Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Life and death

It's been a few days since I've posted anything.  A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were gone for a few days to visit our son and his family.  We returned home on Monday and planned several other things for the remainder of our vacation time.  That all changed Tuesday morning when our phone rang and we were informed that a brother-in-law had unexpectedly passed away that morning.  The remainder of the week was spent visiting with family, preparing food, and going to the funeral home.  I've spent the last few days just trying to catch up with everything that I let slide during the previous week.

As I thought about the death of my brother-in-law it really reminded me of the importance of the work we do.  He had recently had shoulder surgery and was going to therapy for that, but otherwise was in good health.  When his wife left for work that morning there was certainly no indication that when she came home for lunch that she would find that he had passed away. Life is short, the end can come at any time, and eternity is forever.

As pastors and church leaders we have numerous responsibilities that demand our time.  It can be very easy to get so caught up in adminstrative tasks and "church work" that we forget that one of our primary obligations is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with other people.  There really is no guarantee that we will ever have another chance to do so.  Anyone can draw his or her last breath at any moment, and, if we believe the Bible to be true, at that moment we will enter into an eternity of our choosing.  Countless numbers of people are entering into an eternity separated from God, and many of them never heard a clear and compelling explaination of the Gospel.  To make it even worse, some of them lived within the shadows of our steeples.

Several years ago a girl in our youth group asked me to talk to her parents about God and the church.  I made an appointment to talk to her mother, and as we began our conversation she admitted to me she had never been inside a church in her life for any reason.  She further admitted she didn't know enough about God to even ask a question.  At the time I wondered how anyone surrounded by so many churches and with so many opportunities to hear the Gospel to have never heard it, but since then I have met many others just like her.  The good news is that both she and her husband later committed their lives to Christ.  The bad news is that there are countless others like them all around us who have still not heard the Gospel.

What is your church's strategy for reaching out to those people in your community who have no personal relationship with Jesus Christ?  How much of your church's budget will be spent on such efforts?  What specific individuals have the people of your church targeted with their prayers and their efforts to reach with the gospel in 2010?  How will you make the Gospel known and relevant to the people you encounter this year?  The eternal destination of some people may hinge on your answers to these questions.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What drives your church?

I found the following paragraph in Kennon Callahan's book Small Strong Congregations to be very powerful.

"Small, strong congregations are gift-driven, not getting-driven.  They are strength-driven, not weakness-driven.  They are spirit-driven, not size-driven.  Small, strong congregations are high-compassion congregations.  They are mission-driven congregations.  They do not ask, 'What's in it for us?"  They are not interested in church growth.  They are interested in people growth."

The question each of us must ask is what drives our church?  It's essential that we answer this question honestly and not answer it as we think others would think we should answer it.  The back-up question then for those of us in leadership is what drives us.  Ministry is, or should be, about people.  One of the strengths of smaller churches is that people are more important than performances or programs, but I have seen some smaller churches that were so intense about growing larger that it forgot the people while it focused on finding the elusive program that would lead to dynamic growth.  Usually, such churches never find that program, and having abandoned the people, they only grow smaller until they finally die.

I'll ask the question again.  What drives your church?  What drives your own personal ministry?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


President Obama will sign his health care bill into law today.  This major bill that will impact the lives of every person living in the United States passed by three votes.  The President and the House Speaker are being hailed by some within their party of being great leaders who worked tirelessly to get this bill passed.  I disagree.

This posting is not about the health care bill itself.  That is for the political bloggers to address, and this is not a political blog.  While I have strong feelings about the health care bill that was passed, this is not the blog to address those.  Here I am more concerned with the process.

As a pastor I would never accept a vote that would make significant changes in the life of our church that was only approved by such a slim margin. Contrary to what some people think, the will of God is not always found in a 51% majority vote.  The story of the 12 spies who went into the Promised Land should settle that issue.  This was a major change to our nation that will result in billions of dollars of new taxes being imposed on Americans, and it passed by three votes despite a slim majority of Americans opposing the bill.  How did it pass?  According to many political observers this bill passed because of back room political deals with individual Congressmen who received various incentives for their votes.  If you or I did this it would be called bribery, but when it's done at the highest levels of government it's called political maneuvering.  We would be arrested; they are touted as great leaders.  In addition there was supposedly a lot of arm-twisting which I would consider to be threats made against some of who opposed the bill.

Can you imagine a change being recommended at your next church business meeting that required you as the pastor to threaten people or to buy people's votes to get passed?  "If you vote against this I'll make sure you never sing in the choir again."  "If you vote yes on this proposal I'll see that your Sunday school class gets all new chairs to sit in."  If we even tried to do something like that we would be ran out of our churches within the month, and we should be.

A number of years ago the church I pastored was not in agreement about an issue that had significant financial consequences for the pastor (me).  The discussion at the business meeting was lively, and the measure passed by a solid majority but with two signficant families in our small church voting against it.  Later that week I learned they were not happy with the vote, so I visited them.  They shared their concerns, which were more procedural than financial.  They felt the issue had not been properly presented and discussed before voting on an issue that would have a long-term impact on the church.  I discussed my feeling about the issue and tried as best as I could to answer their questions and concerns.  After our meeting I contacted our treasurer and asked him to not make the changes until this was discussed at our next quarterly business meeting.  Three months later the question was asked why the changes had not yet been made, and I responded that I wanted a second vote on the matter before it was enacted.  I certainly had a big stake in the outcome of the vote, but it was not worth it to me to divide the church, and that was what was happening.  Because the vote did impact me financially, I said what I needed to say and went home before the vote was taken.  Later that evening I received a call saying it had passed unamiously with members of the original families who opposed it making and seconding the motion to approve it this time.

Leadership is not forcing something through with back-room deals and arm-twisting to try to squeeze out enough votes to get something passed.  Leadership is presenting large visions and making the case so strongly that this is the direction that the organization needs to go that people can't help but get on board. With polls showing a majority of Americans opposed to this bill it is obvious that the case was not made with the public.  No, you often won't get 100% approval for anything, but a three vote margin should be proof enough that this change does not have wide-spread ownership, especially if it required questionable practices to get those votes.

Pastors and church leaders should not consider this to be the model of leadership you want to adopt.  Pastoral leadership works best when done as a servant-leader.  We aren't called to force things upon our churches they don't want.  We are called to share vision and direction and then to create a consensus that we need to move to fulfill that vision.  Leadership doesn't leave half the congregation behind as we move forward without them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Redeem the time

Most bivocational ministers struggle with time issues in their lives.  They have so many demands on them that they seldom feel they devote sufficient time to anything.  Many tell me they fail to spend sufficient time with their families, and even more do not take time for themselves.  As a result, these pastors are subject to breakdowns in their family lives and in their own well-being.  The call to bivocational ministry is a special call of God on a person's life, but it is never a call that is expected to do harm to your family or to your personal well-being.

Years ago I lived by the philosophy that I would rather burn out than rust out.  That is really a stupid philosophy!  Either way I would be out.  Well...I got my wish and burned out.  I was diagnosed as clinically depressed and spent a year on medication and in Christian counseling trying to put my life back together again.  I learned many valuable lessons during that year, and one of them was that if we do not take care of ourselves we may become unable to care for others.  I was burning the candle at both ends, but I was the one who ended up consumed.  I had to find a better way to live and to fulfill the many responsibilities I had.  One of the areas I needed to address was how I managed my time.

I now teach a class in our region's Church Leadership Institute to help our church leaders balance out the various areas of responsibility in their lives.  One of their assignments is to track everything they do in half-hour increments for one week.  Every student complains when the assignment is handed out, but they all learn important things about their lives.  One of the first things many of them learn is that they spend a lot of time doing things that really do not add value to their lives.  When they write their papers about what they learned from the exercise many of them express surprise at how much time they would have available if they simply made better use of their time.

Someone once wrote that time management is really life management.  If we find that we do not have the time for the truly important things in life it may be an indication that we need to better manage our lives.  The problem probably isn't that we don't have sufficient time; the problem is more likely that we are not using the time we have to its greatest advantage.  Rather that investing our time in those things that will help us accomplish our goals and improve our relationships we spend too much doing the less important things.

I would encourage you to write down everything you do for one week.  Break it down in half-hour segments.  When the week is up review your activities for the week.  How much time was spent doing meaningful things with your family?  How much time was given to your own personal well-being?  How much time was given to your personal spiritual development?  How many hours each week was spent in tasks that would help you achieve the goals you've established for this year?  How many hours that week do you wish you could have back so you could use them in other endeavors?  What will you do different next week?

Jesus taught us to redeem the time.  That begins by first understanding how we are currently using the time we've been given and then making the necessary adjustments to make better use of that time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

I need some computer help

Last summer I purchased a new computer that had Vista installed.  I had heard enough about Vista that I didn't want to do that, but my older computer was just about to give out on me, and I knew that Windows 7 would be released within a few months.  Vista was as bad as I had heard, but I held off getting Windows 7 to give Microsoft time to work out the bugs.  A few weeks ago I installed 7 on the computer, and it worked great.  It seemed to eliminate almost every problem I had...until recently.

A couple of weeks ago my USB ports quit working.  I needed to sync my Blackberry and couldn't do it.  My I-Pod also wouldn't sync, and I couldn't download pictures from my camera.  I googled the problem and found hundreds of similar complaints.  This seems to be a major problem with Windows 7 and Microsoft obviously has no fix for it.  I read several different ways to supposedly fix this problem and had no idea how to even attempt most of them.  The ones I could do I've tried, but they didn't work.  After the first round with the USB ports not working I got them to work again for about a week.  I got everything synched and got my pictures off my camera, but it's time to sync everything again, and once again the ports are not working.

One other thing I've noticed.  If I shut down my computer I drop my Internet connection.  When I power the computer back up I have to unplug my modem and router and plug them back in to restore my connection.  Once I do that it works fine unless I shut everything down again which I've done hundreds of times lately trying to resolve the USB problem.

Do we have any readers who might know a fix for this problem?  I have an excellent computer guru, but he doesn't recommend any of his clients install a new system until the first service pack comes out. (I wish I knew that before I installed 7.)  He hasn't worked on any computer with Windows 7 and doesn't believe he could solve this problem anyway.  Any help anyone could give me will be greatly appreciated.

In the meantime, avoid Windows 7 until you are sure the bugs are worked out.  Microsoft does this every time they release a new system.  I should know better than to switch to a new system, but I keep thinking they will become responsible and not release a system with so many defects.  I am just about to switch to Apple!  Thanks for any help you can give me.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What really matters in ministry? 2

I want to continue a post from yesterday.  Much of pastoral work involves administrative tasks, and many churches expect their pastor to be the primary administration person in the church.  That's fine...someone has to handle the administrative tasks of a church, and pastors are often in a position to do that.  However, I do believe that a church will suffer if that becomes the pastor's primary function.  I have to wonder how many people decide to attend a church because the pastor is a great administrator.  I further wonder how many church members get excited about following a pastor who is efficient in administration.  I think another component of pastoral ministry is more important, and that component is vision.

People willingly choose to follow a pastor who has a clear vision for where the church is to go.  New people are often attracted to a church that seems to have a vision that gives them direction for ministry.  And the larger the vision the more people will be attracted to it.

We are told that 80 percent of our churches today are plateaued or declining.  I personally believe most of them are declining, and the reason for that is they have lost their vision for ministry.  Content to drift along, they open their doors each Sunday and hope something good will happen.  Hope is not a strategy.  There is a huge mission field surrounding every church, and God has placed our churches in that mission field to impact it for the Kingdom of God.  Every community is different; every church is different; so every church's vision will be different.  But every church needs a vision for ministry if it is serious about wanting to have an impact on their community.  Challenging the church with that vision is the task of the pastor.

This does not mean that the vision must come from the pastor.  Vision can come from anywhere because it is God's vision that we are seeking, not the pastor's vision or the deacon's vision, and God can choose to reveal His vision to anyone.  He can choose to speak His vision through some very unlikely sources.  However, the pastor must receive that vision, flesh out what it means to the church, and must lead the church to own it as their vision.  Administration is important to keep the church functioning, but vision is imperative if the church wants to reach its community for the Kingdom of God.

Pastors must spend time dreaming about where God wants to lead His church.  They must get outside their office walls and spend time in the community to truly understand the needs of that community so they can determine how their church can best minister to those needs.  They must spend time with their own people so they can better understand the concerns and passions of their people.  They must also spend time in God's Word to better understand what God is wanting to do in our world today. 

Having a clear vision from God regarding the ministry of the church is not an option, it is a necessity if we want to enjoy an effective ministry that honors God.  This is what really matters in ministry.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What really matters in ministry?

When a search committee is asked what the church wants in their next pastor one of the common answers is that they want someone with preaching skills.  Having heard my share of poorly constructed and delivered sermons I can understand those desires, but I would suggest that being great from the pulpit isn't the most important trait a pastor can have, especially if that pastor is bivocational serving a smaller church.  When that pastor leaves the church few people will remember many of the sermons he or she preached.  (Some won't remember the sermon from one week to the next!)  What people will remember is the relationship they had with the pastor.

In a church, and especially a smaller church, it is all about relationships.  I often run into pastors today who tell me they don't visit people in their churches, and I have had some tell search committees that if they are called to serve their church that they should not expect him or her to spend a lot of time in visitation.  My advice to such pastors is to either find a very large church that expects you to sit in an office all day and wait for people to make an appointment to visit you or find another line of work.  In the churches I serve most of them want, and expect, a relationship with the pastor.  In fact, if the pastor wants to have any influence in the congregation he or she better spend a lot of time up front developing those relationships.

A person called to pastor a church becomes the pastor when he or she becomes involved in the lives of the church members.  When I resigned from my church I told the congregation that I would not return to conduct funerals or weddings because that is how their new pastor will become their pastor.  Until the pastor is involved in people's lives in significant ways that person may fill the pulpit each week and hold the title of pastor, but he or she isn't yet the pastor.  In our twenty-first century CEO mindset we sometimes forget the biblical understanding of a pastor as a shepherd.  Can you imagine a shepherd who doesn't spend time with the sheep?  How would the sheep begin to recognize the voice of the shepherd if he spent no time with them?  How would the sheep know which shepherd to follow if they didn't recognize his voice?

Preaching is important, but I would argue that most congregations will appreciate an average preacher with great relational skills far more than they would a master in the pulpit who refused to spend time with them.

Praying for the nation

I don't think I need to tell anyone about the problems we have in the USA.  I think most of us would agree that this nation is in trouble.  We might not agree on who is responsible for our problems nor would all of us agree on the solutions.  This post is not about either of these two questions as this is not a political blog.  However, I would like to suggest one solution that I believe would address all the problems.

2 Chronicles 7:14 says, "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (NKJV)" 

Please note that God did not say if the Democrats or the Republicans would get their act together things would become better.  He also did not fault the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Rush Limbaugh, liberals, conservatives, or any other group for the problems a nation faces.  He calls upon His people, the church, to humble themselves, repent from their sins, and pray.  When this happens, then He promises to hear our prayers and heal the land.  Friends, it is up to the church to bring healing to America and to the world.  Congress isn't going to do it.  The President isn't going to do it.  The media, the court system, science, education, technology, and the wealth of the nations isn't going to do it.  The only hope for any nation is dependent upon the church experiencing a genuine revival that spreads throughout the nation.

The good news is that revival can begin in any church regardless of size.  Bivocational churches can experience revival the same as those led by fully-funded pastors.  It begins with the church taking seriously the passage from 2 Chronicles.  It requires God's people repenting of their sins, praying, and seeking the face of God.  As they do so, God will respond and the Spirit of God will begin to move within that congregation.  Revival will begin without anyone scheduling a special week of services and inviting in a special speaker.  Genuine revival begins when the church invites God into their church.  When this happens, such revival can move from the church into the community, and from the community into the state, and from the state into the nation.  If we want healing for our nation it must begin with the church seeking God.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Follow the conversation

Friar Tuck and I have an interesting dialogue going on under my post on "Home Grown Leaders."  Jump in and share your thoughts and comments on what we're discussing.  I would be especially interested in hearing from bivocational ministers who competed seminary.  What degrees did you pursue and how did that education impact your ministry?  Did you feel prepared for ministry when you graduated?  What have you done since seminary to help you develop into the minister you are today?  If you're American Baptist, what do you think about my comments about the MDiv requirement for ordination?  I appreciate Friar's questions and comments and hope to hear from others on this important topic.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Appreciate the church family

I'm currently reading a very interesting book that details the magnificant failure of some of the leaders of some of our largest corporations.  None of the failures are due to illegal activity, but all are closely connected to shortcomings of character.  I can't help but find some parallels here with some church leaders I know.

One of the business leaders who failed did so because, in the words of a business journalist, of "his scorn for the family."  Almost from the moment he became the CEO of this 160 year old company he began to fight its past and openly demonstrated his disgust for the culture and history of the company.  Know any pastors like that?  I do.

Some pastors are convinced they are called to a church to undo everything that has happened there before.  They ignore the history; they ignore the positive things that have occurred in the past; and worst of all, they ignore the contributions of the people whose sacrifices have allowed the church to continue its ministries through the years.  These pastor "leaders" are so lacking in self-awareness they are amazed when their ministry does not survive long, but they comfort themselves with the assurance that they were doing God's work and they will just shake the dust from their feet and move on to a more spiritual church that will appreciate their ministry.

A new pastor may identify several things that need changed when he or she begins a new ministry, but that doesn't mean that the pastor must first blast away everything that is already there.  A church may have a number of problems to address, but that doesn't mean that everything has to be destroyed in order to effect change.  There is great value in taking some time to appreciate the positive things that exist in every church and the people who made those things possible.  To build on those strengths makes much more sense than to level everything and start over.  Refusing to do that demonstrates great arrogance on the part of the pastor, and such arrogance is one of the common traits that each of these business leaders who failed shared with one another.

John Maxwell is fond of saying that a leader must touch a heart before he asks for a hand.  There is great wisdom in that.   It is a wonderful thing when a people trusts and loves their leader; it is an even greater thing when they know that their leader trusts and loves them.  Take time to build relationships.  Take time to understand the history of the church, its strengths and weaknesses, and the incredible people who have committed their lives to this local congregation.  Make sure they know how much you appreciate them and their commitment to God and to their church.  Then you will be ready to move forward together.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Home grown leaders

Studies consistently reveal that fewer ministers are willing to serve smaller churches.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the end result is we are facing a leadership crisis in these churches.  One of my responsibilities is to assist the churches in my Area in their pastoral search process, and I always have more bivocational churches without pastors than I have persons to recommend.  Personally, I see this only getting worse as more churches, including some currently being served by fully-funded pastors, discover they need to become bivocational.

As I talk to judicatory and denominational leaders of various denominations I find they face the same situation that I do.  The numbers of bivocational churches are growing, they anticipate this growth will continue, and they do not know where the leaders will come from for these churches.  However, I do not believe this situation has caught God by surprise!  I doubt that He is scratching His head wondering how to solve this problem.  In fact, I believe He has been calling men and women to ministry positions to fill these leadership positions, and many of the ones He has been calling are sitting right in the sanctuaries of the churches they are going to serve.

I am convinced that many smaller churches will find their next pastor already in their congregations.  These will be people who may have been serving in leadership positions in the church for years, and who never dreamed that God would ever call them to become a pastor.  But, they will find that when the church needs their next pastor, they will be the one God taps on the shoulder and says, "It's your time now."

I serve 77 churches in my Area, and in the nine years I've had this position I've seen this happen several times.  A long-time deacon came to me a few years ago and said that people in his church was asking him if he would consider becoming their pastor.  They had been looking for several months and had not been able to find anyone willing to be called to their church.  He wanted to know if I felt he could do the job.  I assured him that he could and that he would go there as pastor with a huge advantage over someone new: the people already knew him and trusted him.  He did accept that call and has been doing a great job leading that church and continuing to farm.  He is now enrolled in our Church Leadership Institute learning additional ministry skills to use as a pastor. 

One of my churches saw three of its deacons go out to serve as pastors of small churches in their association.  All three are having a great ministry in their respective churches.  That church is now being led by a bivocational pastor who formerly served as a deacon in the church I pastored for 20 years.  Another church in that same association called their long time association moderator as their pastor a few years ago, and he is providing excellent leadership to that church.  This story is being repeated over and over again in small churches.

God has been calling people to these positions.  The challenge for those of us currently in ministry is to help these people identify that call on their lives.  We can't call anyone to ministry; that is the work of God, but we can challenge people we believe have the necessary gifts to consider that they may be called.  I am in ministry today because I had a pastor who simply asked me if I had ever considered that God might be calling me into the ministry, and I bet you could tell a similar story.  Ministry leaders need to be asking that same question to persons we believe God may be preparing for ministry, and then we need to find ways to help them get some preaching and leadership experience.  We need to help them find training opportunities so they can fine tune the skills and gifts God has given them.  As we intentionally begin to develop home grown leaders within our churches we will find that we have more than enough pastors for our smaller churches.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Postmodern ministry in a rural setting

Terry Dorsett is a Church Planting Missionary with the North American Mission Board of the SBC.  In his blog he recently posted seven articles about doing postmodern ministry in rural settings.  Most of the material I read about postmodern ministry focuses on urban and suburban settings, but postmodernism has impacted the rural communities as well.  His postings are interesting and contain some great insights.  You can find the first posting and links to the other postings here.