Thursday, March 29, 2012

Campbellsville University

Later today and tomorrow I will be attending the spring meeting of the Church Relations Council at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Kentucky.  For the past several years I've been privileged to serve on this council and see the exciting growth of this great Christian university.  CU is a true friend of bivocational ministers.  For many years a Center for Bivocational Ministry has been located on this campus, and their School of Theology offers a certificate program specifically designed for bivocational ministers that can be taken online.  They have also co-hosted workshops and conferences for bivocational ministers both on and off campus.

If you are serving as a bivocational minister and have not had an opportunity to pursue a theological education I would encourage you to check out the certificate program through the School of Theology.  You can find it at  If you have young people starting to look at higher education I would recommend you explore with them all that Campbellsville University has to offer.  They offer a number of bachelor and master's programs in a variety of schools.  Their sports program is outstanding with several of their teams regularly advancing in NAIA tournaments.  The campus has recently added a number of modern housing units for students who live on campus due to the outstanding growth they have enjoyed for a number of years.  Your young people will not only receive an excellent education, but they will do so in a Christian environment that will allow them to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Please check out their website at the above address and encourage your college-bound students to consider Campbellsville University.  If you have any questions please feel free to contact me or the school directly.  They would be glad to arrange a tour of the campus for you and your students and their parents so you can see all this university offers.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An attitude of gratitude

Occasionally, I meet pastors who seem to regret entering the ministry.  Some have no enthusiasm about what they do.  Their sermons lack passion.  These pastors are either legalists, quick to condemn everything with which they disagree, or they are apathetic and don't seem to care what anyone does.  These pastors do little, if anything, to improve their ministry skills.  Being around such pastors for any length of time will suck the life out of anyone.  I know they have to be miserable, and they make most people who comes into contact with them miserable.

Anyone God has called into ministry should be filled with gratitude for the opportunity He has entrusted to them.  Despite our weaknesses and failures, God has called us into ministry.  He has selected us to watch over His church.  He has seen within us the gifts and strengths we will need to fulfill this call on our lives  I know better than anyone my own weaknesses and shortcomings, and it makes me marvel that God would call someone like me to serve as a minister.  After 30 years of ministry it still amazes me and fills me with gratitude for the privilege He has given me.

As a minister I have had the opportunity to be with persons at some of their most exciting times and some of their most sorrowful.  I have been able to celebrate with people, and I've been able to comfort them when they were hurting.  I've been allowed to pray with people as they have invited Jesus Christ into their lives for the first time.   I've seen people's lives transformed as they began to apply biblical teachings to various aspects of their lives.  God has given me opportunities to speak to pastors and lay leaders from many denominations in the United States and Canada.  As a boy who grew up on dairy farms and who worked for many years on machine and assembly lines in a factory I could have never dreamed God would have given me the opportunities He has.  When I pause long enough to think about what God has done in my life I can't help but be filled with gratitude.

Of course, that's the problem isn't it?  Many of us are so busy doing all the things expected of us that we seldom stop long enough to remember how God called us from whatever we were doing to the ministry.  We become so focused on the difficulties of ministry that we forget that the One who spoke the worlds into existence spoke to us at some time in our lives calling us to serve Him as ministers.  We forget that the God who knows all things and knows us better than we know ourselves called us to serve His people.  We owe it to our calling and to God to stop occasionally to remember God's call on our lives and to express our apprecation to Him for such trust.

Being grateful for our calling will make us better ministers.  It will give us the grace and mercy we need when ministry is challenging.  Being grateful for our calling will help us become better servants.  Maintaining an attitude of gratitude will allow ministry to be a joy.  So often I've wondered why God would ever have called someone like me to the ministry, but He did, and I'm grateful for that call.  I hope you are too.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

500th post

It is hard for me to believe this is my 500th blog post.  I started this blog several years ago and quit when I began going for long stretches without posting anything.  After a couple of years I felt led to start it up again to provide a community for bivocational ministers to discuss issues that are important to them.  There has not been the discussion I had hoped for, but many people have sent e-mails or told me in person how much they enjoy reading my posts and that they have been helpful to them and their ministries.  I still occasionally will go a few days without posting anything, but I've never felt the need to write on this blog just to be able to say I had.  If I find something I think will be helpful or think of something that might encourage my readers I post it; if not I keep my mouth shut.

I want to thank everyone who regularly reads the comments posted on this blog.  My desire for many years has been to find ways to encourage and resource the growing numbers of bivocational and smaller church pastors.  You continue to be rock stars to me.  Your work is so important to the Kingdom of God.  I know there are times when you feel somewhat alone in your ministry and wonder if anyone cares about what you do.  I want you to know that you are not alone, and I care very much about your work and your life.  I want to do whatever I can to support you in this important work God has called you to.

If this blog is helpful, please let me know.  Feel free to jump in at any time and respond to any of the postings.  The more dialogue we have about the items discussed here the more helpful it will be to our readers.  Most importantly, never forget your calling.  God has seen in you the gifts and talents you need to serve as a bivocational pastor.  Rejoice in your calling!

Personal and Family Care

Several years ago our American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky developed a training opportunity we call the Church Leadership Institute (CLI).  Over 100 lay leaders and bivocational ministers have taken advantage of this 2-3 year training program.  I teach one of the classes, "Personal and Family Care," that looks at issues such as maintaining balance in one's life, time management, priority and goal setting, family issues, and self-care.  This class will be taught at Franklin College on four Saturdays starting June 23 and ending August 4.  For more information on this course or the CLI program please go to and click on the Church Leadership Institute link.

One of the biggest struggles that bivocational (and many fully-funded) ministers have is trying to balance all the demands on their time.  This class is designed to help one do that.  Because of a lack of balance too many pastor's ministries end prematurely.  This doesn't have to happen.  With the tools taught in this class ministers can learn how to better manage all the things demanding their attention and enjoy long, productive ministries and have a much better relationship with their families and take better care of themselves.

At the same time, please don't think this class is only for ministers.  Many lay people struggle with good boundaries in their lives as well.  Too many are burning the candle at both ends, and if they keep doing that they will eventually find themselves consumed by the flames.  This class is just as beneficial for lay people as it is for clergy persons.

If you are in Indiana I encourage you to enroll in this class.  I believe you will find this course, and the entire CLI program, one of the best investments you will make in your life.  If you have questions, please contact me, or for more details or to register go to the above website.  I hope to see you at our next class.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Dealing with distractions

Talk about contrasts.  This weekend I watched a few basketball games.  As an opposing player would get ready to shoot a foul shot the fans for the other team would do everything possible to distract him.  They would scream, wave their arms in front of him, and do anything possible to make him miss his shot.  More often than not, he would make the free throw.  This afternoon I watched the final three holes of the PGA tournament.  Twice on a tee shot Tiger Woods stepped away from the ball because someone had moved or he heard the click of a camera.  His caddy and tournament officials pleaded with the people to be quiet until he hit his shot.  College kids can sink a free throw regardless of major, intense distractions while a professional golfer loses his concentration if he hears the click of a camera.

Ministry is much more like college basketball than professional golf.  As a minister or lay leader you will have to work through all kinds of distractions.  During the course of a week you will hear a variety of voices demanding your attention to their problem.  You will have to work through people who oppose your ideas and sometimes oppose you.  You will have sermons or lessons to prepare while needing to attend to numerous other issues.  You may be called upon to help a family deal with grief while at the same time going through your own doubts and hurts.  At some time during the week the phone will ring just as you and your family are sitting down to a meal.  It is doubtful you will have some official asking people to please be quiet so you can concentrate on your next action.  You just have to work through the distractions.  But, how do we do that?

Like everything else we do, we should follow the example of Christ.  Reading through the Gospels it seems He was always being distracted by someone or something, and yet He never allowed the distractions to be distractions.  As He is teaching the people in the Temple the religious leaders bring a woman caught in the act of adultery and demand from Jesus to know what should be done.  I would call that a distraction from teaching, but Jesus makes a teaching moment out of it embarrassing the religious leaders and offering forgiveness to the woman.  As He travels to Jairus' house to heal his dying daughter a woman with an issue of blood touches the hem of His garment and is healed.  Another distraction.  Jesus stops and speaks to the woman, praises her faith, and continues His journey to find the girl had died.  Rather than complain about the earlier distraction and how that might have impacted an opportunity to heal this girl, Jesus speaks life to her and she arose.  Throughout the Gospels there are numerous stories of how Jesus was distracted from His mission, and yet we consistently find that He never allowed the distractions to keep Him from His work.  In fact, He used those distractions to enhance His work.

What should you and I do when we find ourselves distracted from our plans?  First of all we should consider if the distraction is heaven sent.  Just because we might have plans for the day doesn't mean that God doesn't have other plans for that day.  He may have arranged for us to meet a certain person or be at a certain place in order to do something either within us or through us to benefit someone else.  Secondly, we should look to see if we can use this distraction as a teachable moment.  It could be that God is wanting to teach us something or this situation might exist so we can teach someone else a lesson God wants them to learn.  Thirdly, we just have to accept that distractions are part of life and ministry, learn to accept them, and move on.  This requires some flexibility on our part, and if we aren't willing to be flexible we probably shouldn't be involved in ministry anyway.

It may be that some of our greatest ministry opportunities will come out of distractions, but that can only happen if we begin to look for those opportunities.  If we only focus on the distraction it's unlikely we will ever see the opportunities that might be there.  The next time something distracts you from your plans look to see if there are ministry opportunities, and let me know how you met those opportunities.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Transformational change

When I meet with a pastor search committee I always ask them what they are looking for in their next pastor.  One answer search committees often give is that the church is looking for a pastor who can lead them in change.  It seems most church members understand they need to change; they just don't want to change unless their own comfort level isn't disturbed.  What the majority of churches are looking for when they say they want a pastor to be a person who can lead change is that they want someone who can continually tweak the system to maintain the stability of the church and their own personal comfort level.  They are not looking for a person to come in and lead them in any kind of transformational change that would change their systems and the appearance and feel of the church.  Yet, it is only this latter type of change that can really enable our churches to have an effective ministry in the 21st century.

I often tell church leaders who attend my workshops that "Their system is perfectly designed for the results they are getting."  There is a reason that approximately 80 percent of the churches in America are not growing; their church is structured in such a way as to prevent growth.  There is a reason the lives of many Christians differ little from the lives of non-Christians; our churches have a discipleship system that isn't working.  There is a reason why many churches struggle financially, and the reason isn't found in Washington, DC.  They have a stewardship system that is broken.  Rather than complain about the problems in our churches we need to identify the problem and then identify the system that is causing the problem and change it.  Complaining about a lack of growth accomplishes nothing.  Removing the barriers in the church that are preventing the growth will accomplish something, but these barriers cannot be removed without making transformational change in the structure of the church.  Unfortunately, this kind of change is what is often rejected and opposed because it's messy and painful.

One of the things that will turn around a struggling, small church faster than anything is to identify God's vision for the church and begin to transform our church systems in a way that will allow that vision to come to pass.  We need visionary pastors who will seek out what God wants to do in and through his or her church, and we need visionary lay leaders who will allow these pastors to introduce the necessary changes.  Implementing many of these changes will be painful in the short term, but new life doesn't come without some measure of pain.  We need to allow the momentary pain of change to occur so we can begin to enjoy the new life that these changes will bring to our church, its members, and the community we are called to reach.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


While speaking with a group of small church pastors recently some of them admitted one of their biggest challenges was in the area of discipleship.  Surveys have found that there is little difference between the way Christians live their lives from non-Christians, so it would appear that many churches are not doing a very good job with discipleship.  One of the reasons for our difficulty in this area is that we have approached discipleship from a wrong perspective.  We have equated discipleship with education.  If we can get people into a Sunday school class or small group Bible study we feel we have discipled them, but education alone is not enough to help a person become a disciple of Jesus Christ.  With the education we must provide people with the opportunities to put into practice what they are learning.

I don't want to blow past education too quickly.  Due to financial challenges some denominations and judicatories have cut back or eliminated their educational departments which means they produce fewer educational resources for their churches.  In my opinion, some Sunday school material has been dumbed down so much that it is hardly useful in a church that takes seriously its responsibility to educate its members.  When I was a pastor I taught our young adult Sunday school class, and for the last several years I refused to order literature from our Sunday school material supplier because I felt it had been so simplified as to be of little value.  I developed our own material for my class.

Sunday school attendance has been shrinking over the past few years to the point that some churches have basically scrapped it in favor of small groups that meet during the week.  While they might offer a few Sunday school classes for those generations that prefer them, most of their discipleship training takes place in those small group meetings.  Regardless of how it is offered, it is vital that we provide quality biblical training for our church members.  The reality is that many Christians have a very poor understanding of even the most basic Bible facts and teaching.  This results in immature Christians which leads to many of the problems we find in our churches.

But, education is not enough.  I once heard John Maxwell say that the average Christian had been educated far beyond his level of obedience.  To grow disciples we must provide our people opportunities to live out what they are being taught.  This may involve mission trips or becoming involved in local projects.  I know churches that have sister church relationships with churches in South America, and members from these churches visit their sister churches to minister to and alongside of them.  When these individuals return and share their experiences with others in the congregation they never fail to mention how their lives have been impacted by the experience.  Which do you think produces disciples: sitting in a class hearing about what churches in other parts of the world need or going to those churches and helping meet those needs?  I realize not everyone is able to take a trip to another country, but what about local ministry opportunities?  Would a person grow as a disciple if they spent even one Saturday a quarter helping a local food bank distribute food?  What might be the impact of helping build a Habitat for Humanity house?  I know an assocation of churches that invite their members to participate in a weekend ministry trip to a community in Apalachia once or twice a year.  Again, these folks return talking about how their lives were changed more than the people they were serving.  Several areas around me were hard hit with tornados a few weeks ago, and numerous church groups are involved in helping people clean up debris, repair their houses, and rebuild their lives.  In each of these examples, people are living out what they have been taught in their churches, and those involved are growing as disciples.

Regardless of the size of your church, it is imperative that you make ministry opportunities available to the members of your congregation.  Many denominations and judicatories offer mission trips that could include members of your church.  There are surely a host of ministry opportunities in your own local community.  If we want to do a better job of developing disciples we must provide both education and ministry opportunities to our folks.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Healthy Community

The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision is the title of my most recent book.  It became available March 1 and seems to be selling very well.  It is a book that will both challenge your church and give it hope at the same time.  The book will challenge you because it examines several problems I call heart diseases that exist in many churches that prevent them from fulfilling the purpose God has for their church.  Hope is offered because each of these problems can be resolved if the church is willing to do the hard work to address and resolve these problems.  The book is divided into two sections: one addresses the problems and the second one offers a cure.  To give you an idea of the material covered in the book here is a list of the chapters.
  • Part One - The Problem
  • Chapter One - A Lack of Biblical Authority
  • Chapter Two - A Lack of Grace
  • Chapter Three - A Lack of Mission
  • Chapter Four - A Lack of Pastoral Leadership
  • Chapter Five - A Lack of Discipled Believers
  • Chapter Six - A Lack of Denominational Excellence
  • Chapter Seven - A Hardened Heart
  • Past Two - The Cure
  • Chapter Eight - Ask the Tough Questions
  • Chapter Nine - Pursue Congregational Health
  • Chapter Ten - Pay the Price of Change
Each of the problems discussed in Part One can damage your church.  A combination of several of them can be critical.  They are not only critical to the church itself but to those who are not being ministered to by the church.  Unless these conditions of the heart are addressed the church will never be what God envisioned it to be and can never have the impact on our society that it should.

This is not a book for people looking for easy answers.  Radical treatment is required when an individual develops heart disease, and it will often take radical change for a church with heart disease.  It is a book for persons looking for answers to some of the tough issues that might exist in their churches and for those who are willing to do the hard work to bring about the necessary changes.

You can now find it available on as well as other online book stores and in many Christian bookstores as well. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Lord's Prayer

My first DMin class was "Principles and Practice of Prayer" taught by Dr. Elmer Towns.  Dr. Towns has long been one of my heroes so I was looking forward to this class.  Much of it focused on the Lord's Prayer as he had written a book that examined that prayer.  In all honesty, I had never really spent much time studying the Lord's Prayer and was not usually excited when congregations recited it as part of their worship service.  I had studied it only for the lessons we could gather from it, but I had not studied it for its own value.  Obviously, that changed during the course of this class.

Dr. Towns shared with the class a practice he had followed for many years.  When he woke up in the morning, before ever getting out of bed, he prayed the Lord's Prayer.  The last thing he did when he laid down at night was to pray the Lord's Prayer.  This directed his first thoughts of the day and his last thoughts of the day towards God.  I found that appealing.  It was certainly better than waking up thinking about all the things on one's to-do list and going to bed at night frustrated about all the things that didn't get accomplished during the day.  I saw it as "bookending" the day with God, and that seemed to be a very good practice.  I have done this ever since in my own life.

I'm certain that I'm not as faithful to begin and end each day praying the Lord's Prayer as Dr. Towns has been, but I have found this to be a very good practice.  It does begin the day with a proper focus.  Praying the Lord's Prayer when I lay down at night helps put aside some of the issues of the day and allows me to fall asleep rather than laying there thinking about any frustrations of the day.  I also find myself praying the Lord's Prayer during the day.  While driving to some event I can pray this prayer as part of my prayer for this event, or it can certainly stand alone as an appropriate prayer.  There are times when I focus on one aspect of the Lord's Prayer and simply talk to God about that one aspect.

Yes, this can become mechanical to where we pray it without really thinking about what we're praying, but that is our problem, not the prayer's.  It should not substitute for other prayers and become the only prayer we ever pray.  During the course of a day there are numerous things we should pray about, but at the same time we should not neglect this wonderful prayer.

It has always seemed odd to me that those of us in ministry often struggle with our own devotional and prayer life.  We can become so busy doing things for God that we forget to spend time with God.  I have found that praying the Lord's Prayer as a spiritual discipline can help jumpstart that devotional time because as I conclude that prayer I often continue right on into other things that I need to pray about.  You may want to make this part of your own personal spiritual disciplines.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New book now available

My newest book, The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision was due to be released March 1 but ran into a little delay.  I'm glad to announce it is now available and can be ordered from or purchased in your local Christian bookstore.  This book examines what I call heart diseases in the body of Christ.  Some of the issues addressed in the book include a lack of biblical authority, a lack of grace, a lack of mission, a lack of discipled believers, a lack of denominational excellence, and several other problems that prevent the church from being what God created it to be.  It also provides specific steps you can take to implement change in each of these areas.

This book was not easy to write and it may not be easy to read.  I love the church despite its problems, but I am convinced that until we are willing to give voice to those problems the church will continue to fail to live up to its potential.  People need the church to address its heart conditions and become a place where they can encounter the living Christ.  We can no longer afford to pretend that all is well in the church and refuse to speak truth about what we see.  Likewise, we cannot pretend that better days are ahead for the church if we are not willing to make the changes that need to be made.

Most of my books have addressed smaller churches and bivocational ministers and the special challenges they face.  This book speaks to all size churches because the heart conditions I describe are found in every size church.  This is a book for pastors, lay leaders, denominational leaders, and anyone who cares about the church.

We are now in the third month of 2012.  How will your church be different when we come to the end of 2012?  Will it be a healthier church with a much more effective ministry to the people God has given you?  Will it be a church that has an outward focus to those who do not yet know Jesus Christ in a life-changing way, or will it primarily be focused on its own needs and its own people?  As a leader in your church, what intentional steps are you going to take to help your church make the necessary changes to become more of the church God wants you to be?  I believe this book can help you identify some of those steps and give you some tools to help make those changes possible.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Working together

A couple of weeks ago you probably heard on your news about some severe tornados that hit southern Indiana.  Those ocurred just a few miles south and north of where I live.  Some of the worst damage happened less than 30 minutes from my house.  People lost their lives in these storms and many others lost their homes and possessions.  Clean up and assistance has been coming in from all over the country, and our denomination's Disaster Relief Team has been hard at work in one community helping people begin to put their lives back together.

Last Saturday a group of individuals went to one community to assist.  These individuals are from churches in the Area I serve as an Area Resource Minister.  What makes this group different is that they represent several churches in their association, all of which are bivocational.  What makes this group even more special is that they do these types of things all the time.  We live in an age where denominational associations have lost much of their meaning, but this group doesn't know that!  They still believe that one of the purposes of being part of an association is to be able to work together to represent God to the people they serve.

Many small, bivocational churches feel that because of their size they cannot do much, so they do nothing.  These individuals believe that when they come together they can do great things, so they do!  Each fall they leave the confines of southern Indiana and go to the Appalachian area of eastern Kentucky to lead a week-end revival in one of the community parks.  They hold joint Lenten and Advent services meeting  in different churches each week during those seasons.  They provide a Christmas party with music and gifts for patients at a nearby mental hospital.  And, they reach out in times of crisis to help hurting people.

You may be in a church that is limited in what it can do by itself, but you are not limited in what you can do when you work with other churches.  Let me hasten to add that these do not have to be churches in the same denomination either.  When smaller churches come together they become much larger and their resources dramatically increase.  What ministry needs exist in your community that your church could meet if it was willing to work with other churches?  How soon do you plan to meet with the leaders of those churches to put together a ministry game plan to meet those needs?

Friday, March 9, 2012

View from the balcony

A few years ago I was coaching a very discouraged young bivocational pastor.  It was his first church as pastor.  His previous ministries had involved youth work.  One of his main interests in this church was to build its youth ministry, but he felt that in the 18 months he had been the pastor very little had happened with the youth group.  No matter what he said he wanted to focus on during each coaching session he always seemed to return to his disappointment with the youth program in his church.  During one session he began to complain again about the youth program until I stopped him.  I began to remind him of all the things he said had occurred in the youth ministry in the 18 months he had been pastor.  Personally, I was impressed and felt that he was overlooking how far the youth had come in such a short time.  Every time I mentioned something else positive that he had previously shared about the youth program he seemed to lighten up.  When I finished listing everything I told him I felt he had much to feel good about and a great foundation upon which to build.  He actually agreed with me.  It was obvious his mood lightened and he never complained about the youth ministry to me again.

Like many pastors, this young man was focusing on the wrong things.  He was comparing this youth group with other ones he had led.  He kept thinking about all the things they weren't doing instead of focusing on how far they had traveled in a short period of time.  He was looking at the youth ministry week to week instead of stepping back and taking a broader view of what was happening.

A few years ago I read a book that encouraged pastors to go to the balcony to get a better look at their church.  The author said that when you are on the dance floor you can only see what is in your immediate area, but when you step up to the balcony you can see the total picture of what's going on below.  When you are involved in the day to day business of pastoring a church and dealing with all the issues of the day it is easy to become discouraged.  In that position you can only see the issues you dealt with that day.  From that perspective it becomes difficult to see how far the church has come under your leadership.  You have to step away from the day to day drama of pastoring and spend time looking at the overall impact of your ministry if you want to continue feeling positive about your efforts.

I can remember many times when I was a pastor that I would become very frustrated and feeling that I was wasting my time.  Usually, my wife would be the person who would take me to the balcony and remind me of the things about our church I had forgotten.  She would help me get a much broader view of my ministry at the church and that was enough to help return to more positive feelings about what I was doing as a pastor.

Some people can go to the balcony on their own, but others of us need someone to take us there.  It might be a spouse, a close friend, a respected member of the church, another minister, or a coach, but we need someone to help us get a broader view of the impact of our ministries.  It is vital that you find such a person, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed by ministry and begin to feel that nothing you are doing makes any difference anyway.

Although ministry requires us to spend much of our time in the trenches, it is good if we can slip away and go to the balcony as often as possible even before we enter those times of discouragement.  Doing so might help avoid some of those discouraging times that steal away the joy of ministry.  Looking at the church from the balcony will also help us spot areas where we might need to provide some extra attention in the future.  Spend time in the balcony and see if it doesn't have a positive impact on your ministry.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Keeping the sermons fresh

A couple of days I wrote a post on the importance of relevance in the church and mentioned that some people avoid going to church because they do not believe it is relevant to their lives.    In that post I mentioned some ways the church can change to ensure that people do recognize the relevance of the church and its message.  I want to build upon that theme today by looking at sermons.

Any pastor who has been in ministry for a while has a sermon barrel.  I have a drawer in one file cabinet that contains the sermons of nearly every sermon I preached for twenty years as a pastor.  Some were, quite frankly, a waste of my time and the congregation's.  Others were very good.  With such a file there is always the temptation to go back and dig out the good ones, dust them off a little, and use them again.  That is a temptation pastors should avoid.

In my current role I am often in different churches nearly every week.  More than once I have listened to a sermon that I knew had been preached before.  The illustrations were old; the applications were dated; nothing about the message seemed to fit.  In a word, the sermon was irrelevant to today's culture.

When I was a young pastor I knew I needed some sermon helps and began looking for a set of commentaries.  I found a large set of commentaries from a well-known minister from the 19th century for a really cheap price.  Not knowing any better I bought it and quickly realized that it was cheap for a very good reason.  I was looking for a quick fix to my sermon preparation and learned the hard way there is no quick fix.  To be a good communicator and preach sermons that will touch the heads and hearts of our listeners takes time and a lot of hard work.

Some might ask if we're going to put all that hard work into preparing a sermon why can't it be used more than once?  In some cases it can, but we have to be careful.  Some time back I was going to preach a sermon on family life.  I pulled out several sermons on that topic I had preached in the past and began reviewing them, and I soon realized that none of them were helpful.  For one thing, I had changed.  My sermons from the past reflected more of who I was at the time and the particular family challenges I had at that time.  Little of any of those sermons was really relevant to the challenges families face in the 21st century.  Unfortunately, the same could be said of most of the sermons I preached in the past.  And, tweaking an illustration here and there probably isn't going to fix that.

Our congregations deserve better.  They deserve a fresh word from God that speaks to the challenges they face today.  As bivocational ministers we are often quite busy, but sermon preparation has to be a priority.  Going through the sermon barrel on Saturday night to see if we can come up with something is not what we are called to do.  It helps to keep in mind that Sunday will roll around every seven days, and God and our congregations expect us to be ready when we step in the pulpit.  Bringing fresh messages that speak to the real issues of our time is one way we ensure that no one can say that our church is irrelevant to the times in which we live. 

Now, if you'll excuse me I've got a file drawer to clean out.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Responding to tragedy

Last week tornados hit our county and surrounding areas resulting in much damage and loss of life.  We're not used to hearing national news anchors talking about the small communities around us, but the devastation was so great that many of them have even came on site for their broadcasts.  Almost immediately, people sought ways to help and cases of supplies have already been delivered to help the people who lost everything.  It has been heartwarming to hear of how people have responded. 

Several churches have contacted me since the tornados went through asking how they could assist.  The Salvation Army and Red Cross were receiving emergency supplies and I recommended those items could be delivered directly to those organizations.  But, I also suggested to wait before just jumping in with other forms of assistance.  One of the problems in situations like this is that people tend to have short memories.  After 2-3 weeks many people will move on to the next need and forget that it will take a long time for these folks to rebuild their lives.  If we want our churches to have the greatest impact on the folks affected by these storms we have to be willing to be involved for an extended period of time.

Our denomination has a mission agency set up to respond with financial assistance in these types of circumstances, and I've suggested that those churches who want to help financially do so through that agency.  We know that every dime designated for this cause will go directly to assist people who are trying to rebuild their lives.  It is a quick and safe way to ensure that the people who need help receives it.

Our statewide men's ministry has an Emergency Response Team that is ready to go into action.  As this post is being written they are meeting with other emergency organizations to map out a strategy for how they can best help the most people.  I am recommending that those who want to provide hands-on assistance to contact our ERT and work through them.  I did that a few years ago when a nearby community suffered major flooding and found them to be very well organized and equipped to provide excellent assistance.

Wanting to help people who have gone through a tragedy is wonderful.  While there are immediate needs that must be addressed, it is also important to take a long-term view of the assistance that will be needed.  Those needs require some planning and organization and coordinating with other agencies to make sure we are not duplicating one another's efforts or, even worse, working against what each other is trying to accomplish.

I'm very proud of the way I've seen people and churches already respond, and I'm proud of how our denomination and men's organization are approaching their response.  In my last post I mentioned how our faith should lead to action, and this is a great example of the type of action I was referring to.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


One of the reasons many people have abandoned the church is that they view it as irrelevant to their lives.  They believe the church is answering questions no one is asking today.  While that may be true for some churches, that is certainly not the case for most churches.  Perhaps part of that perception comes from the way some churches seem out of step with the world in which we currently live.

Last year I preached a revival in a church in which I mentioned my use of the Internet.  In one service I mentioned that I had a website, a blog, a monthly e-newsletter and was on Facebook and Twitter.  I talked about much I enjoyed my I-Phone and I-Pad.  After the service a young college-age woman came to me and asked if I really used all that technology.  When I said I did she said, "I just didn't think people your age used things like that!"  She went on to say how many churches seemed frightened by technology.  Although I didn't appreciate the "people your age" comment, I was glad I was able to show her that some "more mature" church leaders are not afraid of technology and are willing to use it for ministry.

Would you like your church to have a world-wide impact?  All it takes is a website or a blog, and you can minister to people all over the world.  Do you want to have faster communication to your church members?  Twitter can be a great tool to send out instant messages to everyone in your church with a Twitter account.   Would you like to communicate to more people in your community?  That can be done with a simple telephone answering machine that gives callers the times of your services and an emergency number to call when no one is in the church office, which for bivocational churches is most of the time.  Churches that avoid using technology will lose the opportunity to minister to growing numbers of people in today's society.

Church language can cause unchurched people to feel that we are living in some distant past.  Do most of your church guests know where the narthex is?  Probably not, so why not use language that makes it clear what we're talking about?  Spend some time thinking about all the "insider" church language we use and how archaic that has to sound to unchurched people.  Read your church program from the perspective of a visiting unchurched person.  Does any of it have to be translated before that person can understand it?  Read through the songs you plan to sing next Sunday.  What images of Christianity will the words in those songs create for unchurched people?  What about the phrases you'll use in your message?  Will everyone know what you are talking about if you mention that you can have your name written in the Lamb's Book of Life?  If not, you better take time to explain it.  The same thing is true for being "washed in the blood of the Lamb."  The words we use will create mental images in people's minds, and unchurched people who have no Christian frame of reference will struggle with some of the language they hear when they visit many churches.

In the course of your announcements or message next Sunday how will you challenge people to live out their faith?  It is important to deliver a message that helps people grow in their faith, but it's also important to give them concrete ways they can live out that faith in the coming week.  Young people especially want to be challenged to do things that will have a positive impact on other people's lives.  Many of them complain that if the Christian life is true then they do not understand why it doesn't have a great effect on the lives of those who claim to follow it.  This especially applies to how we live out what we claim to believe.  Many unchurched people may not be familiar with the verse that says "Faith without works is dead," but they believe it.  A church that does not call people to action will seem uncaring and irrelevant in a world with such great needs.

Of course, the truth is that the Gospel message is relevant for all times.  The challenge for the church is to demonstrate that relevance through our teaching and our action.  How will your church demonstrate that relevance to the skeptic in the coming months?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What do you need from your denomination?

A common complaint I often hear when speaking to bivocational ministers is the lack of support they receive from their denomination or judicatory.  At the same time, denominational leaders tell me that if they schedule events specifically for bivocational ministers the turn-out is often very poor.  As a former bivocational pastor and a current judicatory minister I have been on both sides of this issue.  As a pastor I had times when I felt like a fifth wheel even though I have to say that most of the time the support I received from my region was very good.  Now, I know what's it's like to schedule events for bivocational ministers and have a very poor turnout.  In fact, one state organization scheduled me to speak to their bivocational ministers at several different sites throughout the course of a week, and one night nobody showed up for the meeting. 

My purpose for this post is stated in the title of the post.  What is it that you need from your denomination or state organization?  What resources do you need?  What do you feel you need the most help with in your ministry or life?  It may not even be resources; perhaps the thing you need most is understanding and encouragement.  I want to hear that, too.  Please share with me and our other readers because I really want to know.  Thanks.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Constructive criticism

Those of you who know my story know that I served a small, rural church for twenty years as its bivocational pastor.  I went there with no experience and no education beyond high school.  Our church consisted mostly of people who worked blue collar jobs, farmed, or were retired.  We had one college graduate when I began who was a teacher in our local high school.  A few months after I began my pastorate she came to me after a morning service with a concern.  She told me that although my current church didn't care one way or the other, she was concerned that my poor grammar would hurt me in other churches.  Sometimes I do not handle criticism very well, but in this case I recognized that she was right.  I was a very poor English student in high school and really didn't know the basic rules of grammar.  I thanked her for her honesty and promised I would try to improve.

About a year later I enrolled in Boyce Bible School where one of the required courses was English.  That course terrified me more than all the others, but I was fortunate when our instructor turned out to be one of the best I've ever had.  She taught English in a way that even I could learn.  While I will never be mistaken as an English major I left that class with the knowledge of basic grammatical priniciples and the confidence to speak to any group.  That came in handy when a few years later I was asked to be the commencement speaker at our daughter's high school graduation with many of my former teachers in attendance.  It became even more helpful when I began writing books.  In fact, I invited my Boyce English teacher to my first book signing, and she came.  I told her that day that without her class I would never have had the confidence to try to write a book.

I thought about this experience the other day and sent an e-mail to the lady who confronted me that Sunday morning thirty years ago.  She has moved to another community to an assisted care facility, but we communicate occasionally by e-mail.  She remembered the incident and how frightened she was to share her concern with me.  She said she didn't want to hurt or anger me, but she didn't want something like grammar to impact my future ministry.  I thanked her for her willingness to speak truth to a young minister who needed to hear it in so many areas and told her that much of what I've done since then became possible because of that conversation.

How well do you handle constructive criticism?  I know pastors who become very angry if anyone criticizes anything they say or do.  I know one who has stormed out of church meetings when someone opposed something he suggested and then would be too sick to preach the next Sunday.  His arrogance will prevent him from ever becoming a better minister.  Others will listen but never make an attempt to follow through even if the change would make their ministries better.  We all have our critics who we would often prefer to never hear from, but even their criticisms may contain a nugget of truth that would help us become better ministers.

The next time someone criticizes you look for the truth in what they are saying.  When you find it then begin looking for the best way to address it.  Thank the critic and God that they care enough about you and your ministry to want to help you become better.  You will probably find, as I have, that you will grow more through your interactions with those who offer constructive criticism than you will just listening to those who always tell you what a wonderful person you are, but such growth will only come if we take the time to listen and prayerfully consider their comments.