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

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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Denominational decline

Our judicatory has its monthly staff meeting tomorrow, and one of the agenda items is a discussion of a couple of recent articles that address the decline of denominations, and especially middle judicatories.  I don't think there is much question that we live in a time when churches have much less connection with their denomination, and in the nine years I've been on our region staff I have seen some of our churches separate themselves from our region.  Attendance at association and region events has declined dramatically over the past few years.  I serve seven associations, and some of them no longer have annual meetings due to the limited participation over the years, and others are considering abandoning their association meetings.  Giving to support denominational missions is also down.  While I think denominations and judicatories still have much to offer their churches, I also believe that we will see churches place less and less importance in these organizations unless major changes are made.

Our readers come from a wide variety of denominations.  What kind of relationship do you and your church have with your denomination?  Is your personal relationship with your denomination any different than the one your church has?  If you are a bivocational church leader, do you think the fact that you are bivocational has any impact on that relationship?  What would you like to see your denomination and/or judicatory do that it is not currently doing?  If you identify several things, what is the one thing that would add the most value to you or your church?  Are there some things you wish your denomination would stop doing?  If you currently have a limited involvement with your denomination or judicatory, what could they do to strengthen your relationship with them?

Here is a great opportunity for you to be heard on this important issue so I hope you'll take some time to answer some of these questions.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A danger of bivocational ministry

Let me begin by apologizing for no recent posts.  Last week my wife and I took a week's vacation, and I promised her I would not do anything ministry related.  I kept my promise.  We went on a picnic, spent a couple of days visiting our daughter and her family, and got some work done around the house.  The week before that I was tied up with several activities that just didn't give me the opportunity to post anything on this blog.

This evening I want to address a danger that we often do not think about when considering bivocational ministry.  I saw it mentioned in another blog I was reading earlier today, and it really got my attention.  The danger is using bivocational ministry to keep a church open when it should really be closed.

Many, not all, churches call a bivocational minister out of economic necessity.  They simply do not have the money to afford a fully-funded pastor so they call someone who is bivocational.  Obviously, I don't think there is anything wrong with that since I am so supportive of bivocational ministry and served as a bivocational pastor for 20 years.  But, there are some churches that call a bivocational minister to keep the doors open for a church that essentially died years ago, and that is a problem.

We make a mistake if we believe that there is never a time when a church should close its doors.  In fact, if a church has no vision for ministry and people's lives are not being changed as a result of the ministry of that church, I believe that church needs to make some serious decisions.  Is it good stewardship of God's resources to spend what little money comes in just to keep the lights turned on and the building heated?  There are many churches that has survival as its only vision, and I would argue that survival is not a worthy goal for a church.

Such churches barely raise enough money each week to keep their utilities turned on.  There is never money available for ministry, and if such a church did have extra money come in it would likely want to put that money in a savings somewhere in case giving decreased even more.  Some of these churches own property worth thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, that is being used for a small number of people to huddle together each week so they can remember how things used to be.

These churches often can only remain open because they call a bivocational minister to come in and serve as a chaplain to the membership.  That can be appropriate if such a pastor serves as a hospice chaplain who provides excellent care while the final days of the church's life is lived out.  Such a person can provide a valuable ministry if he or she can honor the ministry that has existed in the church for many years and lead the church to close its doors with dignity and make its resources available to new ministries that may rise up in the community.  But, the danger is that too often a dying church calls a bivocational minister to come in and lead them in pretending that everything is OK when everything is not OK.

Of course, how do we know when a church has reached the point in its life when its time to close?  How far down the decline side of the life of the church can a church go and still be able to come back to life?  I must admit that I don't know the answer to that.  I've seen some churches that I thought were about to close their doors, and they came back to life under new leadership.  I'm not sure anyone on the outside can ever know for certain how much life is left in a church.  That's why I believe it is very important that those in leadership in some of these churches take a very honest, hard look at their churches and decide for themselves if there is any life left in their churches.  If not, then perhaps the best thing that such churches can do is to recognize the impact they have made for the Kingdom of God and close down so newer ministries can come in and continue that work.  This may well be the hardest decision a church ever has to make, but it might be the decision that brings the most honor to God.