Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Life out of death

A few weeks ago I shared several meals with an organic church planter who had an interesting vision for church planting.  He was talking to judicatory leaders in his denomination about a vision he had for small churches closing their doors, selling their property, and giving 1/2 of their funds to the judicatory to finance new church planting and keeping the other 1/2 to invest in ministry within their communities.  They would meet in homes if they wanted to continue to gather together for worship.  This individual shared his belief that anything a church of 30 people can do in a church building they can do in a home setting just as well.  I filed our conversations away in a mental file marked "interesting ideas that are unlikely to find many takers."

I was reminded of these conversations today as I was reading a church growth book.  The author pointed out that the growth of anything eventually stops when it reaches its natural limits.  As he said, a tree doesn't keep getting bigger and bigger.  It's real growth comes as it brings forth new trees.  In other words, it multiplies, and eventually dies.  Human beings function the same way.  We don't just continue to grow larger and larger as individuals.  We produce children who produce grandchildren, and eventually we die, but the human family continues to grow through that reproduction.

As I thought about that I began to wonder why the church should be any different.  We fight so hard to ensure our churches do not die even to the point of refusing to do anything that might produce growth.  Churches committed to survival become very risk averse and won't jeopardize their limited resources in order to do something new that might lead to growth.  Maybe the natural order for many of our churches are that they multiply themselves through new church starts and then willingly close their doors.

I know this is radical thinking, but please continue reading.  Is it good stewardship for a church to spend every dollar it takes in to survive?  I know churches that have not tried to do any form of ministry in its community for years because it takes every dime that comes in just to pay the utility bills and to pay a small pittance to a pastor.  Is that how God's money should be used?  There are churches with 30 people meeting each Sunday in a building worth thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of dollars.  Is that good stewardship?

Let's consider a couple of possible scenarios.  Church A has 30 people who do not live in the neighborhood but drive in each Sunday to meet for worship.  These are good people who love the Lord and want to see their church grow.  But, perhaps the neighborhood has changed and their church no longer represents the ethnic population of the neighborhood.  Maybe the church membership is older and younger families are moving into the neighborhood but do not feel comfortable with the worship that is currently offered in the church.  Could two or three church plants be started in the neighborhoods these people live in and this building be made available to the denomination to start a new church that would be more appealing to the new population?

Church B is a strong, small church.  Perhaps for demographic reasons it is unlikely to ever grow to be a large church.  Could this church intentionally decide to remain small and focus its ministries on starting new churches in other small, surrounding communities?  In parts of this country there are many areas where there are nothing but small communities that are rather isolated from one another.  Church B could discern that their God-given vision is to seek communities in which there are no churches and work with their judicatory to start churches there.

Whether a church decides to begin meeting in homes, decides to close its doors and plant new churches with its members, or decides to remain open with the purpose of starting sister churches in surrounding communities, bivocational ministers are going to be necessary.  None of these scenarios will lend themselves to churches calling fully-funded pastors, at least in the near term.  Visionary bivocational leaders will be needed to make any of these work.

Are any of these scenarios possible?  I believe all of them are possible, but each of them will be very difficult to pull off with the present mindsets that exist in many of our churches.  I also believe that they provide an excellent opportunity to impact our society in ways that our churches are not currently doing.

I'll be interested in your feedback.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Growing a healthy church

Before I begin my topic, this is my 300th post on this blog!  I never thought I would reach this plateau, and I want to thank my faithful readers for making this possible.  We have readers from around the world who read these postings, and it humbles me to think that some of what I write is helpful to those of you who are faithfully living out the calling God has on your life.  As always, I'm open to suggestions about topics you would like to have addressed in this blog.  Also, if you are not currently receiving my monthly e-newsletter, just send me your e-mail address, and I'll be glad to add you to the mailing.

Earlier today I spoke with a person who is helping me develop the course I'm teaching for Campbellsville University this fall, CHS 451 "Growing a Healthy Church."  This is an eight week online course that I am quite excited about.  We were discussing the syllabus I have prepared, and I'm now ready to finalize that.  Since our conversation I have completed the first lecture, and I'm now working on the quiz to go along with that lecture.  I think this will be a great course for leaders of all size churches.  Two of my books are among the textbooks required for the class, so our bivocational students will have material that will be especially helpful to them.  At last count, 13 people have already enrolled in the class, and I hope for a few more before the class begins in August.

If you've been thinking about working on your college degree, this might be a great time to begin.  Campbellsville University is an excellent school with a great School of Theology.  I would love to see you begin your college work by taking my course.  If you have any interest in attending college or if you would just like to take this one class, contact the school and begin the registration process.  My guess is that if you take this class you'll want to continue your studies.  After all, that's how I began my educational journey.

When I enrolled for my first class I had been out of school for 12 years.  I really didn't know if I could handle the assignments.  I was working a full-time job in a factory, pastoring a church, and now I was going to attend a school 50 miles from my home.  It seemed overwhelming, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made.  I fell in love with learning, and every class I've taken since then has helped me grow as an individual and as a minister.  Now, I have an opportunity to teach others.  I don't know if that would happen for you or not, but if it did I know how blessed you would be.  Even if you didn't fall in love with learning as I did, I know this one class would help you better lead your church.  So...pray about it, contact the school and talk to the people there, and see if this might be something you would be interested in doing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Transforming the world

We live in an interesting time for the church.  The American church is under attack from many quarters today.  These attacks come from some within the liberal media, some come from communities who use zoning ordinances to limit what churches can do, some come from organizations that oppose Christian teaching and values, and some of the attacks come from within Christianity as we often seem more interested in tearing one another down than trying to lift others up.  Perhaps worse than the attacks is the fact that the Christian church today is largely ignored by many people, especially the younger generations.  There are a number of books out now like They Like Jesus But Not the Church, and some of what we read in these books are unfortunately true.

Despite the opposition the church is facing, there is no organization existing today that has a greater opportunity to shape the future of this nation and the world.  Everything people have trusted has failed in recent years.  Our economy continues to tank, technology has proven that it can't stop oil spills, the most powerful nation in the world is caught up in two wars with no end in sight, large corporations have failed due to mismanagement and greed, and our elected leaders are powerless to solve any of the problems they currently face.  People today are searching for something or someone who can step in and make a difference in their lives.

The church has much to offer to our hurting society, but only if we begin to send out a clear message regarding the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said that if He would be lifted up He would draw all people to Him.  It is not enough to lift up our churches or denominations; we must be lifting up the person of Christ.  We must find ways to point to Him as the answer to the problems facing mankind and the problems facing each individual.  In an age where all the old answers no longer satisfy, His message is the only one that can change the face of the world.  But, in order to proclaim that message it will be necessary for changes to occur in many of our churches.

Here is where smaller, bivocational churches can have an advantage.  The smaller the organization the easier it is for change to occur.  I compare it to a boat.  When I owned a bassboat a few years ago I could turn it around in a very short distance.  In contrast, an aircraft carrier must travel for miles before turning around.  Just because change can happen quicker in a small church this doesn't mean that it will be easy, but it must happen if we want our churches to be relevant to the culture in which we live today.  We must begin answering the questions people are currently asking if we want to make a difference in their lives, and if we can make a difference in the lives of individuals we can transform the world.

By now someone is wondering what changes I'm talking about.  The answer to that would be different in every church, but I would encourage you to find the answer by answering this questions: What exists in this church that serves as a barrier to people experiencing Jesus Christ in a meaningful way in their lives?  When you find the answer begin tearing down those walls and find ways to build bridges into your community.  It is then you will begin touching the lives of the hurting and confused people around you.

Finding pastors for small churches

I apologize for not writing much in recent days.  We were gone a week to help our son and his family after his back surgery, and I returned home to a pile of work that had accumulated while we were away.  I do want to thank you for praying for our son.  His surgery went well, and he seems to be recovering well.  We are very thankful for that and pray that his recovery continues to go as well as it has been.

I've written before about the problem of finding pastors for our smaller churches.  Right now seven bivocational churches in my Area are without pastors.  I've given each of them the same handful of names, and one called me yesterday saying they needed more names.  I'll call them in the morning to tell them I don't have any more to give them.  I feel badly about having to tell them that, but I feel even worse knowing that it's only going to get worse if things don't change.

The change that needs to happen is that more people need to realize they have been called by God to provide bivocational leadership to these smaller churches.  At the same time, these churches need to realize that the days of being served by a full-time, seminary trained pastor are over.  In many of our traditions we have stressed the "priesthood of the believer," but we have not lived that out very well.  If we truly believe in the priesthood of the believer, then we must begin to also believe that God has equipped each of us with spiritual gifts that are to be used in ministry.  Small churches need to create ministry teams built around the gifts God has given the people in their churches.  We have to move from a pastoral care mindset to a congregational care mindset.  As the authors of a book I just finished reading wrote, we must begin to see baptism as the ordination to ministry.  We can no longer be satisfied with being Christians; we must become Christians with a ministry.

Many of you have heard me talk before about the model of ministry we find in Ephesians 4.  The apostle Paul writes that God has given the church ministers whose primary purpose is to equip all the saints so they can do the work of ministry.  He did not give the church ministers to do all the work but to equip and prepare every believer to use the gifts God has given him or her so that we can all minister together.  This will be a huge paradigm shift for many of our churches, and for many ministers, but it is one we must begin making.  Some say that it will take up to seven years for some churches to make that change, so it's probably important that we start now.

If any of you are interested in moving to southeastern Indiana and pastoring a bivocational church, let me know.  I've got plenty open.  But, it is more likely that God will use you where you are.  If you have any sense that God might be calling you to bivocational ministry, I encourage you to begin to pray about that calling.  Let me know, and I'll be glad to pray with you or answer any questions you might have about such ministry.  One thing I'm certain about is that God has persons for each church.  We just have to be sensitive to His leadership in this and open to how He might be wanting to use us in those churches.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Family time

I returned last night from spending a week with our son and his family.  He had major back surgery last week, and my wife and I went to help out with getting people where they needed to go and being there to support him.  The surgery went fine, and his prognosis is very good.  He had one of the foremost surgeons in the country, and the surgeon was very pleased with how the surgery progressed and what he sees in the x-rays.  Our son is up and walking around a little and was going to begin working a few hours a day from his home.  We are very thankful that it has gone as well as it has.

Situations like this never come at convenient times.  I cancelled speaking at a weekend retreat that had been scheduled for several weeks, cancelled preaching in one of my churches on Sunday, and had to let our executive minister I would have to miss our monthly staff meeting when we determined we needed to stay there an extra day.  I am thankful that everyone was understanding of our situation and were willing to make other arrangements.

Unfortunately, I know too many pastors who would have put their ministry responsibilities before the needs of their family.  I also know churches that would expect them to.  Neither are healthy.  As I have said in many workshops, if I fail my family I will have failed as a minister regardless of the size of the church or ministry I might lead.  I would encourage you to make sure you are there for your family whenever special needs exist.

I now have a lot of work I need to catch up on, but that's OK.  Our son is doing well, and their situation is returning closer to normal.  I know they appreciated our efforts to help ease some of their load during this time, and my wife and I certainly felt better being with them.  Everyone won, and that's a good feeling.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Coaching certification

For the past three years I have been coaching a number of bivocational and fully-funded ministers.  I am pleased to announce that I am now certified as a coach through New Church Specialties.  I have been seeking certification for nearly a year now and am excited to reach that milestone in my life.

I am convinced that coaching is a great tool to assist clergy and churches that feel stuck where they are.  My Doctor of Ministry thesis was "Coaching Bivocational Ministers for Greater Ministry Effectiveness," and my work on that thesis convinced me of the value coaching has for both bivocational and fully-funded ministers.

If you are feeling stuck in your life and/or ministry, and you're ready to move forward, then it may be time for you to seek the assistance of a coach.  I served as a bivocational pastor for 20 years, so I understand the challenges you face.  In my role as a judicatory minister I now work with churches of all sizes, and I have helped these churches find a fresh vision from God, work through conflict situations, seek new pastoral leadership, and have led them in numerous training events covering a wide variety of issues.

Due to the demands of my ministry I cannot coach more than five persons or churches at a time outside of our judicatory, but I do have some openings at this time.  If you are interested in being coached by someone who understands your ministry, please feel free to contact me or call Tim Gates at 407-446-4444.  Tim is with New Church Specialties and will be setting up the agreements.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The church's center

Is your church centered around ministry or around the minister?  I believe this is one of the primary differences between maintenance-minded churches and missional churches.  Maintenance-minded churches are centered around the minister.  He or she is the focal point for nearly everything the church does.  It is expected that the pastor will touch just about everything that occurs in the church.  That expectation may come from the congregation that believes that if the pastor isn't involved in something it isn't important, but sometimes that expectation comes from the pastor who believes that he or she is called to micromanage everything that occurs in the church.  Regardless of the source of the expectation, it still results in a maintenance-minded church.

Missional churches are not centered around any personality including the minister's.  These churches are centered around ministry.  They have a clear sense of God's vision for their church, and like a horse wearing blinders, they are focused on fulfilling that vision.  The minister is seen as an equipper of the saints; he or she is not expected to be involved in every ministry that occurs in the life of the church but to help others in the congregation live out their giftedness and passion for ministry.

From my experience, I believe too many churches are centered around a minister or some other personality in the church.   These churches become stuck when they are seeking new pastoral leadership.  They fear they cannot do anything until they find a new pastor.  More times than I like to remember, members of such churches have told me that everything is on hold until they get a new pastor.

There is only one Head of any church, and He isn't called by any committee or appointed by any overseer.  It is His leadership that our churches must follow.  It is His vision that matters most.  Yes, He has given the office of pastor to the church to provide human leadership, but the life of the church isn't to focus on that individual nor is it to come to a standstill while seeking a new pastor.

I would challenge every church leader reading this posting to examine your church and see where the life of your church is centered.  Is it centered around a minister or is it centered around its ministry?  For a church to have the greatest impact on a community it must be centered around ministry.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thoughts on counseling

After I had been a bivocational minister for a few years I decided that I needed to do something different when people came to me for counseling.  What I needed to do differently was to stop counseling.  Soon after making that decision a couple came to me wanting counseling for some problems they were having in their marriage.  I met with the couple, listened to them for about 30 minutes or so, and then referred them to a Christian counseling center.  I did this for a couple of reasons.

One, like many pastors I had virtually no training in counseling.  I had taken classes in pastoral care, but I had no classes in counseling.  I think pastors often do more damage than good when they try to counsel people when they've not had the training to be competent counselors.  In addition, there may well be some ethical issues involved when we try to counsel people without benefit of adequate training in counseling.  Just because we've read the Bible and have memorized some versus doesn't mean that we are trained counselors.

The second reason I stopped doing counseling was a lack of time.  As a bivocational minister I simply realized I wasn't able to devote the time required to provide the counseling it might take to help an individual or couple address their issues.  If someone came and needed some advice I was often willing to do that, but if it quickly became obvious that the issues that brought the individual to me was going to require several sessions to address I referred them to trained counselors.

There was a time in my life when I needed the services of a trained counselor.  I referred this couple to the same counseling service that I used and assured them that there were people on their staff who were highly skilled in helping couples address marriage related problems.  However, as their pastor I didn't want to ignore them or their situation, so I told them to contact the counseling center and set up their first appointment.  After that appointment they were to call me so we could schedule a time to discuss how they felt about their initial session with the counselor.  As long as they were seeing a counselor I wanted to meet with them once a month to provide pastoral care as they worked through their issues.

For many bivocational ministers this is the best alternative to trying to counsel people yourselves.  Refer them to Christian counselors who have the training to provide sound counseling and maintain a pastoral connection to them while they are going through their challenges.  This provides them with the best of care from both a counseling and a pastoral perspective.