Monday, September 30, 2013

Where in the world is Dennis?

If you are wondering why I haven't posted on this blog recently it's because I've been away on vacation.  On September 13 and 14 I was with the Southern Baptists of Michigan leading a couple of workshops at a great event they hosted for their pastors and church leaders.  As soon as I got back home my wife and I left for a much needed vacation in Panama City Beach.  The hotel where we stayed charges for WIFI so I made the decision to take a true vacation from everything. 

Typically, when we go on vacation it takes me a day or two to relax enough to enjoy myself and to stop thinking about the various responsibilities I have.  Not this time!  I played golf a couple of times, but mostly we sat around the pool, walked the beach, ate some fantastic fresh seafood dinners, and read and talked.  We had two or three rainy days, but when the sky was clear we enjoyed watching the beautiful sunsets that occur there on the beach.

Today, I'm back to work with a LOT of emails to check out and phone calls to return, but that's OK.  We had a great time away and have returned refreshed and ready to get back to work.  And do you want to know something?  I was gone for two weeks and the world continued to get along just fine.

Too many pastors seem to think if they take a vacation their church will fall apart while they are gone.  For a number of years early in my ministry I think I had the same mindset.  Even though the church gave me two weeks vacation, I never took but one week.  As I tell workshops now, I guess I was so arrogant that I thought God couldn't do it without me.  If you think like that you need to remember the graveyards are full of indispensable people.  They died, and the world continued just fine.

You and your family deserves a vacation...a true vacation that doesn't include you returning phone calls, e-mails, and jumping every time your phone calls off.  Take the time to refresh yourself and reconnect with this beautiful world God has created.  Do this 2-4 times a year and you'll be amazed at how much more productive the rest of the year will be, and how much your family will appreciate it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Don't allow your ministry become an idol

An idol is simply anything that people worship.  It could be some inanimate object such as a statue or picture.  It could be something like wealth, or power, or fame, or personal appearance.  One's job or position could become an idol.  The fact is that virtually anything can become an idol if it gets between you and your relationship with God.  That even includes ministry.

How can ministry become an idol?  In the first place, if you are trusting in your theological education and ministry expertise more than you are trusting in God, your ministry has become an idol.  This past weekend I heard a seminary president tell an audience that he always tells the graduating class that they have learned a lot as they earned their degrees, but they must not trust in any of it.  A church that is doing what it is supposed to do is one that is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  As ministry leaders we need to gain all the knowledge we can and use it as we lead our churches, but we must also never forget that if God is not in what we are doing, our efforts will be in vain.  Christ is the head of the church.  The Holy Spirit is its source of power.  As ministers, we are merely agents he has assigned to lead our churches for a season.  We must do all we can, but we must also continually seek God's leadership and power to achieve what he has called us to do.

Another way ministry can become an idol is when we replace what God has said in the Scriptures with our own philosophies and beliefs.  Especially those of us who are called to preach, we must be very careful how we handle the Word of God.  If we try to substitute the teachings of man over the teachings of God, we have allowed our ministries to become idols.  We have an obligation, a duty, to handle the Scriptures accurately and not to add to or subtract from anything they may teach.

One of the most common ways ministry can become an idol is when it causes us to be so busy we simply don't have time for God.  We are so busy doing things for God that we have no time to be with God.  We may read the Bible but it is to prepare a message or lesson.  Seldom is it for our own spiritual nourishment.  When we pray it is because we have been asked to pray due to our ministry role.  Otherwise, we may seldom pray.  We forget that God called us to be something before he called us to do something.  He called us to be Christians, disciples, before he called us to do ministry.  We need to remember that our best doing will flow out of our being.  As we grow deeper in God our ministries will also go deeper.

Ministry demands much from each of us, and it is so easy to become so busy doing the Lord's work that we neglect our own relationship with God.  When that happens it is an easy step to one of these three problems.  We need to be alert and careful that we don't fall into any of these traps or our ministries can very quickly become an idol.

Friday, September 13, 2013

When your church is seeking a new pastor refuse to settle for who's available

A significant part of my work involves working with search committees as they search for a new pastor.  This can be a very exciting time as well as a frustrating time in the life of a church.  It is not uncommon for a search in our region to take 18 months or more.  Some churches do not want to hear that.  They can't stand to be without a pastor and will try to rush the process.  The churches that do that often regret it later when they find they now have a pastor who is not what they needed.  When that happens it often does not end well for the church or the minister.

Two things often happen when churches get in a hurry.  The most common one is they call someone without spending time thinking about what they really need in a pastor.  One of the things I urge these search committees and churches to do is to spend some time discerning where God is leading their church.  It's called visioning.  It takes time and is often messy, so many churches don't want to do it.  But, as I explain to these churches, if you don't know where God is leading your church to be in the next five years how do you know what gifts and skills your next pastor needs to have that will help lead you there?  They seem to hear that, but too often it doesn't slow them down.

This is very unfair to the prospective pastors this church may call.  I've seen the following scenario played out too many times.  The church is not unified around a God-given vision.  They call a pastor because they liked his or her trial sermon and seemed quite personable.  The individual accepts the call, spends a few months getting to know the people and the church, and suddenly the church decides it wants to move in a direction that is totally outside the pastor's gift mix.  I resigned my church after serving there for twenty years because I realized it needed a pastor with different gifts than I had.  I had taken that church as far as I could, and for it to go to another level of ministry it needed someone with gifts God had not given me.  It's one thing to realize that after twenty years in a church; it's something else entirely to recognize this a year after going to a church.  Suddenly, a good church and a good pastor finds they are not a good match for one another and difficult times are ahead for both.

A second thing that causes churches to get in a hurry is finances.  I will spend time working with a search committee to help them begin the process when I get a call from the chairperson wanting to know my thoughts on the church calling someone local who has contacted them about the position.  Perhaps they've invited this person in to fill the pulpit one Sunday and everyone enjoys the message.  People start asking why can't they just call this person and move on.

I get these types of calls too often.  My first question to the caller is usually what do you know about this person?  What is his or her background and denomination?  What are the theological beliefs of this individual?  Not once has any caller been able to answer those questions.  What they do know is the person is local and the church can probably save some money by calling him or her to the position.

Talk about a recipe for disaster!  Maybe the person is the right person for the position, but why not let the search process determine that?  I get very nervous when people come out of the woodwork wanting to pastor a church.  Sometimes it works well, but it can also create major problems in the church that can take years to resolve.  Calling someone to pastor a church should require more than some folks liking one or two sermons the person has preached.

Calling a pastor will impact a church for years, and even decades.  It is not something that a church should do without much discernment and prayer.  A church should definitely not settle for someone just because they are available or willing to work cheap.  You're not hiring someone to paint a room in your house; you are looking for a spiritual leader for your church.  Take the time to do some vision discernment and then begin looking for an individual who can help lead in the fulfillment of that vision.  Find out as much about your candidates as you can.  Check references.  Ask questions.  Keep praying.  This all takes time, but it is time well spent. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Don't forget to stress the why

Anyone who has been in a church of any size understands how difficult it is for change to occur in a church.  People say they want things to be different, but they don't want anything changed.  As a pastor I tried to implement a number of changes in our church.  Some of them were accepted while others were rejected.  Sometimes my suggestions were rejected because wiser people than me knew our church better than I did and understood why those changes would not work in our situation.  That was especially true in my earlier years at the church.   Sometimes they were rejected because I had not been at the church long enough to have the influence it would take to effectively lead the change.  (I did not understand that at the time but see it clearly now.)  One of the principle reasons many of the rejections occurred was because I had failed to create a sense of urgency behind the reason for the change.  John Maxwell is right when he says that people will not change until the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of the change.  Likewise, Jeff Woods is right when he writes that "Change management is really pain management."  Whenever a congregation hears of possible change they immediately begin thinking of how that change is going to impact them and what level of pain it might bring to the congregation.  Change agents must manage that pain if they want the change to be accepted and successful.  One of the most effective ways to manage the pain is to create a sense of urgency around the change.  John Kotter believes that the single biggest reason most change efforts fail is because the leader failed to create that sense of urgency.  He's absolutely right.

As leaders in a church we often spend great amounts of time studying particular issues in our churches.  One day we find a possible solution to a problem, and we immediately want to describe some changes we need to make to our congregations.  At that point we recognize they don't seem nearly as excited as we are, and, in fact, may speak up quite forcefully against our proposal.  We forget they have not spent the days and weeks trying to resolve the problem like we have and wonder why they're not excited about our great plan to make things better.  That's why we have to stress the why before we begin talking about the what.

In recent years a number of churches in my area have changed the way they are structured.  In most cases they have moved from a two-board structure with monthly business meetings to a single leadership team and annual or semi-annual business meetings.  This has been a major change for every one of these churches.  The pastors who led the change most effectively were the ones who began the change effort by talking about how their old structure simply was not effective in the rapidly changing 21st century.  As the problems of the old structures were pointed out to the congregations some began to understand the need for some type of different structure.  By the time the church began exploring other structural options it had already been decided by many people that some change in the church structure was coming.  Sufficient numbers of people became dissatisfied with the old structure that had served them well for many years that there was minimal pain associated with the change.  There was a great deal of new learning that had to take place, and the transition to a new structure often took a few years to complete, but the transition was made easier because the leadership had created a sense of urgency around the need to make the change well before proposing what a new structure might look like.

Other churches have discussed making the same structural change but have not been able to do so.  Some in those churches want a different structure while others want to preserve the traditional structure that has worked so well for them for many years.  While they argue over the what, no one is talking about why a structure change might be needed.  There has been a lack of urgency in those churches around any possible change, so no one feels any pressure to make the change.

It should be noted that I am not advocating that every church needs to make this particular change.  In fact, if there is not a compelling "why" changes should not be made.  Change for change sake is stupid.  Changing something because of the belief that "if you build it they will come" is equally stupid.  Change is too difficult to just be changing things for the sake of change.  If you want to introduce some change into your church and you cannot find a compelling reason for the change then you probably should abandon that idea until you find such a reason.  Trying to convince a congregation to make a significant change without a compelling reason is foolish and will do little but create conflict among the congregation.  But, spending considerable time on the why will often lead to much less resistance to the change and make it much easier to implement.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Small churches and the fear of losing people

Recently I received a call from a leader in a small church about an on-going problem in their church.  A controller continued to create problems in the church that resulted in people leaving.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon problem.  In larger churches such controllers can sometimes be minimized simply due to the size of the congregation, but in the smaller church it's hard to ignore such people.  They are often given tremendous power in the smaller church.  Because of the relational nature of smaller churches many people do not want to jeopardize their relationship with the controllers by calling attention to their behavior so few people are willing to confront them.  As the caller finished telling me about the problem I simply asked him, "So, what are you going to do about it?"

I received the usual responses.  Everybody knew how this person was.  Aren't we supposed to be loving and forgiving?  Most of our folks just want to get along.  Nobody wanted to say anything to the individual because they were afraid the person might get upset and leave the church.  At that point I responded, "You just told me people are leaving because of this individual.  As a leader in the church you get to choose who stays and who goes.  Now, do you prefer to keep people who continually create problems or people who want to do ministry in your church?" 

It's not a matter of losing people; it's deciding who the church will lose.  Far too many churches decide, because of their inaction, to keep the controllers and sacrifice those who were looking for a place in which they could satisfy their spiritual needs.  Tom Bandy, in his book Fragile Hope, really nails it when he asks if we love our controllers more than we do our own teenagers.  He asks, "If one must go so the other can belong, what will be your preference?"

This is much easier to write about than to live out in real life.  These people often have been in their church for years.  We know them and their families well.  They may be major financial supporters of the church or be highly involved in the life of the congregation.  As long as they get their way they may be some of the most charming individuals in the church.  It's hard to challenge such people, but if a church is to be healthy such confrontation sometimes needs to occur.

The leadership team from a small church called once soon after their pastor had resigned wanting to meet with me.  During that meeting they identified two families in the church that were the source of many of the church's problems.  I asked them what they planned to do about it, and was told they didn't see anything they could do.  I explained that until they were willing address the problem it would continue to limit their church's witness in the community.  I left the meeting feeling they would do nothing, but within a few weeks they confronted both families about their behavior.  Both times the families threatened to leave the church, and the leadership gave them permission to do so.  They did leave, and since then that church had doubled its attendance and probably tripled its giving.

We don't want to ever run people away from our churches, but at the same time we can't be so afraid of losing people we will not confront bad behavior.  Sometimes when some people leave through the back door it allows others to come in through the front doors.

To read more on this subject I recommend my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues and Tom Bandy's book Fragile Hope (Convergence Ebook Series).

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The power of the pulpit in the small church

As a judicatory leader I get to visit a lot of churches.  This past Sunday I visited a small church that had about 35 people in the service.  The pastor preached from the book of Philemon and delivered a message I had never heard anyone preach from that book.  I thought the message was very well done and applicable to people's lives.  He had obviously spent time in preparing his message.  The only problem was that more people were not there to hear it.

Contrast that to other churches I have visited.  Obviously, the bar for excellent preaching has been set very low in those churches, and their pastors only sometimes hit that bar.  I have left many of those churches wondering why anyone attends there.  It certainly is not for the sermons.  Those pastors seemed bored in the pulpit, and too many of the messages felt like something that was put together quickly on a Saturday night perhaps from something they found on the Internet.  The message certainly did not seem to have inspired the preacher so it should not be a surprise if it doesn't inspire the listeners either.  I always leave those churches sad at the missed opportunities the pastor had to speak words of life to the congregation.

In larger churches there are usually many opportunities to speak to the membership.  Those churches have something going on five or six nights a week.  In the smaller church the best opportunity for the pastor to speak to the membership is on Sunday morning.  For many of the congregation, that is the only time they will be at the church all week.  This is the time for the pastor to speak words of encouragement and challenge to those he or she has been called to lead.  This is also the time to cast vision and speak of what God wants to do in and through that church.  It is critical that the small church pastor make the best use of his or her pulpit ministry.

This demands that sermon preparation remains a priority.  Sometimes, this can be challenging especially for the bivocational pastor who is trying to squeeze many activities into a limited number of hours.  During my pastorate I fired a few  "Saturday night specials" into the congregation, and most of them were instantly forgettable.  The messages that spoke to the congregation were usually the ones I had invested time in preparing.

A minister can block off time for various ministry activities, but that will usually last only until the telephone rings.  The pastor who can set aside Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings for sermon preparation is usually one who has staff available to run to the hospital when a member goes in and other people to handle various other responsibilities. That will not describe most bivocational ministers.  We may want to do sermon preparation at certain times during the week, but we also know that will only happen if an emergency doesn't occur that requires our attention elsewhere.  At the same time we cannot neglect sermon preparation by using those emergencies as an excuse.  Sermon preparation must be a priority which means we simply have to spend time working on our sermons.

One of the things that helped me as a pastor is when I began to plan out a preaching schedule three months in advance.  I would take a couple of sheets of paper in the fall of the year, write out the dates for each Sunday in the upcoming year in the margin, make note of any special days such as Easter, and then begin praying about what I needed to preach each Sunday.  I would often preach series of sermons so my planning had some continuity.  In the summer I would often preach through a book of the Bible so I would write down a possible title based on the various texts found in that particular book.  By knowing what I was going to preach in advance, when that week came I could focus on preparing that message.  I didn't have to spend half the week trying to decide what to preach.  It was also a big help to those who planned our worship services knowing three months out what my sermon topics would be.  I felt it made our worship services better as the entire service was built around the sermon for that day.

I encourage pastors to make their preaching a priority.  Invest in good books to help you research your sermons.  Invest enough time to do quality study, and spend the time necessary to create a good flow to your sermon.  I hear too many pastors who don't seem to know how to end their sermon.  They keep flying around and around repeating themselves over and over, and I want to scream, "Just land the plane!"  To me it just shows they did not spend sufficient time in preparing their sermon.

One last thing I'll address: please make your sermons apply to the real lives of people.  Too many sermons may be theologically sound, but they have no application to anyone's life.  People want to know how the Bible speaks to the situations they face in life, and if you cannot show any application they just have to assume it is irrelevant to modern society.  Of course, the Bible does speak to today's world, but it is up to us in the pulpit to help others see that.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What do bivocational ministers want?

My newest book is scheduled for release on October 1.  The title is The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide.  This book comes out of my doctoral thesis work that looked at how coaching can be a useful tool to help bivocational ministers address some of the challenges they face.  The final chapter was written specifically for denominational and judicatory leaders who work with bivocational ministers.  It focuses on what these leaders need to know about their bivocational ministers and how they can best help them.  The topics addressed in this chapter are:
  • Bivocational ministers feel called to bivocational ministry.  For most this is not option 2.  They feel specifically called to be bivocational ministers, and they want that call affirmed by others.
  • Bivocational ministers feel isolated.  It is hard for them to attend denominational events that are often scheduled during a weekday or to even meet with other pastors in the same association.  As a judicatory leader I know it is much easier to schedule a meeting with a fully-funded pastor because we can usually meet for breakfast, lunch, or at the church office.  One must be much more intentional to arrange a meeting with a bivocational minister, and too often such meetings do not happen leading to that sense of isolation.
  • Bivocational ministers want relevant training.  Although some have a seminary education, many do not.  Today there are many ways to provide such training, and I am convinced this is something that denominations need to intentionally address.  The chapter discusses several ways these ministers can get the training they need and want.
  • Bivocational ministers want to live balanced lives.  Almost everyone in bivocational ministry struggles with time issues.  Many of them need help in time management and need permission to be able to say no to the unrealistic expectations others might have of them.  They also need us to begin to educate congregations about what they can expect from a bivocational minister.
  • Bivocational ministers are an asset to your churches.  Every denominational leader with whom I've spoken in recent years have told me the numbers of bivocational ministers are growing, and they expect that to continue.  The good news is that studies show that these ministers provide very effective ministry to their churches.  They deserve our support and affirmation.
The chapters leading up to this final chapter examine bivocational ministry and the benefits they can receive from having a relationship with a ministry coach.  The book includes ten case studies of bivocational ministers I have coached and how we addressed the issues they presented during our relationship.  Those issues are very common to bivocational and most fully-funded ministers.  I believe the ministers reading this book will find some answers to some of the challenges they face.

You can pre-order The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide from for only $11.24.

Friday, September 6, 2013

An interesting look at the common complaints heard from small churches

For the past several days I've posted six common complaints we often hear from smaller churches.  As I look at the number of people who read each of these complaints I find something very interesting.  The one on "Our people are all on fixed incomes." had more readers than the other five combined.  Obviously, that one caught people's attention.

Many smaller churches are very concerned about finances.  I addressed this in that post so I won't repeat myself now.  If you are interested in my thoughts on the matter you can go back and read that particular post.  The question I do have for those churches who are concerned about finances is what are they doing about it?  Are they providing stewardship education for their members?  Are they promoting a vision that is so powerful it will unite the congregation and attract the funding it will need to be fulfilled?  Or, are they just sitting around wringing their hands worrying if they will have enough income to be able to pay their utility bills this month.

Our region recently had a workshop for smaller churches that addressed stewardship.  The workshop was held at three sites.  At two of the sites only half of the churches that were registered for the event attended although they had prepaid to attend.  This event had been on their calendars since January.  Obviously, things occur that prevent people from attending things they want to attend, but it seems odd that no one from those churches were able to attend that session especially since they had already paid to be there.  We had some excellent resources to provide those churches to help them promote stewardship in their churches, but they were not there to receive them.

This has to be my greatest frustration in trying to work with smaller churches.  I have spent 30 years of ministry either serving as a bivocational pastor in a small church or working primarily with smaller churches as a denominational leader.  I love the small church and those who lead them.  I believe they have the potential to do wonderful things for the Kingdom of God.  But, some of them are much better at complaining about what they don't have than they are in doing something about it.  Those churches will not take advantage of the resources that are made available to them while at the same time complaining about all the things we addressed in these recent posts.

A couple of years ago I was scheduled to lead a series of workshops for one state convention.  I was to be at five different sites that week leading the workshop.  We spent hours on the road every day so the pastors of their smaller churches could attend an event convenient to them.  One site was well attended, but the other sites had very poor attendance.  At one site no one showed up for the workshop.  My hosts were obviously disappointed.  They had spent money on a speaker, resources, refreshments, and their own time and expenses to serve a large portion of their churches, and very few took advantage of it.

If a church is struggling financially it needs to take the steps to address the problem.  Every denomination has stewardship material that their churches can use, and many of those resources are geared for specific size churches.  Maybe you're in a church that doesn't want stewardship discussed.  Well, that's too bad because you can't preach the whole counsel of God without talking about money.  A lot of times the reason churches don't want their pastor talking about money is because of the way it had been addressed in the past.  Don't teach stewardship as a way to keep the church from going broke.  Teach stewardship as it connects to ministry.  Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University is a great tool to teach biblical stewardship and personal financial principles.  Use FPU as a way to teach stewardship in a positive manner.  Maybe there are grants available in your area for certain ministries.  If your church doesn't have someone who knows how to write grants get someone educated in grant writing and find money that way to launch new ministries.

I once had a wise deacon who often said, "God promised to feed the birds in the air, but he never said he would throw the worms into their nest."  If your church has an issue that is holding it back from a more effective ministry then take action to do something about it.  Sitting around complaining about it won't resolve anything.  Praying about a problem is always good, but there comes a point when it's time to stop praying and start doing something.  Many smaller churches need to learn to become proactive in resolving their problems.  Only then will they begin to turn the corner and once again enjoy a more productive ministry.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Small church complaint #6 - Young people don't have the commitment that we did at that age.

This is the final post in this series of articles on common complaints often heard in smaller churches.  I have never led a consultation with a small church that this wasn't mentioned at least once by the participants.  The complaint usually comes from an older church member complaining that the younger members in the church are not willing to serve on various committees and boards and that their attendance at church services is often spotty.  From that perspective the complaint often is valid, but I don't think it means that the younger ones are less committed than the older members.

The Builder generation were the ones who built many of the institutions we have in this country.  That includes the churches.   They were very committed to these institutions and gave both their finances and their time to seeing that the institutions functioned properly.  When they moved to a new community they would visit a few churches of their denomination and quickly choose one to join where they would continue their faithful support.  My generation, the Boomers, tended to be less committed to institutions but were more attracted to causes in which we believed.  Future generations followed our example and became even less involved in institutional structures.  Many had little, if any, commitment to a denomination but would choose a church based on how well it met their own needs.  It was not uncommon for them to not join a church even if they attended there for years as church membership was not something they considered important.  Nor were they interested in serving on a committee or board in the church.  They often were much more interested in helping on a Habitat for Humanity house on Saturday than attending a church committee meeting.  Younger generations are typically committed to activities they believe make a difference in people's lives, and many of them do not see that happening in many church committee meetings.  To say they are less committed is not fair; they are committed but to different things than the older generations who often make the complaint.

The reason so many smaller churches struggle to attract younger families is because the only thing we can offer them is maintenance work on some committee or board.  Many years ago I was trying to balance working a full-time job, serving as the pastor of a bivocational church, attending a Bible school, and being a husband and father.  Reluctantly, I agreed to attend a monthly men's meeting of our association where I heard a message criticizing all the men who did not faithfully attend the meeting each month.  The next month the meeting was held at our church, and when it was time for me to bring the message I told them I would be speaking on "Why I Don't Attend Your Men's Meetings."  You could have heard a pin drop.  Basically, I told them I didn't normally attend their meetings because they never did anything.  As I explained, the highlight of their meeting was the refreshments served at the end, and I would just as soon spend that time with my family.   This same message could be given to many of the churches that struggle to attract younger people.

Give a young person something to do that is in line with his or her gifts and passions and you will find someone with great commitment.  Stop asking them to serve on some board or committee that could never meet again with little effect on the church and give them the freedom to minister to people and you'll find the commitment you're seeking.  Recognize that when they have children they are being pulled in many different directions which often includes activities on Sunday mornings.  Do not judge their commitment to God by how many church services and meetings they attend, but recognize that many reflect that commitment in ways that may be different than those of us in older generations.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Small church complaint #5 - The denomination doesn't care anything about us.

Today we continue our mini-series on complaints I often hear from smaller churches.  This series came out of a post I did last week which you can find here if you want to read the original post.  This complaint is one I frequently hear when I travel to various denominational gatherings to lead my workshops.  The fact that I've been invited to lead one of my workshops on bivocational or small church ministry should be a clue that this complaint may no longer be valid, but it is one that lingers on in the minds of many small church leaders.

Perhaps this continues to be believed because at one time it may have been somewhat true.  Many denominations, like most organizations in the US, did seem to be caught up in the idea that bigger was better.  The push was on to build bigger and bigger churches to reach the masses.  Most events were focused on how to build bigger churches and were almost always led by persons who had built such churches.  Few of these events were scheduled at a time that bivocational pastors could attend them.  Successful pastors were determined by the size of their churches, and these were the persons who were paraded across the platforms at the annual meetings of most denominations.  These were also the ones who were selected to serve in denominational positions when those positions opened up.

Until the 1950s many churches were served by bivocational pastors.  This was especially true in Baptist and Methodist churches.  In the 1950s a number of denominations began to push for fully-funded (full time) pastors, and churches that could not provide for a fully-funded pastor was given second class citizenship by the denomination.  Of course, that was seldom acknowledged, but those churches found themselves receiving very little support from the denomination. Those denominations also began to push their pastors to complete a seminary degree, preferably the Master of Divinity, and some made that degree a requirement for full ordination recognition and placement.  Although that tended to be the case throughout the last half of the 20th century, things began to change as we approached the 21st century.

Denominations began to notice that a large percentage of their churches were smaller in size.  I believe the average size church in the US continues to be around 75 people.  These churches were finding it more difficult to provide a living salary and benefit package for their fully-funded pastors.  Even in denominations that did not approve of bivocational ministers, some of their pastors were working other jobs to provide for their families.  Some churches were pretending to be fully-funded by having a pastor who did not have another job, but the spouses of many of these pastors were working outside the home and providing insurance and other benefits the churches were no longer providing through that employment.  These denominations also noticed something else.  Their smaller churches were no longer as concerned about educational degrees as they were in finding someone who could provide the ministry they were seeking, and they didn't care if their pastor worked another job or not.  These churches were growing less and less dependent upon the denomination.  A third thing many of these denominations began to notice was that many of these smaller churches were doing quite well with bivocational leadership, and in some cases were doing much better than some of their fully-funded churches.

The attitudes of many in denominational leadership began to change towards their smaller churches in the 1990s and especially as we began the 21st century.  These leaders recognized that many of their churches had become bivocational.  While few denominations can provide any more than estimates, those estimates are that perhaps one-third of their churches are now bivocational with some regional bodies reporting upwards of 75 percent of their churches are bivocational.  Most denominational leaders with whom I have spoken expect those numbers to increase.

Believe me when I say that these leaders care greatly about their smaller churches.  It may or may not be that the shear numbers of smaller churches within those denominations may have forced them to pay more attention on those churches, but the good news is that they are very interested in the well-being of their smaller churches and those who lead them.  In recent years I have led workshops for a number of denominations including American Baptists, Southern Baptists, General Baptists, the Salvation Army, the Wesleyan church, the Church of the Nazarene, Atlantic Baptist Mission in Canada, and the United Methodist Church.  These have occurred throughout the United States and in two provinces in Canada.  I will be leading two workshops for the Southern Baptists in Michigan next week and already have workshops scheduled for next March for a judicatory in Vermont.  I can tell you the leaders who invited me to lead these conferences are very committed to their smaller churches and those who lead them.

There was a time when it was very difficult to find books and other resources that specifically addressed the needs of smaller churches, but that is changing as well.  Since 2000 I have published eight such books through various publishers (number 8 comes out October 1), and an number of other writers have also published some great resources for bivocational and small church leaders.  Many of these books are being published by the publishing arms of denominations again showing their commitment to their smaller churches.

The bottom line in all this is that it is a great time to be part of a smaller church and to lead such churches.  Your value to the Kingdom of God is well recognized throughout most denominational bodies in North American as well it should be.

I encourage you to take advantage of any workshops and other resources your denomination may offer.  These events are often not well attended.  When that happens small church leaders not only miss out on an opportunity to get better connected with their denomination, but they also miss out on some great learning opportunities.  What happened in the past is in the past.  It is now time for small church leaders and denominations to begin to move forward to take Christ to the unreached in our communities.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Small church complaint #4 - It's hard to find good pastors to serve smaller churches.

Today we continue looking at some of the common complaints that we often hear from smaller churches.  The original post that listed these various complaints can be found here.  One of the problems with this particular complaint is that it is often true.  It can be very hard to find good pastors to serve a smaller church.

Studies have pointed out that many pastors refuse to serve a smaller church for a variety of reasons.  The salary and benefits they can expect to receive are part of the problem.  If an individual has graduated from seminary with $50,000.00 in student debt, possibly has other debts, and is trying to raise a family it is very difficult to try to serve a church that wants to pay $30,000.00 a year with no benefits.  Of course, one way around that is for the pastor to be bivocational, but not every pastor feels called to that type of ministry.  More than one pastor has told me that he (I've never heard this from a female pastor.) would be willing to be bivocational but doesn't know what else he would do.  He doesn't feel he is trained to do anything but pastor.  I would add here that many pastors better begin to find other things they can do or seek training for other occupations because they are going to find that more and more churches are going to be looking for bivocational ministers in the future, and if ministry is the only thing they can do they may find it will be increasingly more difficult for them to find a church to serve.  However, finances are only part of the reason some smaller churches find it difficult to find pastors.

It has been noted that many who now attend seminary came out of larger, suburban churches and expect to return to those types of churches when they graduate.  Many of these will not be interested in even talking to smaller, rural or inner city churches.  We could ask a question about God's call on a person's life and wonder why these pastors do not consider that God might be calling them to such a church, but the reality is that many ministers tend to have a very narrow view of what God might call them to do in ministry.  Perhaps that's not a bad thing sometimes.  Pastors sometimes get into trouble when they attempt to serve a church from an entirely different culture than they are used to.  It can be very easy to violate norms when one doesn't understand the culture in which one is living and serving.  Such pastors may find that after a year or so in such a church either they or their spouse and family develop culture shock and want to return to what is more familiar to them.  I knew a pastor several years ago who was finishing his doctoral work and pastoring a rural church.  He wanted to remain at that church at least one year after graduating to devote himself to the church full time as a way to repay the church for being away so much with his studies.  His wife told him that after his graduation she was moving back closer to her home on the other side of the country, and he was welcome to go with her or remain with that church.  She was tired of being away from family and living in what was a strange culture to her.  He went with his wife, and the smaller church once again began looking for a pastor.

Many seminary students and graduates are now second-career people who recognize they only have a limited number of years they can devote to ministry.  I get several calls each year from persons who plan to take early retirement in a few years and want to know how they can prepare themselves for ministry when they retire.  We discuss seminary, and a few have taken my advice and began their seminary education.  Some of these individuals have already graduated.  Assuming they will enjoy perhaps ten years of pastoral ministry after they retire from their other job, they must decide where they will spend those ministry years.  Many will look for a larger place of service believing they will make the greatest impact there with the years they have available.

Another reason some reject serving in smaller churches is because of the negative view some people have towards such churches.  Many view smaller churches as unhealthy churches that are resistant to change, have a history of conflict, are dominated by one or two families who make all the decisions, unfriendly to outsiders, and difficult to pastor.  If that is one's view on smaller churches it makes sense that he or she would not want to serve there.  While this will describe some smaller churches, it also will describe some larger churches as well.  And, it certainly does not describe all smaller churches.  While I've never known any church to be without problems, I have known many smaller churches that are very healthy and are great places to serve as a pastor.

Of course, there are other reasons that some might give.  Regardless of the reasons given, it is a fact that many ministers will not serve in a smaller church.  However, that does not mean that those churches cannot find good pastors to serve them.

We must remember that none of this has caught God by surprise.  He will not suddenly look down from heaven one day and be shocked at the number of ministers who won't serve a smaller church!  I am convinced that God has consistently been preparing men and women to serve in these churches.  What those churches and denominational leaders like myself have to do is become better at helping people identify such a call of God on their lives.  For those who lack formal training we need to find better ways to help them get the theological and ministerial training they need to be effective ministers in these churches.  The third step is to help such persons get matched up with a church in which they can use their spiritual gifts and training so that both the church and the minister enjoys a successful ministry together.

The one thing small churches must do when they begin looking for new pastoral leadership is to be patient.  Some of these churches cannot stand to be without a pastor and will take almost anyone with a pulse.  I tell every pastor search committee with which I work that their church is better off not having a pastor than to have the wrong pastor.  If you are part of a denomination you need to work closely with the leadership of that denomination.  If you are an independent church then you should work closely with a nearby seminary placement office.  You probably do not want to call someone to be your pastor who is the grandson of a friend of a church member's uncle's second cousin.  There is a high probability this will not work out well for your church.  Take your time.  Put together a good plan to search for the best person you can find.  Conduct several interviews.  Listen to more than one sermon.  Find out his or her theology and doctrinal beliefs.  Check every reference, and if the person will not provide references end all further discussions with that individual.  Ask the references if there are other people you can contact about your candidate.  Get his or her permission to run a background check and do so.  Did I mention take your time?

It may be difficult for a small church to find a good pastor, but it is not impossible.  And when you get a good pastor, find ways to keep him or her for a long time.