Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking ahead to a new year

Tomorrow will begin a new year.  Many of the blogs I follow have posted quite a bit this week their predictions of what 2015 will look like.  While some of them have been interesting to read, the reality is that none of us knows for sure what a new year will bring.  I shared in my message this past Sunday that some people are excited that 2014 is coming to an end because it's been the worst year they've had for a long time.  But, we have no way of knowing if 2015 will be any better.

There are things we can do on our end to make it a good year.  I certainly advocate being proactive by having goals to work towards and to take the opportunities that may present themselves to improve your life and the lives of others around you.  Much of what will happen to us this year will be the result of choices we will make, but there may also be things that occur over which we have no control.

We cannot control the weather, and there are certain to be some weather-related challenges for people in the coming year.  We can do many things to be healthier, but some people will face major health issues this year.  We can work hard and put money aside for retirement, but that doesn't mean that money can't disappear in another economic downturn.

In James 4: 13-15 we read, "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit'; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow.  For what is your life?  It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.'"

It's very risky to predict the future because there are too many variables, too many things we can't control.  The one thing we can be certain of in 2015 is that God will be with us in everything we face.  He will be with us during the exciting mountain top experiences of the year, and He will be with us during the deepest valleys we may have to go through.  He will never leave us nor forsake us no matter what may come into our lives.

We live in very trying times, and I do not understand how a person can live in such times without faith in God.  I do not even know why someone would want to.  I have gone through some very difficult times in my life, and I do not believe I could have come through them without God's help.

If you do not know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and you would like to know more about what means, please contact me.  I would love to discuss it with you.

To all my readers, thank you for your prayers and your comments about the various articles I have posted in 2014.  I wish each of you a very Happy and Blessed New Year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The influence of your associates

Yesterday's post looked at how the books we read influence our personal growth.  If you missed that post you can read it here.  Today we will examine how the people we associate with also influence our personal growth.

In his book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership John Maxwell tells that motivational speaker Joe Larson once said, "My friends didn't believe I could become a successful speaker, so I did something about it.  I went out and found new friends." It may sound harsh, but such action is required for anyone who wants to experience personal growth but is surrounded by friends and associates who are not growing or who believe that you cannot grow.

Many years ago I read a book by an author whose name I've long forgotten, but I do remember one of the things she wrote.  She said that there are "upstairs people" who want to pull you up with them and there are "downstairs people" who want to keep you down with them.  You can never grow or move upward if you spend your time with downstairs people.  They aren't going anywhere, and they don't want anyone else going anywhere either.  They will do anything they can to keep you at their level.  Sometimes we have to make the hard choice to leave such people and look for new acquaintances who will help us achieve the things we want to achieve in life.

When I became a Christian I had to make new friends, especially at work.  I was working in a factory where the humor and comments can be rather rough.  Some of the people I often associated with before becoming a Christian were not pleased with the changes that were occurring in my life.  Eventually, I had to make a decision about whether to continue my relationship with them or to find new people who would help me become the person I believed God wanted me to be.  I tried to remain friendly with everyone, but I began to seek out new people to spend time with and soon developed relationship with Christian men who continue to impact my life.

As a new bivocational pastor with no experience and no education I knew that I needed relationships with experienced pastors I respected.  As time allowed I made appointments with these individuals to ask questions and to learn as much as I could about ministry.  Again, that also meant that some relationships had to be let go.

Sometimes you just have to walk away from people who are toxic to what you are wanting to achieve in your life, but most of the time you will just drift apart.  At least, that's the way it's usually been for me.  As I have focused on growing in specific areas of my life, I have had to give up other things I may have enjoyed doing.  That sometimes also included the relationships that were part of those activities.

If you are serious about wanting to grow personally you need to develop relationships with persons who are one or two notches above where you want to go.  If you are a pastor, you want to associate with pastors who have effective ministries so you can learn from them.  If you are a business person you want to associate with people who have more successful businesses than you have so you can learn how they achieved their success.  If you feel ineffective as a spouse or parent, identify some people who appears to be doing what you want to do in your relationships and learn what they are doing.

Find upstairs people who believe in you and want you to achieve your dreams.  These are the ones who will help you grow.

Monday, December 29, 2014

How do you plan to grow in 2015?

Charlie Tremendous Jones is well known for saying, "You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read."  I agree completely, but I will take it even further.  You will be the same person at the end of 2015 as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read in the coming year.

Personal growth does not occur in five year increments.  It is on-going and is the result of decisions we make every day.  In economics we learn about opportunity costs.  All resources are limited, and when we make a decision to do one thing with our resources we are also making a decision to not do many other things with those same resources.  The things we cannot do are the opportunity costs of the decisions we make.

You and I have 24 hours a day to invest in ourselves and in others.  Every day we make choices about how we are going to use those 24 hours.  If we decide that we are going to use a portion of those hours in reading good books or spending time with quality people who can help grow or achieve our goals we are making an investment in our personal growth.  On the other hand, if we decide to spend that time watching television or doing something else that really doesn't add value to our lives we will miss out on those opportunities to grow.

Having worked with churches for over three decades as a pastor and a judicatory leader it's obvious to me that one of the critical factors for a growing church is to be led by a pastor who is growing personally.  Pastors who are satisfied to live in their personal ruts will also be satisfied to lead a church that is in a rut.  Pastors who are growing in their personal and leadership lives will not be content to serve a church that refuses to grow.  They will either lead their church in growth or they will find another church that is growing to serve.

When you invest in your personal growth you are also investing in the growth of your church, the growth of your family, and in the growth of all other areas of your life.  I am convinced that being committed to personal growth is a commitment to being a life-long learner, and much of that learning will take place through the books we read.

Last week I shared some of my favorite books from 2014 and the titles of books currently on my shelf waiting to be read.  I'm always wanting to find new books that will challenge me and help me grow as a minister and a leader.  I want to find interesting books that will help me learn new information about the world in which I live and help me better understand myself and others.  I may only be able to attend one or two workshops or conferences a year, but I can read every day.

If you want to grow in 2015 I challenge you to commit yourself to reading at least two books a month and to be selective about what you read.  Ask yourself in what areas you need to grow and begin to look for books that will help you do that.

I also want to spend time with people who will help me grow.  Leadership gurus often say that we should spend time with people who are further along than we are so we can learn from them.  I agree.  If we want to grow we need to spend time with these folks and let them teach us.  When John Maxwell was starting as a leader he identified some of the persons he wanted to spend time with and offered to pay them for an hour of their time.  He went to those meetings with questions written down that he wanted to ask and left with new insights that helped him grow as a leader.

In tomorrow's post I will write more about the people we need to spend time with and how we can choose the people who will help us in our personal growth.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On my bookstand

Yesterday I shared my top seven books of 2014.  Today, I want to let you know what I'm currently reading and what's sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

For my devotional reading right now I am reading Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N. T. Wright.  The back cover explains that this book "breaks down the barriers that prevent us from fully engaging with the story of Jesus in the Bible.  By appreciating the historical complexity of reading a two-thousand-year-old story and the distorting effect of two millennia of debate over these stories, Wright reveals a breathtaking vision of Jesus that more than matches the needs and complexities of our time."  I'm about half done with the book and appreciate the insights Wright shares.

Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics is written by Charles Krauthammer, one of the best political commentators of our time.  He is a Pulitzer Price winning syndicated columnist, political commentator and physician.  He left psychiatric medicine to work in the Carter administration and was a speech writer for Walter Mondale before becoming a conservative.  I always enjoy hearing his perspective on the events of the day and believe that he is one of the leading conservative thinkers in our day.  However, he is also a very independent thinker and conservatives will not always agree with some of his views especially around feminism, evolution, and the death penalty.  This book is a collection of some of his written columns from the past thirty years.  I find it to be quite enjoyable reading.

Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David Murray is on the Kindle app on my I-Pad.  I always keep at least one book on the Kindle to have available to read when I'm at the doctor's office or sitting in a restaurant or have some time before a meeting.  In this book Murray presents a way to find Jesus throughout the Old Testament.  It is an interesting study.

On the shelf are several books just waiting for me.

I'm looking forward to reading these and many others throughout 2015.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My top 7 books for 2014

For the past few years I've posted my top favorite books of the year.  Usually, I'll list my top 10, but quite frankly I didn't have ten this year to recommend.  My list consists of seven books this year.  I read a number of others that were good, but only seven of them really touched me.  The list is in no particular order.

Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale examines one of the primary questions non-Christians have about the Christian faith.  If God is truly all loving and all powerful why is there so much suffering in the world?  It's a fair question and one that many Christians find difficult to answer.  This book does an excellent job of providing answers to the question.

A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders by Reggie McNeal looks at how God shaped the hearts of four biblical leaders: Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul.  McNeal then shows how God is using the same influences to shape the hearts of religious leaders today.  I found this book to be inspiring and humbling as it demonstrated how God works so personally in the lives of those he calls.

Hacking Leadership: The 11 Gaps Every Business Needs to Close and the Secrets to Closing Them Quickly is written by Mike Myatt for leaders who feel their performance falls short and wants to understand why.  Written primarily for business leaders its principles are applicable for ministry leaders as well.  For instance, when he writes, "Show me people who never change their minds, and I'll show you static thinkers who have sentenced their minds to a prison of mediocrity and wasted potential.  If the world is constantly changing, if the marketplace is always evolving, if the minds of others are continuously developing, how can you attempt to be unchanging and still be relevant" his words are as applicable to ministry leaders as they are to anyone else.  I found the book to be full of such challenging statements.

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive is a wonderful little book by Thom Rainer.  As Rainer examined churches that died he found several common issues that led to their demise.  Many of these issues may be in your church.  The good news is that there are ways to reverse each of these problems and turn a church from one that is dying to one that becomes vibrant once again. This is a book every pastor needs to read and use to periodically evaluate his or her church.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God is the first John Piper book I've read.  Some will be shocked by that admission, but it is the truth.  It won't be the last.  Piper clearly states the purpose of the book is "a plea to embrace serious thinking as a means of loving God and people.  It is a plea to reject either-or thinking when it comes to head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith, theology and doxology, mental labor and the ministry of love.  It is a plea to see thinking as a necessary, God-ordained means of knowing God."  The book certainly challenged me and has changed the way I plan to read and study in the up-coming year.

There's Hope for Your Church: First Steps to Restoring Health and Growth is another excellent book by Gary McIntosh.  It's easy to become discouraged when you pastor a church that is shrinking in numbers and showing little spiritual growth.  However, the first thing that is needed is hope and the ability to see the potential that exists in the church.  This is where McIntosh begins and from there shows practical steps that can be taken to turn your church around.

Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership is by John Maxwell.  Regular readers of this blog knew that one of Maxwell's books would be on this list.  This is his latest (I think!) and one of his best.  He lists several reasons why leaders should always be asking questions and then shares the top ten questions people have asked him that had a positive impact on his life.  He then shares questions a leader needs to ask himself or herself and then the questions he or she should be asking others.  My copy is filled with underlines, highlights, and comments written in the margins.

I hope you will make reading a priority in 2015.  Tomorrow I will list the books I'm currently reading and those sitting on my shelf waiting their turn.

Monday, December 22, 2014

How can we make sense of suffering?

I have shared in this space before how much I enjoy the writing of Ravi Zacharias, one of the fine apologists of our time.  I listen frequently to his podcasts as well and enjoy them as much as his books.  He is not afraid to take on the toughest challenges to the Christian faith, and in his book Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense he does just that.  In fact, in the book he admits that "The question of pain and suffering provides the greatest challenge to belief in God."

The reason suffering is such a problem for many skeptics is due to what they call an insoluble trilemma.  They make three claims and insist these are irreconcilable.  These claims are
  1. God is all-powerful: He can do anything He wills.
  2. God is all-loving: He cares with an intense value for His creation.
  3. Evil is a reality: Suffering is an all-pervading part of this world.
On the surface it would appear that these statements are irreconcilable.  If God is all powerful and all loving, the question is then asked why does such evil exist? Obviously, at least one of them cannot be true, and since no one can deny that evil is a reality, one of the others must not be true.  Either God is not all-powerful or He is not all-loving.  If either of these are not true then, according to the skeptic, belief in God is irrational.

The trilemma is introduced in the first chapter, and in the remainder of the book Zacharias responds to it and proves that faith in God is rational and that there is meaning in suffering that mankind does not always understand.  As he begins his defense of the Christian faith he asks a question, "Why is it that we finite, self-serving, time-constrained, so-often-wrong human beings think we have all the wisdom needed in which to castigate God and hold Him before the bar of our wisdom within our timetable?"

I have read most of Zacharias' books and believe this one to be one of his most valuable, especially for pastors.  Every week we deal with people who are experiencing suffering of one type or another.  Every Sunday when we step into our pulpits we are speaking to hurting people.  For some of them, their pain is so severe that they are not sure how they will move forward with their lives.  Others are struggling to hold on to their faith and are not even sure they want to.  They question what have they done to deserve this pain they are experiencing?  Where is God?  Does He care?  If He doesn't care about what I'm going through why should I care about Him?  For some it's less painful to decide that perhaps God doesn't even exist than to believe that He doesn't care.

There is a good chance, pastor, that as you stand in your pulpit you are speaking to people who are struggling with these very questions and hoping you will give them answers to those questions.  I believe this book can help you answer those questions and give your people the comfort, the meaning, and the hope they need.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A church and its secrets

There is a belief in some churches that it's best to keep troubling news from the congregation.  In most cases, when church leaders keep such news from the congregation they do so convinced that if such news becomes common knowledge in the church and/or the community that it will create enormous problems.  I have seen churches keep information about clergy misconduct from the congregation and other churches do the same when they've found that a church leader has misappropriated funds or done something else unethical or illegal.  In a misguided attempt to protect the church, leaders try to keep these things a secret from the congregation.  Such secrecy seldom ends well.

A church is only as healthy as the secrets it keeps.  A church with a history of keeping secrets will be a church with little trust between the leadership and the laity.  People are not stupid.  They know when there is more going on than they are being told, and since no one is telling them what this is they have no recourse but to try to imagine for themselves what's going on.  This leads to gossip, meetings in the church parking lot, and cherry-red phone lines as church members discuss among themselves what they believe might be happening in their church.  None of these things leads to a healthy church.

Much of this can be prevented with open and honest communication.  I have found that congregations can handle the truth about what is happening in their church.  I have seen congregations presented information that was painful to share and painful to hear, but these congregations were able to process the information and move forward.  As disappointed as they might be in what they have heard at least they know they can trust their leadership to be upfront and honest with them.  As mature Christians they can work together to address the issues and take steps to make it less likely that this same issue will occur again.

What can church leaders do if their church has a history of secret-keeping that has resulted in a lack of trust within the congregation?  The best answer is to communicate.  In fact, over-communicate.  If there are problems, be up-front about them and address them.  Obviously, there are confidentiality concerns that must be protected, but at the same time there is much that can be shared with the congregation.  Don't speculate, but share what you have proven to be true and how the problems are being addressed.  Be kind and gracious, but also be truthful.

A number of years ago a church leader told me he was working with a congregation to help them get unstuck.  He thought he was making progress until one of the people reminded others in attendance that they could not do what they were discussing because of something that had happened in the church years earlier.  Newer members of the congregation knew nothing of the prior event because it was something that was never discussed.  I was never told what the event was, but even though the congregation had long ago locked it away in a secret place it was still impacting the church and limiting its ability to move forward.  That is what secrets can do to any church.  It's far better to address problems openly and correct them so the church is not held hostage by them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What will 2015 be like for you and your church?

It's always dangerous to predict the future, and no one can really say with any certainty what a coming year will bring.  The one thing we can say with certainty is that it will bring change.  It is highly unlikely that you will be the same person at the end of 2015 that you were when the year began.  It is also likely that your church will be different.

Now, you may argue that your church hasn't changed in 30 years and isn't likely to change in 2015 either, but that's not entirely true.  Especially if you are in a smaller church.  In most cases, those churches have grown older, grayer, and and attendance has probably declined for many of those 30 years.  That's change.  It may not be the kind of change we want, but it is change, and if your church doesn't change some other things the decline will probably continue.

The reason it is so difficult to predict the future is because there is no way to know what will occur that we cannot control.  Illnesses, deaths, accidents, are things that happen without our input or ability to control.  Other people make decisions that can have a major impact on us, and we cannot often impact those decisions.  Banks lend money to people who cannot repay their loans, the market collapses, and the economy goes into a tailspin.  People planning to retire find their retirement accounts gone forcing them to keep working.  They did everything right, but because of the actions of others their lives are forever impacted.  In short, life happens making it impossible to predict exactly what our lives will be like at the end of the coming year.

At the same time, it's important to know that much of what will happen in our lives in 2015 is within our control.  We can set goals for our lives and work to achieve those goals.  We can learn new skills and further our education.  We can choose to deepen our walk with God through the regular practices of spiritual disciplines.  We can make new friends.  We can choose to reduce our debt or get out of debt entirely.  We can choose to take better care of our bodies by eating healthier, getting more sleep, and getting regular exercise.  We can choose to read at least one book a month.  (According to studies this one thing will put you far ahead of the average American and have a significant impact on your life.)

Change is inevitable.  Whether you do anything or not, you will change in the coming year.  The good news is that much of the change you will experience is up to you.  Decide now the kind of person you want to be and what it will take to help you achieve that.  Now is also the time to begin discerning what God wants your church to be and begin working towards that.  Be proactive and you will find that much of the change you will experience will be positive and productive.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The pastor scholar

I have just finished reading The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry by John Piper and D. A. Carson.  These two men share their stories about how they have incorporated pastoral ministry and scholarship into their lives and ministries.  I found the book interesting and informative.

Too often pastoral ministry and scholarship are seen as two different paths, and in some churches scholarship is viewed as something to be avoided.  When I interviewed with the church that I eventually served for twenty years I was asked about my academic preparation for ministry.  At that time I had no education beyond high school.  One of the individuals on the search committee commented that he felt some of their best pastors couldn't even pronounce a lot of the biblical names right.  At that time, that church had only one person with a college education, and few, if any, in that church were concerned about scholarship.  They were looking for someone who would love them and provide pastoral ministry.

It wasn't until I had been at the church for about eighteen months that I realized that if I was to continue in ministry I needed more education than I had.  That decision led me to enroll in a Bible school and eventually to earning a DMin.

At times my blog posts may have sounded like I am anti-education, but that is far from the truth.  My concern is that a lot of seminary education does not prepare one for the realities of ministry in the 21st century and especially not for bivocational ministry.  At the same time, I believe that it is critical that one serving as a pastor be trained in how to think, how to read, and how to present the Gospel in ways that are both relevant to the listeners and theologically sound.  Persons entering the ministry should be committed to being both pastors and scholars.

Too many Christians today have a shallow faith that cannot sustain them in difficult times.  They are unable to share their faith because they do not understand what they believe well enough to explain it to anyone else.  I lay much of the blame for this on pastors who preach a message week after week with little substance because they are unwilling to do the difficult work of digging into the text and uncovering the treasures that can be found.

Those who are committed to being pastor scholars must be committed to life-long learning.  We must commit ourselves to reading and study while at the same time not neglecting spending valuable time with our congregation.  Admittedly, it's not an easy thing to balance, and it will require focus and the setting of priorities for our time. But, this is what we've been called to do.  This is what our congregations want and need from us.  We must not fail to be both pastors and scholars if we want to see the people in our churches grow and become mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time with family

One of the articles I'm linking to today on twitter discusses the importance of a pastor protecting family time during the Christmas season.  It's an important post, and I hope you'll read it, because it can be a challenge for a pastor to spend needed time with family during the holidays, and especially Christmas.

I came across the article today just a few hours after returning home from a visit with my son and his family in Pennsylvania.  My wife and I went there to celebrate Christmas with them.  When one has children living in different parts of the country one has the opportunity to celebrate Christmas several times during the month of December!  It's always too short when we visit, but we had a great time sharing stories and gifts.  But, for some pastors the Christmas season can be a frustrating time for both the pastor and the family.

Most churches have several special events planned during the Advent season, and many of them, if not all, expect pastoral participation or at least attendance.  Between small group parties, Christmas programs, Christmas Eve services, practices, and a myriad of other special events a pastor can find it difficult to be home creating the special memories he or she wants to make with their own family.

Pastoring a small church throughout my pastoral ministry I was not as involved in special programs as many pastors I know.  Our church did not have a Christmas Eve service, and, frankly, I would have resisted one if anyone had brought it up.  I know that this can be a special time in a church, but I also know that Christmas Eve was already a busy, and special, time in both my wife's and my family.  We were already stretched thin going to her family's Christmas Eve get-together early and then rushing to my family's gathering.  We never spent enough time at either to satisfy either family!  I can't imagine what would have happened if we had a church service that evening as well.

When our children got older, those extended family gatherings were replaced with our own gathering.  Again, those became times when we created some wonderful Christmas memories.  Now that our children are even older and living in different parts of the country we need several days in December just to celebrate Christmas with them and our grandchildren.  If we had church responsibilities for various Christmas activities it would really complicate things.

Church leaders need to look into the amount of time demands that are placed on their pastors and/or staff during the Christmas season and make sure that it doesn't create problems with their families.  Pastors need to protect time with their families.  That may mean that you can't make every Sunday school class Christmas party or it may require you to cut back on some other pastoral activities.  Some of the richest family memories we have are centered around things we did as a family during the Christmas season.  There will come a time when such memories will become very important to you and your family.  Make sure you take the time to make them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Your church will accomplish more by doing less

A common complaint in many smaller churches is the lack of commitment people have, but in reality I find that most such churches are actually over-committed.  They are structured for a time when they were probably a much larger congregation and have far more committees and boards than they need.  These churches often find it difficult to fill all their teaching and leadership slots and can only do so by having people volunteer for four or five positions.  If you want, you can argue that if more people would accept these positions then the few who are willing to work wouldn't have to have so many responsibilities.  However, the reality is that the Pareto Principle is alive and well in the church.  Twenty percent of the people are going to do eighty percent of the work.  Stop fighting that, accept it as reality, and adjust your workload accordingly.

When I meet with churches having this problem I assure them that if half of their committees and boards never met again, no one would be able to tell the difference.  Yes, some of these are needed in the church, but ask yourself how much real value do most of these add to your church.  How has your church been significantly impacted by the work of most of your committees?  The only reason some of them are still in existence is because they were created years (decades) ago to meet a real need, and no one has had the courage to suggest they are no longer needed.

Along the same line, many small churches try to offer too many programs and ministries for the resources they have available.  They do this thinking they must compete with the larger church in town.  That is like a Mom and Pop store thinking they have to compete with Wal-Mart on price.  It's not going to happen!  Mom and Pop, if they are to stay in business, have to find something that sets them apart from Wal-Mart and compete in that niche.  Small churches are the same way.  You cannot offer the same ministries the largest churches in your community offer because you do not have the manpower and finances to do so.  Attempting this will result in doing many things mediocre, and you cannot build a ministry around mediocre.

A much better ministry strategy is to identify the giftedness of your people, find out what they are passionate about, and then prayerfully begin to discern how God would have you use that to meet ministry needs in your community.  Believe me, there are many such needs going unmet where you live.  I am convinced that many smaller churches are uniquely positioned to meet those needs, and it is there where those churches are going to thrive.

However, you won't be able to do this if you insist on continuing to ask your twenty percenters to do more and more maintenance-type work.  They only have so much time to invest in church work so you want to use that time wisely.  Eliminate the tasks that add little if any value to the church and free people up to do ministry that will make a difference.  Then begin the task of discerning how to have the greatest impact on your community for the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pastors and the call to a ministry

As a Resource Minister in our region, one of my responsibilities is to assist our churches when they are seeking a new pastor.  I also work with pastors seeking a new place to serve.  While it is exciting to work with churches and pastors during this transitional time in their lives, there are some disturbing trends that I've noticed in the past few years.  One of those trends is the reason the pastors give for wanting to move to a new church.

Virtually every month I'll receive at least one call from a pastor who wants to relocate in our region.  The reason most often given is that they have family in the area and want to be closer to them.  I can understand that.  We have one child living two hours away and another one about ten hours away.  We would love to see them and our grandchildren more than we do.  And, I can also accept the fact that sometimes God may call us to serve in a place closer to family.  My problem is that this is nearly the only reason people give for wanting to make a move.  It seems that many clergy persons today have replaced a sense of calling with a desire for convenience.

During my two decades as pastor at Hebron Baptist Church I was contacted by numerous pastor search committees.  During one 18 month stretch an average of one church a week called me asking for an interview.  I think in all that time I interviewed with less than five churches because I never sensed that God was calling me to leave my present ministry.  Why talk with another church if God hasn't released me from where I'm serving?  When I did agree to meet for an interview it was because I began to wonder if I was missing God's leading, but after each interview I knew I was to stay where I was.

It was sometime during my 18th year at the church that I began to believe that my time there was drawing to an end.  Two years passed while I waited to see what doors God would open, and was quite surprised to find that it was in the role I have today.  I assumed it would be another pastorate but learned God had other plans.  When the opportunity was presented to me I had no doubt that God was calling me to leave my pastorate and that he was calling me to this position.  Nothing else entered into the decision except my wife's and my confidence that this was God's call on my life.

Ministers make a big mistake when they change churches and ministry positions based on anything except a confidence that God is leading them to make the change.  Now...God often gets the credit (or blame) for their decision, but I'm not convinced that God is actually behind many of those changes.  A pastor begins his ministry at a new church and announces how excited he or she is that God has called them to this place only to announce three years later that God has led him or her to another church.  For too many ministers this process is repeated ten or twelve times during their ministries.  I just don't believe God is that confused about where they are to serve!

Such ministers seldom accomplish anything of lasting value anywhere they serve.  When they retire they can't look back over a 30 year ministry; they can only look back at a string of three year ministries and find there is little to celebrate.

When God calls a minister to a place of service it will be for an extended period of time in most cases.  One exception to this is the person called to interim ministry who God will call to a place for two or three years while he or she helps the church prepare for a new pastor, and there may be other exceptions as well.  But, for most of us we need to pray and seek God's call to a place of ministry where we can put down roots and serve until we are convinced that he has called us to another ministry.  We need to be honestly seeking God's call to a place of ministry and not simply seek one to satisfy our own personal wishes and our convenience.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Practicing your sermon

Since getting my auctioneer's license last year there is hardly a time when I'm alone in the car that I do not spend a few miles working on my chant.  I do try to make sure I'm not around a lot of other cars when I'm doing this.  There's enough people in our community that wonder about my sanity, and if people started seeing me doing an auction chant in the car that number would probably increase!  Still, I find this helps me stay sharp between auctions, and I've had several long-time auctioneers tell me they still practice their chant while driving down the road.

Oddly enough, when I was a pastor I seldom verbally practiced my sermons before delivering them.  Maybe I was concerned that doing so would have a negative impact on the spontaneity of the message.  After all, what minister wants his or her sermon to sound canned?  I'm actually more tempted to preach at least a portion of my message on the way to church today, especially if I am driving some distance to where I'm speaking.  I find that doing so helps me deliver a better message.

  1. Sometimes I find that a portion of the message just doesn't fit verbally like I thought it would on paper.  It's better to learn that before you preach the sermon than to realize it in the midst of the message.
  2. Sometimes I realize that the sermon is running longer than I prefer, and this provides me an opportunity to cut out parts that add less value to the message I'm trying to convey.
  3. It always helps me better remember the message which means I am less tied down to my outline.  This allows me to maintain better eye contact with the congregation and to move more freely on the platform.
  4. Sometimes I will think of a better illustration than I was using in my prepared message which often strengthens the sermon.  I can then incorporate that illustration or story in the message.
If I don't have time to practice the entire message I want to at least practice the introduction and the conclusion.  Your audience will decide to listen to your message or tune it out based on the strength of your introduction.  I figure I only have a few minutes at the start of the message to draw them in or I will lose them so the introduction has to be strong.  Likewise, the conclusion is vital as it invites the audience to respond to what they've just heard.  I need to clearly give them the best ways to respond to the message and invite them to do so.  If the introduction and the conclusion are not strong then the middle part of the message will be much less effective.

If you do not currently practice your sermons before preaching them, I encourage you to at least try it for 3-4 months to see if it makes a difference.  Your preaching ministry is so important that it is worth at least trying this to see if it makes you stronger in the pulpit.

Since this post is about preaching...I read the other day in another blog that many ministers still find the classic On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons by John A. Broadus to be one of their favorite books on preaching.  In that book Broadus wrote, "The record of Christian history has been that the strength of the church is directly related to the strength of the pulpit.  When the message from the pulpit has been uncertain and faltering, the church has been weak; when the pulpit has given a positive, declarative message, the church has been strong.  The need for effective preaching has never been greater."  He wrote this in 1870!  How much more true are these words today?

This book has been in my library since the mid-1980s, and it had a major impact on my ministry.  You can order a copy of it here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Every day I post links to about 18 different blog articles that focus on ministry and/or leadership.  These come from the dozens of blogs I review each day looking for helpful information that I then pass on to my readers.  This is one more way I try to resource bivocational and small church leaders although leaders of much larger churches will probably find these articles interesting and helpful as well.

These links are posted on Twitter which then puts them on my Facebook page as well.  You can follow me on Twitter @DennisBickers.  In addition to these links I occasionally put other information on my Facebook page so I encourage you to friend me on FB as well.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pastoral priorities

The modern pastor is expected to be many things.  He or she is required to be an administrator, a counselor, a fund raiser, capable of working with both senior adults and children, a teacher, a preacher, a coach, and a friend to all people.  In some churches the pastor is expected to be skilled at plumbing, wiring, cleaning, lawn care, building construction, and driving a bus.  In a church of 50 people the pastor may have 50 different job descriptions in addition to the written one.  It should not surprise anyone that clergy have a very high burnout rate and many leave the ministry prematurely each year.  No one person can be expected to effectively do all these things, and the fact that many churches do have such expectations of their pastor shows how out of touch they are with what should be the priority of the pastor.

Ephesians 4: 11-12 tells us that God gave the pastor to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Verse 14 explains that this would prevent believers from being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.  In his final letter to Timothy, Paul urges him to rightly divide the word of truth so that he would not be ashamed to stand before God (2 Tim. 2: 15).  Later, Paul would add that he needed to be ready to preach at all times sound doctrine that the people would need to hear 2 Tim. 4: 2-3).

These verses, and more, indicate to me that the preaching ministry of a pastor must be one of his or her highest priorities.  A significant part of that preaching ministry is to set aside sufficient time for study of the Scriptures so that what is presented is sound doctrine.

I've just finished reading Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper.  In the book Piper challenges Christians to become more serious in their studies of the Scriptures.  Many Christians in North America seem to have a very shallow grasp of the Christian faith and its doctrines.  I think Piper would argue that part of the reason for this is that many of us fail to think deeply about what we read and hear.  Too often, we are content to listen to a 30 minute sermon on Sunday morning and go about our lives without really examining what was said.  Shallow thinking leads to a shallow faith.

Unfortunately, such shallow thinking is not confined to the pew.  It can be found behind the pulpit as well.  Here, the damage can be even worse.  Not only can it lead to a shallow faith in the minister, it can also lead to the spread of false doctrine that will poison the faith of others.  To correct this problem requires the pastor to be committed to being a student of the Word as Paul commanded Timothy.  Time must be set aside each week for study if the minister is to stand in the pulpit on Sunday to proclaim the truth of God's Word.  This often will require that some of the other expectations listed above will have to be given to others.

While this may not be popular in those churches that still have the mistaken belief that they have hired a minister to do all these things for them, this is exactly what the Ephesians passage is saying.  The pastor is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.  While I am not one who believes that the pastor should not visit people or spend time outside the church office meeting some of these other expectations, I do believe that the bulk of that work is to be done by spiritually mature and equipped lay leaders.  The pastor must have sufficient time to study and prepare his or her messages.  The pulpit ministry must have priority.

The Puritan preacher, John Owen, once stated, "The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word.  It is a promise related to the New Testament, that God 'world give unto his church pastors according to his own heart, which should feed them with knowledge and understanding' (Jer.iii.15).  This is by preaching or teaching the word, and no otherwise."

I have to admit that there were times reading this book that I felt convicted in my own ministry of allowing other pastoral duties to take me away from the proper study of Scripture.  Billy Graham has admitted that he now wishes he had spent more time in study and less speaking, and I share that regret.  However, it's never too late to turn that around.  One of my 2015 goals is to deepen my study of the Scriptures so that when I do speak I will have a word from God to share with my listeners.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Coaching opportunities available

What would you like to accomplish in 2015?  In your personal life?  In your family?  In your ministry?  In your work?  Would you like to enjoy more balance in your life?  Would you enjoy being able to spend more time with your family?  Would you like to see your church get unstuck from ruts that may be decades old?  The reality is that if you merely hope that things will improve in 2015, they probably won't.  If you keep doing the same things you've been doing you will get the same results.  Nothing will change.  Two things need to happen if you want to see your life and ministry improve.

The first is that you need a goals program.  This season from mid-November through December is when I typically identify the goals I want to pursue in the coming year.  I began doing this several years ago, and it has had a very positive impact on my life.  I began using a program offered by Zig Ziglar that is probably still available through his organization.  I continue to use a modified version of that same program.

I begin by identifying some goals for the different areas of my life that I want to pursue in the coming year.  These areas will include my family life, my ministry, my career (if you are bivocational that will often be different than your ministry), my relationship with God, and my own self-care.  Writing these goals on paper turn them from being a dream to an actual goal.  This helps me be very intentional about pursuing these things and keeps me from merely drifting from one activity to another.  Once I've listed my goals (no more than one or two in each area) I then write down what I will gain from reaching the goal, I list the things I can identify that will hinder my reaching the goal, I identify the people and groups that can help me achieve the goal, I list some new skills or knowledge I might need, and then I begin recording the action steps I will take that will lead me to achieve the goal.  These action steps become mini-goals that reduce the big goal down into bite-size chunks.  I do not believe anyone can reach their fullest potential without setting challenging goals each year that will help them grow.

The second thing that is often helpful is to have a coach who believes in you and your goals.  The coach helps us stay focused and holds us accountable.  Many people will make a New Year's resolution to lose weight and will join a gym and begin an exercise program and diet.  All of this will last about three weeks.  One of the biggest reasons they will fail in their effort is that there is no one to hold them accountable.  The ones who succeed will often have invested in a trainer to work with them, show them the right exercises that will be most beneficial to them, and will often help them with their diet.

The business world has known for several years that a coach can help a person or organization get unstuck.  A good coach can help the one they are coaching to elevate their sights and begin to see past where they are to what they can become.  Many major corporations provide outside coaches to their top executives because they know that they get a good return on their investment.

Some in the church world are now seeing the same value in coaching.  At a time when 80 percent of our churches are plateaued or declining and ministry frustrations are driving many out of the ministry, some are turning to coaches to help their churches move forward and to regain control of their personal lives.  They are finding that this investment in themselves makes sense and provides a great return on both their time and money.  But coaching is not just for when things are not going well.  Some of the best returns is when things are going well, but the leaders want to take their church and themselves to an even higher level of ministry effectiveness.

For the past few years I have coached a number of ministers, both bivocational and fully-funded.  Due to my judicatory responsibilities I can only work with a few people at a time, but as we approach a new year I do have a few slots open.  My doctoral thesis was on "Coaching Bivocational Ministers for Greater Success."  I have found that coaching is an excellent tool to assist bivocational and fully-funded ministers move forward with their lives and ministries.  If you wonder if coaching could benefit you, please contact me so we can discuss it.

My latest book is a look at my doctoral project and the information that came out of it.  Included in the book are ten case studies of ministers I have coached and the results of those coaching relationships.  You may want to pick up a copy of the book to learn more about how coaching can benefit you.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A word for those who are always late

My current ministry often requires me to attend meetings with various church boards and committees to provide whatever assistance they might need to accomplish their tasks.  Some of these meetings will require me to drive up to three hours one way.  It is not uncommon for these meetings to be held up while we wait for one or two people who are running late.  No one considers that I have another three hour drive to return home or that I might have another meeting scheduled for later.  Those who are late don't even consider that their fellow board members might have other plans or have families waiting for a meal when they return home.  They usually walk into the room mumbling about being behind.  No, they are not running behind; they are rude and inconsiderate of other people.

I typically arrive at events too early because I hate being late to anything.  I keep a book in my car to read if I've arrived before the others which is often the case.  I feel if I am late that I am insulting those who arrived on time and have insinuated that my time is much more valuable than theirs.  Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way, and too often others on the board or committee are willing to delay the meeting until these people finally arrive.  There have been times when I've suggested we go ahead and start the meeting without the late comers.  Sometimes, people agree but other times my suggestion is not well received.

This is not really a rant because this hasn't happened to me lately.  It is an observation of a trend that I've noticed that some people simply have no respect for other people's time.  Our society is becoming more rude and inconsiderate of others, and this is just one symptom of the problem.

Are there ever justifiable reasons for a person to be late?  Of course.  Emergencies happen that cannot be predicted.  Unusual situations occur that no amount of planning can predict.  I was once late getting to a meeting at a nearby church because there were two combines on the country road ahead of me that I had to follow almost all the way to the church.  There was no place to pass them, and they refused to pull off when they had opportunities to do so.  Although I left early enough to arrive on time, there was no way I would know I would have to follow two combines to the church.

What I've noticed, however, is that it is usually the same people who are always late.  Their problem is not due to emergencies or the occasional unusual circumstance.  They are simply rude and inconsiderate people.  The only way to get their attention is to never delay a meeting because they are late.  We should never reward improper behavior.  If they are late they should understand the meeting will begin without them.  If they continue to be late to future meetings they should be asked about their commitment to the group.  Let's not punish responsible people who make the effort to be on-time by rewarding those who are always late.

Friday, November 21, 2014

2015 Workshops on small church and bivocational ministry

Since 2001 one of the things I've enjoyed doing is leading workshops and conferences on small church and bivocational ministry.  After having spent 20 years as a bivocational pastor, writing several books on small church and bivocational ministry, and doing my doctoral work on coaching bivocational ministers it's not too difficult to tell where my ministry passion lies.  Those who serve in these churches are my heroes.  There are few things in my ministry life that I find more rewarding than being able to encourage these individuals and share with them information that I pray adds value to their lives and ministries.

Many denominational and judicatory leaders will begin now to think about the training opportunities they will offer their church leaders in 2015.  With the rising numbers of bivocational pastors serving in virtually every denomination today I hope they will consider doing something especially for them.  If so, I would love to talk with them about partnering with them to help train their bivocational and small church leaders.

I offer several workshops

  • The Healthy Small Church (My most popular one)
  • The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Stresses of Ministry
  • Transforming the Small Church From Maintenance-Minded to Missional
  • Bivocational Ministry in the 21st Century
  • Church Hospitality: How to Turn First-Time Guests Into Followers of Jesus Christ
  • Coaching Bivocational Ministers (For judicatory and denominational leaders and others who are responsible to work with these individuals)
In addition to these, I have developed specific workshops to meet the needs of individual groups.  You should always feel free to contact me about a particular need you might have.  Each of these workshops are offered in six-hour, three-hour, and one-hour formats to meet your specific needs.

These workshops have been presented to leaders in several denominations across the United States and Canada.  The denominations I've been privileged to assist include

  • American Baptist Churches USA
  • The Southern Baptist Convention
  • General Baptists
  • United Methodist Church
  • The Salvation Army
  •  Atlantic Baptist Mission (Canada)
  • The Wesleyan Church
  • The Church of the Nazarene
Because of my current ministry as a Resource Minister in our region my ability to travel is limited so I can only schedule a few workshops each year.  If you are interested in contacting me I encourage you to do so as soon as possible so we can get your event on my calendar.  Please contact me if you have any questions about any of my workshops.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

We need new ways to share the Gospel

A friend of mine recently had an interesting conversation with a co-worker.  Something was said about Billy Graham, and the co-worker asked who that was.  My friend was stunned.  When asked to repeat his comment, the co-worker said he had never heard of Billy Graham.

It seems incredible that someone in the United States would have no idea of who Billy Graham is.  Even if the individual is not a person of faith most of us would assume that everyone in the United States has heard of Billy Graham.  Those kinds of assumptions is one of the problems of the church today.  We assume people know much more about God, Christianity, the Bible, and church than they actually do know.  The fact is that many unchurched people know very little about any of those things, and, even worse, much of what they do know is error.

When Jay Leno hosted the Tonight show he would occasionally do a "man-in-the-street" interview to see what people knew about various topics.  It was really amazing to see the lack of knowledge people had about even the simplest of topics.  Years ago our nation outlawed literacy tests for voting on the grounds that they were used to discriminate and keep some people from voting, but after hearing some of the responses from the persons Leno interviewed I'm not sure some of these folks should be allowed to vote!  They are certainly not voting based on any factual information about the candidates, their positions on issues, or on their past records.  Unfortunately, as misinformed as most of these people were about politics, they were usually even less informed when asked questions of a religious nature.

We now have a generation (or two) that has had very little, if any, exposure to Christian teaching.  Many of them have been influenced by university professors who denounced Christian values and beliefs.  Others didn't want their lifestyles impacted by any kind of restrictions so they accepted the postmodern view that whatever choices one made for themselves was proper.  Still others had questions about God and Christianity, but sought answers to their questions from some of the New Atheist writers that are so popular today and never compared what they had to say with what Christian apologists say about those same questions.

Any time you try to share your faith with these individuals you can expect some of the same responses.  "The church is full of hypocrites."  "With all the evil there is in the world there cannot be a God."  "The Bible is just a book of myths written by men."  "If you want to believe that Jesus Christ is the way you came to know God that's fine, but there are many roads to God."  "All religions are the same."  There are others, but these seem to be some of the most common reasons people give for rejecting biblical Christianity.  So, how will you respond to them?

The church must do a better job of not only teaching people what they should believe, but why they should believe it.  We need to help Christians be able to defend their faith when challenged by unbelievers.  I can remember as a young Christian being told that people might argue your doctrine, but they couldn't argue your experience.  That's no longer true today.  They may applaud your experience and be genuinely glad that your experiences have been so meaningful to you, but in our pluralistic society your experience is just that: your experience.  In a postmodern world you have no right to state that your religious experience is better than anyone else's.  We must be able to show them why their beliefs are logically inconsistent and be able to present the teachings of Scripture in a way that will speak to their minds and their hearts.  At that point, we can trust God to begin to water the seed we've planted.

The church needs to find new ways to do evangelism.  The old models that were successful years ago depended on people having at least some knowledge about biblical teaching.  That time no longer exists.  We must patiently and lovingly develop relationships with people and earn the right to respond to their questions and concerns about the Christian faith.  Jesus met people where they were.  We can do no less today.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The importance of the pulpit

Bivocational ministers face many challenges as they try to meet the many demands that exist on their time.  In order to succeed in ministry bivocational ministers must set priorities for how they will use their time.  When it comes to ministry priorities one that must be near the top of the list is sermon preparation.

Sundays come around every seven days whether we are prepared for them or not.  We should not be surprised that we are expected to be prepared to share a message with our congregations every Sunday.  In fact, we should look forward to it.  That time on Sunday morning is the one time that we will be with the most people.  It gives us our greatest opportunity to challenge and encourage our congregation.  In my book, The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry, I write:

Nothing the bivocational minister can do has the potential to impact a church more than his or her pulpit ministry.  John A. Broadus wrote in 1870, "The record of Christian history has been that the strength of the church is directly related to the strength of the pulpit.  When the message from the pulpit has been uncertain and faltering, the church has been weak; when the pulpit has given a positive, declarative message, the church has been strong.  The need for effective preaching has never been greater."  John MacArthur agreed with Broadus when he wrote, "No man's pastoral ministry will be successful in God's sight who does not give preaching its proper place.

The apostle Paul asked, "If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound who will prepare for battle?" (1 Cor. 14:8)  Pulpit ministry enables the pastor to sound a clear message to his or her congregation.  In preaching the pastor can cast vision, teach doctrine, and challenge, inspire, and encourage the church.  The results can be a more unified church with a clear purpose. Both are essential to a successful ministry.

I believed these words when I served as a bivocational pastor.  I believed them when I wrote this book in 2004, and I continue to believe them today.  Since beginning judicatory ministry in 2001 and spending most Sundays in a different church I can say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a strong church that had a weak pulpit, and I have never seen a weak church that had a strong pulpit.  A weak pulpit can turn a strong church into a weak one, and a strong pulpit can turn a weak church into a much healthier church.  Unfortunately, in my travels I encounter too many weak pulpits.  On the Sundays when I visit such churches I leave the service wondering what I had just experienced.  I'm sure I'm not the only one leaving a worship service that had weak preaching confused and disappointed.

Because Sundays do come around every seven days, and because bivocational ministers are often over-committed it is vital that we begin working on our sermon as early as possible.  We don't want to plan to work on our sermon on Saturday evening only to be called to the hospital that evening.  You may think you will be able to fake it this one time, but your congregation will see through your efforts.  Some will be disappointed while others will be offended that you thought so little of them that you did not take the time to prepare a message they needed to hear.  Even worse, you will have forfeited the opportunity to cast vision, challenge, encourage, and preach an evangelistic message that might bring one more person into the Kingdom of God.  You might meet with various committees throughout the week, but you will hardly ever gather as many people into one group to speak to them as you will have sitting in your congregation on Sunday morning.

Make your sermon preparation a major priority in your ministerial life.  When you have prepared properly you can go into pulpit with confidence and preach the kind of life-changing messages people need to hear.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Handling change

One of my favorite authors is Dr. Richard Swenson who wrote the book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.  I've often said that if that book had been available when I began my ministry it might have saved me a lot of problems, including a bout with clinical depression due to overload.  It remains one of my favorite books and is one that I re-read to help me remember how to care for myself.

A few years ago he published a book that follows up with the general theme of his earlier work titled In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life that I believe is equally helpful.  In this book he addresses the the rapid change and explains why it often feels so overwhelming.  He writes, "What we are witnessing is a continuous escalation of the norm followed rapidly by a normalization of the escalation that then becomes the new normal."  In other words, our definition of what is normal is constantly and rapidly changing.  About the time we think we have it figured out, our new normal changes again.  It's no wonder we feel overwhelmed.

It's also no wonder why the church struggles so much with the changing landscape.  In the past change was very slow, almost like the lava flow we've been watching on television the past few days.  Even when we could see it coming it was moving so slowly that we had time to prepare.  And many in the church still was opposed to it!  Now, it seems that every publication, every denominational pronouncement, every new book and workshop declares that the church must be doing _________ if it wants to remain relevant and effective.  About the time a church gets that implemented something newer and shinier is presented as the next great thing the church must do.

Now, I'm not advocating that churches do not need to change.  Some need to make some drastic changes to try to make it into the 20th century!  (We're taking it one century at a time.)  However, churches also don't need to be chasing every shiny thing that suddenly appears and is heralded as the solutions to all the church's problems.

Swenson shares several ways to address this escalation of the norm, and one that is especially helpful to churches is to "Stop staring at the neighbors."  If we start playing the comparison game we will be quickly sunk.  They get a new car, we need a new car.  They put in a pool we need a pool.  They build an addition to their house and suddenly our house seems too small and we need a new addition.  We can quickly go broke buying things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like.  It's the same with churches.

A church down the road puts in a new video system so we need one.  They hire a youth minister, and suddenly our volunteer youth workers are not enough.  They buy a van, and we feel we need a bus.  Since we've never spent any time discerning God's vision for our church we are left with trying to copy what other churches are doing, and this can quickly turn into an escalation of the norm requiring more and more change that produces little return for our efforts.

There is no question that our culture is changing at a rapid rate and that the church must make changes to be able to minister well to that culture.  But, those changes should be informed by our vision for ministry and not what other churches are doing.  Whatever changes we make should occur to make it easier to reach those persons God has given our church to reach and not because our favorite religious personality endorses them.  There should be a balance to our ministry that allows us to be relevant to the world God has called us to reach and be able to breathe as a church as well.

Swenson's book has much to say to us about balance as individuals as well as to our churches.  I highly recommend both.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pastoral transitions

One of the toughest decisions a minister must make is knowing if it is time to leave his or her present place of ministry for another.  Of course, sometimes the church makes that decision for the minister eliminating any confusion on the part of the minister.  But, most of us will struggle with this decision at times in our ministerial lives, and it has been well said that it is the loneliest decision a minister must make.

Some ministers do not seem to struggle too much with deciding to move.  They do it so often that they never unpack most of their belongings and have a discount plan with their moving company.  You can count on these individuals changing churches about every 2-3 years or whenever they find an open church that appears to be a move up the ministerial ladder of success.  I consider these persons to be hirelings, not pastors, and nothing I say in this post is likely to influence them.

For many of us, it is a struggle.  We don't want to leave too soon and miss out on something God is planning for our church, and yet we don't want to stay when we have nothing more to offer.  In yesterday's post I mentioned John Maxwell's book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership.  As I was reading it today I came across a chapter that addresses this very issue.  One of the things in the book that really connected with me was a statement Maxwell shared from Elmer Towns, co-founder of Liberty University, "Don't leave something; go to something."

In about my 18th year as pastor of my bivocational church I felt that my time there was about over.  There had been various times during those years when I had felt that previously and had even interviewed with a handful of churches, but after those interviews I just didn't feel called to leave when I was serving.  All of those churches were larger than the one I was in, and several of them had much more growth potential than our rural church had, but I just didn't feel led to leave.  This time was different.  I knew my time there was over.  What I didn't know was what my next place of ministry would be.

About a year later the Executive Minister of our region called asking if I would be willing to serve part-time as an interim Area Minister.  The person in that position was leaving for another ministry.  It was anticipated that the search for a new person would take about a year, and they needed someone to serve during that interim period.  My duties would be limited since I was pastoring a church, but I would be able to do many of the tasks our Area Ministers were doing.  After taking a weekend to pray about it and discuss it with my wife I accepted.  Several months later the region began accepting applications, and I was told that I could submit one if I wanted to.  At the end of that search process I was selected for the position.

Submitting that application was a scary moment.  After serving the church for nearly 20 years I knew I could do that standing on my head.  I didn't know if I could do regional ministry.  I lacked the education and many of the experiences others on our staff had.  I could easily fail, but I also knew God was calling me to this new role, and I had to accept it.  Nearly 14 years later I am still serving in this ministry.

It was very difficult to announce my leaving to the church, but it was helpful to know that I was not leaving something; I was going to something.  The church was as healthy as it had been in decades.  We had a new fellowship building under construction that was being paid for in donations.  Our mission giving was strong.  There were no issues in the congregation.  I wasn't leaving problems; I was going to a new ministry that God had been preparing me for.

As you consider making a transition in your ministry ask yourself if you are leaving something or going to something.  If you are only wanting to leave, you may need to check your motives.  If you are going to something, you may be on the right track for making such a transition.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The necessity of vision

This past Saturday I finished teaching the course "Personal and Family Health" for our Church Leadership Institute.  This course examines how clergy and lay leaders can maintain balance in their personal and ministerial lives, enjoy a healthy family life, set and achieve goals, and live their lives and fulfill their ministries according to God's vision for both.  A significant portion of one class session was spent exploring the value of that vision and how to determine what that might be.

Anyone who has read my books knows the importance I place on vision.  In my workshops and classes I explain that a church without a common, unifying vision is like an octopus on roller skates.  There may be a lot of activity, but it's not likely you will go anywhere.  What's true of a church is true of any organization, family, or individual.

I am currently reading John Maxwell's latest book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership.  I recently came across what he has to say about vision in this book.  He writes:

Leaders without vision will fail.  Leaders who lack vision cannot inspire teams, motivate performance, or create sustainable value.  Poor vision, tunnel vision, vision that is fickle, or a non-existent vision will cause leaders to fail.  A leader's job is to align with the organization around a clear and achievable vision.  This cannot occur when the blind leads the blind.

That's about as straightforward as you can get.  Without a vision leaders will fail.  There's no maybe.  There's no perhaps.  Leaders will fail without a vision.  There may be some sporadic successes, some temporal gains, but in the long run a leader with no clear vision will not be successful.

Yet, I find few churches that have any vision that informs their ministry.  When I've asked a church if they have a vision some will produce a vision statement that some committee created in the past, but if I ask how that statement influences the ministries and programs they provide the vast majority of churches admit the vision is never considered when ministries and programs are discussed.  A vision statement is not a vision.

This lack of a clear, God-given vision that directs the decisions made in the church is one of the primary reasons why so many churches are struggling.  They may have full calendars and lots of activities, but at the end of the year there is little to show for all that activity.  Without vision there is a lack of focus, and without focus a church is just drifting along hoping something good comes out of all their activity.

If your church does not have such a vision I urge you to begin to discern what that might look like before you make your plans for 2015.  Having a vision is not a guarantee that your ministry will be successful in 2015, but not having one almost assures you that it will not be.  You may need to bring in outside help to lead your church in that discernment process, but do what you have to do to identify God's vision for your church.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What do the Republicans do now?

In the midst of all the excitement about the Republicans regaining control of the Senate and extending their control in the House some are now reminding anyone who will listen that their next challenge will be to govern.  No doubt, some of the voters selected candidates based upon their own frustration at the failures of those currently in office.  As a nation, we have grown tired of the stalemate that has existed for too many years, and it has hurt us economically, socially, militarily, and in nearly every other area of life.  Americans have selected new leadership, and the challenge for these individuals is to now lead our nation.

Relax, I'm not going to explain how that should happen or what it should look like.  We in ministry face the same challenge that these new Republicans face.  I still vividly recall that Sunday night in July 1981 when the impact of a church vote that morning hit me.  Following a trial sermon that morning the church voted unanimously to call me as their next pastor.  To say I was excited would have been an understatement.  I'm not sure I stopped smiling the rest of the day.  That night I laid down in the bed when suddenly I sat straight up.  The thought had just entered my mind, "Now that I've got them, what am I going to do with them?"  I had no pastoral experience and no education beyond high school at that time.  I knew God had called me into the ministry, but now I had a church and no real idea what to do next.

There are many serving as bivocational ministers in the same situation I was in.  Lacking experience and ministerial education we can quickly feel overwhelmed by all the responsibilities that goes along with being a pastor.  New ministers have no idea what it's like to prepare a new sermon (or two) every week.  We don't understand the administrative needs of even a small church and the amount of time we will give to those needs.  It can quickly get overwhelming when people start coming for advice or counseling.  We know we've been called to lead our church; it's just that we didn't know what that entailed and now we're not sure we can provide the leadership our church needs.

When a newly elected politician begins his or her term, it's important that they get the lay of the land.  They need to find out who the players are and how things really work in the political world.  Ministers need to take the same approach.  I did very little for the first few months except to spend time knowing the people and learning the history of the church.  My first business meeting was rough because I made a recommendation that was met with angry opposition.  Later I learned that people were not responding to me or even the recommendation I made; they were responding out of emotions my recommendation caused them to have.  There was a painful episode in the history of the church I did not know about, and that caused the reaction I received.  I knew after that night that I needed to spend some time learning more about the church's history and how things really worked in that church.

When these newly elected individuals go to Washington the wisest ones will begin spending time with some of the senior congressional leaders to learn more about how things operate.  Ministers should follow the same strategy.  I have been pastor of my church for only a few short months when I made an appointment with one of the older pastors in our association.  He had been in the ministry for a number of years and in his present church for much of that time.  I considered him a good pastor and knew I could learn much from his experiences.  I was right.  The afternoon I spent with him, and others, were very helpful as I began my own ministry.  I learned some things to avoid in ministry.  It was far better for me to learn these things through the mistakes they had made than to have to make those mistakes myself.

During the election I heard numerous complaints from politicians about how their opponents missed votes and committee meetings.  For the first few months you can almost guarantee that these newly elected officials will demonstrate how hard they are willing to work.  We in ministry must do the same only we can't do it just for the first few months we are at our post.  Ministry is hard work, and if a person isn't willing to work hard he or she should not consider ministry to be their calling.  The church I served was blue collar, and one of the things that helped me as a bivocational pastor was that everyone knew that every day I went to my factory job, worked an eight-hour shift, and came home and focused on ministry responsibilities.  Not once in that 20 year pastorate did anyone ever question my work ethic.  As the pastor, as a leader in your church, you must be willing to work harder than anyone else in your congregation.

While there is much debate over what mandate came out of this election I think it's safe to say that one mandate is that American people want to see results.  If these newly elected individuals do not produce tangible results they may find themselves replaced the next time they run for re-election.  When I became pastor of that small church it was broken in many ways.  Some thought it was time to close its doors.  After taking some time to know the people and the history we began tackling small challenges and seeing positive results.  Even small victories can make a big difference in how people perceive themselves.  Positive results led to people being willing to accept larger challenges, and when those produced positive results we took on even bigger challenges.  Not everything we attempted succeeded, but because we had already accomplished some good things these failures were just seen as setbacks.  Such victories are critical to the long-term success of a minister and the church being served.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A modern day parable on giving

It's been some time since I've seen this parable on giving, but my friend Terry Dorsett published it yesterday on his Facebook page.  I thought it was so good I needed to share it.

The treasurer of a congregation resigned. The church asked another to take his position, a man who managed a local grain elevator. He agreed, under two conditions:
1. That no report from the treasurer be given for one whole year.
2. That no one ask him any questions during this one year period.
The church gulped, but finally agreed, since he was a trusted man in the community, and well known because most of them did business with him as manager of the local grain elevator. At the end of the year he gave this report:
The indebtedness of $250,000 on the church was paid.
The minister’s salary had been increased.
The mission quota was paid 200%.
There were no outstanding bills.
There was a cash balance of $12,000.
Immediately a shocked congregation asked, “How can this be?”
Quietly, he answered, “Most of you bring your grain to my elevator. As you did business with me, I simply withheld ten percent on your behalf and gave it to the church in your name. You never missed it. Do you see what we could do for the Lord if we were willing to give the first tithe to God, who really owns it all anyway?”

Wow!  The average Christian gives less than three percent of his or her income to the church.  That's why I never believe a church when they tell me they don't have the money to do this or that.  Few churches truly have money problems.  Their problems are most often related to a lack of vision that challenges people to give and a failure to teach sound stewardship to the congregation.  The results in the above parable could be duplicated in nearly every church if the people were tithing.

Incidentally, Terry has an excellent book called Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church that I highly recommend for bivocational ministers and the churches they serve.  I think it is a very good resource to help these churches better organize themselves for ministry.