Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ministry mulligans

As you'll see in the link I'm providing below, the title of this post has been borrowed.  As a golfer, I just couldn't think of a better way to frame the message in the post.  For some reason, during the past several months I've spent a lot of time thinking about things in my life I regret.  There have been wonderful opportunities I missed because I didn't see them at the time.  There have been decisions I've made that proved to be huge mistakes that continue to impact me and my family.  We are all confronted with numerous choices in our lives, and the choices we make will always come with consequences.  Sometimes that consequence is immediate; sometimes we're not aware of the consequences until years later.  If we're fortunate we have time to correct poor choices, but not always.  There comes a time in a person's life when one realizes that some doors will always be closed because there isn't time to change a choice we had previously made.  Incidently, sometimes we make the only choice we can due to the circumstances at the time.  Such decisions weren't wrong, they were the only decision we could make at the time, but the long-term impact of those decisions can cause regrets later in life.

It would be great to have a do-over or to get a mulligan, a second chance to make choices that would lead to better results.  Of course, there's no guarantee that we wouldn't make the wrong choices again or even that a different choice would produce better results than we got the first time.  More than once I've taken a mulligan on the golf course and hit a worse shot than the first one!

Still, I thought this article was quite appropriate.  It is an honest self-evaluation of a person who left pastoral ministry after two decades.  I can echo some of his regrets in my own ministry.  Both the article writer and I wish we could go back and get a mulligan in our pastoral ministries.  But, neither of us can.

I want to encourage my readers to read this article slowly and prayerfully.  If you find that you are making the same mistakes the writer made in his pastoral ministry begin to make changes in that area of your ministry now.  Don't blow it off or think that somehow it doesn't apply to you.  Too many ministers make the tragic mistake of thinking that they are somehow different and the rules don't apply to them.  If you make the same poor choices the writer made, you will eventually end up in the same place with a lot of regrets that your ministry, your relationships, and your life wasn't more balanced and healthier.

Here's the article.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2011/winter/ministrymulligans.html  After you read it, let me know what you think.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The power of vision

This past week I attended the spring meeting of the Church Relations Council at Campbellsville University.  For two days we heard about the wonderful things happening at that school.  At a time when many colleges and universities struggle to attract students Campbellsville University just experienced their 22nd consecutive record enrollment.  During a recession that makes fund raising difficult for most institutions this is a school that has successfully completed a major capital funds campaign.  Unlike some schools that have decided to compromise its values, Campbellsville University continues to emphasize its commitment to Christian higher education.  While some universities are forced to sell or close some of their buildings, Campbellsville University is building new dorms for their expected increase in students and plans to break ground soon to construct new buildings to house some of their schools.  While on campus I visited their Center for Bivocational Ministry and found that it had expanded and was planning new ways to provide resources to bivocational and small church leaders and the churches they serve.

The continuing growth at Campbellsville University is no accident.  It has happened because the leadership, beginning with the President, have a vision of what this school can do and what it can become.  They recently approved a new vision called Vision 2025, and this vision is impacting every decision that is being made on that campus.  Unlike some churches that create a vision statement that gathers dust on a forgotten shelf somewhere, Campbellsville University takes seriously the vision they believe will guide them for the next 14 years.  This vision statement gives them a clear mental image of what the school will look like in 2025, and they are taking the steps they believe will allow them to see that vision become a reality.

This university is a great example of how a vision can impact an organization.  With an image of a preferred future any organization can become much more focused in its decisions and actions.  Instead of drifting through life hoping that good things might happen, with a vision an organization can move forward with a purpose.  What is true of other organizations is also true for your church.  With a clear vision of where the church would like to be in 10-15 years, it becomes possible for a church to become more focused and intentional in its planning and in its actions.  Anything that will help achieve that vision receives a yes vote, and anything that would detract from that vision is declined.  With focus and intentionality comes power, the power to become what God has intended, and with that power comes the opportunity to truly make a difference in people's lives and in the culture in which we live.

I cannot emphasize too much the difference having a clear vision can make for your church.  You may need assistance in seeking God's vision for your church.  You may find it helpful to bring in a coach or consultant from outside your church to assist you in this.  If you are interested in having a coach, please let me know.  I have worked with a number of churches to help them identify God's vision for their churches, and I may be able to assist your church as well.  Regardless of whether you get outside help in this process or do it strictly within your congregation, seek a fresh vision from God and see the impact such a vision will have on your church.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is our calling?

I recently read an interesting article that traced the focus of seminary education through the years.  In the 1960s the focus in many seminaries was on social justice.  It created pastors who thought social justice was the Gospel and excluded everything else.  In the 1970s and 80s the emphasis was on pastoral counseling, and pastors filled their calendars with counseling appointments.  As we entered the 1990s and into the 2000s the focus in many seminaries has shifted to leadership development.  Graduates now begin their pastoral ministries with CEO mindsets.  I agree with the article that none of these things are necessarily wrong.  The church and its pastors should be concerned with social justice issues.  Pastors will be confronted with people having a multitude of psychological and relational issues.  The church often has not had the leadership it needs to minister well.  No, there's nothing wrong with any of these except we have been called to be pastors.  Servant leaders.  Shepherds.

Should we be concerned with social and political issues?  Absolutely.  Scripture speaks often about caring for those who cannot care for themselves, and this is the church's job, not the government's.  Should pastors be able to counsel hurting people?  Yes, and they should also  know when to refer someone to a trained, competent, Christian counselor who has the training needed to help someone with issues that require more knowledge and skills than most pastors have.  Do pastors need to know how to lead churches?  I believe the lack of strong pastoral leadership is one of the greatest needs in the church today, but this leadership is not the CEO model of leadership.  We are not called to be dictators.  Our calling is that of a servant leader.

The call to pastoral ministry is one of the greatest callings anyone can have on his or her life.  It is a call to love people and to be involved in their lives.  There were times I would walk through an empty sanctuary and pray for the people who sat in each pew.  During my 20 year ministry in that church I got to know our membership very well.  We were not a perfect people.  In fact, we all had our warts and problems, but I had such a deep love for the people who gathered there each week.  I would sometimes tell them from the pulpit, "Sometimes you drive me up the wall, but I want you to know that I truly love each and every one of you with a love that is much deeper than any of you realize."

Let us not become so involved in the mechanics of ministry that we forget our first calling is to shepherd our people.  The hireling flees at the first sign of trouble; the shepherd stays to protect the flock.  If one wanders off the shepherd searches until it is found and returned to the fold.  The shepherd feeds the sheep and tenderly cares for each one.  If a sheep is injured the shepherd tends to it until it is well again.

I think some seminaries need to remember what their students are called to be and take a new look at what they are teaching.  Whether or not they ever do that, it is important for us to remember the nature of our calling and seek to live it out each day wherever we are.  We should take Jesus' words to Peter as if He was speaking to each of us: if you love Me, feed My sheep.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Obsolete knowledge

The story is told of a well-known university professor who had just given his class an exam.  After the exam had been taken his teaching assistant asked if that wasn't the same test he had given his class the previous year.  The professor admitted it was, but remarked that it was OK because the answers had changed.

I read this past week that knowledge is doubling every two years, and I have read that it doubles at an even higher rate than that.  This means that it is important to continually be taking in new information just to stay even.  Otherwise, a person will soon become obsolete in just about every field including ministry.  We see all around us the price that is paid when ministers stop growing.  They become stagnant and so do the churches they lead.  They become stuck in traditional ways of doing ministry that may no longer be effective and wonder why their church can't reach new people with the gospel. 

As I look at my bookshelves I see a number of books I used as a student at Bible college.  Those books contained a lot of good information for doing ministry in the 1980s, but then I look at the books I used when I later returned to seminary.  Although they deal with the same topics, their approach to those topics is much different.  Why?  Because over the 15 years between when I went to Bible college and seminary people learned better ways of doing ministry that would be more effective as we entered the 21st century.  My approach to ministry changed a great deal over the 20 years I was a pastor.  As a judicatory minister I've had the opportunity to learn new things, and I can assure you that if I returned to pastoral ministry it would look much different than when I previously served as a pastor.

How can we keep up with this explosion of knowledge?  I believe three things are critical: constantly reading good books, listening to audio learning programs, and attending conferences and workshops that address areas of ministry most important to you.  I know this will be a challenge for bivocational ministers who are pressed for time anyway, but I also believe that we have no choice.  We must keep learning and growing or we will soon find ourselves obsolete and unable to accomplish the ministry to which God has called us.

I try to read an average of one book a week.  I keep a book in my car so if I have some downtime in the car I can read a few pages.  I read when I'm on the treadmill.  I keep a book next to my chair, and I wouldn't think of going to a doctor's office or anywhere I might have to wait without a book to read.  I keep highlighters and a pen to mark interesting passages or make notes in the margins.  Very seldom do I read fiction.  Much of what I read has to do with ministry, leadership, personal growth, or political events.

Because my current ministry role requires me to spend a lot of time in my car I often listen to my I-Pod while I'm driving.  There are a number of programs I download so that I have a variety of options to listen to while I'm on the road.  That is a much better use of my time than listening to a lot of the drivel that is on the radio today.

I lead a number of workshops and conferences each year so it's sometimes a challenge to attend as many as I might want as a learner, but I still try to get to at least one or two each year.  I can always leave one of these events with at least a nugget or two of new information, and sometimes I leave there with a whole sack of gold.  These are a great way to hear the newest information from someone who has spent time studying a specific topic.

Develop a plan for personal growth that will work for you and then follow that plan.  You'll find ministry much more enjoyable, and you'll find that growing ministers lead growing chuches.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When does a bivocational pastor need a coach?

For the past few years I have had the privilege of coaching a number of bivocational and fully-funded pastors.  It has always been exciting to see these pastors experience break-throughs in their ministries, their home lives, and in their own personal lives.  One of the things I enjoy about coaching is that we always work on the issues the person being coached brings to the session.  We always work from the agenda of the person being coached, not the agenda of the coach.  There are two reasons I enjoy this aspect of coaching.  One is that it means we are often dealing with different issues in each session.  The second reason is that I know that the coaching will be helpful because we are addressing the most pressing issues the minister is facing at that particular time.  I don't have to guess what the pastor needs; he or she has already told me. 

How does a person know he or she is ready for a coach?  There are several, and I will just touch on a very few in this posting.  The first is that the minister feels stuck.  He or she feels stuck in some aspect of their lives.  It may be ministry related; it may be work related; it may be relationship related.  Try as he or she might, they just can't seem to be able to move forward with some aspect of their lives.  A coach can help break through roadblocks and enable the individual to get unstuck and begin to move forward again.

Coaching can also be very helpful when an individual is sensing a change in his or her life.  When I was receiving my training in coaching we were required to have a coach through the training process.  That happened to be a time when I was contemplating some major changes in my life and career.  My coach helped me work through the direction some of those changes would take, and it was my coach who helped me decide that God was calling me to return to school and work on my doctorate.  I was very concerned about what I needed to be doing, and my coach helped me work through that confusion so that things could become more clear.

Sometimes the best candidate for coaching is the person who isn't struggling with any issues in his or her life.  It may be that the individual is enjoying life, work is going well, and good things are happening in the ministry.  But, the individual is wants to grow and become even more competent in his or her career or ministry or wants to take his or her relationships to a higher level.  Such persons are often highly motivated to experience an even more rewarding life, and motivated persons are always the best candidates for coaching.

Are you in a place in your life where a coach could be beneficial?  Are you wanting to experience more out of life or ministry than you are currently experiencing?  If so, you might be ready for a coach to come alongside and help you become more of the person you want to be.  If this describes you, I would enjoy working with you in a coaching relationship.  My fees are very reasonable; much less than most life coaches and executive coaches charge.  I would encourage you to see these fees as an investment in your life and ministry, an investment that will pay rich dividends over the next few years.

If you are considering working with a coach, please contact me and let's set up an initial discussion to see if coaching would be right for you.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Leadership in the small church

In the past two weeks I've had conversations with two pastors of smaller churches regarding some leadership challenges they are facing.  One was celebrating his first anniversary as the pastor of his church; the other had served nineteen months as the pastor.  Each one was having their pastoral leadership challenged by controllers in the church.  As usual, there were few people in the church willing to stand up against these controllers, and, as a result, it was becoming increasingly difficult to introduce any kind of change into the church's structure or ministry.

We discussed the problem of controllers in the church and some ways to address these people, but I spent much of my time with these pastors talking about the challenge of bringing change into a small church. I told each pastor the first thing they need to remember is that everything in a smaller church is dependent upon relationships.  Relationship in the smaller church is so important that the first question many in the small church will ask when being challenged by change is how the change will impact the current relationships in their church.  Small churches often claim they want to grow, but that claim quickly turns to dust if reaching new people might require changes that would cause established members to leave the church.  The second question that church members ask regarding proposed change is how the change will impact their role in the church, and will they even have a role in the new system?  Most members of small churches know their roles; in fact, these have often been their roles for years if not decades in that church.  You can expect resistance if there is any danger that their roles will be changed under a new way of doing things.  I suggested to these pastors that understanding these two common questions can help them answer these questions before they are even asked making it more likely to see any attempted changes succeed.

That then brought us to the leadership issue.  At least one of the pastors was a little surprised when I told him that after only a year at the church he really had not earned the right to lead that congregation.  He thought as the pastor that he was automatically the leader until I explained that he had not been there long enough to have earned the trust of the congregation, and until that happens he will not really have much leadership in the church.  I encouraged him to lead through the existing leadership of the church, and he was certainly able to name these individuals.  I told both pastors that their greatest success in their churches would come if they were able to work with their lay leadership to introduce any changes they wanted to see in their churches.  If they get buy-in from those lay leaders it is much more likely the congregation will be in favor because they usually already have a trust relationship with these lay leaders.

Small churches are notoriously resistant to change, but I believe it has as much to do with how the change is presented than the actual change itself.  Some changes will never be accepted by some churches, but if the change is presented in the right manner it is more likly to be accepted.  Pastors in smaller churches lead best when they can anticipate the concerns people will have about any proposed change and present the answers to those concerns before they are even asked, learn how to neutralize the controllers in the church, and work through the current leadership while they are building their own trust relationship with the congregation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

If only

I recently read that the two most common words a counselor is apt to hear is "If only...."  Sad to say, I've said those words myself on many occasions, and they seldom were stated in positive terms.  Usually when those words are uttered it is because we are remembering a choice we made some time in the past that did not turn out as well as we hoped or we are remembering the actions or words someone else directed towards us.

Anyone who has lived very long has made choices that were proven wrong.  If only we had chosen a different school.  If only we had chosen a different profession.  If only we hadn't chose to be at that location at that specific time.  If only we had chosen different friends, or a different spouse, or a different course of action our lives would be much different now.  Unfortunately, what these words do is to hold us hostage to a past that we cannot change, and they often keep us from the ability to move forward with our lives.

An interesting truth is that our minds are not capable of holding but one thought at a time.  The more time we spend thinking about how things might have been "if only" we had made different choices the less time we have to think about how things can be better in the future.  I know pastors that cannot plan for the future because their minds are locked into mistakes they made in the past.  I know even more churches that spend much more time reliving the past than they spend preparing for the future.  Sometimes those memories of the past are much better than the past really was.  Such thinking reminds me of the person who said that the older he got the better he was.  At other times the church's thinking is more in line with "If only...."  In either case, the church can't prepare for the future as long as it spends its time reliving the past.

Individuals, pastors, and churches all have made choices that didn't work out as we had hoped.  We can spend our time visualizing what life might have looked like if only we had made other choices, but what good does that do?  Take time to learn from those poor choices, and move on.  Spend as little time and energy thinking about the if only's in your life and more time seeking a fresh vision from God for the future.  You and the church will find it much more rewarding if you do.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Beware of the send button

A bivocational pastor friend of mine writes a monthly column for his local newspaper.  He shared with me a recent article in which he admitted recently sending an angry e-mail to a good friend of his.  His friend called him expressing surprise at his anger and some of the things that were said.  As their conversation ended apologies were offered and accepted, but my pastor friend knows that this will probably always have at least some impact on their future relationship.

Few things in recent years have done more to make life easier than e-mail.  (I am here excluding the many SPAM e-mails we each receive every day.)  E-mail gives us the opportunity to send out mass mailings or individual messages any time of the day.  With smart phones we don't even have to be at our computers to receive and reply to important messages.  Perhaps best of all, they don't cost 44 cents to send.  But, there are some serious dangers to e-mail as my friend learned the hard way.

Once you hit the send button your message is out there.  You may instantly regret sending that message, but it's too late.  It will be read, perhaps printed out, and distributed to others.   One of the problems with e-mail is that it is too easy to get upset about something, quickly type out a flame-throwing response, and hit the send button.  At least when we had to write a letter we had a chance to cool down a little before mailing it.  I've written a number of letters in the past that went into the trash when I finished them or at least before they went to the mail box.  It's just to easy to send something we'll later regret with e-mail.

Another problem with e-mail is that your words can be misinterpreted by the receiver.  I was once copied on some e-mails between two people.  They were disagreeing with one another, and yet from my perspective they were each saying the same thing only in different ways!  I finally stepped into their conversation and told them I thought they were essentially in agreement with one another and that I thought their conversation needed to happen in person and not through e-mails.  Fortunately, they both agreed, and in a face-to-face discussion worked out the small differences they had.  I've also had the unfortunate experience of being asked in an e-mail my perspective on something, and after responding having the questioner printing out my reply and using it to prove to others that I agreed with his position.  The problem was he only gave me a partial description of the issue.  My response would have been a little different if I had known the whole story.  I haven't made that mistake again!  Now if I'm asked my opinion on some issue I normally call the questioner and discuss it with him or her by phone.  My position can still be misused, but at least they don't have a document to wave around.

E-mails and other tech forms of communication are quite useful for ministry, but always remember that sin isn't that far away from the send button.  Don't respond by e-mail when you're angry or upset about some issue.  Don't send anything by e-mail that you would not want the entire world to read, because once it's sent there is no way you can control who will see it.  Avoid e-mails if your comments can be taken out of context.  Don't substitute e-mails for personal interaction with others.

One final thing about e-mail...why do people think that it's not necessary to use proper writing standards when writing e-mails?  This has nothing to do with sin; it has a lot to do with common courtesy.  The proper use of capital letters and punctuation make for much more enjoyable reading.  Writing in all capital letters suggests anger and should be avoided.  There is nothing wrong with starting an e-mail with Dear____ and ending it with a farewell and is simply a matter of courtesy.  Previewing e-mails and using spell checker is recommended as well.  You might not catch all your mistakes (I certainly don't.) but it does make your e-mails more professional and more enjoyable to read.

Friday, March 4, 2011

When people leave

Few things frighten a pastor more than to hear that an individual or family is leaving the church.  Sometimes people leave because they are moving; that's OK.  When it hurts is when the people leave for reasons that always somehow seem to be the fault of the pastor.  Some of the complaints are quite common:  "I'm just not being fed here anymore."  "I don't like the music we use in our services."  "Things are changing too fast."  "I don't feel we have a pastor who believes the Bible anymore."  "I won't go to a church that doesn't have a sanctuary to meet in."  "I won't go to a church where the pastor doesn't wear a suit and tie when he preaches."    No matter how you cut it, each of these are directly or indirectly the fault of the pastor, or at least that's the way it feels.  If enough people leave, the pastor can expect a call from the board to address the problems.  In far too many churches, especially smaller churches, the pastor will automatically be seen as the cause of the problem.  Few smaller churches want to admit that the problem might be the spiritual immaturity of the ones leaving.

Let me say right now that I have met a number of pastors whose problems were the result of their own actions and/or attitudes.  Someone asked me in a workshop I was leading why so many churches stabbed their pastors in the back.  My response was that I thought more pastors shot themselves in the foot than were stabbed in the back.  Anytime a pastor tries to push things on people before they are ready there will be issues.  A pastor who believes he or she is the de facto leader because of his or her position is destined for a hard fall.  Such people understand nothing about leadership.  The right to lead must be earned; it is not automatically granted.  True leadership is servant leadership, and when a pastor faithfully serves a congregation for a period of time he or she will earn the trust of the congregation and the right to lead.

Doing the right things with the right attitude doesn't mean that people still won't blame the pastor for all the various complaints listed above.  After all, isn't it the responsibility of the pastor to feed the people?  Or should spiritually mature people be able to feed themselves?  When I was a baby my mother fed me every bite of food I consumed, but there came a time when I was expected to feed myself.  I shudder to think what would happen if I told my wife it was her responsibility to feed me!  Maybe the ones complaining they are not being fed at their church would be able to feed themselves if they took their Bibles out of the floorboard of their cars during the week and read it for themselves.

For the sake of time I won't go into each of the complaints I listed above, but I think you get the idea.  Spiritually immature people suffer from "I" disease.  They think everything in the church revolves around them, and if their particular preferences are not being met the church and, especially, the pastor is at fault.  They will leave to find that perfect church that seems to exist in many people's minds. 

When such people leave there are some things the pastor should do.  One, consider their complaints or issues.  Is there any validity to what they are saying?  If there is a kernal of truth in their comments, this presents you with a great time to make some changes in your leadership.  Admit what is true, but don't accept the totality of their complaints.  Second, this is a good time to check your attitudes.  You've probably known they were unhappy for some time.  Have you been ignoring them or avoiding them?  When you have talked to them, how was the tone of your voice?  Did you really listen to their concerns, or did you just blow them off as chronic complainers?  There is little you can do about how people feel about you, but there is much you can do about your attitude towards such people.  Third, wish them well in their new church.  Be sincere as you say good-by.  Avoid the temptation to tell them off as they are leaving, and resist the even greater temptation to criticize them to others after they are gone.  Take the high road.  It always pays off.  Finally, refuse to beat yourself up over their leaving.  Maybe some of it was your fault.  There's nothing you can do about that now except learn some important lessons and vow to do better next time.  No pastor will please every person all the time.  Accept that and work with the ones who are still with you.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The wonder of God's Word

A number of years ago when I was still a pastor one of my members  left the sanctuary after the service and expressed his surprise at my message that morning.  He told me that when I read my text he assumed he knew the theme of the message and was prepared to shut me off and think of other things.  Suddenly, he realized my message was going in a completely different direction than he assumed so he decided to pay attention.  He meant it as a compliment when he told me he had never heard anyone preach that message from that particular text.  Although he was complimenting me, his comments bothered me for a couple of reasons.

One, they reminded me that we should never assume that people are paying attention to what we are saying.  For some, it is pretty obvious.  As the message begins their eyes begin to close not to open again until the invitational hymn wakens them.  However, we should never assume that just because someone is looking at us while we preach that they are paying attention.  Their thoughts may be on the dinner they are planning for that afternoon, an upcoming activity, or stresses related to work or family issues.  They may have completely tuned us out.

This is often the case when our sermons are delivered without passion, conviction, or application to real world struggles.  I have sat through too many sermons in the past several years that could not hold my attention for very long, and it didn't take my mind long to wander.  (I should say that I have also preached a few messages that I realized about half way through that they were unlikely to hold anyone's attention.  It was even hard for me to listen to my own message!)  This is really a shame because God's Word holds such power and truth and truly does have the power to change one's life.

The second thing that concerned me is that after we have been Christians for some time it becomes easy to take God's Word for granted.  We lose the mystery and wonder of the Scriptures.  When my friend heard my text that morning his mental file immediately pulled up all the previous sermons he heard from that text and assumed that he already knew the content of my message.  Aren't we all at risk of doing that?  Yet, the more time we spend in God's Word the more we find that it can speak to us in new ways.  How many times have I read a familiar passage of Scripture or heard someone preach from a passage and saw something new that I had never seen before?  I am convinced that God is always wanting to reveal Himself in new ways to us, but if we begin to treat His Word as common and lose the wonder of that Word we run the risk of missing what He wants to reveal to us.

The challenge for us who preach from the Scriptures is to keep the wonder of that Word we handle.  A creator God has revealed Himself to mankind through His Word, and through that Word He wants to change lives.  Listen to His still small voice through the pages of that book and allow their words to bring change to your life.  Then you'll be ready to preach with a passion and conviction that will speak to the hearts of your listeners.