Thursday, October 31, 2013

What's stewardship?

A few years ago I was working with a pastor search committee to help them begin the process of searching for a pastor.  When we began to discuss the compensation package the committee chair apologized for how poor it was but explained the church had been having financial problems.  I explained that churches normally do not have money problems, but they have vision problems and/or they have stewardship problems.  I asked the committee how long it had been since any stewardship education had been done in the church.  The committee chair looked at me and asked, "What's stewardship?"  I responded, "You just answered my question." 

I'm afraid too many people in our churches could ask that same question because a lot of our churches are unwilling to teach biblical stewardship principles to its members.  In fact, I've had pastors tell me they are forbidden by their church boards to say anything about stewardship.  It is often these very churches that struggle so much with money issues.  For most churches, money issues is a symptom, not the problem.  The problem is a lack of vision (people will only give so much to pay the utility bills, but they will give to a vision in which they have ownership) or there is a lack of stewardship training (people don't know to give and why they should give.)

Another of the churches I serve is doing a Consecration Sunday next month as a way to teach stewardship to its members.  I've been invited to be the outside speaker which requires me to lead two training/encouraging sessions to the team leading this and speak at the Consecration Sunday.  We've already had the first team session, and I'll lead the second session this Saturday.  Consecration Sunday will be held the following Sunday.

What makes Consecration Sunday such a positive experience is that it is not about raising money to meet the church budget.  It is about teaching giving from a biblical perspective and asking the question, "What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?"  All the weeks leading up to the Consecration Sunday and the day itself stresses the spiritual growth benefits of asking that question.  It is about discipleship, not raising money.  The program is based on the book by Herb Miller entitled New Consecration Sunday Stewardship Program with Guest Leader Guide & CD-ROM: Revised Edition.  This is the first time I've led this program, and I must say I am very impressed with how detailed the book lays out everyone's responsibilities.

I'm also impressed that this church is willing to use a program like this.  This is the first time in years, if ever, that this church has done such in-depth, intentional stewardship training.  They are going about it in a positive, healthy way and following the program the way it is laid out.  I think they will be very successful and it will prove to be a valuable learning experience for the entire congregation.

The fall of the year is when most churches begin preparing their budgets.  For many, it is a time of deep concern as they look at their giving patterns in recent years and realize they cannot continue to fund everything at the same levels as before.  I'm already hearing from some pastors that their church is cutting staff and taking a hard look at the benefit packages they offer.  One pastor has told me their new budget has cut virtually everything it can before impacting him, so he knows any further cuts will reduce his salary and/or benefits.

As some of you know, for several years our family owned a small business.  When the economy began to tank it affected our business like many others.  We cut and cut trying to stay open, but eventually we had to close.  It was a very difficult and painful decision.  One of the many lessons I learned from that experience was that an organization can only cut expenses so far before it can no longer operate.  To do well the organization must find ways to increase revenue.  Too many of our churches have not learned this.  They continue to see their giving patterns decrease so they think the only thing they can do is to reduce expenses.  However, eventually reducing expenses also means that ministry is reduced as well, and the church finds itself in a downward spiral.

I would suggest that a church would be much better off to seek a compelling ministry vision from God and begin regular discipleship training that includes biblical stewardship training.  Consecration Sunday appears to be one good option, but most denominations have stewardship training programs available for their churches.  Many of these are developed for specific size churches so smaller churches are not merely trying to make something designed for a much larger congregation work in their church.

What is your plan to offer stewardship training to your congregation this fall or in 2014?  Your discipleship training will be incomplete if you do not include teaching about biblical stewardship.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The loneliness of ministry

Much of a minister's time is spent alone.  There are messages to prepare that require a number of hours alone in the study.  Providing pastoral care to others often results in people confiding details of their lives to the minister that cannot be shared with anyone else.  One minister heard others in the congregation question the actions of a family within the church.  He personally knew of the personal pain that led the family to make the decisions they did but could not share that information with others.  He felt very alone and powerless to stand up for the family in question.

Ministers must sometimes make decisions that are misunderstood by others.  Because others do not always have the information the pastor has they may not only question his decisions but even question his or her integrity.  This is often the case when unpopular staffing decisions have to be made and the pastor cannot reveal the reasons behind those decisions.

This sense of loneliness can have serious ramifications for the minister, his or her family, and the church.  Endogenous depression can occur when a person feels cut off from other people.  Such depression can be very difficult to understand and treat.  Loneliness was found in one study to be one of the top four causes of clergy leaving the ministry.  It can also lead to sexual addictions and misconduct.  One study found that 75 percent of the people who left the ministry due to sexual misconduct reported they were lonely and felt isolated from others.

Obviously, ministers need to take steps to avoid this sense of isolation.  Here are a few suggestions.

Regardless of the size of church, ministers need to gather a team of people to help with ministry responsibilities.  In larger churches this will often include the staff.  In smaller churches these teams will consist of mature Christians who share the same vision for ministry as the pastor.  These will be persons with leadership gifts who will help the pastor with the decisions he or she needs to make.

One of the best teams I had as a pastor was a prayer team.  Three of my leaders came to me one morning to ask if I would mind to meet with them on Sunday evenings prior to our worship service for a time of prayer for my wife and me.  Others soon joined us until we normally had 6-8 persons praying for me and my wife every Sunday evening.  I cannot tell you how much that meant to us and the impact it had on the church.

Pastors need trusted colleagues they can confide in.  These may be ministers in another community, a judicatory or denominational leader, a coach, or a trained counselor.  The key when meeting with these individuals is to not violate confidentiality but to focus on the issues that you need to address.  This can be especially helpful when you are trying to help someone with a difficult issue in his or her life and you are not sure of the advice you should give.

Pastors need spiritual directors in their lives as well.  Few of us do.  Spiritual directors can help hold us accountable for our own spiritual development, and pastors need such accountability as much as anyone else.

Of course, we are never alone if we remember that Jesus promised to never forsake us nor leave us.  God is with us, and those times when we feel most alone are the times we need to draw closer to him.

Ministry is always challenging, but when we feel alone it can be even more difficult.  We need to be very intentional to make sure that we are not alone.  Spend time developing relationships with people who can support you and the work you do.  Make sure you spend time with God every day for your own spiritual development and to deepen your relationship with him.  Doing these things will help you not feel so alone and will help spare you the problems that being alone in ministry can create.

This post comes out of a chapter of my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.  The book addresses many of the challenges that ministers face and provides solutions to help address those challenges.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A different look at people who leave your church

Most pastors have felt the emotions often associated with hearing the words, "Pastor, we are leaving the church."  It's easier when their leaving is due to their moving away.  It's much harder when their reasons have to do with the pastor, the direction the church is doing, or some conflict in the church.  As a pastor I often felt like I had somehow failed these folks or they wouldn't be leaving.  What I have come to realize later in life is that there are valid reasons for people leaving a church for another one that has little to do with the pastor.

Few ministers remain at one church their entire ministry.  Some of us go to a church thinking that we will remain there until our ministries end only to find that God leads us in another direction.  As regular readers know, I was pastor at Hebron Baptist Church for twenty years and had no desire to leave.  We were enjoying a good ministry in that church, but I became aware that my time there was about to end.  One day I realized that I had taken that church as far as I could with the gifts and abilities I had, and if the church was to go to another level of ministry it needed a pastor who had different gifts than I did.  I felt certain that God was going to open up a new ministry door for me, but I didn't know it would be two years later before that door opened and it would lead me out of pastoral ministry to a denominational role.

If pastors can leave a church because their work there has ended, why can the same not be true for lay leaders?  Somehow we have the idea that if someone joins a church and leaves for any reason other than moving from the community that something is wrong.  I realize that some people leave for selfish reasons and some leave for reasons that are just plain childish, but we need to accept the idea that sometimes people leave one church for another for good, valid reasons.

Sometimes a person will feel led to another church so they have a better opportunity to use their gifts.  For instance, someone who can play the piano may be in a church that has four piano players but knows of a church in the community that has no one to play for their services.  Perhaps that person would feel led to move to that church to assist them in their worship.  I know of a church restart that asked people from surrounding churches to help provide leadership for a few months while the church was getting started.  People came to teach classes and participate in the life of the church.  Many of them returned to their home church after a few months, but a few stayed to become part of the core group of this church restart.  Some may feel God is leading their church in new directions which are not comfortable to everyone.  Recognizing that most of the congregation is committed to these new directions those who are not comfortable may decide to leave for another church rather than resist what seems to be a move of God.  We are often tempted to criticize these folks; perhaps we should avoid making judgment on their decisions.  I know of a family who decided to leave a church because of some decisions the congregation made, and today they are leading a ministry in their new church far beyond anything that their former church was capable of doing.

It is a mistake to believe that God can only call pastors to leave a church for another ministry.  He can also call lay leaders to do the same, and it's time we in the church recognize that and acknowledge their faith in accepting that call.  Perhaps it's time to publicly recognize those persons who are leaving for new lay ministry opportunities and ask the congregation to pray for them and the work they will be doing in their new church.  That would be much more proper than what sometimes happen in churches when people leave.

Monday, October 28, 2013

So, what are you going to do about your problem?

As a judicatory leader I spend a lot of time listening to pastors and church lay leaders talk about the numerous challenges of doing ministry in the 21st century.  They talk about how difficult it is to attract new people to their churches, the apathy that exists within their own congregations, the declining resources, both financial and manpower in their churches, the lack of qualified leaders, both lay and clergy, the reduced numbers of people attending their discipleship ministries, and the list goes on.  Most of the time my question to these church leaders is, "So, what you are going to do about it?"  At that point most of them go into immediate stun mode.  They really haven't thought about what to do about their problems other than complain about them.

There is no question that church work is more difficult today than it was in previous years.  If that doesn't discourage you, I think it's safe to assume that it will only become even more difficult in the future.  We can either sit around complaining about it while we watch our churches close their doors one by one, or we can do something about the difficult challenges that we face.

Too many churches have spent the past thirty years complaining about their problems without doing anything intentional about addressing them.  We've drifted along waiting for God to send a revival or we've thought that people would eventually come to their senses and return to God and the church or, even worse, we've hoped we would eventually elect a political leader who would return our nation back to Christian values.

The key word here is intentional.  What are you going to DO about your problems?  What specific steps are you going to take to attempt to turn things around in your church?  Your church struggles to reach young people.  OK...what are you going to do about it?  Your church does not have the leadership it needs to provide more effective ministries?  OK...what are you going to do about it?  Your church hasn't baptized anyone in the past ten years.  Not OK...but what are you going to do about it?

I've heard the same churches complain about the same issues for years without ever doing anything to actually address the problem.  It's time we stop offering excuses and start seeking solutions, and if you can't do that then you need to step down from your leadership position because you are not a leader.

Start by identifying the problems you want to address, and then establish some SMART goals around that problem.  For instance, a problem in your church may be a low number of youth.  It is not a SMART goal to say we want to increase the number of youth in our church.  A SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-defined, so a SMART goal might be we will increase the number of youth in our church by five people by the end of 2014.  (See if that doesn't fulfill all the requirements of a SMART goal.)  Notice I did not say "we want to increase...."  I said "we will...."  Want is a weasel word that you must always avoid in a SMART goal.  If you do not have a SMART goal, and one that is written down, all you have is a dream, and next year you'll be complaining about the same problems because you did nothing to address them.

Once you've identified a goal you can then begin to identify the steps you will take to achieve the goal.  If your goal is the one I've listed above then some possible steps might be to begin a new youth ministry, identify and train new leadership to lead that ministry, create social media sites for your church's youth ministry, reach out to a particular group of young people in your community, etc.  You have to identify the steps that will be appropriate for your setting.

With goals and an action plan you are now ready to do something intentional about the problem.  One other thing is needed.  You need to communicate to others about what you are doing and why.  Hopefully, a group of leaders in your church has worked with you in identifying these goals and action steps, and that work has already been communicated to others in the congregation so there is widespread buy-in.  But, with the buy-in, the goals, and the action steps you should see results which can be measured.  As you measure those results you will also look at what is most effective in what you are doing and begin to make adjustments so the results continue to improve.  When that happens you'll look back and be able to see the major improvements you've made in that particular area, and that is much better than sitting around complaining.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sometimes our critics are right

The other day I was reading an article on how to respond to the critics any leader will encounter.  As I was reading I had a thought: sometimes the critics are right.  It's easy as a ministerial leader to want to write off our critics as controllers, troublemakers, uninformed, toxic, mean-spirited, etc, but sometimes they are right.  Sometimes we do preach too long.  Sometimes our ideas are stupid.  Sometimes we haven't thought through all the potential ramifications of our suggested change.  Sometimes we haven't visited people enough.  Sometimes we do ignore the senior saints in our congregations.  Sometimes our worship services miss the mark.  If we ignore our critics when they are right we do so at our peril

Early in my pastoral ministry a member of our church, who was the only person in our rural church at the time with a college degree, came to me voicing her concern about my poor grammar.  This occurred over 30 years ago, but I still remember her comments.  She said that the people in our church were not bothered by it, but she was afraid that it could harm my future ministry if I went to another church.  It was embarrassing, but I knew she was right.  What she did not know was that I had recently enrolled in a Bible school and would be required to take two semesters of English grammar to graduate.  What neither of us could have known was that a couple of years after taking those classes I was asked to speak at our local high school graduation.  This was our daughter's graduating class, and I did not want to embarrass her.  This was also the school from which I graduated, and I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of my former teachers.  The message went great, and I believe part of it was because I had finally learned at least some basic rules of proper grammar.

At the time of that conversation neither of us also could not have known that I would write books, and without at least some knowledge about the rules of grammar none of them would have been accepted by any publisher.  I must be honest enough to admit that each of them have been edited by the publisher and the grammar fine-tuned to a much higher level than I can do, but at least I can get the basics right!

Neither of us knew that day that I would pursue an education that would include a master's and a doctoral degree requiring numerous papers and a thesis to be written.

Neither of us could have known that day that a time would come when I would lead conferences for various denominational bodies, speak in chapel services at universities, or be the keynote speaker at leadership events.  God has opened ministry opportunities that neither of us could have known about that day 30 years ago as we stood in the sanctuary of that small, rural church.

What if I had become angry at her for caring enough to confront me about a problem area in my ministry?   What if I had just ignored her believing she just thought she was better than anyone else.  What if I had refused to accept her comments as constructive criticism intended to help me become a better minister?  If I had not listened and recognized the truth in her comments I doubt that any of the later opportunities would have been available to me.

I recently sent her an e-mail asking if she remembered that conversation.  She did, and she said she was quite concerned about approaching me about my poor grammar.  I thanked her and listed all the things in this post that I've been able to do because she cared enough about me to point out a weak place in my ministry.

Criticism is never easy to take, but sometimes our critics are right.  We'll make a big mistake if we ever forget that.  The next time someone criticizes something you've done at least stop for a moment and determine if there is even a grain of truth in what they're saying, and then do something about it.

And...please don't write me pointing out the grammatical mistakes in this post.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What is the real mission of your church?

What is the mission of your church?  I know what the correct answer is, and most churches would give that, but what is honestly the mission of your church?  Now, before you answer that I want you to look at your church calendar and your financial statement because it is in that calendar and checkbook that we find the real mission of every church.

Sadly, most churches do not have a mission beyond providing services to their members.  They have been so inwardly focused for so long that they can no longer see the needs of people even within the shadow of their own steeples.  Reggie McNeal once wrote, "Member values clash with missionary values.  Member values are all about church real estate, church programming, who's in and who's out, member services, member issues (translated: am I getting what I need out of this church?)  Missionary values are about the street, people's needs, breaking down barriers, community issues (translated: am I partnering with God's work in people?)  He believes "the North American church is suffering from severe amnesia.  It has forgotten why it exists."  That's quite an indictment of the church, but unfortunately it is true for many of them

The bottom line is that a church is either focused on maintenance or on mission, and many have chosen maintenance.  There is much less risk when a church chooses maintenance.  No one has to learn anything new.  There is less chance of upsetting people with messy changes that often accompany mission.  Everyone can remain in their comfortable ruts, and this includes the pastors as well.  Pastors sometimes complain about the lack of mission within their congregation, but the truth is many pastors prefer maintenance as well.

The challenge for the church today is to recapture the passion the early church had for the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  When we read the story of the church in Acts it was this passion that allowed them to overcome extreme persecution and become people who were known as the people who turned the world upside down.  It is this passion that have enabled underground churches in China and other Communist nations to flourish despite their government's attempts to destroy them.  It is likely this same passion that led people to start the church you attend today.

The mission of the church is the same for every church regardless of size.  Your bivocational church of 40 people shares the same mission as the largest mega-church in America.  That mission is the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Part of our problem is that many Christians understand this.  They know what their mission should be, but they avoid doing it because if they committed themselves to this mission it would require too many changes in what they are currently doing.  They are not willing to make the necessary changes to live into the biblical mission of the church.

To become a church on mission will require extensive change for many congregations.  They will have to be willing to give up some cherished programs and preferences in order to minister in a way that will transform people in our postmodern society.  Mission will have to become the driving force behind everything they do, and anything that does not contribute to that mission will have to be abandoned.

Let's ask the question again.  What is the real mission of your church?

This post is adapted from a chapter in my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A visit with family

My wife and I spent the past weekend visiting our son and his family near Philadelphia.  I often tease Faye by telling people she has to get her "Granny" fix every once in a while, but I admit that I miss being with our children and grandchildren as well.  Our daughter and her family live two hours away, and our son and his family are ten hours away.  My wife and I both still work, so it's hard to spend nearly enough time with them.  Those times we are with them are special times that we always look forward to.

During my pastorate at Hebron Baptist Church I tried to make our family a major priority in my life.  Although I worked full-time in a factory, pastored a bivocational church, and attended school during much of my ministry, I tried very hard to not neglect my family.  I often said if I became the pastor of one of the largest churches in the country and lost my own family I would have failed as a parent and as a minister.  I've seen too many ministers sacrifice their families on the altar of ministerial success, and I vowed to never do that.  As I tell church leaders in one of the workshops I lead, your church has had many pastors before you, and if the Lord tarries, it will have many pastors follow you, but you are the only spouse your mate has and you are the only father or mother your children will have.  Your family must be a major priority to you regardless of what else is going on in your life.

Something is tragically wrong when a minister uses his or her call to ministry as an excuse to neglect family responsibilities.  I suppose it can be something of a let down when the minister returns home from his or her church office.  At the office the pastor may be referred to as Dr. So-and-so or Rev. So-and-so and treated with respect and dignity.  Then when the esteemed pastor arrives at home he or she finds that it is their turn to give the dog a bath or the commode needs to be unplugged.  All the degrees in the world isn't going to unplug that toilet!

It's also tougher to deal with issues that exist in your own family than to address the same ones in other families.  We might have all the answers to the questions others may bring to us, but when it's our children that have messed up those answers may not seem so satisfying.  You may be able to give five ways to return the spark in other people's marriages, but wonder how to renew the spark in your own.

I have often said that of all the many things I've done in my life nothing has been tougher than being a husband to my wife and a father to our children.  Not because they were hard to love, but because it requires me to put their needs above my own every single day.  That is a decision that has to be made every day, and sometimes many times a day.  I would rather be selfish and have them meet my needs, but that is not how one loves and serves another, and that is what we are called to and serve our families.  Is it tough?  Yes, but it's worth it.

It's worth it when you spend time with your grown children and see them serving their families the same way.  It's worth it when you see them trying to raise their children to have the same moral and ethical standards that you tried to teach them as children.  It's worth it when you hang up the phone or get ready to leave after a visit and hear them say, "I love you."  It's worth it when you realize that despite the many mistakes you made while raising your children, they came out all right and are now attempting to do the best they can for their own children.

It was a good visit this weekend.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Your church will attract who you are

I mentioned in yesterday's post that I had attended an event that had Tony Campolo as the featured speaker.  At one point in his presentation he referred to a common statement we often hear in smaller churches: they want to reach young people because they are the future of the church.  I have addressed in previous blog posts, but Tony gave it a slightly different slant that I have.  He said two things significant about this statement.

One is that if your church does reach young people it will likely benefit other churches.  If you want to reach young people because you think that will grow your church you are probably mistaken.  Reaching these young people for Christ is reason to celebrate, but it is often the case they will grow up and leave your church.  Their schooling or employment will cause them to move away, or they will marry someone and end up going to that person's church.  Even when I married young people who attended our church they almost always began attending the church their new spouse had attended.

The other point he made reminded us how difficult it is for smaller churches to effectively reach young people.  It may be a great goal, but the reality is that when the congregation is made up of primarily older people it is very hard to reach young people.  It would probably be a much more effective strategy to reach out to people who are most like the ones already in our congregation.  I have long found it interesting that few smaller churches specifically target senior adults.  We want to go after young families with children because we think that will help our churches grow faster, but these are the folks who are already overwhelmed with time and family demands.  Maybe we think all the older people in our communities are already Christians and don't need the Gospel.  Most churches would soon find out that is not the case if they contacted even a few senior adults.  In fact, what many of our churches would learn is that these are the people who are thinking about eternal matters and might be most open to what the Gospel says.  They know they are nearing the end of their lives, and many of them have a lot of questions about that.  The church is really the only institution equipped to answer many of those questions.  Our Gospel message is the only one that offers a word of hope to persons who are dealing with end of life issues.

The small church I pastored called several youth ministers to help us reach out to younger people.  Some of those we called were very effective youth ministers, but we were never able to effectively reach young people.  Our church grew through middle-age and senior adults who were invited by our members to visit our services.  I wish today we had replaced the youth ministers with someone who was given the specific task of ministering to the senior adults in our community.  For many of our smaller churches with older members that may be the best way to impact our communities.  At the very least, I think it is something worth considering.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Do not let discouragement sidetrack your ministry

Yesterday I attended our fall Minister's Council retreat with Tony Campolo as the featured speaker.  I regularly listen to his podcasts and have now heard him in person twice.  As always, Tony was entertaining, challenging, direct, and controversial.  There were times when I found myself in complete agreement with what he was saying and thankful that he was bold enough to make such statements.  At other times I wasn't sure I agreed with him but needed a little more time to process his words, and there were times when I completely disagreed with him. 

One of the things I appreciated most about his presentation yesterday was his response to the question about how to address the discouragement so many Christian leaders feel today.  Very quickly, he told several stories of amazing things that occurred because of faithful ministry in smaller churches.  (One thing about Tony is he does have a LOT of interesting stories!)  He talked about a church that closed its doors because of a declining membership.  He noted that in one of the final entries in the church records it stated the number of church members who had left the church and that only three had joined that year, and it concluded that those three were only children.  It turned out that one of those three later became President of a seminary, the second became an important denominational leader, and the third one was Tony Campolo.   Those three children the church clerk seemed to not consider very important grew up to become significant leaders in their denominations. 

He told another story of how a news story about a pastor in a small, poor church related to his church and the impact that story made on a child of the news reporter who brought the story.  The point he made in these, and other stories, is that we should not be discouraged because we do not know the impact our ministries is having on people.  Sometimes it does seem that nothing we are doing makes any difference to anyone, but we really do not know the impact our ministries may be having on people.  The fact is that we may never know, but that's OK.  God knows.  We are called to be faithful where he has called us and leave the results to God.  A chance comment, a loving act that we do and quickly forget about, a story we might tell in a sermon can all be used by God to touch a person in a life-changing way years after the fact.

It is so easy to become discouraged when leading a small church.  We are always aware of the resources we don't have and the things we can't do.  It can seem that we are forever stuck and unable to move forward.  We work hard to prepare a message we believe will change people's lives only to have the smallest attendance of the year on the Sunday we deliver that message.  After weeks of planning a youth event only two young people show up.  We marry couples only to see them always leave our church to attend the one the person they married attended.  As many of you know, I pastored the same small church for twenty years, and I encountered all of these more than once.  I know how discouraging it can be.

But, Tony was right.  If we are serving where God has called us to serve we do not need to become discouraged.  If we will be faithful God will be faithful.  He will use our efforts to help change people's lives. 

One of the things I tried to do when I found discouragement trying to overwhelm me is to begin to thank God again for entrusting this ministry to me.  Out of the millions of people he could have called to serve that church, he called me.  He knew me before he ever called me.  He knew my weaknesses and the many times I would fail him, but he called me to that work anyway.  I always found that genuine gratitude for the ministry he gave me helped me fight any discouragement that came my way.  I think you will, too.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The struggles of the smaller church pastor

This past week I've had the opportunity to talk with people who are either pastoring a smaller church or have recently pastored such a church. One group is part of an association that was holding revival services in different churches that week, and they were commenting the attendance was steady but down from last year's event.  Interestingly, most of them admitted they had attended few of the services themselves due to other obligations.  Some of them were bivocational and simply did not have the time to attend a service every evening while others had demands on their time that prevented them from being at the revival meetings every night.  I'm certainly not judging them nor putting them down because I know how demanding bivocational ministry can be.  I also noted in their discussions that they were not complaining about the slightly lower attendance.  They understood the busy schedules people have today.

Another individual was a former bivocational pastor who had resigned his ministry under a tremendous amount of pressure from church members.  I believe he is doing some supply preaching but expressed no interest in returning to pastoral ministry.  It's a shame because he had taken a fairly small church and grew it to a very respectable membership for its location.  Unfortunately for him, he had grown it to a size that was unacceptable to the controllers in that church who feared they would soon lose their ability to control what was happening in their church.  While this pastor tried to withstand the challenges for a season, he eventually gave up and resigned.  The pastor the church called after him encountered the same issues and quickly decided he wasn't going to fight them.  He resigned within months.  The church is now seeking a new pastor.

The issues of time and dealing with church controllers seem to be two of the primary struggles many small church pastors face.  There is never enough time to address everything that seems to demand the pastor's attention.  Unless the pastor has a clear sense of his or her purpose this is a problem that can quickly become unsurmountable.  If I had to guess I would suspect some of the lay folks, especially some who are retired, have complained about the pastors "not supporting this revival" because they weren't there every night.  As a younger leader I would have probably been one of those complaining because I used to be naive enough to think I had to be at everything that was going on related to our church.  That is not the case, and the wise small church pastor needs to realize that as quickly as possible if he or she wants to enjoy ministry and life.

Controllers are another story.  Hebrews 13: 17 says, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.  They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.  Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."  Talk about a verse that needs to be preached from the pulpit!  Ministry is to be a joy, not a burden, but in too many churches it is a burden.  One of the sobering things I often considered as a pastor was that one day I would give an account to God for my ministry and of every person who sat under my ministry.  That is burden enough without having to also deal with the burden of trying to deal with church controllers.

My advice is simple.  Get control of your schedule and make sure it is in alignment with the vision God has given you for ministry, and confront the controllers in your church as soon as they raise their ugly heads.  The advice is much simpler to give than the implementation.  Your best schedule will soon be disrupted by a phone call that requires your attention, and dealing with controllers is like trying to herd cats.  However, until you address these two things you will continue to experience stress in your life and ministry.  If these are issues in your ministry I recommend you read my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry for some ways to deal with these and many other issues that cause stress in the life of a minister.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

How will the small church be impacted by our wilderness journey?

In yesterday's post I referred my readers to Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches by Gil Rendle.  This book compares where the church is today with the wilderness journey Moses and Israelites were on for 40 years.  Near the end of the book he specifically addresses the fate of the smaller church during this wilderness time.  Regarding the small church he predicts, "The small church as we know it will diminish and be reduced in numbers while a new form of small church will emerge and seek a different relationship to other congregations and denominations."

Rendle notes there are three threats to small churches today: location, economics, and a generation gap.  Many of our smaller churches were built in rural areas and small villages to provide reasonable access to people.  Today, fewer people live in those areas which makes it difficult for these small churches to attract new people.  With reduced numbers of people economics becomes a problem which is often compounded by the mindset that every church must have its own pastor and its own building.  Many of these buildings have not been well maintained due to decreasing funds.  One day the church will find that it cannot avoid long-neglected repairs any longer, and the bill for those repairs may be overwhelming.  The final issue is the generation gap that exists in many churches.  Smaller churches find it very difficult to attract and serve the four or five generations that now exist in many families.  We have long complained about the "greying" of our churches, and that has not changed much for the past few decades.  Many of our older, smaller churches are made up primarily of the oldest two generations and a scattering of small children brought there by their grandparents.  There is an obvious generation or two missing in many of these churches will does not bode well for their future.

However, this does not mean an end to the smaller church.  While many smaller churches may well close in the next few years, others will rise up to replace them.  There is something appealing to the younger adult populations about small congregations.  Many of them will prefer the smaller church to the mega-church, but these smaller churches will not look like the small churches of today.  They will be much more missional and outward focused than the often inward-focused small church we often find today.  Many of these smaller churches will not seek a building but will be willing to meet in people's homes.  They may not meet regularly on Sunday mornings but find other times more in line with the schedules of the participants.  Their leadership is likely to come from within their congregation.  There will be less emphasis on formal seminary education and ordination and much more interest in one's call to ministry and ability to do ministry.  I believe the majority of these churches will be led by bivocational ministers.  It may well be that there is not a solo pastor in these churches but a shared leadership.

If we think churches today are pulling away from denominations, we are likely to find these smaller churches of the future even more distant from historic denominations.  They will form their own independent networks of like-minded congregations, some of which may one day become new denominations.  Any relationship these churches have with established denominations will be on their terms which will be a challenge to the denominations. This will require those denominations to rethink their purpose, the way they relate to churches, their views and requirements about ordination, and their views on what constitutes a church.  Rendle predicts, and I agree, that the denominations that make this transition well will be smaller in size and much less structured that they are today.

One cannot enter the wilderness and come out the same.  Churches and denominations are going to look much different when they come out of the wilderness than they were when they went in.  The ones who insist that everything must remain the same will perish in the wilderness, and God will raise up a new generation to enter into the Promised Land.  As I said yesterday, this is not an easy book to read but one that church and denominational leaders need to read if they want to better understand what is happening in the church today and what the future holds for the church of tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

How does one lead through the wilderness?

In the past few staff meetings we have discussed Gil Rendle's book Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches.  Rendle compares this time in which we are doing ministry to the wilderness journey of Moses and the Israelites.  We are at a time when many of the old answers no longer work, but we aren't real sure what does work.  In reality, this has been true for the past several years, but many of us are still trying to minister as though nothing has changed in society and the church since the 1950s.  We are still looking for that one denominational program that will solve our problems.  Churches are still trying to find that special pastor who will come in and return their church to what it was in the 1950s, without upsetting anyone of course.  Pastors will try to be the person with all the answers for their congregation.  Folks, it's time for a reality check.  It's not working and hasn't worked for the past few decades.  Like the Israelites, we have been wandering in the wilderness with the Promised Land just out of reach.

Rendle writes, "The best of our denominational and congregational leaders do not understand themselves as caretakers of an inherited institution experiencing weakness.  The best of our leaders begin to dream of what could be, challenge the weakness of the stories that hold us back, and then engage people in conversations about the new future."  Why is this so important?  As he later writes, "Most congregations with which I have worked as a consultant knew much more about who they were than about who they currently are."

There it is.  My experience in working with churches has been the same.  Most of the churches with which I work not only know their history, they love it, and would like nothing better than to return to that time.  Again, how many times did the Israelites want to return to Egypt even though they were slaves there?  At least, in slavery there was order and a sense of knowing where one was.  In the wilderness there is chaos and confusion.

The problem is, our churches cannot return to that glorious past (which may not have been that glorious anyway).  Our culture won't allow it.  More importantly, neither will God.  He has brought us into the wilderness because that is the only way to prepare us for his purposes.  The wilderness is a time of testing and an opportunity to learn new things about ourselves and about God.  It is also the only way to the Promised Land.  The choices we have is to try to return to Egypt (which is not going to happen), continue to wander in the wilderness until this generation is gone (which many churches will do), or to embrace the wilderness time and the resulting chaos, learn the lessons God wants us to learn, and, in his time, enter the Promised Land.

I have to admit I found this book to be a difficult read, but I believe it is an important read for anyone in denominational and church leadership.  I prefer to provide answers to technical problems that will fix things, and this book challenges me that this approach is no longer sufficient.  Even though I recognized the truths about the church found in this book it still made me uncomfortable, but that is what the wilderness is supposed to do. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

There is more to being a pastor than preaching.

Before you read this article you need to read this excellent post by Joe McKeever.

As a judicatory leader I have grown weary of the churches who decide to call someone to be their pastor because the person "preaches a good sermon."  Often, they know nothing else about the candidate...not their theology, not their spiritual gifts and passions, not their moral values, not their educational background, not their character, not their previous ministerial experience, not their view of ministry, and not their leadership capability.  Despite not knowing anything at all about the individual they are willing to put the future of their church in that person's hands because they have preached two or three good sermons.  The end results are often not pretty.

Elsewhere I have written about the important role of the pulpit in a bivocational church.  It's also true for fully-funded churches, but in the bivocational church that Sunday morning message will reach more people connected with your church than anything else the pastor does.  That is the primary opportunity the bivocational pastor will have to shape the theological beliefs of the congregation, promote the vision and ministry of the church, and minister to the physical and spiritual well-being of those in attendance.  However, as important as it is that the bivocational minister be a good communicator from the pulpit, there is more to pastoring the church than preaching.

As McKeever points out, many churches have been stuck for years (decades).  Is this a failure of the preaching ability of pastor after pastor, or has something else happened in these churches?  My belief is that it is something else, specifically a lack of leadership on the part of the pastor and congregation.  Everything rises and falls on leadership.  I would much rather have an average preacher who has great leadership gifts than to have someone who has a dynamic pulpit ministry but couldn't lead a two-car funeral procession.  And I've known both.

I love to attend high energy worship services and hear a message that is biblically sound and practical.  Who wouldn't?  But, I've spent time with a few churches that were filled with happy, clappy, slappy people who raved about the wonderful messages that come from their pastor who haven't impacted their communities for the Kingdom of God in years.  Something is wrong.  Something is missing, and it's leadership.

Pastor search committees need to learn that almost anyone who has been in ministry even for a short time has a handful of great sermons he or she can use as a trial sermon.  Yes, the messages need to be evaluated for proper doctrine, etc., but these committees need to learn to look beyond the sermon to the total package the individual brings to the position.  Everything in the first paragraph, including his or her leadership abilities, must be evaluated before considering calling that person to become the next pastor of the church.  This takes time, a lot of hard work, and a lot of prayerful consideration, but this is time well-spent.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How can a bivocational pastor meet the preaching expectations of the church?

A regular reader of this blog recently sent me a question that challenges many bivocational ministers.  He wanted to know how he could meet the expectations of his church that he prepare and preach three sermons a week.  He is finding it challenging to do this week after week and was not sure how to address it.  My response was two-fold.

One, I think it is unrealistic for a church to expect their bivocational pastor to preach three times a week, especially when one or two of those services may have no more than 6-10 people in attendance.  Every bivocational minister is faced with the challenge of how to best use his or her time, and having to prepare and deliver three sermons each week is probably not the best way to use that time.  Many lay people have no idea how long it takes to prepare a quality sermon.  Five to ten hours per sermon is about what I spent in sermon preparation, and some messages took longer than that to develop.  That does not include the amount of time and effort spent in planning what sermons to preach.  Frankly, with three sermons it could take all the time the bivocational minister might be able to give to the church just to prepare quality messages.  When I was a pastor our church had two services on Sunday but no mid-week service.  When a few people began to ask for a mid-week service I just refused to add it to our schedule.

But, if a church insists on three services at which the pastor is expected to deliver a message there are some things that can be done to ease that pressure.  One of the things I began to do as a pastor was to preach through a book of the Bible or a lengthy section of Scripture during the summer months.  Those series usually began after Father's Day and went until I completed the book.  One year I spent about six months preaching through the book of Romans.  Another year I spent 4-5 months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  One year I moved the series to Sunday nights and spent the entire year preaching through the book of Revelation.  I preached through much of the NT and a couple of books in the OT doing this.

These series accomplishes several things.  One, they make sermon planning much easier.  You don't have to spend much time deciding what to preach, you just read the next section of the book and develop your message from that.  Two, it exposes your congregation to some Scriptures they may not have heard addressed from the pulpit before.  Three, it forces the preacher to not avoid the difficult passages that he or she might prefer to avoid.  That is a good discipline for all of us who stand behind the pulpit.  Fourth, it allows you to take your congregation much deeper into the Scriptures than you can when you feed them a steady diet of topical sermons.

Despite these benefits, I do not recommend that the preacher complete one book and then move to another although some pastors do that.  My fear is that people will get bored with such an approach to a preaching schedule like that.  I always liked to mix up my preaching so it included lengthy sermon series, shorter sermon series, and stand-alone topical messages.  I just felt that kept my preaching fresher and prevented me and our congregation from getting into a rut.

Preaching through books of the Bible does require the pastor to develop a good library of commentaries and Bible study books.  Over the years I've amassed a nice selection of such books.  Although I have several commentary sets, one of the things I would do is once I determined what book or section I was going to preach from I would purchase several individual commentaries for that book.  Logos and other companies also offer excellent study materials that can be used on your computer which can make large libraries available to the pastor at a fraction of the cost of buying books.  When I was a much younger pastor with a rather small library I would sometimes go to a nearby college that had a nice section of theology books and commentaries.  No one minded me using those free resources, and I was often not the only pastor there preparing my sermons.

One other thing I did occasionally was use videos on Sunday evenings.  One that was very popular with our congregation was a series that explored the nation of Israel.  Our people enjoyed seeing the sites they had read about in the Bible and learning some of the significant details of the area that was not always available just from reading the Bible.  I think there were four or six videos in that series, and that company had more than one series available.  Again, I would not do videos every week or even frequently, but using them occasionally gives the preacher a break and exposes the congregation to new information they might not get in a sermon.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Will you pay the price to reach your destiny as a leader?

While on vacation recently I picked up a book to read titled The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence.  It is a powerful look at the choices leaders can make regarding their climb to success.  The authors write that there are two ladders leaders can choose to climb.  The first is the Capacity Ladder which is the one most choose to climb.  It will take you as high as your abilities allow.  The second ladder they call the Character Ladder which is much harder to climb but will take the leader higher.  They point out that some leaders will begin to climb the Character Ladder but when things start to become difficult they switch to the Capacity Ladder and settle for the level of success they find there.

Although there are challenges on both ladders, the ones on the Character Ladder can be the most demanding since they deal not only with our skill levels but also with who we are inside.  How many leaders have you known who did not fail because they lacked the skills but because of character issues within their lives?  This is why it is so important to intentionally choose the Character Ladder and deal with the issues each rung of that ladder brings.

The fourth rung of the ladder is called Paying the Price, and it seems that it is here that drives many leaders off the Character Ladder and onto the Capacity Ladder.  Paying the price will either test or prove our character, and this can be a very frightening time for most of us.  Such testing is never easy nor pleasant.  Sometimes we learn things about ourselves we would rather not know.  We can choose to ignore those lessons or we can choose to address our new-found knowledge and take the steps to correct those things in our lives that are not right.  If we choose to climb the Character Ladder we will face a time when we must be willing to pay the price if we want to continue our climb.

The authors point out that "Reaching our destiny requires such testing.  Although we may reach certain goals, we will not reach our destiny without the refining and purifying of our hearts.  We need the process of the fourth rung in order to mature.  This maturity gives us the strength we need to manage our influence well."

As ministry leaders our goal should be to achieve the destiny God has in mind for us.  I'm a great believer in goal setting, and it's important to reach our goals, but we must not settle just for that.  God had a destiny in mind for each individual even before they were born (Jer. 1:5).  Our ultimate goal should be to know and achieve that destiny, but we must be willing to pay the price that will involve.

I have found this to be a great book and only wish I had read it much earlier as a younger leader.  You can order it by clicking on the book cover below.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bivocational workshops in Michigan

On September 14 I was privileged to lead a couple of workshops at the Church Equipping Conference for the Baptist State Convention of Michigan.  The workshops I presented were "Transitioning Your Church to Be More Effective" and "Time Management for Bivocational Ministers."  Each were presented twice that day.  Jeff Iorg, President of Golden Gate Theological Seminary was the plenary speaker, and following that service we broke up into the various workshops scheduled for the day.  George Fountain, Bivocational Pastoral Consultant for the BSCM, was the person who initially contacted me about coming, and I want to thank him for the opportunity.  I never heard an official total for the event, but during lunch I did overhear someone estimating there were over 400 people attending this conference.  Judging from the attendance in my workshops a number of those persons were bivocational ministers or lay leaders in bivocational churches.  It was truly a great day.

In an event like this there is often not a lot of time available between workshops.  I think there was about a 15 minute gap between sessions which did not give the presenters and attendees much time to interact between sessions.  However, I was struck by some of the comments I heard as people were leaving my workshops and by e-mails I later received.  This was especially true regarding the "Time Management for Bivocational Ministers" workshop.  It became clear to me that this workshop was really needed by some of those who attended it.  At least one was about ready to leave the ministry because of the stress he was feeling as a bivocational minister.  Another thanked me for a personal story I shared in that workshop, and I felt from his words and the look on his face that it spoke to a challenge he was feeling in his own life.

I want to commend the Baptist State Convention of Michigan for recognizing the value bivocational ministers bring to their churches and for ensuring that their conference offered opportunities for those pastors to come together for fellowship and instruction.  I hear from so many bivocational leaders that they feel ignored or abandoned by their regional and denominational leaders.  George Fountain and the other leaders in the BSCM are making sure their pastors do not feel that way.  May their tribe increase!

Bivocational ministry is tough, and those whom God has called to this ministry needs all the support they can receive.  We in denominational leadership must make sure that we provide them with the instruction and encouragement and support they need to fulfill God's call on their lives.  As the numbers of bivocational ministers continue to climb in virtually every denomination, this support will become even more critical in the future.

For those pastors (both bivocational and fully-funded) who feel overwhelmed by all the demands on their lives, you must find ways to bring your life and ministry into a proper balance.  I know that is not easy.  Believe me, I know.  But, your life, your family, and your ministry depends on you doing that.  Find a workshop that will help you do that.  Talk to other pastors who seem to have been able to do that and ask how they've done it.  Read books and articles that address this.  I've written two that can help you get control of your time:  The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry and my newest book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide. I'm not recommending these just to sell books but because I care about your well-being, and I know first-hand what happens when a bivocational minister doesn't practice good self-care.  Let me know if I can be of any help to you.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

New book released today!

I am quite excited today.  My latest book, The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastors's Guide, was released today and can be ordered online or in Christian bookstores.  This book is based on my Doctor of Ministry project that explored how coaching can help bivocational ministers.  It includes ten case studies of bivocational ministers that I have coached over the past few years and the issues we addressed in those coaching relationships.  I selected these ten because their issues are common to many bivocational (and fully-funded) ministers.  I believe this book will help the reader find solutions to some of the challenges he or she has been facing in ministry and life.  In some cases, the reader will decide that he or she needs the services of a coach to help them resolve some of their challenges.  If that is the case I invite you to contact me as I have openings for a few people who want a coach to help them go to another level in their lives, their careers, or their ministries.

The final chapter of the book is addressed primarily to denominational and judicatory leaders who want to find ways to assist the bivocational ministers serving in their churches.  As the book illustrates, coaching can be a great tool that can enable you to better serve those leaders.  Two years ago one district asked several experienced pastors in their judicatory to serve as coaches to the many bivocational ministers that served in the district.  I was invited to come in and lead a one day training session for those pastors/coaches to help them get started.  After reading that last chapter, if you believe having coaches assigned to assist your bivocational ministers could be a benefit to them and the churches they serve, give me a call and we can discuss the training I offer to persons who want to coach bivocational ministers.

You can order your copy today from at the discounted price of $11.24 by clicking on the book cover.