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

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

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.