Thursday, May 30, 2013

Should a pastor pursue success?

I have heard some people say that persons in ministry should not pursue success.  I'm sometimes tempted to ask them if it would be better for the minister to pursue failure, but so far I've resisted that temptation.  I think I understand where those people are coming from.  They simply have the wrong image of success.  They are probably thinking of some of the ministers we find on television who have convinced people that God will bless those who are faithful in sending their checks to these particular ministers.  I have a different definition for success.  Actually, I copied several Christian leader's definition of success in my book The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry.

  • Robert Schuller defined success as "discovering and developing your potential as well as seeing the new opportunities born all around you every new day."
  • John Maxwell said that success is "knowing God and his desires for me, growing to my maximum potential; and sowing seeds that benefit others."
  • Charles Stanley wrote, "Success is the continuing achievement of becoming the person God wants you to be and accomplishing the goals God has helped you set."
The thing you should notice about these definitions of success is that they say nothing about the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, the type of car you drive, or even the size of your church.  Each of them focuses on our relationship with God and our responsibility to develop the potential God has placed within each of us so that we can more effectively serve those God directs our way.  I think it would be difficult for anyone to criticize a minister who was pursuing this kind of success.

We should also notice that these statements all imply that success is a journey.  Notice the verbs in these statements.  Discovering...developing...knowing...growing...sowing...accomplishing.  For the minister we never arrive at success.  Again, see what a couple of well known Christian leaders have to say about the matter.
  • Charles Stanley - "Success is an ongoing pursuit...No person ever truly achieves success."
  • John Maxwell - "Success is a journey rather than a destination."
Both of these individuals would be considered successful leaders, but they both insist that they remain on a journey towards success  Both are committed to on-going growth which is one of the hallmarks of anyone serious about being on the path towards success.  One cannot live up to his or her potential if that person ever stops growing.

There are several qualities one must continue to develop if one wishes to know success in ministry.  The book referenced above examines several of those qualities in more detail than we can cover in a blog post.  If you are serious about wanting to enjoy a successful ministry based upon the right definition of success I encourage you to read the book and apply what you learn to your own life.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The church needs a new perspective on ministry

Ministry is too important to leave in the hands of the professional.  Besides, that was never the way God intended ministry to be done.  One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Ephesians 4: 11-12 that teaches us that God has given the church certain people (often referred to today as ministers) to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  For the past several decades the church has got this confused.  The church believes that the work of ministry is to be done by the paid help while the rest of the congregation gets to sit in the pews and keep score.  Nothing could be more unbiblical.  Pastors and other leaders in the church are to train the church members so they can do ministry.  This role reversal that exists in too many of our churches is one of the reasons so many of our churches are in decline and why the church has so little impact on our society today.

One writer has noted that the first Reformation gave the Bible back to the people, and he believes the second Reformation will give the ministry back to the people.  I pray he is correct because that's where it belongs anyway.  Scripture teaches that God has given every believer at least one spiritual gift which is to be used for ministry.  Furthermore, God has called each believer to minister.  Pastors are often ordained, or set apart, for ministry, but the truth is that every Christian has been set apart for ministry.  Another writer suggests we should view our baptisms as also our ordination into ministry.  Baptism represents the death and burial of our old nature and the resurrection of the new person in Christ.  But, what are we resurrected to to?  We are resurrected to serve God and others, and that is ministry.

Regardless of how talented your pastor may be, he or she can only be in one place at one time doing one thing.  What would happen if you are part of a church of 50 people and each of them understands they are to be engaged in ministry and have been equipped to do so?  Now you have 50 ministers in 50 places doing 50 different things.  Which do you believe will have the greatest impact for God's Kingdom?  If your church is among the 80 percent of the churches in America that is plateaued or declining, and you're tired of it, there is a simple solution: get more people in your church involved in ministry.

However, one of the things that must happen is that we need to redefine ministry.  It is not setting apart one evening a week to knock on doors and pass out tracts.  It is not standing on a street corner warning of the end of time and urging people to repent.  It is not the addition of yet another Bible study program in your church.  Ministry happens when we spend time with people addressing the challenges they have in their lives.  A teacher ministers when he or she encourages a child that may come out of a difficult home environment.  A small business owner ministers when he or she writes off a debt owed by someone he or she knows is struggling financially.  A person eating in a restaurant may minister to a server who is struggling at home with a smile and a generous tip.  The thing that is often overlooked in the Great Commission is the tense found in Jesus' words when He says, "Go therefore...."  The word go is better translated "as you are going."  In other words we don't fulfill the Great Commission just when we do special "church" things.  We fulfill it when we connect with people as we go through our daily lives.  Through those connections we may eventually find an opportunity to share our faith with them, and if we've consistently ministered to them we will have earned the right to do so.

As some of you know, I recently earned an auctioneer's license.  Some have asked why I would do that at this stage of my life.  I really see this as a way to serve people, a way to expand my ministry.  There are many people who use the services of an auctioneer, but one group who often calls an auctioneer are people who need to deal with an estate.  They have all this personal property that they need to dispose of, and many of them are overwhelmed by the task.  I met such a person last week who is the executor of her mother's estate.  Losing a parent is bad enough, but having to deal with settling the estate and disposing of the personal property just adds to the pain.  That is what this person was feeling.   After she and I talked for awhile and considered all her options she felt that selling everything through an auction would be the quickest and least stressful way to deal with this property.  During our conversation she learned I am a minister and we talked about how essential faith is during a time of loss and grief.  While there I had the opportunity to minister to her by helping her find ways to reduce some stress in her life and I had the opportunity to talk about how faith in Christ makes a difference in one's life.

We need to help every Christian understand that they can do the same thing.  As they are going through their daily lives they are in contact with people who are hurting and need someone to minister to them.  Rather than crossing over to the other side as in the story of the Good Samaritan, believers need to understand God has called them to minister to those people they encounter who have been beaten down by life.  When the church gets this perspective on ministry we will begin to see things change for the better in both our churches and in our culture.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Finding hope in the midst of adversity

The following is a guest post by Terry Dorsett, a friend of mine who shares my commitment to bivocational ministry.  Terry is now serving as a church planter in Connecticut.


For eight years I was the bivocational pastor of Faith Community Church in Barre, Vermont. The church started in my home with two other families and eventually grew to over 200 in worship. From the beginning, the congregation tended to attract young people from difficult situations. In time, many of families those young people came from, also found their way into the church. My wife and I, and the other elders, loved them, cared for them, and did all that we could to help them find health and joy through faith in Christ. Many such families were gloriously transformed by the power of the gospel.

While there were numerous means that God used for these transformations, one of them was a focus on finding hope in the midst of adversity. Far too many people think they cannot find hope, joy or peace until all their troubles go away. That is unrealistic. We live a sin-cursed world and trouble is all around us. Part of maturing spiritually is learning to find hope and joy in the midst of all of our struggles.

Part of helping the congregation find hope in the midst of adversity included preaching through various sections of the scriptures that highlighted victory over circumstances. One such series of sermons that I preached at Faith Community Church revolved around the book of Malachi. The study showed how the announcements of coming judgment in Malachi actually contain a thread of hope that helps Christians understand the refining process of adversity. Though learning how to recognize hope in the middle of difficulty can be hard, it is possible. So many people asked for the notes that I published them on my blog, Our church also made a DVD set that sold out each time we did a duplication run. Realizing that these materials seemed to meet a spiritual need in the lives of many people far outside the scope of ministry at Faith Community Church, I decided to put the study into book form. The book is laid out in seven lessons which contain historical context, theological truth and practical application. It can be used individually, or as a small group study. It is my prayer that this book will help people who are experiencing real challenges in their lives find hope through faith in Jesus Christ.

Though I have now moved away from Faith Community Church, my heart still aches for those going through deep pain and adversity. In my new church planting ministry in the greater Hartford, Connecticut area, I continue to meet people who have been beat up by the struggles of life and need hope. I pray that God continues to use this book to help people find hope in Him. All of the proceeds from the sale of the book support our family’s ministry to hurting people. I encourage you to check out this Bible study at one of the links below:

Digital version:

Print version:

The DVD series can also be ordered from Next Generation Evangelistic Network, 47 Bath Crescent Lane, Bloomfield, CT 06002 for $25, which includes postage and handling.

Terry Dorsett serves the North American Mission Board as the church planting director for the state of Connecticut. He is a graduate of both Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books and a frequent writer for Baptist Press. Over 4,000 people a month visit his blog at


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Every church needs to ask itself some tough questions

Socrates once said "The unexamined life is not worth living."  The same could be said about churches.  Numerous times in the life of a church it needs to begin asking some important questions about its purpose, what it believes, and what it is doing.  I'm not sure that happens as often as it should.  If you feel that your church is at a crossroads and lacks clear direction you may be at a time when your church needs to do some serious reflection.  To help you get started let me list some questions I often ask church leaders who attend one of my workshops.  You'll also find these questions and why they are important in my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.

  • Who are we here for?  This is a critical question for a church to answer because that answer really sets the tone for everything the church will do.  Only after you answer this question are you ready to create your budget and plan your programming for the year.  Many churches will respond that they are here to reach people for Christ, but neither their budget nor their ministries and programs show that to be the case.  If you show me your budget and ministries I will tell you who you are here for.
  • Is what we are doing here worth the life of the Son of God?  I heard of a pastor who challenges his congregation with this question on a regular basis and asks each of the church's committees and boards to begin each meeting by answering that question.  I sometimes ask the question a little more direct, "Did Jesus die for this?"  If we ask this question about everything we do as a church we may find that we're doing a lot of things that really don't matter to God.
  • Who is Jesus to you?  I think of how the disciples must have felt when Jesus asked them who did the people say He was and then followed it up with "But who do you say that I am?"  From my observation over the years I think many churches see Jesus as passive and rather uninterested in the affairs of mankind because that is what they are.  On the other hand, those churches that believe that Jesus conquered death and is the only way to God are bold in their witness and ministry to those outside the church.  While most evangelical churches will give the right answer to this question, their actions do not back up that answer.
  • Do you love people as much as Jesus does?  Virtually every church I serve tell me they are the friendliest church in their community, but I've attended some of them before they knew who I was, and I can tell you that many of them are one another.  In my first year as an Area Minister I visited several First Church of the Refrigerator.  People ignored my wife and I like we had a disease.  How intentional is your church in making first-time guests feel comfortable and welcome?  How many unchurched friends do the members of your congregation have and how many of them are they introducing to Christ?  How welcomed would people from different cultures or races be in your church? Scripture is clear that if we claim to love God but not our brother that we are liars, and it is equally clear that we are all brothers and sisters to one another.
  • What price are you willing to pay to change?  Yesterday I listened to a podcast from Dave Ramsey when a caller contacted his show upset over his on-going financial mess.  Once Ramsey got all the financial information from the caller it was obvious that his income was sufficient to address the problem.  Ramsey explained that the more pain he was willing to endure now the quicker his mess could be cleaned up.  How much short-term pain was he and his wife willing to experience to get his life back in order?  It's a good question for the church as well.  If things are not as they should be in your church, there is a reason for that.  Are you willing to pay the price to turn that around, and how much pain are you willing to endure for a season for long-term benefits?
These are just some questions to get you started as you reflect on where your church is today and what it will take to get you to a better place.  I encourage church leaders to work through these by yourself and then begin to meet with other leaders in your church to discuss them.  Once the leadership has a handle on the answers then you can take them to the congregation and begin to discuss them as a body.  Asking the right questions can help you identify the steps you need to take as a church to move forward once again.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Our prayers are with Oklahoma

The last count from Oklahoma as this post was written is 51 people dead including 20 children with those numbers expected to rise.  Unless we have been through something similar no one can imagine the pain and suffering the people, and especially the parents, are experiencing.  I'm sure some people are asking why God allowed something like this to happen, but this isn't really the time for answers.  This is a time of grief and prayer.  There will be sufficient time later for theological answers to the tragedies that befall all people.  Right now, I just encourage my readers to be in prayer for the people in Oklahoma who have lost so much.  Pray especially for the families who have lost loved ones, and in particular please pray for the parents who have lost children.  Thank you.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Your church may need a new pastor

Several years ago while pastoring Hebron Baptist Church I became very frustrated at our lack of growth.  The problem was not that we were not growing numerically; we weren't growing at all.  We were flat, stuck, and many in our congregation were content with that state.  It was at that time that I read George Barna's book Turnaround Churches: How to Overcome Barriers to Growth and Bring New Life to an Established Church.  I wasn't too far into the book when I read Barna's claim that one of the first things a church needs to turn around is new leadership. This was before I had read John Maxwell's Law of the Lid in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You that says that everything rises and falls on leadership, but I knew in my heart that Barna was right.  Our church needed a new leader if it was going to move forward.  I spent the next several days in thought and prayer.  Two or three weeks later I shared my thoughts with our congregation and told them I believed our church needed a new pastor.  From the look on their faces some of them felt I was about to resign, but then I told them that I wanted to become that new pastor.  That became the first time I re-invented my ministry and my preaching while at that church.

It's not easy to become a new leader.  That may be why so many pastors do not stay at one church longer than they do.  They know how to pastor one way, and if and when that way stops working they have nothing.  They assume this is a sign they are to leave and seek a new place of ministry.  That, of course, is the easy solution as they are not forced to look at what they are doing and determine what needs to be changed.

What does need to be changed?  I suppose that will vary with the pastor and the church he or she serves, but I can tell you what I changed.  First, I changed my messages.  One Sunday I realized that many of my messages had become rather negative in their tone.  I was sitting at my desk reviewing the list of my sermons over the past few months when I was challenged by their negativity.  I am not normally a negative person, but the content of my sermons were negative and somewhat angry.  People are beat up six days a week by life; they don't need to be beat up when they come to church on Sunday, but that is what I was doing.  The next Sunday I apologized to the congregation for that negativity.  I told them God had shown me that week that I could say anything I needed to say from a positive perspective or a negative one, and from that time forward, with His help, I intended for my messages to be positive.  I would still call sin a sin when needed, but I would never do so without also offering grace and forgiveness.

My leadership style also changed.  I began to take more risks as a leader, and I feel like I became a little more bold.  I did not want to be a dictator or be overbearing, but I did want to be more intentional as a leader.  I began to cast vision for the church and set goals for myself and the church.  In January each year I would preach a message on what I felt God was leading our church to do in the coming months, and I tried to keep that vision before the congregation.  Believing that people tend to rise to challenges I tried to set the bar a little higher each year, and it was exciting to see our congregation often surpass that bar.  I think a key word in this paragraph is intentional.  It's so easy to drift along hoping something good happens, and this is what many Christian leaders do.  It's what I often did.  It's like we're just waiting to see what God will do.  I found out God becomes much more active when I become more intentional about doing what I am supposed to do!

I also tried to be more patient.  I am the first to admit that patience is not one of my strengths.  I think microwaves take too long, but I was learning that most good things that happen in a church do not happen as quickly as we might like.  I tried very hard to take a long-term view of my ministry in that church and accept that some things would take longer than I wanted.

These are just three of the things that needed to change in me if I wanted to be a new pastor.  None of these changes occurred overnight, and none of them were easy.  Gandhi once said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."  Why should I expect my church to change if I wasn't willing to change?  As our congregation began to see me become a new pastor many of them also decided to change, and as we changed together good things began to happen in our church.  Does your church need a new pastor to turn things around?  Could you be that pastor?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Why do so many churches fail to support their denominations?

In yesterday's post we looked at the changing role of judicatories due to  cut-backs many of them face in finances and personnel.  Many denominations and judicatories are reducing their staff either by laying people off or by not replacing people when they retire or resign.  I pointed at the judicatory in which I serve that has gone from 11 people on executive staff when I began in 2001 to four people at the end of May.  As people have retired we simply have not replaced them, and the primary reason for that is a lack of funds.  Many leaders from various denominations describe similar scenarios in their own settings.  The question we have to ask ourselves is why are our churches not financially supporting their judicatories and denominations.

Out of the 310 churches in our judicatory about one-third provide no financial support to our region or our denomination.  For many years our denomination received a major part of its financial support through United Mission, a large mission fund out of which money flowed to the various groups within the denomination including our judicatories.  Churches contributed to United Mission, and the money was divided up to the various agencies that make up our denomination.  That money made up the bulk of our region's budget.  A few years ago we began to see that offering decline which had a significant impact on the money our region received.  As those offerings continued to decrease so did our region's income resulting in the staff reduction we've seen in the past few years.

The reasons why these offerings have decreased are as varied as our churches.  Some began to protest certain decisions or stands taken by our denomination and withheld their denominational giving as a sign of their opposition.  A number of our churches have been hurt by the on-going financial crisis in our country and simply had to cut back on their own budgets.  One of the first places they began cutting was in their denominational support.  Some began to catch the vision that their primary mission field was in their existing community.  They cut back on mission giving to the denomination to have more money available to minister within their communities.  Some see no value in denominations or judicatories so they feel no need to support them.  A number of our pastors do not come out of our denomination so they have little loyalty to the denomination and the work it's doing.

Interestingly enough, many of the churches that provide no financial assistance to the denomination or judicatory do not hesitate to ask for our assistance when they find themselves in trouble.  We are often the first ones they contact when they have conflict.  They often ask our assistance when they are seeking a new pastor.  Since these churches refuse to support our ministry I've often thought we should charge them a fee for services, but we've never done that.  We are here to resource all the churches that are a part of our region regardless of their financial support.  However, with declining staff and financial resources one has to wonder how long that can continue.

I can understand a church's frustration with their denomination.  There are times I am frustrated with some of the decisions that come out of our denomination, but that is no reason to "punish" it by withholding funds.  Maybe your denomination takes a stand with which you disagree, but why would you want to hurt the missionaries your denomination supports who had nothing to do with that decision?  That is exactly what a church does when it refuses to support the mission of its denomination.  Why would you want to hinder the work of your judicatory when it exists to serve you?  Much of the money that goes into the budget of many judicatories comes out of the money given to denominational support, so when a church stops giving to the denomination it is hurting its local judicatory.

While working with a conflicted church one time a question was raised in a congregational gathering, "What do you think of church members who quit giving to the church in an effort to force the pastor to resign?"  That was happening in that church.  I responded, "It is one of the most childish and immature things I can think of.  That is not your money; it is God's money that you are withholding.  You have an obligation to provide for your pastor and family.  If there are things about your pastor's ministry that you don't like then address them like adults, but to stop giving to the church in protest or in an effort to "starve the pastor out" is childish and not appropriate behavior for a mature Christian."  I feel the same way about churches that refuse to support the ministry of their denominations and judicatories.

You may not agree with everything your denomination or judicatory does, but if you stop and think about it you'll find a lot of things they do that you do agree with.  I believe denominations and judicatories still have a role to play in the work of the Kingdom, but that work is being hindered by the lack of financial support they are receiving from their churches.  If you are not providing them your support, I hope you'll reconsider that and begin.  If you are already supporting them, take a few minutes and think about the level of that support.  Is it where it should be, and if not how can that be increased?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The changing role of judicatories

Since 2001 I have served as a judicatory minister.  Yesterday we had our usual monthly staff meeting, but there was nothing usual about it.  For two of our staff it was their last meeting.  Both are retiring at the end of this month.  A significant portion of our meeting time was spent sharing our appreciation with these two wonderful servants of God.  Unfortunately, this is not the first time we've had such meetings.  When I came on staff we had eleven ministers serving as executive staff; after these two retire we will be down to four plus one interim.  For the past several years, as people have retired they have not been replaced simply because we've not had the money to do so.

This problem is not limited to our judicatory or our denomination.  It is common among many judicatories in the United States.  Some denominationas have combined two or more of their judicatories.  Some follow the practice we've followed and do not replace those who retire or resign.  I know some who have been forced to let some of their staff go.  As churches continue to reduce their giving to their denominations and judicatories we are likely to see this reduction in staff continue.

What will happen as staff continues to decrease?  The obvious answer is that the work load will be spread out to those who remain, but eventually even the most dedicated of servants will reach a point where they simply can't accept any more responsibility.  At that point tough decisions will have to be made about what the judicatory can continue to offer its churches and what ministries will have to be allowed to die.  The "do-not" list will become more important than the "to-do" list.  Even more important will be for the judicatory to have a clear vision of its purpose and reason for existence because that vision will determine what items goes on which list.  Perhaps more important yet will be the need to clearly communicating the vision and the two lists to the churches they support.

In my opinion, judicatories exist to provide the resources their churches need to fulfill their God-given visions for ministry.  Judicatory leaders are no longer a "pastor to the pastors" as so many of us were trained to believe.  We are resource ministers charged with the responsibility to provide whatever resources the churches and pastors need.  Different polities may identify different resources and services they will provide their churches, but most will agree that they exist to made resources available to their churches.

One thing is certain: judicatories will have to find new ways of doing what they are doing.  Few now have the personnel and financial resources to do everything they have done in the past.  It will be impossible for declining numbers of judicatory leaders to attend every meeting they have attended in the past or to participate in every special occasion in the life of their churches.  Each will have to decide what is the most important activities in which to invest.

Another thing that is certain is that non-supporting churches will find they receive less and less assistance from their judicatory.  Some might complain that is unfair, but what is unfair is that supporting churches are subsidizing the non-supporting churches, and in many cases the non-supporting churches demand the most assistance from their judicatories.  We'll talk more about this in tomorrow's post.

Having been in this role now for twelve years I can say that judicatories have much to offer their churches.  We assist in pastoral placement, provide training, help with leadership identification and equipping, assist with conflict situations, provide mission opportunities, serve as a conduit between the denomination and local churches, and offer just about any resource the churches need to fulfill their ministries.   And, yes, we still minister to our clergy and their families when they need a pastor.  As a bivocational pastor in our judicatory for twenty years I benefitted greatly from our judicatory, and I am convinced that you and your church will as well if you will take advantage of the many resources your judicatory offers.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Pastor, do you love your people?

Read slowly the words from a retired Marine Corps major:

Perhaps the most obvious thing that leadership and love have in common is the act of caring about the welfare of others - an act that is central to both...A person who would call himself (or herself) a leader of Marines must be capable of love, of allowing themselves to be loved, and of understanding the awesome responsibilities incurred when one seeks and accepts the love of others.  The technical knowledge, the courage, the personal integrity so often discussed are definitely necessary.  Love though is what makes it work; it is what makes the followers willingly accept the technical knowledge and treat the courage and personal integrity as something to emulate rather than just applaud.

Love is not something I've often associated with military leadership, and especially not that of Marines, but I can appreciate what he is saying, and his comments have immense relevance to those of us in church leadership.  I once read that one of the primary questions smaller churches often have of their pastor is, "Pastor, do you love us?"  I don't think that is a question that should be taken lightly nor answered quickly.

Leadership is based on trust, and in a smaller church much of that trust is connected to relationships.  A pastor can go into a church with the proper educational degrees, a sound theology, and solid ministerial experience, but those attributes alone will not earn him or her the trust of the congregation.  "Pastor, do you love us?"  They want to know if you can see beyond their warts and issues and love them.  Words alone will not satisfy.  Such love must be demonstrated in the daily activities that go on in the life of the congregation.

After observing pastors for the past 30+ years I have to say that many of them did not love their churches.  They liked most of the people in their congregations and may have even developed a relationship with a few of them.  But, for the most part they viewed the churches they served as projects.  There were things there that needed fixed.  They hoped to be able to try out some of the new techniques of pastoral ministry they had read about or learned while attending a conference. Some pastors almost saw their churches as experiments, test-tube projects, and they wondered why they encountered so much opposition.  Perhaps they forgot that even lab rats don't like be experimented on.  This question about love is not one to take lightly.

Nor should you try to answer that question quickly.  Words are pretty cheap, and most smaller churches have heard the right words before.  After a few years they wonder how so many pastors who have expressed their love for this church could leave after only 2-3 years.  Put this in another context.  How would you feel if your new spouse was enticed to leave you for another person every 2-3 years?  While expressing his or her love for you that person always had the eye out for something that looked a little better.  Would you grow cynical after awhile?  That is exactly what has happened to many of our smaller churches, so don't be too surprised if they don't show too much excitement when you tell them you love them.  They want you to show them, consistently, day-by-day, over a long period of time, and then they will believe you...and then they will follow your leadership.

Pastor, do you love your people?  Give this question some serious thought in the days to come. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Low trust churches

A Baptist pastor recently called me frustrated over recent events in his church.  A group within the church had worked for some time preparing a proposed change to the church constitution that would eliminate the need for the congregation to vote on every decision that had to be made.  Steps were included to ensure that people would continue to have input on major decisions, but a vote would not have to be taken for every decision.  This was especially needed since the church had already eliminated its monthly business meeting and now only had two business meetings a year.  Numerous special called business meetings had occurred to vote on issues so the church would not have to wait for the next semi-annual meeting to made a decision.  The new proposal would streamline the decision-making process in the church while ensuring that the congregation would continue to be able to vote on larger, essential items such as the calling of a pastor, the budget, and major changes that would have a large impact on the church.   A number of people who do not normally attend business meetings were there to oppose the recommendation.  The proposal failed on a tie vote.  The pastor said the church was split 50-50 when he went there and after several years of ministry it remains evenly divided.

This pastor and I had talked about the challenges he faced in this church before.  It is a divided church, and it is a church that has little trust in its leadership and in one another.  Low trust churches insist on voting on every issue simply because the people do not trust one another.  People insist on having a say on matters even though they may never have studied the issue or really know anything about it.  In one church I know the congregation is primarily made up of four families, and each of the families have to be represented on every board and committee in the church because they really do not trust one another.  They have been going to this church for years together, but there remains little trust in the church among the various families.  This lack of trust has been a major factor in each of these churches inability to experience healthy growth.

As a life-long Baptist I was raised to appreciate congregational decision-making.  For most churches it worked well for many, many years, but it is not a model that is effective today.  Things change too rapidly in the 21st century to expect a group of people attending a church business meeting to be able to make a rational vote after a 5-10 minute presentation on some matter.  Think for a moment on this scenario:  a church committee examines a particular issue for several months.  They talk with various experts to get the best advice they can find.  They explore numerous options and visit other churches to learn how they handled this issue in their churches.  They make a presentation to the congregation prior to a vote, and at the end of their presentation people who know little or nothing about the matter vote against it because the proposal doesn't fit what they expected it would be.  I've seen this happen twice in the past few years, and both times it was devastating to the churches.  I anticipate the ramifications of their decisions will cripple those churches for years to come.

The bulk of the decision making has to be handed over to the primary leaders in most congregations so decisions can be made in real time.  If you cannot trust them to make good decisions then maybe they shouldn't be leaders in your church, or it might be a sign that it's time for you to move on to another church where there are some leaders you can trust.  In a worst-case scenario it may be that you don't trust anyone to make decisions except yourself because only then can you be sure that the decisions that are made will be beneficial to you and your agenda.

As long as the church membership cannot trust their leaders to make many of the decisions that need to be made without calling for a church vote, the church will continue to experience decline.  It will be unable to make the necessary adjustments quick enough to meet the needs of this century.  A pastor trying to lead a low-trust church will find it almost impossible to do so.  Such churches prefer managers over leaders, and they are unlikely to follow a leader

It will be uncomfortable, but members of low-trust churches need to grant their leaders decision-making powers.  If that happens, the leadership needs to be very careful to make good decisions to demonstrate that they can be trusted to do so.  If these two things can happen the trust level in the church can be raised to a place where the church becomes much healthier, and that health will be reflected in the quality of ministry that occurs within the church and community.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

If you are 35, you have 500 days to live

Christian counselor, H. Norman Wright, talks about how we spend our time in his book Success over Stress: 12 Ways to Take Back Your Life.  He mentions an article with the eye-catching title that is the same as this post.  Most people would hope that they have more than 500 days to live, but what the article was saying was that if we take away the time we spend at work, caring for our personal hygiene, eating, traveling, sleeping, and the odd chores each of us have to do there are about 500 days in our lives left to do the things we want to do.  Now, I have no way of knowing how the author determined that or if he or she is even correct, but it does remind us of the brevity of our lives.  Ps. 90:12 says, "Teach us to number our days and recognize how few they are; help us to spend them as we should."

Each of us have 24 hours in a day. At the end of each day those hours are lost forever.  Many of those hours are already committed for such necessities as sleeping, eating, etc., but we can still determine what we will do in the remainder of the time we have each day.  Most of us will choose to invest a portion of those hours in our work, but that still leaves some discretionary time.  The question each of us must determine is how we will use that discretionary time.  Will we spend it or invest it?

Spending time includes such things as watching television.  There is nothing wrong with watching some television, but according to Wright the average American who reaches the age of 72 will have spent 12 years of his or her life watching television.  Is that how you want to spend 1/6 of your life?  Spending time in the 21st century includes the hours we spend on social media and on the computer, and for some people that is an enormous amount of time.  Wright tells us that the average American will spend eight months of hir or her life opening junk mail and another two years talking on the telephone.  I know some who will spend far more than that on the telephone!  He mentions several more ways we spend time, but this is enough for you to get the picture.  When someone says he or she doesn't have the time to do something that usually isn't true.  They simply decide to spend their time doing other things.

Investing time is far different than spending time.  Investing time includes spending time with family and friends making memories that will last far longer than we will.  We invest time when we read a good book that helps us grow as individuals or take a class that challenges our thinking.  We invest time when we spend it with a child helping them explore and learn new things about their world.  We invest time when we reach out to those who need to know Jesus Christ in a personal way.  Of course, we invest time when we spend it with God in Bible reading, worship, and prayer.  Spending time is doing things for the moment; investing time leaves a legacy and makes a difference in the lives of people.

How will you use the 24 hours God gives you today?  Will you spend it or invest it?  BTW- investing it will help reduce the stress that many of us feel each day, and that is why Wright wrote the book.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

We have a discipleship problem in the church

This post is adapted from my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.  A pastor told me he was moving to another church to serve.  Since I would be helping the pastor search committee of his current church find another pastor I asked what he believed the church's greatest need was.  He never hesitated when he said more of the congregation needed to become serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ.  Despite the pastor's efforts, the congregation had little interest in developing small groups and their Sunday school attendance was steadily declining.  The majority of the membership were content with attending church on Sunday mornings as long as nothing else interfered.  He went on to say that a number of people in the church were "mean spirited," and since I had worked with some of them in the past I had to agree with him.  One of the primary reasons he was leaving that church was their lack of interest in growing as disciples of Christ.  Unfortunately, the problem is common in too many of our churches.  Correcting this will require several things to happen.

First, Christians need to understand that the Great Commission includes more than asking people to make a decision for Jesus Christ.  Jesus said we were to go and make disciples.  Too many want to stop at salvation and refuse to go on to discipleship.  They are looking for a "fire insurance" policy, but they don't want the commitment that is required for one to become a disciple.  When Jesus called His disciples and challenged them to "Follow me" He took them on a journey that would completely transform their lives.  The same thing should happen to each of us when we begin our relationship with Christ, but how many Christians do you know whose lives have been transformed?  Most Christians I know are "saved and satisfied" and have little interest in going deeper with Christ.  That attitude has to change if we are to become disciples.

The second thing that must happen is we need to stop thinking that education is the equivalent to discipleship.  While there is no question that Christians need to know their Bible, merely giving people information does not make them disciples.  For one to become a disciple that person must connect what he or she has learned with daily life.  The church must find ways to help its members find opportunities where they can put into practice what they are learning in their various Bible studies.  Which is more likely to produce a disciple: sitting in an air conditioned classroom talking about missions or spending a week in Haiti working on a youth center?  For me, I can tell you that the week I spent in Haiti impacted me far more than a year's worth of Sunday school classes ever did. A church that is serious about developing disciples will offer both to its members, a quality education in biblical studies and opportunities to put that knowledge to practice.

A third thing that will have to happen is that discipleship will have to become very intentional.  Discipleship will not happen automatically.  A great deal of planning will have to go into developing a strategy for developing disciples in your church.  Actually, two strategies will be needed in most churches; one for current members and a second one for new believers.  If I could only start with one I would start with the new members to get them started on the right foot.  Part of the strategy will be to set high expectations for your new members.  Let them know that your church is serious about discipleship and that their growth as a Christian is expected.  To demonstrate how serious your church is about this share with them before they become members your church's expectations of them and how your church is prepared to help them achieve the expected growth. Once you have the expectation set for your new members you may be able to go back to your existing members and challenge them with the same expectations.

Part of your intentionality will be to identify exactly what it is you are trying to develop.  In other words, what does a disciple look like?  How would a disciple treat his or her spouse?  What kind of parent would a disciple be?  How would a business owner or manager who is a disciple treat his or her employees?  What kind of worker would a disciple be?  You can probably think of dozens of similar questions.  What is important is that you begin with the end in mind.  I'm afraid disciple is a word we often use but seldom define.  Before you can develop a strategy for raising up disciples you have to first identify what a disciple should look like?

You can read more about this in my book mentioned above.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A fun evening for a good cause

As some of you know, earlier this year I got an auctioneer's license.  Last night I was able to put that to good use.  One of the churches in the area I serve, Hope FBC, was having a dessert auction to raise money to help build a swimming pool at the youth camp many of our churches use each summer.  When the pastor found out I had an auctioneer's license he asked me to do the auction.  Although they've done these in the past they had never had an auctioneer call bids and thought it would be fun for everyone if that happened.  Of course, I agreed.  After a wonderful meal the auction started.  An hour later we had raised $1,473.00 for the pool and had a lot of fun doing it.

Ministry takes many different looks.  Some have questioned why I wanted to be an auctioneer especially at this stage of my life.  I explain that I see it as a way to expand my ministry.  People who suddenly find themselves with an estate they don't know how to dispose of can be served by an auctioneer who can help them during a difficult time in their lives.  Others who realize that they've accumulated a lot of stuff they really don't need and don't want to have a yard sale every weekend for the next two years to get rid of it can be helped by an auctioneer.  There is a lot of talk these days about becoming more missional in ministry, and I see this as one way I can do that.  It takes ministry outside the church and into the lives of people who need assistance and gives me an opportunity to engage in conversation with people whose lives may be in turmoil and who may not know Christ.

Anyone's vocation or avocation can be used for ministry.  A Christian who enjoys fishing could gather a group of people together once or twice a month to discuss fishing tactics, swap big fish stories, and talk about life in general which would include the importance of Christ in his or her life.  A business person could start a leadership group in the community that could meet for lunch and a discussion about the challenges of business.  Such a discussion could lead to one sharing how faith in God can help in challenging times.  The possibilities are endless.

Bivocational ministers have an automatic advantage here as they are already in secular work in a variety of fields.  In fact, one could argue that their presence at that work changes it from secular work to ministry.  Please listen to one warning here.  Remember, your employer is not paying you to minister on the job.  I have known some bivocational ministers who could not understand why their employer didn't want them spending all their time passing out tracts and evangelizing their co-workers.  That employer is paying you to produce for him or her.  But, you will find numerous opportunities to share your faith in regular conversations you have with those with whom you work and how you conduct yourself on the job also gives your faith credibility.

Our primary mission field is in the communities in which we live.  We need to look for the opportunities that exist all around us to minister to the needs of the people we encounter, and in doing that we will make a difference in people's lives and earn the right to tell them about Jesus.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A church's vision and structure

I recently received an e-mail from a lay leader in a church outside the United States who was concerned about some changes occurring in his church.  He explained that the church was trying to seek a vision and was changing the way it's boards and committees were structured.  One of the proposed changes was the reason he was contacting me as he wanted my opinion on the change.  I responded to the question, but then said that I would also respond to a question he didn't ask.  One does not discern God's vision for a church by changing the structure of a church.

A number of churches and denominational groups are making this same mistake.  They are changing their boards and committees and other aspects of their structure thinking that these changes will enhance their ministries.  Let me say up front that most smaller churches need to make major changes in the way they are structured.  Most are highly over-structured for their size and to simplify their structure makes a lot of sense.  But, this is not done until after they have spent some time discerning a fresh vision from God for their future ministry.  Once such a vision is determined the church can then create a structure that will enable the church to achieve that vision.

Changing the structure first is like re-arranging the deck furniture on the Titanic.  Doing so creates a sense of involvement and keeps people occupied, but the ship is still sinking.  I see churches that have painted everything that can be painted, they've remodeled everything in sight, they've bought new hymnals, installed computers, video projectors, and screens.  They started calling their committees teams and formed a church council and introduced some praise music into their worship services, and once they have done everything they can think of to do they step back and realize nothing important has actually changed.  I see judicatories and denominations making the same mistake.  Does structure need to be changed?  Often, the answer is yes, but not until the organization has clearly identified a fresh vision from God for its future.  Why is this so important?  Because without a vision the people perish, and we have a lot of churches and denominational groups that are perishing despite all the structural changes they are making.

Vision discernment is messy work and can take time.  Many of us in American churches like microwave solutions to our problems.  We want the quick fix.  Give us three steps to take, an opportunity to vote on the proposal, and we're good to go.  Vision normally doesn't come easy, and it's not something a church can vote on.  Because the only vision that matters is God's vision, it can only come as God's people pray and do the work that can lead to such discernment.

A church's vision for its future must be congruent with its core values and bedrock beliefs so time must be spent identifying what those are. This can be difficult because churches have a tendency to list the ones they think they should have.  (I once led a church through a process to identify its core values, and one they identified was cliques.  Someone said that cliques must be a core value of their church since they had so many of them.  At least the person was honest!)  The vision must also be congruent with the spiritual gifts of the membership and their passions for ministry so a church must spend time identifying those as well.  Only when all these things are identified can a church begin the process of discerning God's vision.  It's easy to see how this can be time consuming, but when the work is done the church will have a clear sense of purpose and direction for ministry, and in most cases will see their ministry become much more productive.