.  Help people understand their spiritual giftedness and help them identify ministries for which they feel passion.  Identify existing needs in your community.  You will find that where the gifts of the people, the passion of the people, and the needs of the community intersect is where God desires your church to minister.  If you can discover this place of service you will find 2011 can be one of the most exciting years of ministry you will ever know.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Transition to bivocational ministry

Over the past few months I've talked with some churches that have been served by fully-funded pastors and now find that they need to look for a bivocational minister.  Many of these churches struggle with this transition.  One of their struggles has to do with their self-image.  They wonder why they can no longer attract a fully-funded pastor or why their finances are such that they could not offer a suitable salary even if a fully-funded pastor was willing to come to their church.  Others struggle with issues of expectations.  Too often, they may pay a bivocational salary, but they still have the same expectations of the pastor they've always had.  Just this week I talked with an individual who is considering a call to a bivocational church.  Prior to him, this church has been served by a fully-funded pastor.  I encouraged him to help the church identify their expectations of his responsibilities before accepting the call.  Unless this church recognizes the limitations he will bring to his pastorate, and they are willing to step in and assume some of the ministry responsibilities, it may find itself in some real conflict within a very short period of time.

The denomination in which I serve has a model we use to assist our churches when they are searching for a new pastor, but the model we have is often not helpful for bivocational churches.  I've been able to modify it a little to provide some assistance, but we need to develop a new model to assist bivocational churches that are seeking pastoral leadership.  We especially need a model for those churches that are making the transition from fully-funded to bivocational leadership.  One of my goals for 2011 is to develop such a model, and I can use your help.

I would be very interested in hearing your stories if you have been involved in helping a church transition from a fully-funded pastorate to a bivocational one.  I want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly that occurred in that transition.  It would be helpful to hear from both bivocational ministers and from lay leaders who have been involved in the transition so we can hear from both sides.  If you are a pastor who has been through this transition with your church, please send me your story and ask one of your lay leaders to share his or her perspective on how that transtion went and the obstacles that had to be overcome for it to be successful.

Many of us in judicatory leadership have churches that will be making this transition in the next few years, and I think developing this model could be a great help to all of us.  Your stories can help create that model.  Please send them to dbickers@roadrunner.com.  Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Holiday joy

A few days ago I posted about the problem some people have with depression around the holidays.  This can also be a problem for church leaders.  As pastors and other church leaders there are always additional pressures around the holiday season.  Often, there are additional church dinners which makes healthy eating a challenge.  There may be special programs that require additional rehearsals and more time from the leaders.  Trying to meet the special needs of the people I mentioned in the earlier post can present challenges.  Added to all the extra demands on the leaders around the holidays, there are also the extra family needs.  Christmas presents need to be purchased and family times planned.  The holidays are stressful enough on a family without seeing the pastor parent have to leave a holiday dinner or family gathering early because of a church emergency.

I want to encourage you to build some margin in your life this holiday season.  Not all emergencies are truly emergencies.  You may need to say no to some request during the holidays in order to have more time to spend with your family.  Eliminate unnecessary committee meetings during the month of December.  (Your committee members will appreciate this as well.)  Spend less time in the church office and be harder to reach on your cell phone.  After all, there are a lot of dead zones out there!  Your church continues to need your leadership, but your family needs you for the holidays as well, so find a good balance.  If I was going to err, I would want to err on the side of spending extra time with family.  After all, twenty years from now the church will probably refer to you as "Pastor What-was-his-name?"  Twenty years from now you will want your family to still have wonderful memories of those special Christmas moments you created over the years. To me, that is still the truest ministry of all.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Favorite books for 2010 (part 2)

Today we will complete the list I began yesterday of my top 10 favorite reads for 2010.

5.  Nelson Searcy, Ignite: How to Spark Immediate Growth in Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009).  This was another book I used as a textbook in the course I taught this fall.  I have become a big fan of Searcy and have read most of his books.  In this book he promotes the idea of having several Big Days in the life of your church to which your members can invite their friends.  One of his ideas that I really like is that God will not send new people to a church that is not prepared to receive them.  It is important that a church not only expects to see new people each Sunday, but that they are ready for them when they do come.  This is a great book for anyone serious about wanting to see their church reach new people for the Kingdom of God.

4.  Ed Stetzer, Richie Stanley, and Jason Hayes, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009).  This is another book on reaching people, especially the twenty and thirty year olds that many churches are not reaching.  Based upon solid research the authors provide some of the reasons why this age group is absent from so many of our churches and what they are seeking from churches.  They identified four markers that must exist in a church that is serious about reaching this younger generation: community, depth and content, responsibility, and cross-generational connection.  The good news is that this generation is spiritually hungry and is open to the gospel.  The better news is that this book provides some solid help in reaching them.

3.  Tim Irwin, Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).  This is not a book about ministry.  It was written for business leaders, but the message found in this book certainly applies to anyone in a ministry role as well.  Irwin looks at six high profile business leaders who experienced major failures in their leadership.  After describing those failures and the results of those failures, he identifies five important lessons leaders should learn from reading this book.  #1 - Character trumps competence.  #2 - Arrogance is the mother of all derailers.  #3 - Lack of self-/other awareness is a common denominator of all derailments.  #4 - We are always who we are...especially under stress.  #5 - Derailment is not inevitable, but without attention to development it is probable.  I found this book to be a very interesting and troubling read.  What made it troubling is that I have known ministry leaders who failed as a result of all five of these factors.  Many of them are no longer in ministry today.  This book could have a profound impact on your own success as a leader, and I certainly recommend it.

2.  Tim Clinton and Joshua Straub, God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God (New York: Howard Books, 2010).  Everyone believes something about God.  Some are willing to give their lives for God while others find the concept of God offensive.  One reaches out to God from his hospital bed while in the next bed another person curses God.  Why such contrasts?  The authors, both Christian counselors and professors, believe the answer is found in the relationship styles we developed as we were growing up.  They identify four styles: secure attachment, anxious, avoidant, and fearful.  Not only to these styles impact the way we relate to other people, they impact the way we relate to God.  Fortunately, they do more than diagnose; they also offer healing and the means for us to become securely attached to God in a healthy, meaningful way that can have positive effects on our lives.  Reading this book gave me some insights into my own relationship style and helped me identify some ways I could improve it.  I found it to be an extremely helpful book, and I believe it would benefit anyone to read it.

1.  Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).  We have now come to my favorite book for 2010!  We all remember the tragic news of a shooting in 2006 inside an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania.  Five Amish girls were killed and five others wounded.  We were shocked at the news, but perhaps many of us were even more shocked a few days later when we began hearing of how the Amish community were offering forgiveness and grace to the family of the shooter.  Many wondered how they could do that, especially so quickly.  The authors have studied the Amish for years and present us with a look at the simple faith of the Amish that makes such forgiveness possible.  Throughout the book I was reminded of my own struggles with offering forgiveness to persons who had wronged me.  Simple biblical truths about forgiveness and grace came alive to me through the examples of the people discussed in the book.  This was a book that deeply moved me, challenged me, and at times convicted me of how far short I often fall in my Christian walk.  I believe this is a must read for anyone struggling to forgive someone or for the person who is wanting to grow deeper in his or her walk with God.

Well, this is my list.  There are books here that will help you grow spiritually, develop your leadership skills, and help your church have a greater impact on your community.  If you are looking for something to read and not sure what you're looking for, you can use these as a starting point.  Check them out in your library or the next time you're in your favorite bookstore.  You can order any of them from amazon.com by clicking on the title in this post.  If you do decide to read any of them, please let me know what you thought of them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Favorite books for 2010

Last year I posted my favorite ten book reads for 2009.  Several commented positively on the list so I decided I would do it again this year.  I am slightly over my average of reading one book a week this year, and it wasn't easy to narrow the list down to a top 10, but for one reason or another these are the books that made it to the top.  I will list 6-10 today and give my five top favorites tomorrow.

10.  Elmer L. Towns, Praying the Lord's Prayer For Spiritual Breakthrough (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1997).  This is actually a re-read of a book that has helped my prayer life and my spiritual life.  Since reading this book the first time I have followed Towns' example of praying the Lord's Prayer when I lay down at night and when I first wake up in the morning.  Praying it slowly and thinking about what I'm really saying has become a very meaningful part of my spiritual disciplines.  I recommend reading this book as part of your daily devotional time.

9.  David Berlinski, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and it's Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009).  Berlinski is a secular Jew who holds a PhD from Princeton University.  This book provides a wonderful defense of religious thought and it challenges the thinking of today's well-known atheists.  It can get a little heavy at times and is not a quick read, but it is an enjoyable one.  I love the humor Berlinski brings as he asks the questions that the atheists cannot answer.  One of my favorites in the book is "The thesis that there are no absolute truths - is it an absolute truth?  If it is, then some truths are absolute after all, and if some are, why not others?  If it is not, just why should we pay it any mind, since its claims on our attention will vary according to circumstance?" (129-130)

8.  John C. Maxwell, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).  One cannot be successful in ministry, in family life, in business, or in any other endeavor without the ability to communicate well and connect with others.  Leaders of smaller churches especially need to remember that one of the most important characteristics needed for an effective ministry is the ability to relate well with others.  In my opinion, this is one of Maxwell's best books in recent years as he addresses this important skill.  Everyone can learn to better connect with people, and this book can help you learn those skills.

7.  Bill Hybels, Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2008).  This little book contains 76 leadership proverbs that Hybels has learned as the pastor at Willow Creek Community Church.  He breaks these principals down into four categories - vision and strategy, teamwork and communication, activity and assessment, and personal integrity.  I found it to be full of excellent advice for anyone in a position of leadership.

6.  Kevin G. Ford, Transforming Church: Bringing Out the Good to Get to Great (Carol Stream, IL: SaltRiver, 2007).  Church transformation seems to be a key word today.  Most church leaders know the church must transform itself if it hopes to effectively minister in the 21st century, but many confess they don't know how to bring about such transformation.  This book can help with that.  Based upon solid studies of the American church, Ford gives the reader five indicators that can be used to evaluate his or her church and the steps that can lead to transformation.  I used this book as a textbook for a college class I taught this year on "Growing a Healthy Church."

Tomorrow I will share my top five reads for 2010.  Before closing this post, let me share one book that made honorable mention.  I didn't feel it was appropriate to include it in the top 10 since it was one of my books, so I decided to give it honorable mention.  The Healthy Pastor is being very well-received by pastors of all size churches and across denominational lines.  The subtitle explains the book well: Easing the Stresses of Ministry.  We will never eliminate ministry stress, but I tried in this book to demonstrate some ways that those stresses can be significantly reduced.  As the stress levels becomes less, our effectiveness increases.  I certainly recommend you add this to your 2011 reading list.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holiday depression

One of the ironic things about holidays is that in the midst of all the joy and excitement some people struggle with depression and other feelings of sadness.  It may be due to the loss of a loved one who will not be part of the holiday celebration.  It could be the result of finances that do not allow for gift giving.  We could probably make a long list of possible causes and still not include everything, but the end result is that the holidays can be a time of tremendous sadness for a lot of people.

This is a time to bring messages of hope and comfort to the people in your churches.  This can be done through the messages that are preached, the decorations that fill the church buildings, and the special personal things that are done.  The Christmas season is a wonderful time to make sure the widowed, the ill, those in assisted living homes, and others in your church are touched by as many people from your church as possible.  Perhaps a family with small children can "adopt" a senior citizen who is alone for the holidays.  A family that is struggling financially will greatly appreciate some assistance from their church family during the holiday season.  I can remember a couple of Christmases when our church provided all the Christmas dinners and gifts for some families in our congregation that were struggling financially.  Please don't forget the families of your service men and women either during the holiday season.  This can be an especially tough time for them.

The Christmas story is one of hope and joy, and your messages should reflect that.  Lead your congregation in the celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world, and do so in both word and deed.  It will make Christmas brighter for you as well as for those you touch.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What are you reading?

I recently read about a 2007 survey that found that the average American read four books in 2006.  The article went on to talk about similar findings in other surveys taken since 2000.   As someone who reads approximately a book a week I find this troubling.  What makes this even more troubling to me is that I am finding that this same trend is true for people serving in ministry positions and other leadership roles.

Leaders are readers.  There is simply too much information out there for anyone in a leadership position not to be reading.  New information is being discovered daily that can make you more effective in whatever it is you are doing.  Some of the old information that you might be relying on may at the least not be very effective today and at the worst might be harmful to your ministry.  Just yesterday I was looking at some old ministry books in my library that I bought when I first began my ministry in 1981.  I would hate to think I had not grown since then but was still relying on the information those books contained.  (I actually used four of those books to prop up a display I was making which seems to be the way they are now most valuable.)

In December I will report on the top 10 books I read in 2010.  I did that last year for my 2009 reading and received several comments from my blog readers about how much they appreciated that, so I'll do it again this year.

On my "to read" stack I now have eleven books that are waiting for me to tackle.  Tomorrow my wife and I will do some Christmas shopping and on our way back home I'll stop in a book store to look for a book I'm wanting to read.  I am about to finish reading two books and will be able to replace them immediately with others, and that is what I recommend for you. 

What are some things you want to learn more about in 2011?  What are some areas in which you would like to grow?  Find some good books on those subjects and dive right in.  Make yourself a list of books you want to read in the coming year and begin buying them.  If you aren't sure where to begin reading, I sometimes recommend books in the postings on this blog.  Just click on the highlighted words to see some of the books I have found helpful to my own life and ministry.  Just be sure to invest in yourself in 2011 by reading some good books that will help you be more effective in all the things you do.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

2011 Challenges

What do you believe will be the biggest challenges you will face in 2011?  None of us have a crystal ball nor can we predict the future with much accuracy, but if there are things brewing in your life, your workplace, your family, or your church you may have a good idea of what challenges the new year will hold.  If you are able to identify some potential challenges, what are you doing now to prepare for them?  Are you reading current material that addresses these challenges and the best ways to respond to them?  Have you looked for a coach to help you through these challenges?  Are you talking to people who may have successfully addressed these challenges before you to learn what they did right and perhaps some of the traps you can avoid?  There are a number of things you can do to prepare yourself for those anticipated challenges.  The worst thing you can do is to pretend those challenges aren't real and do nothing to be prepared for them.

A pastor friend of mine began a new ministry at a church and almost immediately began to hear the name of an individual who had been a thorn in the side of the previous pastor.  This person opposed almost everything the previous pastor tried to do.  The new pastor was wise enough to realize that he should not expect to escape the same problems from this individual, so he invited the individual out to lunch for an honest discussion.  Because this pastor was willing to honestly confront the individual and offer to work together with this individual, I believe he earned that person's respect.  They found they could work together and agree on many issues, and the church benefitted from their relationship.  This pastor knew that it was only a matter of time before this person would probably represent a challenge to his ministry, and rather than waiting for that to happen he decided to be proactive in trying to establish a relationship with this individual based upon mutual respect and a common desire for the success of the church.

Your anticipated challenge may not be church related.  Perhaps your oldest child will be leaving in 2011 for college.  Although it has been several years since my children went off to school I still remember how painful that was.  Maybe it will be your youngest child who is leaving home making you an empty-nester.  I also remember the pain that caused my wife and me.  The house was so silent when we returned from taking our youngest to college.  Planning ahead can help ease that pain.

Maybe your challenge will be retirement.  You will be free to do whatever you want if you only knew what you wanted to do!  I have known people who did not prepare well for retirement and did not know what to do with themselves.  One person I knew took early retirement from his job and hated it almost from day one.  Every time I saw him he complained that it was the worst mistake he ever made.  A few months later he passed away.  I don't think he had a reason to live and just gave up.

Take the month of December and survey the things going on in your life and the things you anticipate will happen in 2011.  If you can identify and prepare yourself for even one or two of the challenges you'll face this coming year you'll be much better prepared to address them when they do happen.  And if they don't happen, you'll still be better off having prepared yourself for them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I wanted to take a moment to wish each of you a Happy Thanksgiving.  This seems to be the forgotten holiday in America these days.  As stores are putting their Halloween candy on mark-down they are also putting up their Christmas trees.  There just doesn't seem to be much room for Thanksgiving.  I hope that isn't a reflection on the fact that we are not a very thankful people because we have much to give thanks for this year.

Thanksgiving Day is a great time to stop for a moment to reflect on all the reasons you have to give thanks.  I know that many people are struggling financially right now.  People are out of work or working at lesser jobs than they previously had.  Many have lost their homes and so much more.  We've had some challenges this year ourselves.  But, when I look at the suffering that exists in so much of the world I realize how blessed my family and I am.  Our two children and their families will come in this evening and spend the next few days at our house.  We'll get to spend time with them, enjoy the grandkids, and eat too much wonderful food my wife will prepare.  I'm thankful that we can do that.

If Thanksgiving Day is too hectic for you to take a few moments for reflection, then please do so sometime during this weekend.  I'm sure it won't take long for you to realize how blessed you are.  We serve a great God who is continually watching over us.  He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us, and that one promise alone is enough to make me thankful.

Enjoy the holiday and be blessed!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The balcony perspective

Some leadership books I've read lately have advocated for getting a balcony perspective on the organization you're leading.  Since this blog is for church leaders I wondered if this idea would work in a church, and there is no question in my mind that it will.

The rationale is this.  If you are on a dance floor you are aware of the things that are going on around you, and it may seem that everything is great.  The music is good, people are dancing and having a good time, and it seems the dance is a hit.  However, if you are in an area where people are waiting for someone to dance with them or if a couple at the next table is having a disagreement your opinion of the dance might be quite a bit different.  It's only when you leave the dance floor and go up on the balcony can you see everything that is going on below you.  From there you can see the people enjoying themselves as well as those who wish they were anywhere but there.  From the balcony you have a much better idea of how successful the dance is.

As bivocational church leaders we can be overcome by all the things that are demanding our attention.  There are days when it seems all we do is put out fires.  We go through times when we feel that nothing we are doing makes a difference.  The real discouragement comes when we try to look ahead and really can't see where anything is ever going to change no matter what we do.  That's why it's important that we get on the balcony and look down at all the things going on at the church.

When we do that we will see the disgruntled deacons and the matriarchs that are still mad that someone sat in their pew last Sunday, but we will see other things as well.  We'll see that couple whose marriage was having problems, and we were able to help them work through some things.  We'll see the teenager who was about to walk away from the church until we talked to him one day about some of the problems he was having at home.  We'll see the senior saint who came to us with a theological question about her relationship with God, and who left that conversation finally convinced that God had indeed forgiven her for that thing many years ago.  We'll see many things from the balcony that we couldn't see on the dance floor, and we'll see that our ministry in this place is making a difference.

From the balcony we can also see some things that might need changed.  I was in a church recently that is experimenting with changes to their worship service.  This is a traditional church with over a 150 year history.  Two years ago they called a new pastor who has slowly helped them see things from the balcony about their worship service, and they are now willing to try some new things to make the worship experience in their church more meaningful to those who attend.  Another church had a pastor who could see that their current leadership structure could not take their church forward into the 21st century.  At first, the members couldn't see the need to make any changes.  Slowly, he began to take leaders up on the balcony with him so they could see what he was seeing.  It took a few years to get enough of the leaders on board to make it happen, but the church eventually made drastic changes in their leadership structure that are already creating positive changes in the church.

I would encourage you to spend some time on the balcony during December taking a bird's-eye view of your church.  Write down some of the things you see from the balcony.  What are some things that need to be addressed in 2011?  What are some positive things that are happening in your church that you want to preserve?  Make a list of the people you have seen make positive changes in their lives since you've served this church, and think about what your role was in those changes.  You will probably find your church and your personal ministry looks much different from the balcony than they do in the midst of the day-to-day challenges you face.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Financial package for bivocational ministers

Many churches have already completed their budget process for 2011 while others are still working on it.   Chances are that your church has not officially adopted the budget yet, so this post could still be helpful to you.

Few bivocational ministers are paid well.  Some churches simply won't pay the pastor what he or she is worth even though they are capable of doing better, but I find many churches want to pay their bivocational pastor more and do not have the funds to do so.  There are ways for a church to increase the true salary of the pastor without it costing them any more money to do so.  Let me say at the outset that I am not a financial advisor and my recommendations should be verified with your tax person.

The greatest benefit a church can provide its minister is a housing allowance.  A housing allowance must be set up correctly to be valid, but it is not difficult to do so.  The pastor estimates what it will cost to provide housing for the year and presents that to the church.  This estimate should include rent or mortgage payments, utilities, repairs, insurance, taxes, maintenance, furniture, and any other cost the minister believes he or she will incur during the coming year that is associated with the home.  If you want to keep your receipts I understand you can even include your cleaning supplies.  That amount must be designated by the church IN ADVANCE for the allowance to be valid.  This designation can be done as a line item in the budget or by having a statement to the effect in the official minutes of the church.  In addition, if the minister files a long form the mortgage principle and taxes can still be deducted giving you a dual deduction.  That mortgage allowance will not be subject to federal taxes although you still have to pay Social Security taxes on that amount.  You should also know that if you do not actually use the estimated amount you must pay taxes on the difference,and if you exceed your estimate you cannot claim the additional amount at the end of the year.  It must be designated in advance.  As you can see, this can add a substantial amount to the pastor's income without any increase in salary from the church.  I have used the housing allowance throughout my ministry and have saved thousands of dollars.  Word is that the current administration in Washington is looking at eliminating this benefit so I don't know how long it will be available to ministers, but it is certainly worth doing in 2011.

A second benefit is to provide the minister with a medical flexible spending account (FSA).  Again, this money is deducted from the minister's salary before taxes and is based upon his or her estimate of what the out-of-pocket medical expenses will be for the upcoming year.  When the minister spends money on a prescription or doctor visit or some other medical procedure they submit a statement to the church who then reimburses them from the FSA for the amount they spent.  The amount in the FSA is the amount the minister has estimated he or she will need.  It is important to be careful with this estimate because if you do not use all that money it is lost to you.  The first year I had an FSA I had to get new glasses and prescription sunglasses at the end of the year to use up the amount I had in my account.  It's the first time in my life I had prescription sunglasses.  This is a little trickier than the housing allowance so I would suggest the church get advice from a tax consultant to be sure to properly establish the FSA.  There have been changes in the program for 2011 due to Obamacare, so it will be important to understand those changes.  However, this is another good way for the minister to save money on taxes which adds to the value of his or her salary package, and it doesn't cost the church a dime.

The third benefit I will mention is reimbursable expenses.  Ministers often have out-of-pocket expenses related to their ministries.  These expenses are for the benefit of the church, and the church should reimburse the minister for them.   Such expenses can include things such as ministry related mileage, ministry related books and magazines, convention expenses, continuing education, hospitality, and other expenses that are incurred for the benefit of the church.  When I was a bivocational pastor I received $400 a year for books, $300 a year for convention expenses, and another $300 a year for continuing education.  Some churches make the mistake of including these in the pastor's salary, but that makes them taxable.  If the minister is reimbursed for actual expenses the money is not taxable.  Again, the minister can save a few hundred dollars a year on taxes with a properly designed reimbursable plan with no extra cost to the church.

Many churches are struggling financially during these difficult times.  As a result I am being told by a lot of pastors that they are not receiving salary increases this year, and in some cases they didn't receive one last year either.  By including just these three items in the pastor's salary package a church can add several hundreds (even thousands) of dollars to the pastor's net income without incurring any additional cost to the church.  Again, talk to a tax professional about properly setting these up to ensure the are done correctly.  It will be well worth your time to do so.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Live life on purpose

Have you ever sat down and developed a plan for your life?  Some Christians think that such a plan shows a lack of faith in God and that we should just allow God to lead us in the path He has chosen for us.  I believe that God will lead us, but I also believe that He can lead us through planning ahead as well as through the the day-to-day choices we have to make.  Such planning can be done at any age, but the earlier we do it the greater the benefit will probably be.

I have to confess that I never really planned much of my life.  This post will be very personal because I now look back on that lack of planning with some regrets.  For much of my life I simply plodded ahead without a plan and dealt with whatever came up each day.  I am now at a stage of my life where I cannot go back for a do-over.  There are things that I wish I could now do that are probably not going to happen because I didn't prepare for them earlier in life.

What are some things that we should include in a life plan?  There is the spiritual aspect of life that should be important to every believer.  I don't believe many Christians have any kind of intentional plan to continue to grow spiritually.  Most go about their lives six days a week and try to go to church at least once a few Sundays each month.  The most dedicated may even attend Sunday school or even a mid-week service, but even that doesn't guarantee spiritual growth.  Spiritual growth, what used to be called discipleship, isn't just the accumulation of knowledge but includes putting that knowledge into action.  Spiritual growth doesn't happen without serving others, and at least part of that service should occur outside the walls of the church.

We should also plan for the physical aspect of our lives.  Americans have a serious problem with obesity.  I have fought weight problems all my life so I know how tough it is.  Last year I lost 50 pounds, but this year I let 15 pounds of that creep back in, and I'm working now to get it back off.  Many of the health problems we have are due to poor self-care: eating too much, smoking, drinking alcohol, a lack of exercise, etc.  Paul wrote that he disciplined his body, and we must do the same.  When I finish this post I am going to the gym where I try to work out at least three times a week, but I can tell you that mentally I don't want to go.  I have already thought of 4-5 reasons why I shouldn't go today.  For me, it is a discipline issue.  Do you have a plan for maintain a healthy lifestyle, and are you dedicated enough to live out that plan?  Or, will you make another New Year's resolution to eat better and exercise more and promptly forget about it on January 3rd?

Few people give much planning around their finances, and I'm afraid I am in the majority on this one too.  I recently read a recommendation to begin your working career living on 80 percent of your take home pay.  Ten percent goes to the Lord as your tithe and the other ten percent goes into your savings and investments.  The key is doing that as soon as you begin earning an income no matter how small it might be.  If we could start off that way in our very first job it would be easier to do throughout our working careers.  Living like that throughout working lives would allow us to enjoy a great deal of financial freedom that the majority of people will never know.  But, it takes a plan.  It means that you don't go into debt, you spend your money wisely, and you don't worry about keeping u with the Joneses. 

How much planning have to given to your career and ministry?  I separate the two because I know many of my readers are bivocational ministers who have both a career and a ministry.  I also want to be very careful here because I have a real problem with ministers who use churches as stepping stones to get to bigger and more prestigious churches.  I don't believe any church should be used as a stepping stone, and those who use them as such probably were not called by God to any of them regardless of what they might tell the church search committee.  How have you prepared yourself for the work God has called you to?  Planning ahead might help you see that your calling could change over time and you will need to prepare for that change.

Those of you who know my story know that I became a pastor with no ministerial experience and no education beyond high school.  Over the years I have earned three degrees including a recent DMin.  These degrees were pursued not for the sake of the degree but for the education I received with the degree.  Because I waited until later in life to pursue higher education I probably appreciate the education I have received more than if I had gone directly into college after high school.  But, the process of earning these degrees has been more challenging because I didn't begin until I already had a job, and a church to serve, and a family to raise.  I've spent my whole life earning an education that could have been earned in 10-12 years.  At times I do wonder how my life would have been different if I had taken a more traditional approach to education.

Now, I am interested in doing some other things with my life and finding that doors are not opening for me because I don't have a PhD or the experiences others have.  There's really nothing that can be done about either.  At 62 years of age I'm not going back for a PhD.  I'm not sure what that means except that unless God opens doors these things are probably not going to happen.

When I graduated from high school in 1966 I never gave any of these things a thought.  When I began my pastorate in 1981 I never thought God would ever want me to do anything other than pastor that church, and my intention was to stay there all my life.  I never really considered that God might want to open up other doors and that I needed to prepare myself for those opportunities.  Unknowingly, I made a choice to not develop a plan for my life in any of the areas I've mentioned, and that choice has now limited the choices that are available to me today.  I would encourage each of my readers to spend some time prayerfully considering what your lives might look like 20-30 years from now.  What gifts has God given you?  What are you passionate about?  How can you prepare yourself spiritually, physically, financially, and educationally for the new doors you would like to see God open up?  This can be done at any age, but the younger you are the more benefit you'll receive from such planning.  Live life on purpose and you'll find that life becomes a lot more enjoyable.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Freedom Trio

In the years I've written this blog I've tried to not promote specific speakers or musicians.  Because people's preferences are so different I can't assume that anyone would enjoy what I do.  However, I am going to promote a group in this posting, and I would encourage you to consider inviting them to your church, especially if your congregation enjoys good Southern Gospel music.  Just so you know, I am NOT their promoter and I'm not being paid a dime for this plug.

Freedom is a new trio that began in April of this year.  Although this group is new, the members of the group have spent time with major Southern Gospel groups in the past.  Josh Garner was the lead singer for the Florida Boys, a true legendary Southern Gospel group, for eight years until they retired in 2007.  John Rulapaugh sang with the Dove Brothers and Palmetto State Quartet before partnering with Josh to form Freedom.  Joel Trimble was a member of Soul'd Out Quartet before joining Freedom.

This morning I had the opportunity to hear this group for the second time, and I have to say that I am very impressed.  You will not find a better sounding Southern Gospel group anywhere, but that is not what impresses me the most.  For many years my wife and I were permanent seat holders at the Southern Gospel Quartet Convention held in Louisville, KY.  During the week of the convention we would sit in our seats for six hours each night listening to dozens of the best Southern Gospel groups in the nation.  Most were very good and professional, but only a few truly led people in worship.  Freedom not only offers excellent music; they will lead your congregation in the worship of God, and that is what impresses me most about this group.

I know that many of the readers of this blog are pastors of smaller, bivocational churches.  Many of you may feel that you cannot afford to bring in a professional group.  I would encourage you to contact Josh Garner at 865-366-5155 and see what you can work out.  Both of the times I heard them were at smaller churches so don't automatically assume you can't bring this group into your church.  You can also find out more about them at their web site http://www.freedomtrio.com/.

If you or your church don't enjoy Southern Gospel music you probably won't enjoy Freedom.  That's fine because there are many ways to worship God musically.  But if you do enjoy good Southern Gospel music then you need to check out this new group.  The pastor of the church where they sang this morning called me this evening to thank me for recommending them and to tell me how much he and his church enjoyed them.  I really believe you'll like the quality of their music, and, even more, you'll enjoy the worship experience they will bring to your congregation.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hold your heads up high

If you have been following the Ed Stetzer blog I mentioned earlier you have read a few comments that really denigrates bivocational ministry, especially by one writer.  He keeps referring to ministry as the highest calling and seems to look down on those who work for a living to serve a bivocational church.  I think it's telling that in an earlier post he admits that he tried bivocational ministry for a time, and it didn't work for him.  If one isn't called and gifted for such ministry then it won't work, but that doesn't mean that it's not an acceptable call for the rest of us.  While it's impossible to read emotions and attitudes in a blog post or e-mail (which is one reason they are dangerous to write), his arguments sound a lot like those I've heard all my ministerial life.  They show a lack of understanding of the nature and call of bivocational ministry and they show a ministerial arrogance towards those who accept such a calling.  Unfortunately, it is still the case that too many fully-funded ministers look upon bivocational ministers as second-class citizens who aren't good enough to serve in a fully-funded church.

This post is to reaffirm your calling to bivocational ministry and to encourage you to keep your heads lifted high.  Bivocational ministry is neither superior nor is it inferior to fully-funded ministry.  It is simply a different calling to address a need that exists in the church today.  If God has entrusted such a call on your life then you should feel honored that He trusts you with that responsibility.  You should also know that He has uniquely gifted you to fulfill that call, and that He will give you the strength and wisdom to serve your church and perfom your other duties as well.

I write often about missional churches, and the bivocational pastor lives and serves in the midst of the mission field.  We're working on an assembly line or in an insurance office or flipping burgers in the middle of the mission field God has given us.  We are working side by side with people for whom Jesus Christ died, and we have opportunities to live our faith in front of people who would never consider stepping inside one of our church buildings.  Our work closely resembles that of the missionaries who serve overseas and work alongside of the people they have been called to reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  To me, to see ourselves as missionaries to our immediate unchurched communities places bivocational ministry in a whole different light.

There is no doubt that bivocational ministry can be very difficult at times.  Not everyone can do it, but for those of us who have been called to this ministry we need to recognize there is no higher calling.  You are a valued servant in the Kingdom of God.  Refuse to allow those who do not understand your calling or the work you do to get you down.  Keep your eyes upon the One who called you and you'll have no problem holding your head up high.  God bless each and every one of you.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ed Stetzer has a great blog post

You may want to check out the discussion on Ed Stetzer's blog about bivocational ministry.  I've responded a couple of times.  You'll find it at http://www.edstetzer.com/2010/11/thursday-is-for-thinkers-joshu.html.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Great weekend

This past weekend I had the opportunity to lead two workshops for the Illinois District of the Church of the Nazarene.  I was asked to lead two half-day workshops: "The Healthy Pastor" and "Transforming the Small Church." We had a lot of good discussion around both topics, and I felt the day was well spent.  The following day I preached at the host church for the workshop, the Salem Grace Church of the Nazarene in Salem, IL.  My wife got to go with me on this trip, and we enjoyed our time with the good folks at Salem Grace.  They were most hospitable and the worship service was tremendous.  It was a great weekend.

That was my last scheduled workshop for 2010.  I am currently scheduling workshops for 2011.  The workshops I lead are
  • Bivocational Ministry for the 21st Century
  • The Healthy Small Church
  • The Healthy Pastor
  • Transforming the Small Church from Maintenance-Minded to Missional
  • The Importance of Church Hospitality to Reach New People
If you believe any of these workshops would be helpful to your congregation, please feel free to contact me.  I would be happy to set up a workshop for a judicatory leader who wants to invite his or her district, region, or convention churches.  Any of these workshops are available as a one-day, half-day, or 90 minute presentation.  I prefer the day long workshops as they allow me to better cover each area, but they can be presented in the format that will work best for your situation.  I have led these workshops for church leaders from the Church of the Nazarene, American Baptist Churches, Southern Baptist Convention, General Baptists, Salvation Army, and the Atlantic Baptist Mission.  In addition, I have led some of them for leaders from various mainline denominations at national gatherings. Due to my work as a judicatory leader I can only schedule a limited number of these each year, so I do encourage you to contact me soon if you have an interest in any of them.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Looking ahead at the church

Dwight Stinnet is the Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region which includes Illinois and part of Missouri.  Dwight writes his Current Thoughts for the churches of his region, and I thought his most recent one was a very realistic and challenging look at the state of the church.  I believe what he said about the size churches many of us serve was especially important and wanted to share them with you.  You can read his thoughts at http://www.abcgrr.org/currentthoughts/31Oct2010.html.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Talking about our differences

This post is not political nor is an indictment on particular individuals, but I want to discuss a disturbing trend that is happening in the political arena and in too many of our churches.  We've all seen the clips this week of Whoopie Goldberg and Joy Behar walking off The View because of statements Bill O'Reilly made about 9/11.  Barbara Walters quickly told her audience that what they had just seen should not have happened.  As she said, people should be able to discuss their differences without shouting and using profanity, and they certainly should not walk away rather than defend their positions.

Today a similar thing happened when NPR fired one of their senior correspondents, Juan Williams, because of statements he made on O'Reilly's program, The O'Reilly Factor.  This action of NPR was especially interesting because NPR is a very liberal organization, and Williams is certainly left of center on many of his views.  However, because he made a statement with which the management of NPR disagreed he was terminated.  I always assumed that since NPR receives much of their money from the Federal government that it would welcome a wide variety of opinions and provide opportunities for those opinions to be discussed.  Obviously, I was wrong.

We are nearing the end of perhaps the nastiest campaigns I have ever witnessed, and it can't end too soon for me.  At least in our part of the country there is little discussion about policies or solutions to the problems facing the country.  We are bombarded with some of the meanest attack ads I can ever remember seeing.  Candidates from both political parties seem to have decided that we won't talk about our differences; we'll just attack each other and see who ends up with the least amount of mud covering them on election day.

These political examples wouldn't really have any reason to be in a blog about bivocational ministry except that we see the same thing happening in many of our churches and denominations.  In too many churches there is little discussion about the different views people may have.  Instead we go to the parking lots and try to find supporters for our position.  If we can round up enough supporters and  get loud enough to drown out the opposition we can win.  We don't have to debate the merits of our positions; we only have to threaten our opponents.  "If this change goes through we'll leave the church!"  "If this gets approved you won't see any more money in the offering plate from our family."  "Pastor, if you oppose me on this I'll see that you aren't here much longer!"  And the threats go on....

The same thing is happening in denominational life.  The denomination in which I serve has seen a number of churches vote to leave over one issue or another.  In most cases the churches are uninformed when they make their decision, but that doesn't matter.  Someone from the church read an article on the Internet so it must be true.  I was once asked to meet with a congregation to discuss a particular issue that was causing them to vote on leaving our denomination.  The person who was leading the fight to leave presented one half-truth after another, and some of his statements were just completely wrong.  When I asked him for his sources he could only point to some sites on the Internet that he had found.  Despite my giving the church the facts about the issue, they still voted to leave.  I've often said that too many Christians read the headlines without reading the story or checking the facts.

Somehow, we have to learn how to discuss our differences without attacking those with whom we disagree.  If you're right, getting loud or nasty won't make you any more right, and the same thing holds true if you're wrong about an issue.  Maybe this country could turn things around if our leaders would actually spend some time discussing their differences, trying to understand the viewpoints of those who disagree with them, and then committing to working together for the benefit of the nation and not their political allies.  And...maybe the church could once again start acting like the church if it would stop fighting with one another, discuss their differences, find places where they can work together, and become more committed to advancing the Kingdom of God than to advancing their own agendas.

A class comes to an end

This week marks the end of my first venture into online teaching.  As many of you know I taught a class this semester on "Growing a Healthy Church" for Campbellsville University.  Nineteen students enrolled in the class, and I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable things I have done in a long time.  Developing my first college course was an interesting challenge and much tougher than I ever thought it would be as a student.  When it was developed I felt good about the course, and from some of the evaluations from the students I feel they enjoyed the class and found it helpful to their ministries. However, the part I enjoyed most was the interaction with the students.  It was a delight.  I had some really sharp students in the class who may have taught me as much as I taught them.  It was fascinating to read about some of their challenges and frustrations in the discussion questions we had each week, but it was also very rewarding to read about some of the victories they were experiencing in life and ministry.  I felt these past eight weeks was an investment into the lives of young leaders, and I can't think of a better way to spend one's time.  I pray that I'll have the opportunity to do more teaching in the future.

My readers come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds.  If you have read my earlier books you know I began my pastoral ministry with a high school education, but after about a year or so I decided a little more education wouldn't be a bad thing!  I knew God had called me into the ministry, but I also realized after a few months that there were areas of ministry in which I was struggling. I'm so glad I made the decision to pursue my education.  I've never enrolled in a school to gain a degree but to experience personal and ministerial growth, and I believe every class I ever took led to such growth.  I took several courses in a secular college that I didn't enjoy very much, but I grew even in those classes.

In this blog I'm always challenging you to invest in yourself.  For some of you the best way to do that might be to consider enrolling in a formal education program.  With online courses it is now much easier to do that.  You can take the classes you need without leaving home, quitting your job, moving to a campus somewhere, and disrupting your family's life. 

Campbellsville University is an excellent school to consider.  It is a Christian school, fully-accredited, with several online options available.  There is a Certificate in Christian Ministry that can be earned completely online that is especially appropriate for bivocational ministers.  They also have a fully accredited Master of Theology degree that can be earned online.  The school frequently adds other courses online, so I encourage you to check their website and see for yourself what they offer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The family church

A common description of the small churches many bivocational ministers serve is that they are family churches.  This can mean at least a couple of things.  One, that most of the members of the church are related.  I know one church that has 75% of the church related either by blood or marriage.  I am aware of another church in which all the leadership come from one family.  A former pastor used to think how quaint it was that they all met at Granny's house for dinner before the church business meeting until he found out the business meeting actually occurred at Granny's house.  They only came to the church building later to make the business meeting official, but all the decisions had been made earlier around the dinner table.

The second meaning of a family church is that the church operates like a family.  Everyone knows one another, the church is pretty informal, and people genuinely enjoy being around each other.  This is the type of church in which I was raised and served as a pastor.  There are a number of benefits associated with being in a family church, but there are also some challenges.  Let's look at some of those challenges.

If many of the people in a church are related to one another, problems in the family will spill out into the church as well.  I know of a church where many of the members came out of one family, and a division in that family created another division in the church.  It was a very challenging time for the pastor because he was trying to help a family heal, and the church couldn't be healthy until the family became healthy.

New people can feel shut out of a family church, and you might attend such a church for years and still be considered a new person!  You don't join a family church; you have to be adopted into the family.  This includes the pastor, and until he or she is adopted into the family, the pastor will not really be able to exercise any leadership in the church.  In order for adoption to occur it is often necessary for the patriarch or matriarch of the church to present you for adoption.  Until he or she accepts the new member or minister, they will remain on the outside.

Relationships are everything in the family church.  As a judicatory leader I see a lot of promising young pastors who have learned a lot about exegeting Scripture and developing programs, but they aren't very good at relationship building.  You can't pastor a family church from the church office.  You need to be in the homes, fields, barns, and workplaces of your members.  You have to attend the youth ball games, school fairs, and county fairs.  It doesn't hurt to eat lunch in the local diners occasionally.  I recently had lunch with a small church pastor in a local diner, and everyone there knew him.  I'm not surprised he is so successful as a family church pastor.

Everything that is proposed in the family church will be filtered through relationships.  One of the first questions people have for any suggested change is how it will affect the current relationships that exist in the church.  If those relationships are threatened it is highly unlikely the change will be approved.  This is one reason some of these churches are highly resistent to change.

I love the family church.  Like the bar on Cheers it is a place where everyone knows your name.  It is a place where you can love and be loved, and where you are more than an entry on a computer.  It is a place where you can use your gifts and talents.  But, it is also a place with some unique challenges.  Understanding those challenges and working around them can allow you to enjoy a very successful ministry in the family church.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The purpose of your church

This year I have been invited to some of my Area churches that are celebrating their 175th anniversaries.  A couple of my churches have celebrated their 200th anniversaries in the past couple of years.  While it is exciting to think about all that God has done in the lives of these churches I sometimes wonder what the current members see as their reason for existence.

Regardless of the age of your church, at some point a group of people came together because they believed they could accomplish more together than apart.  They wanted to meet with like-minded people to worship God and to serve Him and their communities.  As pioneers pushed west they established churches in every community for similar purposes.  I get excited as I read about the trials that many of these churches had to overcome in order to fulfill the vision they believed God had for their churches.  I laugh at some of the silliness I read about in the histories of local churches, but I am also amazed at how they were able to survive some of their challenges, and I often wonder about the impact these churches have made in countless lives of individuals and families throughout their existence.

But, that is all history.  The important question for the church today is what is our current purpose?  What is the calling of God on our church in this day and time?  I am convinced that many churches could not answer that question.  They might be able to give a stock answer such as "to advance the Kingdom of God" or "to reach the unchurched" or "to do good deeds and promote social justice," but I am not certain that some churches could clearly explain exactly what the purpose of their church is today.

Rick Warren rocked the church world several years ago with The Purpose Driven Church.  He challenged congregations to identify God's purposes for their churches and then to pursue that purpose in all they do.  There are few books I would say every church leader must read, but this would be one of those books.  I only wish he had written that book when I began my pastoral ministry instead of near the end of it.  I would have been much more focused in my ministry than I was.

Part of my concern is that too many in the church today see the purpose of their churches as taking care of their needs.  Too many are willing to attend a church as long as it ministers to their needs, and if that stops happening they will leave and find one that will cater to them.  I believe the early churches were more focused on meeting the corporate needs of the community rather than the individual needs of each person.  The attitude then was "What can I do to help?"  Today the attitude is "What's in it for me?"

To become healthier churches better able to minister we have to begin with a clear understanding of God's purpose for our church.  What is one thing that you bring to the community that no other church can bring?  What special way does God want to use your church to impact the lives of others?  These are important questions each church needs to answer.  The fall is a great time to begin planning for the new year, but your planning should begin by asking, and answering, these questions.