Friday, August 30, 2013

Reflections on estate planning

Please allow me to break a brief break from the mini-series I'm currently doing on this blog about some common complaints we often hear from smaller churches.  Today is my birthday.  I turned 65 today.  Thirty-two of those years have been as a minister.  For the first twenty years I was the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana, and for the past twelve years I've been a Resource Minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky.  There have been many times I've wondered why God called me into the ministry, but I am thankful he did.  It has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.  It has afforded me opportunities this old farm boy could never have imagined while growing up on a dairy farm in southeastern Indiana.

Earlier this week I began reading Billy Graham's newest book Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well as part of my devotional reading.  I didn't pick it up because of my birthday today, but perhaps subconsciously I thought I was time to read it!  Like his other books, I have not been disappointed.  In today's reading he encourages his readers to prepare for the inevitable death that will come to each of us.  Until the rapture occurs the math is simple, there will be one death for every birth. One of the greatest acts of love we can give our families is to ensure that things have been prepared before that occurs.

Several years ago a family member passed away.  His will named me as the executor of his estate.  He never said anything about that until about three weeks before his passing, and he never told me anything about his estate.  The day after he told me I was the executor he went into the hospital where he stayed until his passing.  We never had a chance to talk about his estate.  I literally had to go through every piece of paper in his desk, both at home and at his business, to see what was involved in the estate.  Fortunately, he had left a will directing how he wanted things divided.  It was a very difficult time, both emotionally and physically, trying to ensure that I had located everything that was needed to settle his estate. 

My wife and I had talked for a few years about getting a will, and shortly after closing his estate, we did just that.  I could not have imagined how much more difficult it would have been to execute his estate if he had not left a will, and I did not want to put my family through that.  Earlier this year, due to some changes in our lives, we returned to the attorney's office and created a new will to make sure it properly reflected our current situation.  My wife and I are now having conversations about our funeral preferences and will be going to a funeral home soon to do our pre-planning.

Doing these things will not make us die sooner.  We are both in reasonably good health with some of the common conditions that often occur when one gets older.  We do these things because we love one another and do not want the other to have to make such decisions during times of grief.  Such conversations are not especially pleasant, but neither is having to make these decisions after someone passes. 

It may be that you are still a young person and thinking that you are years away from needing to make out a will and having end-of-life discussions, but that is simply not true.  Death comes to people at all ages.  Who would care for your children if both parents suddenly passed away?  What would become of your property?  Would any of your money be left to a ministry or charity?  Where would you be buried?  Without a will and estate planning someone else will make those decisions for you, and their decisions may not be what you would have wanted.

I love my family too much to force them to make those decisions when I pass away, and I imagine you feel the same way.  Estate planning doesn't take a large amount of time and is very inexpensive especially when considers the peace of mind that it brings.  Love one another enough to have those conversations and get your final wishes on paper.  Now, excuse me while I grab another piece of cake.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Small church complaint #3 - We can't attract younger families with children.

For the past couple of days I've addressed some common complaints often made by smaller churches.  Today we are looking at a complaint I often hear from these churches: their inability to attract younger families with children.

I had such a conversation with a small church just this week.  The people with whom I was talking were certain that reaching such people was critical to the continued existence of their church.  It really isn't, and if you doubt that I encourage you to go back and read the post from Monday.  Churches tend to reach persons who are most like the current membership, and if you are in a church that is primarily older you will probably be more successful in reaching out to other seniors.  The good news is that there are plenty of folks in that age category who are not involved in any church, and if you can successfully minister to them your church will not have to worry about remaining open.  While wanting to reach younger families with children sounds appealing, it's going to be very difficult for many smaller churches to successfully achieve.

When I grew up churches faced little competition on Sundays.  Today, children are involved in numerous activities, many of which occur on Sundays.  Drive through most communities on Sunday mornings and see how many soccer, baseball, and football fields have games being played.  Even if the games don't start until after lunch, families have to drive to the sports complex so the players will be ready for the game.  Sports are not the only competition to church.  Many parents work on Sundays, especially younger parents who may be working entry level jobs that require them to  work on Sunday.  Due to the large number of divorced parents, many children are with a different parent every other weekend making it difficult for them to become involved in any church.  More and more schools are going to year around schedules with only short breaks in between terms forcing families to squeeze vacations in during those breaks.  When one adds all these distractions together it becomes easy to see why many of these families find it difficult to become involved in a church.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many of these families simply see little value in church.  When I was growing up most of the families in the communities in which we lived attended church on Sunday.  Few people considered not doing so except in very unusual conditions.  The church was at the center of much of our lives.  That is not the case today.  For many younger people the church isn't even on their radar screen, and if it is it is on the periphery.  It's certainly not at the center.  Even if they are members of a church they may attend only if there is nothing else demanding their time that particular Sunday.

The third factor that makes it difficult for many smaller churches to attract young families with children is that children want to be with others in their age range.  If the church doesn't have any young people it will be very challenging to interest other young people to attend.  Early in my pastoral ministry we were trying to get a youth group started at our church with little success.  One day I visited a family that consisted of a single mother with four children.  She told me they had left a church a few years earlier and had never began attending church since.  When I invited them to our church she asked how many young people we had in our youth group.  I explained we were trying to get a youth group started, and her four would make four.  Very quickly she said they would not attend a church that did not already have an established youth group.  Again, we are more likely to attract who we are.

The final reason we'll mention in this post is that many smaller churches are not very attractive to younger families.  That may be painful to admit, but it is a reality.  Attending services in many of these churches is like stepping back in time.  Most people today do not sing 19th century songs to pipe organ music, sit in rows on hard pews, and listen to someone wearing a robe read Elizabethan English to them before delivering a 30 minute message with no commercial breaks.  All of these things may be quite proper and enable those in my generation to worship God, but for many younger people it all seems odd and irrelevant to today's culture.  If such families do begin seeking a church to attend they will be more likely to look for one that seems to speak to their needs and allows them to worship in a way that is more meaningful to them.

If a traditional, smaller church is serious about wanting to attract young families with children it will have to decide that it is willing to make the necessary changes to do so.  These will not be minor changes and are likely to be quite disruptive to the church with no guarantees that even then the church will reach that target audience.  In most instances these churches will enjoy a much more productive ministry by targeting people most like the ones who already attend the church and allow other churches to reach those younger families. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Small church complaint #2 - Our people are on fixed income

Yesterday, I addressed the most common complaint I hear from small church leaders: We are a church of older people.  Today's complaint runs a close second.  In fact, I usually hear them in the same sentence: Many of our people are on fixed income.  That, in their minds, explains the financial challenges within their church.

My response to that complaint is that nearly everyone I know is on fixed income.  I've been on a fixed income all my life.  The only people who are not on fixed income are people who earn commissions.  Having a large percentage of the congregation on fixed income has nothing to do with the money issues many smaller churches face.

The reality is that smaller churches do not have money problems.  How many times have you seen a small church barely make it financially from month to month, and then raise $5,000.00 in a week's time to replace a furnace that quit working in January?  Most smaller churches have money available to them, so if those churches are struggling financially it is due to other reasons.  Those reasons are usually a lack of vision for ministry and/or a lack of stewardship training.

Few smaller churches I have worked with had any kind of vision for ministry.  They opened their doors each Sunday and hoped something good would happen.  The closest thing to a ministry vision they have is to keep the doors open, and that doesn't require much.  As long as they can pay their utility bills and give their pastor a token salary they can keep the doors open.  Not surprisingly, just enough money is given each week to allow that to happen.

People do not give to pay electric bills and keep the grass mowed on the church property.  However, they will give to vision.  Many times I have seen smaller churches respond quite generously to support a vision for ministry that has united them.  Shortly before I resigned as pastor of my church we began construction on a new fellowship building.  I had challenged the 50-member congregation to build the building without borrowing any money.  Several months later the building was dedicated and was completely debt free.  Our blue-collar congregation made up of many retired persons had raised the $200,000.00 needed to build the facility.  The treasurer told me that money had come in from places I could not imagine.  People had bought in to the vision of what that building could do for the church and its ministry, and they supported it with their prayers and their finances.

The second reason churches face financial challenges is a lack of stewardship education.  I once met with a pastor search committee who assured me they would pay their pastor more if they only had it.  I asked how long it had been since the church had any training in the area of stewardship.  The chair of that committee asked me what stewardship was.  I explained she had just answered my question.

Recently, I worked with some small church leaders and led them in an exercise to determine the tithing potential of their church.  I pointed out that the average church member in America gives 2.1% of his income to the church.  When we finished the exercise they learned that their congregation was giving less than 2% of its income to the church.  None of the churches present had done anything intentional in recent years to teach about stewardship, and none of them had a vision for ministry that would generate giving within their congregation.

People living on fixed income is not the reason why many smaller churches struggle financially.  The real reasons are a lack of vision and a lack of stewardship training.  When these are addressed most smaller churches will find they will have all the financial resources to do what God has called them to do.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Small church complaint one - We are an older congregation.

Yesterday I listed a few common issues smaller churches raise about why they are not able to do more than they are doing, and I promised to address each of them over the next few days.  It is important to note that many of these issues are valid.  What the people are saying about their churches are true, but that does not mean they have to limit what the church is able to do. One very common complaint I often hear has to do with the age of church members, and for many of our smaller churches it is true that many in their congregation are older people.  When I began my ministry at Hebron BC in 1981 a family member visited the church.  I asked later if she was going to return, and she said she would not because everyone in the church had gray hair.  Several years later I told her that if she wanted to start coming to the church she was qualified as her hair was as gray as the others.  She was not amused!

Why do we automatically think that having elderly people in a church limits what the church is capable of doing?  These are people who are often retired and have more available time to do things than some younger people might have.  These are the builder and boomer generations who are known for getting things done.  Some are living very comfortably on their retirement accounts and have disposable income available for ministry purposes.  There is much our older church members can do to advance the Kingdom of God and increase our ministry presence in the community.

The problem is that too often we fail to see these folks for the resource they are.  Too many churches are wanting to develop a youth ministry because "the youth are the future of our church."  It's very hard to develop a youth ministry when there are no youth in the church for a core group.  Maybe we would be better off to focus on reaching out to senior adults if that is our current core group.  Do we really think every senior citizen is a Christian and active in a church somewhere?  Most would quickly admit that isn't the case, but we seldom think about that because we are too busy focusing on trying to reach people who aren't in our churches that we fail to see those who are there and how they can reach out to others in their generations.

A member of a smaller church told me recently that they were discussing installing a new video system in their church so they could begin to attract younger people.  I am not opposed to video equipment, and in many churches they are needed, but I don't believe every church needs to make that investment.  This is an older congregation located in a small community primarily made up of senior citizens.  Do the church leaders really think that by installing a video system in their church that will cost them several thousands of dollars according to this one lay leader it will cause young people to magically appear in their congregation?  Sadly, that is their hope.  Would it not be a much better use of their resources to become involved in the community in ways that would be meaningful to the senior citizens who live there that would build relationships between those people and the church?

Too many churches want to put their senior saints out to pasture, and that is a huge waste of human potential.  One of the most energetic pastors I've ever known continued to pastor churches until he was in his early 80s.  I first met him when he was in his 70s and judged him to be mid-50s.  Health issues finally caused him to leave the pastorate, but he continues to be involved in the life of his church.  Personally, I will turn 65 at the end of this week, and I may have slowed down a little, but most people couldn't tell it.  If someone tries to put me out to pasture I'll break through the fence and find a new field to run in.  Having an older congregation does not have to limit the ministry of a church unless they choose to allow it to do so.

Church growth people have known for years that churches tend to attract who they are.  If you are in a church made up primarily of senior adults then develop ministries for seniors.  Encourage your members to invite their friends to be a part of those ministries.  Stop fantasizing about developing a great youth ministry and use the resources God has already provided.  More than likely you'll find great ministry opportunities when you do so.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What will determine the future of your church?

Several times I had the privilege of hearing Zig Ziglar speak.  He was one of the best motivational speakers I've ever heard.  He often began his lectures by asking two questions.
  1. How many of you believe that regardless of how bad your personal, family, and business lives are at this moment there are still some things you could do that would make them even worse?
  2. How many of you believe that regardless of how good your personal, family, and business lives are, there are still some things you could do to improve them?
He asked those questions to help his listeners understand that they were responsible for their own futures.  While outside forces can have some impact on our lives, ultimately we are responsible for our own future.  What we will be, what we will have, and where we are five, ten, and twenty years down the road is largely dependent upon the choices we make now.  This is true of our personal lives, our family lives, and our business lives.  It is also true of our churches.

In my own workshops I often include this message, and many times someone in my audience will want to push back.  That person will insist that their church wants to grow, wants to have a greater impact on its community, and wants to be a more vibrant church, but they also insist that some outside force prevents that from happening.  A few times I have made those persons unhappy by insisting just as strongly that, while they are saying the right things, they are not willing to do what it takes to achieve them.  While most organizations, including churches, will face challenges to accomplishing their goals, the successful ones achieve them anyway.  Here is an important fact we must never forget: If you really want to achieve something, you will find a way; if you aren't committed to achieving something, you will find an excuse.  Life will provide us with many things to blame, but ultimately the final results we experience in life are due to the choices we make.

There will always be roadblocks to a successful ministry, but none of these are greater than the forces and the power available to the believer in Christ.  Romans 8: 35-39 tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Isaiah 54: 17 reminds us that no weapon formed against us shall prosper.  Jesus says in Matthew 16: 18 that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the church.  We could refer to more Scripture, but these three alone are enough to demonstrate the forces are work within the church and the believer.  To accuse outside forces of being able to prevent our churches from fulfilling God's vision for their ministry is to discount the truth of these passages.  The fact is the only thing that can limit the ministry, and the future, of our churches is our own limited thinking. 

As I work with smaller churches I frequently hear the same complaints.  We are an older congregation.  Our people are on fixed income.  We can't attract younger families with children.  We have few resources and can't compete with the larger churches in our communities.  It's hard to find good pastors willing to serve in a church like ours.  The denomination doesn't care anything about us.  Younger people just don't have the commitment that we did at that age.

Over the next few days I'm going to challenge each of these statements in this blog.  Any of them may be true, but that does not mean they have to be limiting.  In fact, everyone of them, and any others you want to raise, can be overcome if you really want to do so.  Or, they can be a convenient excuse for you and your church to do nothing.  Either way, you will decide which it will be for you.

Be sure to check this blog tomorrow to read my response to the first complaint: we are an older congregation.  To be sure you don't miss it you may want to join the other followers of this blog.  You may also want to read my book Intentional Ministry in a Not-So-Mega Church: Becoming a Missional Community that addresses how smaller churches can have a more productive ministry in their communities.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why believers are losing interest in the church

The link below will take you to an important read for anyone who leads a church or believes the church is, or should be, important in today's culture.  It is written by Eddie Hammett, a church consultant and coach, who loves the church but has deep concerns about what is happening in the church today.  The article's findings come from a study of 200 believers that was conducted by a coaching class Eddie was teaching.  I believe Eddie is one of the prophetic voices of today's church and highly recommend reading anything he writes.  One of my favorite books of all time is his book titled Spiritual Leadership In A Secular Age: Building Bridges Instead Of Barriers (TCP Leadership Series).

You will find his article on "Why Believers Are Losing Interest in the Church" at

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Will your church pay the price to change?

Most churches and pastors say the right things.  They want to reach more people for Christ, they want the church to grow, they want to have a greater impact on their communities, they want to see healthier families, etc.  However, if the pastor begins to do the things it might take for these things to happen he or she is quickly challenged.  As Gil Rendle writes in Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches, churches often request leadership but then resist it and reward management.  It's not that these churches do not really want what they claim to desire; it's that they want these things to occur without any disrupting changes.  They are not willing to pay the price that change requires.

Realizing that every church and situation is different, what are some of these potential costs?  I discussed several of them in my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.
  • Change in pastoral leadership.  This won't make me popular with many of my readers, but sometimes the church can't change until it changes pastoral leadership.  Some pastors simply do not have leadership gifts and probably shouldn't be in pastoral ministry.  Quite often a pastor reaches a place where he or she cannot take a church any further and needs to step aside for new leadership.  I was willing to leave the church I pastored for 20 years when I realized it needed leadership with different gifts than I had.  My role was to lay the foundation for the next pastor to build upon.  When I accepted that it became easier to resign and let that happen.
  • Change in lay leadership.  Some churches will never change because of controlling lay leaders in the church.  These persons are seldom willing to step aside voluntarily as they have convinced themselves they are doing God's work by resisting any change that might be proposed.  They are defenders of the church and even of the faith in their minds, and until the congregation is willing to confront these individuals there is little hope of change or growth occurring in the church.
  • Conflict.  Any significant change in a church will produce conflict, and many churches are willing to do anything, including die, to avoid conflict.  Conflict produces the basic reactions of fight or flight, both of which makes people uncomfortable and are costly to the church.  There are ways to approach conflict in a more healthy manner which churches need to learn before the next conflict affects their congregation.
  • People leaving the church.  One of the most feared statements in many churches is, "If you decide to make this change my family and I will leave the church, and I've heard from others they will as well."  Such warnings are often enough to stop any effort to introduce change into the church.  Smaller churches especially are fearful of people leaving because of the value such churches place on relationships.  We need to come to grips with the idea that it is OK if people feel they need to leave our church.  If the congregation believes God is leading it one way and someone threatens to leave if we go in that direction, we must be willing to tell them good-by.  My experience has been than they are often replaced by new people who are attracted by the changes we've made.  If someone doesn't share the church's vision it is best that they do leave so they don't become a stumbling block to the church and the church's vision doesn't become a stumbling block to their spiritual growth.
  • Fear of the unknown.  All systems prefer what they have known in the past.  We know how to do what we've been doing for years; we don't know how successful we'll do the new things any change will bring.  That is frightening to most leaders, and that fear is a price they must be willing to pay.
The good news is that these costs are not insurmountable to a church.  Any church is capable of paying the price to change, if it is willing.  As I've shared with church groups, "If you want to do something you will find a way.  If you don't want to do it you'll find an excuse."  If your church truly wants to do what it claims it wants to do it will find a way to pay the cost to make that happen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Advocating for the needs of bivocational pastors

Seldom does a week go by that I do not receive a call from a pastor who's struggling and considering leaving the ministry.  Many of these pastors are bivocational, but some are fully-funded.  The two things they all share in common is a general frustration with ministry and weariness.  Some are contemplating leaving the ministry entirely because of the frustrations.  Others wonder if they just need to find a different church to serve.  These are not easy, simple questions to answer, and they are not questions I can answer for them either.  Such calls require me to put on my coaching cap and help them find the answers for themselves.

A lot of the frustration often centers around the limited time they have for themselves and their families.  Others in the church can go to a ball game on Sunday or to the beach, but they are expected to be at church.  They understand that expectation, but they also know their family needs some time to do things as well.  Being a pastor really limits what one can do on the weekends, and if that pastor is bivocational there's not a lot of opportunities to do things during the week either.  Here is where I usually ask how many weeks of vacation the church gives them, and how much of that vacation time they actually take. Most of the bivocational ministers tell me they get two weeks.  I then ask if they've ever had a sabbatical.  Some answer my question by asking what a sabbatical is while others just laugh at the suggestion.  They assure me their church would never give them a paid sabbatical because it would cost too much.

As a resource minister in our region I speak often with the churches in my area, especially when they are seeking new pastor leadership.  One of the things I am trying to get the churches to realize is that the least expensive thing they can give their pastors is time away.  Every church, and I mean every church, should be giving their pastors four weeks vacation.  Yes, I mean when that pastor first comes on the field, not after he's been there ten years or more.  What will that actually cost the church?  Very little.  The church budget is already set, and the pastor's salary is determined.  What difference does it make if he or she is there 50 weeks a year or 48?  It will still be the same salary.  Most of the small churches in my area pay $75.00 - $150.00 for someone to fill the pulpit when the pastor is away so the only real cost to the church for the pastor to get four weeks vacation instead of two weeks will be another $150.00 - $300.00 a year.  If the church can't afford that it needs to shut its doors and stop playing church.

The same math applies for sabbaticals.  I have yet to talk to a bivocational pastor, and few fully-funded ones, who have not told me their church couldn't afford to give them a three month paid sabbatical.  Let's use the same figures, and for the sake of simplicity we'll just assume the church will pay $100.00 a week for someone to fill the pulpit while the pastor is on sabbatical.  Three months is 13 weeks which is $1,300.00.  Again, the pastor's salary is already in the budget so him being paid while on sabbatical doesn't change that at all.  We're talking about $1,300.00 every seven years to give the pastor a breather and to allow him or her to relax and come back refreshed.  Again, if that will break your church it's probably time to consider closing.

Sometimes when I urge churches to do these two things for their pastors I have people push back by saying something like, "We all work, and none of us gets three months off with pay every seven years.  Why should our pastor get that?"  My response is always, "Because none of you are on call 24/7/365.  You go into work, and when your shift is over you go home and do whatever you want.  You're not called out at 2:00 am to go to the hospital or to talk with someone who is suicidal.  No matter what your pastor is doing, he or she is still the pastor of your church with all the responsibilities that entails.  That is a lot of pressure, and that extra two weeks vacation and sabbatical is a way to help him or her unwind from that pressure."

I firmly believe that one reason pastors leave their churches to seek another place to serve is that it is the only way they can get away from their pastoral responsibilities for a brief time.  It is the only way they can spend a fun weekend with their families without having to worry about what's happening at the church or feeling guilty about being away.  Maybe, pastors would not be so tempted to leave if they knew they had some extra vacation time and an upcoming sabbatical to look forward to.

Most pastors struggle advocating these things for themselves, and as a former pastor I understant that.  This is why, as a judicatory worker, I am willing to advocate for them.  In my opinion, this needs to become a priority for other denominational workers.  We need to speak up for our pastors, both bivocational and fully-funded, to help them get the time away from ministry that will help them enjoy a healthier ministry, better family relationships, and practice better self-care.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hitting the wall

I've heard runners often talk about hitting the wall during a distance run.  There comes a time in the race when they feel they have nothing left and everything within them is screaming for them to quit.  While some runners will quit, others push through that wall and refuse to give up.  Once they get past that wall their energy seems to rise back up in them making them able to finish the race.

There often comes a time in the lives of ministers when we feel as if we've hit the wall.  We've given everything we have to give and feel drained physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  It is  during those times that the enemy comes whispering doubts and frustrations into our minds.  We've sacrificed so much for the church and ministry, and our minds begin to ask, "Why?  What difference has it made?"  The lies continue, "No one cares about me or my family.  I haven't had a decent raise in years.  Everyone else can take a Sunday off to attend a family event or a ball game, but if I even suggested I wanted to do something like that our church would have a fit."  At times, it seems like the liar is sitting on our shoulders whispering frustration and defeat into our thoughts.

This is what I call hitting the wall in the ministry, and I will confess I have been there more than once during my 30+ years in the ministry.  More than once I thought about walking away and turning my back on the call God had on my life.  I had convinced myself that nothing I was doing was making any difference anyway, so why bother.  I was tired, discouraged, angry, and despressed.  I had given everything I had to give, and it seemed I was the only one who cared.  Oh, believe me, I have thrown some great pity parties for myself, some of which lasted for weeks.  The problem with pity parties is, as Zig Ziglar used to say, no one comes to them.  We have to attend our pity parties by ourselves.

The thing we must do when such thoughts threaten to overwhelm us is to remember that they are all a lie.  We have to take our eyes off the lies and begin to refocus on what is true.  Some of the truths that has helped me get through the wall are:
  • God has called me to this work.  As a bivocational minister I chose my other career, but God called me to the ministry.  That sense of being called was always a powerful weapon against the lies the enemy tried to get me to believe.  For me, I could walk away from a career.  It would be much tougher to walk away from a call of God on my life.
  • What I did mattered.  For some people, it would matter for all eternity.  People's lives were changed because of the ministry I did.  I didn't touch thousands of people each week in the small, rural church I pastored, but my ministry did touch some who would have never been touched in a mega-church, and their lives were different because I helped introduce them to God and the life he had for them. 
  • People did care about me and my family.  They proved it when I was approached and asked if I would agee to meet with a group of people in our church who wanted to gather every Sunday evening for a time of prayer for me and my family.  They proved it when they sent cards and notes thanking me for some act of ministry I had done for their family or sometimes just for being their pastor.  They proved it when they agreed to give me four weeks vacation instead of the two weeks so many bivocational pastors get.  They proved it again when they let me skip an occasional church activity to do something special with my family.
  • I may not have received a lot of big raises, especially in my early years as the pastor of our church, but we never went hungry.  The Lord provided through my other job, and when our church's finances improved so did my salary and benefit package.  I'm certain I was one of the few bivocational ministers in our region whose church enrolled me in our denominational pension plan and paid their full share into the plan.  As I get closer to that time of retirement I am thankful for their consideration. 
Every minister will hit the wall at one time or another, and the enemy will use that time to try to drive us away from our calling.  It is vital that we refuse to listen to the lies and focus on the things that are true about our ministries.  Look at the victories that you have enjoyed in the ministry.  Look at the people's lives who are different because of how you ministered to them.  Spend time with people who will lift you up (upstairs people) instead of people who want to pull you down to their level (basement people).  At the same time, take care of yourself.  Get plenty of sleep and exercise.  Eat healthy meals.  Spend time with your family.  Practice good self-care.  If you'll do those things and focus on the positive things mentioned elsewhere you go through the wall and slam the enemy of your soul into his own wall!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ministers and the pressures of retirement

Later this month I will turn 65 years of age.  My retirement age for drawing full Social Security is 66.  I really doubt that I will retire at 66, but I've got a lot to think about as I approach the time when I will retire from the ministry.  Although many people look forward to retirement, it can be one of the most stressful times in the life of a minister.  Some of the questions that make it so stressful are:
  • Will I have enough money to retire?  Not all denominations offer their clergy a pension program, and even if the pastor has a pension program that does not mean the minister and/or the church has contributed much to the account.  If the minister has lived in church-provided housing he or she has not had the opportunity to build escrow in a home so that money is not available.  Sometimes with advancing age there are increased medical bills that can eat into a savings account very quickly.  When all these, and more, issues are factored in it is easy to see that this is a major question for any minister considering retirement.
  • What will I do?  One can only play golf or fish for so long.  I believe each of us are wired to be productive, and I think that is especially true for those of us in ministry.  Most people entered ministry to make a difference in people's lives, and that mindset doesn't suddenly change because we reach some magic number that entitles us to retire.  Some ministers do supply preaching or interim ministries after retiring; others want to do something other than ministry-related activities.  The important thing is to begin seeking an answer to this question before retiring.
  • How will my health be after retirement?  Health issues can become a problem as we get older, but there are some things we can do to stay as healthy as possible.  One is to remain active.  I've known a few people who just quit after they retired, and most of them didn't live very long.  Making sure you get adequate exercise, eating properly, and having regular medical check-ups are all important to remain healthy after you retire.
  • Where will you live?  If the minister has lived in a parsonage, he or she will have to find a new place to live after they retire.  Sometimes the minister wants to remain in the community where he or she now lives.  Others want to move closer to children and grandchildren, but such a move will require them to make new friends, find new medical care providers, and do a lot of other things they may not prefer to do in retirement.
  • How will I relate to former church members?  This will be a major issue if the minister remains in the current community.  According to the Code of Ethics our denomination requests our ministers to sign, we are not to maintain professional relationships with former members.  When I left the church I served for twenty years, even though we remained in the same community, I explained to the congregation that I would not return to perform their weddings and funerals.  When some problems arose in the church and friends of mine began to leave the church, I was heartbroken, but I could not step in and address the issues that caused them to leave.  Ministers must address this question whether they retire or move to another church, but it is one that must be addressed and explained to the congregation.
  • Where will I worship?  Very seldom is it proper for a minister to continue to worship in the same church from which he or she retired.  In a smaller community there may not be another church of the same denomination which will mean the retired minister may have to travel some distance to a church where he or she can worship or find a church of a different denomination in that community.
  • How will I stay mentally sharp?  Most ministers spend a large amount of time reading and studying which helps them stay mentally sharp.  Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are concerns for anyone approaching retirement age, and although nothing can guarantee they won't affect someone, it is known that remaining active and using one's mind does lessen the chance of having these problems.  I know a retired minister in his nineties who began learning a new language.  He not only learned a new language but remained mentally sharp throughout his life.
  • How will I deal with growing older?  I have to admit I am not thrilled to turn 65.  There are things I can't do today that I used to do, and I miss doing those things.  Aging has brought some limitations, some of which are hard to accept.  But, there are things I can do today that I couldn't do when I was younger.  I enjoy writing books and leading workshops based on my experiences in ministry, and I couldn't do those things thirty years ago.  My wife and I enjoy traveling to places we didn't have the time and money to visit when we were younger.  Rather than focus on the things you can't do, spend time finding new things you can do today you couldn't do as a younger person.
Growing older and retiring is not for sissies!  There are a lot of questions you need to answer before you reach retirement age to reduce the stress often associated with retirement.  For more assistance in dealing with this, and many other stresses associated with ministry, I encourage you to get my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

We don't know what we don't know

Last Saturday I taught a class for our Church Leadership Institute.  During a break one of my students, a retired gentleman, came to me and said that the more classes he takes the more that he realizes he doesn't know.  I laughed and said that was the reason every person should commit to being a life-long learner.  None of us knows what we don't know, and an important part of an educational program is to open us up to new areas of knowledge.

In the secular world continuing education is part of the expectation for many jobs.  Professionals such as doctors and nurses, accountants, lawyers, educators, and others are required to have a certain number of continuing education hours during a specific time period.  Even many blue collar jobs require continuing education.  Many states require an air conditioning service tech to be licensed and require continuing education to maintain that license.  Before my auctioneer license can be renewed I will have to have completed sixteen hours of continuing education.

It is sad that no such requirement exists for those of us in ministry positions.  We are responsible before God for the eternal souls of men and women, and yet there is no requirement that we pursue continuing education as ministers.  At least, in the denominations with which I'm more familiar there is no such requirement.  I believe there should be.

Too many ministers are still trying to minister as they were taught to do so in the 1980s and wonder why their ministries are no longer successful.  Society has changed much since the 1980s, and what was effective then may not be today.  Much has been learned about Christian education, worship, effective preaching styles, the importance of hospitality, and other aspects of ministry that persons who have never pursued continuing education may not be aware of.  The needs of persons today have changed as have their expectations of church, and if those current needs and expectations are not addressed those persons may well be lost to our churches.  Associated with this is the need to understand generational differences and how to address those differences to more effectively communicate the gospel.  While referring to the gospel, anyone who thinks he or she understands everything written in the Bible is seriously deluded.  Every person can learn much more about the Bible as he or she continues to study it.  But, in each of the aspects of ministry mentioned here, we don't know what we don't know, and the only way to learn what we don't know is to avail ourselves of regular continuing education events.

Maybe you've attended some events in the past and went away feeling like you didn't learn much.  I've gone to some like that, but I can't think of a single one I didn't come away with something I didn't know before.  Every class I've ever taken, every workshop I've ever attended, I've left there with at least one nugget of information I didn't have before or one more tool to add to my ministry toolbox.  Sometimes I've left with a bag full of such nuggets.  If you went into a gold mine to find gold would you feel like it was a wasted effort if you only found one gold nugget?  I doubt it, and my experience has been that even the most disappointing workshops gave me at least one nugget of helpful information.

As you prepared your fall calendar look over the announcements of various workshops that now cross your desk and select one or two that you believe will be helpful to your personal and ministerial growth.  If it doesn't, ask your church to set aside money in next year's budget to pay for you to attend two or three continuing education events and to allow you time away to do that.  The work of ministry is too important to fail to take advantage of those opportunities to grow and to learn new ways of doing the work God has called you to do.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Training men and women for church leadership

Ten years ago the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky launched the Church Leadership Institute (CLI) as a way to train lay leaders in our churches for more effective leadership.  We also wanted to provide a way to help equip persons who felt called to bivocational ministry but lacked formal ministerial and theological training.  A year prior to the launch a team of people looked at programs other denominations were using.  We adapted some elements of their programs and added some we felt were important to our region.  Because Franklin College is rather centrally located in our state we asked to use one of their classrooms for our classes, and they very graciously agreed.  We decided that if ten students signed up for the first class we would consider that a success.  Thirty-two people enrolled in that class, and CLI has never looked back.

This past Saturday a graduation service was held in the Franklin College chapel for six graduates.  One of those graduates completed the two year program which earned him a Certificate in Christian Leadership.  The other five completed the third year of classes for which they received a Diploma in Pastoral Studies.  One of these graduates currently serves as a bivocational pastor in Michigan!  He had about a four hour drive each way to attend our Saturday classes, and said during the graduation service that what he received from this program was far more than what it cost him to travel.

Since its inception 217 students have been enrolled in CLI.  Fifty-four of them have taken one or more courses for their own personal enrichment in the past two years.  They may or may not complete the entire program, but they saw some individual courses they believed would be a benefit to them.  We currently have 35 students enrolled in either the two-year or three-year program.  Fifty-two students have graduated with either the certificate or the diploma.

A number of our graduates are now serving as bivocational pastors in this region.  While CLI was never designed to replace a seminary education, it does provide very practical and theological training for persons who feel called to ministry but will not be able to pursue a formal seminary education.  Each of these individuals are enjoying productive ministries in their churches.  However, the majority of our graduates are serving in their churches as lay leaders.  Through CLI they have been equipped to provide leadership to their churches in a way that they could not before their involvement with CLI.

As exciting as our past ten years have been, we are looking ahead to the future.  Last year we added an additional site to make CLI available to more individuals in our region, and this fall we are adding a third site in another part of our state.  In addition, we have now opened CLI up to church leaders of all denominations.  Previously, we made it available only to persons in the American Baptist churches in our region, but now we are inviting persons from all churches to enroll in CLI.

One of the challenges I continually hear from denominational leaders is how they will train the growing numbers of bivocational ministers in their denomination.  Something like CLI is one possibility.  Develop a quality program, staff it with excellent instructors, and make it available at a reasonable cost, and it will attract persons who want to grow in their leadership skills.  Not only will it attract bivocational ministers, but it will attract lay leaders from your churches who will take back to their churches the things they have learned.  This can have a great impact on your churches.  One of the responsibilities of a leader is to develop other leaders.  I believe we in denominational work need to identify ways to develop leaders for our churches, and CLI is a way that is working for us.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The reality facing many smaller churches

Leadership guru Max DePree is well known for stating that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  I agree with that statement, and as one who has spent a lifetime providing leadership to smaller churches I want to define the reality that many of them are facing.  In my opinion, the reality is that many of them are near the end of their ministries.  Thousands of churches in the US close every year, and I think we will see that trend continue.  Most of those churches are probably smaller churches although I have not seen any statistics to prove that.  Let me briefly touch on some of the reasons for my reality check and then offer a word of hope.  Why are so many smaller churches struggling and some closing?
  • There are fewer pastors willing to serve in these churches.  Pastors who come out of seminary often carry a lot of student debt and realize that debt will not easily be paid back from the salaries smaller churches often offer.  Some come out of larger, suburban churches and want to return to those types of churches when they graduate from seminary.  Others believe it is not a good use of their spiritual gifts to serve in a smaller church.  Regardless of the specific reasons, studies have found that many pastors simply will not serve a smaller church.  I'm not agreeing with any of these reasons but merely stating ones that have been given.
  • More and more smaller churches are seeking bivocational leadership.  Few bivocational ministers can easily relocate due to their other employment that limits pastoral searches to a smaller geographic area.  There are not a lot of pastors currently serving in fully-funded positions willing to accept a bivocational church, have to move to a new location, and begin searching for other employment to supplement their church income.  When the first and second reasons are added together one can quickly see that finding pastors for these churches is often difficult.
  • One of the essentials for a healthy, growing church is strong pastoral leadership.  For various reasons many pastors are unable to provide such leadership.  For some, it is because they have not been trained to be leaders.  Seminaries tend to develop managers, not leaders.  Others struggle to provide leadership because they are not leaders.  It's not how they are wired.  Many small church pastors are not permitted by controllers in the church to lead.  Any effort to provide leadership is quickly halted by immature controllers who have been allowed by the congregation to exercise their dysfunction on the entire church body.
  • Look into many smaller churches and you will likely see a lot of gray hair.  These churches are often aging, and as members become unable to attend church due to death or illness they are not replaced by younger persons.  There are many reasons for this, but certainly one reason is that everything the church does is geared for their older members.  Many smaller churches do little that would attract younger persons to become involved in the life of the church. 
  • Finances are often a problem.  It is well established that younger generations do not tithe or give to the church as the builder and boomer generations do.  Many smaller churches also do not make it easy to contribute.  I read an article this week that showed that check writing among young people is almost a thing of the past.  I know many young people who simply do not write checks.  Everything is done with a debit card or by direct withdrawal.  How many smaller churches do you know who offers the opportunity for people to give through either of those means?
  • Many smaller churches have forgotten why they exist.  Some are so focused on survival they have forgotten they exist for mission.  Although they may say the right words about outreach and mission, the reality is they have not seen anyone brought to Christ in years (decades?).  One pastor told me he was preparing for the first baptism that church had experienced in 50 years!  Unless a church understands its God-given purpose and is attempting to live it out one must question whether it is good stewardship for that church to continue.
  • Even more of these churches have no vision for ministry.  They merely drift along from week to week hoping that someday something good will happen.  God has a unique vision for each church, and it is the responsibility for the church and its leadership to discern that vision and begin to live into it.  Scripture is correct that without a vision the people perish, and so do churches.
I could list even more issues, but this is enough.  I promised a word of hope, and here it is.  Those churches that address these problems and begin to correct them can enjoy a productive ministry.  I do not believe any small church has to close, BUT if they are not willing to confront the reasons why they are moving in that direction it is unlikely they will survive.  If you are in a struggling church I encourage you to read down through the issues I've listed and ask if any of them are part of the reality your church is facing now.  If so, what can you do about it?  I'm here to help if you've got questions.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Create a new order of clergy

For today's post I am linking you to an article I read yesterday that I thought was quite thought provoking.  It was written by David Fitch, Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary.  He makes some suggestions about how denominations need to create a new order of pastors for mission.  I think his thoughts are right on target, and I'll be interested in hearing what you think about them.  Here's the link.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Your structure is perfectly designed for the results you are getting

The title of this post is true regardless of what kind of organization you are discussing.  Whether you are thinking of a business, a family, an individual, or a church, your structure is perfectly designed for the results you are getting.  Since this blog is primarily for and about smaller churches we will focus on them.

Virtually every small church I talk to tells me they want to grow.  When I work with one that is seeking a new pastor they say they want a pastor who can grow their church.  A couple of years ago when a search committee said that I responded, "Are you sure about that?"  They looked stunned that I would say that so I continued, "If you could grow your church by doing what you've been doing you would already be growing.  So, what you are telling me is that you want a new pastor who will come in here and change everything you are doing in order to grow.  Is that what you really want?"  They smiled at one another and said, "Maybe we need to think about that a little more."

The reason churches do not grow is because they have structures in place that prevent growth from occurring.  Your church has a structure that permits it to grow to a certain point and then plateau.  Unless that structure is changed more growth is unlikely to occur.  The problem is that most churches do not want to change their structure which means that those churches are the size they want to be regardless of how much they talk about wanting growth.  Let's take a brief look at what some of those limiting structures might be.

One is how the church views the role of the pastor.  Most smaller churches seek caregivers as pastors, not leaders.  Leadership is limited to those persons who have been in the church for a number of years; the pastor is called to provide pastoral care to the members.  Even if a search committee tells the pastor candidate the church wants a pastor to help them grow, he or she will often find that their role is limited to that of a chaplain.  Very seldom will a church grow without strong pastoral leadership.

A second limiting factor is the lack of adequate seating, parking, and classrooms.  If a church wants to average 85 people in attendance it needs seating for 100-125 people.  In addition, it will need parking for 40-50 cars.  Without these capacities it is highly unlikely the church will grow to 85 people.  This alone can be a major factor for many smaller churches that do not have the space to add either seating or parking.  Unless such churches are willing to relocate they are unlikely to grow.

Many smaller churches see themselves as a family which can be either a positive or a negative.  There is a family atmosphere in many smaller churches that often feels good, at least for the family.  Guests may pick up on that rather quickly and decide they will never be part of the family and move on to another church.  Churches that are convinced they are "the friendliest church in town" may need to realize that outsiders do not see them as so friendly.  These churches need to find ways to be more inclusive and welcoming to those outside the family.

The Christian education program in a church can be a limiting factor.  Smaller churches often struggle to find sufficient teachers and may combine children's classes into age groups that make it difficult to teach.  For instance, first graders are much different than third graders, but some smaller churches will combine them into one class.  Even worse is when the junior high and senior high students are put together.  Adult classes can be just as challenging.  It can be very intimidating for new people to break into a class when the people there have been together for years (decades?).  Growing churches are always looking to start new classes to make it easier for people to participate.

A final structural piece we'll look at again concerns the pastor and/or staff.  It is largely recognized that 120 people is about all that one person can watch over.  This is why single staff churches seldom grow beyond 120.  Some excellent administrators can care for more than that, but not many more.  If a church has a bivocational minister that number will be reduced to perhaps 40-50.  This means that without the addition of more staff a church is unlikely to grow beyond those numbers.

The challenge with this structural limitation is that additional staff has to be added before reaching the next level of church size.  In other words, if your church wants to grow to 200 people you can't wait until you are averaging 200 to add an additional staff person.  You have to add that person when you are at 120 to grow to 200.  If a bivocational church wants to grow to 85 people another staff person will need to be added before achieving that number or it is unlikely to happen.  In the case of the bivocational church, that person may be another bivocational minister or it could be an administrative assistant.  What makes this more challenging is that churches often do not feel they have the financial ability to add such staff when they are still at the smaller size.  What such churches must remember is their structure is perfectly designed for the results they are getting.  If they want different results, they must set up different structures.

For a good book that goes into much more detail than I can in a blog post I would recommend you read Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Gary McIntosh.  This book examines how churches of every size needs to adjust their structures to grow beyond their current level.  Whether you lead a small church or a large one, you'll find helpful information in this book for your situation.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Who is the head of your church?

Last week I posted on this site an article about a pastor who was leaving a larger church for one that is much smaller.  He had served at the larger church for 15 years.  Not only had the church grown numerically, it had grown spiritually and had added considerable space to their facility.  To say that he was loved by the majority in the church would be a major understatement.  As I said in the previous post, there was absolutely no reason for him to leave except that he knew God was calling him to this other church.  Yesterday, I had the opportunity to preach in that church.

I purposefully arrived early and sat in the front pew to listen to the sounds the people made when they entered the sanctuary.  In some churches it may have sounded like a funeral service with grief-filled people speaking in hushed tones about the one who was no longer with them.  Not this church.  There were the sounds of laughter and conversation throughout the building.  The sound I was most wanting to hear was the "buzz," the sound in a building when numerous people are carrying on a conversation, and the "buzz" was quite loud yesterday morning.  I always see that as a sign of health.  The other thing I looked for was what the people did when the service ended.  In a healthy church people are in no hurry to leave.  They enjoy standing around talking with members of their church family.  The vast majority of the church members were still there when I pulled out of the parking lot.

The worship service was very powerful with a good mixture of contemporary songs and traditional hymns.  I'm often not impressed with blended services, but this church does them as well as any, and I found it to be quite worshipful.  There was a good order to the service, and everything moved along at a good pace although nothing seemed rushed.  As I preached it was obvious that the people were engaged in the message with several taking notes.

Several of the people told me that they will miss their pastor but that the church is more than one person.  Their focus is on Christ and how they can best serve him.  Their former pastor told me many times that he could take no credit for the good things that happened in that church during his ministry there.  He gave all the credit to God and to the members.  In our last conversation he said that the main thing he tried to do during his time there was to not mess up what God was doing in that church.  He recognized that he was the pastor and had leadership responsibilities as a result of that role but that the head of the church was Jesus Christ.  Not only did he recognize that; he taught it to his congregation, and what I experienced yesterday is evidence to me that they believe it as well.

So often I have seen pastors leave a church and be followed out the door by a mass of people.  Most of those who leave when the pastor does has been following the pastor, not Christ.  I've seen churches shut down most of their ministries when their pastor leaves.  They just drift along waiting for the church to call another pastor and refuse to begin any new ministries until that happens.  Such churches often begin to decline which may explain why some churches are so desperate to call a new pastor as quickly as possible.

These churches do not recognize who the true head of the church is.  Pastors come and go.  The day a new pastor arrives on the scene he or she is a departing pastor.  If the Lord tarries every pastor will eventually leave the church he or she is serving.  So will every member.  The one constant in every church is Christ himself.  It is his church.  He is the head.  Yes, it is permissible and right to grieve over the loss of a beloved pastor, but that does not mean that we take our focus off Jesus Christ.  If he is the head of the church the ministry of the church need not suffer when a pastor leaves.

If we want healthy churches they must clearly understand who is the real head of their church.  If we want our churches to faithfully advance the Kingdom of God they must seek God's vision for their church and be encouraged to follow that vision.  The church in which I preached yesterday understands these things and is seeking to do them.  What about your church?