Friday, February 28, 2014

What can the church learn from Microsoft?

I read this week that Microsoft was cutting its prices for Windows 8 installs by 70 percent to makers of low end tablets and other devices.  The article said this was an attempt to recapture the market being lost to their competitors.  One would think if Windows 8 was everything Microsoft claimed it was when it was released their competitors would be scrambling to find ways to compete with Microsoft.  Of course, as those of us who purchased computers with Windows 8 learned, it is not a user-friendly system at all.  When one installs the newest version of Microsoft Office on Windows 8 the problems are compounded as many of the features we were used to using are no longer available or hidden so deeply in the program that only a computer tech can find them.

My laptop had XP installed, which I continue to believe was one of the best systems Microsoft offered.  I knew I needed to replace it before Microsoft stopped supporting XP.  My desktop was developing some issues and needed replaced.  After going through the Vista fiasco and never being comfortable with Windows 7 I had almost convinced myself it was time to join the Apple crowd.  I am comfortable with my I-Phone, my I-Pod, and my I-Pad so I felt I would probably make the switch to Macs with minimal difficulty.  My biggest concerns was that my co-workers all use PCs and I wasn't sure how much difficulty we would have exchanging files and I have all my books, presentations, and hundreds and hundreds of files in Office, and I was concerned that it would take a great deal of time to make them accessible on a Mac.  I was afraid of the time it would take to overcome my learning curve.  I'm now convinced it would have probably have been quicker than learning how to use Windows 8 and Office.  Unless Microsoft makes major, and I mean major improvements in their products, by the time I replace these computers they will have lost me as a customer.

What does all this have to do with churches?  In my opinion, Microsoft's problems stem from being completely disconnected from what their customers want.  When one does a Google search on the problems people have with Windows 8 and with the newer versions of Office one finds hundreds of complaints about the same issues, none of which Microsoft addresses.  I was looking for a solution to a problem I was having with Word, and I found hundreds of people asking for the same solution I was, and some of these dated back two and three years ago.  The problems have never been corrected.  Microsoft seems to take the attitude that their customers can just learn to deal with their disappointment in their products.  If we don't like their product they will just lower the cost to keep their products cheaper and attract new customers on price alone.

I find too many churches also disconnected from what people are seeking from church today.  I meet with many churches that claim they want to reach young people and families, and yet they do nothing that would be appealing to young people.  They do nothing with social media in an effort to connect with people who spend vast numbers of hours each week texting and tweeting.  When a church's worship service is exactly the same as it was 40 years ago it is not going to reach the 20-year-old of the 21st century.  I recently asked one church why they thought they could reach young people when they were not able to keep the ones they had.  No one had an answer.

The flip side is true also.  I have visited several churches that decided if they only installed a video system and sang contemporary music their problems would be resolved.  The problem is, everyone in the congregation was over 50 years of age.  They didn't know these songs, didn't want to sing these songs, and no one was able to effectively lead them in worship.  Worship is all about enabling people to connect with God in a way that is meaningful to them.  Singing words on a screen that is unfamiliar to a soundtrack that was designed to be a performance track is not likely to be effective in these churches.

If people cannot receive what they need from a church, they will seek out another one.  Or, if they can't find what they need they will stop looking.  This is why we see so many house churches appearing on the scene today.  Several well-known Christian writers and speakers have recently admitted they have left the traditional church scene and are connecting with other Christians in small groups to have their spiritual needs met.  Barna wrote a book in 2005 called Revolution in which he stated that "Eight out of every ten believers do not feel they have entered into the presence of God, or experienced a connection with Him, during the worship service."  As a result, Barna noted, growing numbers of people are looking elsewhere than the church to have their spiritual needs met.  What he wrote nine years ago is even more true today, and yet many churches are still not listening.

For years Microsoft has insisted on giving people what it wanted to provide and not listen to what people wanted.  Now, they are reducing their prices in an effort to compete in the marketplace.  Many of our churches have followed the same mindset, insisting on offering people what it believed people wanted without really listening and adapting to what people was seeking from the church.  For Microsoft and the local church, this is an attitude that will not be effective in the 21st century.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

What to consider when thinking about seminary

This concludes a three part series this week on funding a college and seminary education.  The reason for the posts is that many people leave seminary with large student debt, some as much as $60,000.00 or more.  This can be a tremendous burden on the minister and his or her family, and because church salaries are often lower than those of other professions this is a burden that the minister may have to carry for years.  It is far better to cash flow your education and avoid this debt.  The two previous posts looked into some ways to do that.  Today, we want to focus primarily on pursuing a seminary education.

Studies have told us for several years now that 50 percent of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years after graduating.  As I stated in a previous post, some of these probably leave the ministry due to finances.  However, I also think a strong argument could be made that perhaps some of these who leave the ministry so early should never have attended seminary in the first place.  Either they were never really called into the ministry and didn't realize that until after they completed their education and spent some time leading a church, or they were not emotionally and spiritually prepared to be a spiritual leader, or their training was inadequate.  A seminary education is expensive, both in dollars and time spent, and should not be pursued unless one is certain that he or she is called to do so.

Once one has determined that he or she should attend seminary the next questions have to do with which seminary and what degree to pursue.  It used to be that one automatically attended a seminary connected with one's denomination, but that is not always the case today.  It is far more important to me, at least, that I would attend a seminary that shared my basic theological beliefs that what historic denominational connection it might have.  That is not to say that a seminary education should not challenge and stretch one's beliefs.  After all, that is part of what an education is to do.  But, I also would not want to attend one that stretched my belief system so tight that it snapped!

I began my education by attending a Bible school that was fairly conservative.  One course I took was taught by a visiting professor who turned out to be rather liberal.  My initial reaction to the first class session was to drop the class, but I'm glad I didn't.  I learned a lot from that class, not so much about the content of the course, but how liberals think.  The class also caused me to question some of my beliefs about the course content as well and helped solidify my thinking on the subject.  Years later when I earned my master's and doctoral degrees I attended a very conservative seminary where some of my classes also challenged my thinking.  However, this time the challenge came because what was being taught was even more conservative in its thinking than I was.  Both schools stretched me, and I wouldn't trade my time at either school for anything.

The second thing to consider is the degree you will pursue.  For many years, the Master of Divinity was the degree.  Denominations based their ordination standards on having that degree.  Many churches would not consider someone who did not have their MDiv.  Except for those who knew they would be pursuing a ministry in music or education, the MDiv was about the only option for most people going into the ministry.  That is not the case today.  Many seminaries offer various master's programs in a variety of ministry related areas.  Most MDiv degrees require 90 hours while these MA programs require 45-60 hours in many cases.  This can result in greatly reducing the cost of a seminary degree.

As I've written elsewhere, in my opinion the MDiv is a good degree for someone planning on pursuing a PhD.  I'm not sure it is the best degree for everyone going into the ministry in the 21st century.  Be sure to hear me:  For some people it is the best degree, but I'm not convinced it is for everyone.  When I decided to earn my masters I chose a Master of Arts in Religion with a concentration in leadership.  As I looked at the various options this one seemed to best fit my spiritual gift mix and my ministry plans.  I especially think these other options are often a better fit for someone going into bivocational ministry.

Another advantage with many of these MA programs for ministers is that many of them can be earned entirely online.  The vast majority of seminaries only allow for 30 hours of an MDiv to be taken online thus requiring that the student take the other 60 hours on the campus.  Again, for some students this is not a problem, but for some it creates a challenge for them if they have to leave their work and/or church where they serve, uproot their families, and move to a new city.  I know that some will quickly argue that hundreds of thousands of persons who were called by God have made those sacrifices in the past, but let's also remember that some of them also traveled to seminary on horseback and in wagons.  Just because something has been done in the past doesn't necessarily make it the best option today, and in the 21st century there are other options.

If one is comfortable earning their seminary degree online there can be tremendous financial savings in doing so.  My MAR was a 45 hour degree program which automatically made it half the cost of the 90 hour MDiv.  All my classes were online so there were no travel costs or expenses for room and board.  I could take one course at a time if I wanted which made it easier to cash flow my seminary education.  Yes, it takes longer that way, but for someone who has more time than money it is a good trade-off.   I could do my work at times convenient for me which is another huge benefit for someone involved in bivocational ministry.

In summary, be wise when considering a seminary education.  If you feel led to pursue one, choose a good accredited seminary that will be a good fit with your core theological beliefs and yet will stretch your thinking as well.  Stay away from the diploma mills that will sell you a seminary degree.  Your goal should not be to get a degree but to get an education.  Decide which degree program is the best fit for your ministry plans and then decide whether you want to do it online or on-campus.  Finally, find a way to cash flow your seminary education even if it takes you longer to graduate.  Spending three or four extra years to get your education is far better than spending the next 20 years trying to pay off your student debt.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

More thoughts on financing your education wisely

Yesterday's post included some initial thoughts on educational loans and some ways to avoid them.  This is an especially important issue for those of us in ministry because, let's face it, most ministry positions will not pay enough to service large educational loans and allow one to meet other family obligations.  I am convinced that many ministers leave the ministry each year because financial issues have created such stress for their families that seeking other employment is seen as the only way out of their mess.  You can criticize that if you want and say that those of us called to ministry have a greater responsibility to that call, but the Scriptures speak harsh words to those who do not care for the needs of their families.  I've never had a debt waived because I was in the ministry.  When ministers struggle with financial issues it affects their ability to focus on ministry.  I am convinced we in leadership positions need to do more to address personal stewardship issues with those already in or those entering the ministry.

In my post yesterday I explained how I spread my education out over several years which allowed me to pay for it as I went.  I also benefitted from my employer's policy of paying the tuition for any course which might benefit them.  Many companies continue to have such a policy, and some are even more liberal than mine was.  Some will pay for any class regardless of how it might apply to the work you are currently doing.

Another way to reduce the cost of education is to look for less expensive alternatives.  The professor for an undergrad class I took on production management was retired from a major automobile manufacturer.  For many years he worked in the HR department.  He explained to us that they cared nothing about what degree a person had or where they earned it.  He said the only thing a college degree meant to them when hiring was that this was a person who was capable of learning.  Maybe a degree from some high dollar university might mean something to some people, but for most regular people it has very little value.  Going to an instate school is much less expensive and has the same value to most people who are seeking employment.  Starting your education at a community college can also save you a lot of money.  It is possible to take the first two years of required courses at a community college at a fraction of the cost of attending a university.  Just make sure this is a school whose credits will transfer to the university when you're ready to complete that degree.

Everything I'm saying also applies to when your children are ready for college.  Some parents get themselves, and their children, in financial trouble trying to send them to a school that is beyond their financial ability to cash flow.  There is nothing wrong with your children following the advice given above, working during school and the summers to help pay for their education, and cash flowing their education.  Your precious eighteen-year-old may want to attend the big party school across the country, but if they are depending on your financial assistance, that is not a choice they get to make.  You may have to be the adult here, but part of raising children is refusing to participate in their foolish decisions that will be harmful to their future.  Your child can get a quality education that will prepare them well for the future without going into debt and putting their family in financial distress.

Tomorrow I will discuss pursuing seminary education, a topic I've covered in previous posts, but it seems to be appropriate to include it in this discussion of financing education.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The challenge of getting a theological education today

One of the realities of education today is that it is expensive.  Tuition and other costs continue to rise.  I have met many pastors who left seminary with as much as $60,000.00 in student debt.  I wonder how many end up leaving the ministry after a few short years simply because they cannot service that debt and provide for their families.

In addition to the cost factor, for those of us serving in bivocational roles finding the time to pursue an education can be another challenge.  It is just not feasible for a bivocational minister with a family to quit his or her job, leave the church being served, move to a seminary setting, and pursue a theological education.  That is not to say that God does not call some people to do that, but for many of us it does not seem to be a logical step.  Increasing numbers of seminaries and universities offer online studies that do not require the student to be on campus except for brief periods of time.  At this time there are few MDiv programs that can be completed entirely online, but there are other theological degrees that can be done online that may be even more appropriate for some of us in ministry.  I did a Masters of Arts in Religion online and only had to attend one intensive on campus because they did not yet have it ready for online studies.

Liberty University has a large number of online students pursuing both undergraduate and graduate degrees.  That is where I earned my Masters and my Doctorate.  Campbellsville University offers a MTh that can be completed online and also has a Certificate program specially designed for bivocational ministers that is offered online.  If the student completes the certificate program and wishes to enroll in their university all the credits from the certificate program will transfer.  Numerous other schools have similar online programs, so that can offer a great option for the minister who wishes to seek more education.  However, that still does not address the cost issue.

The Bible teaches that the borrower is slave to the lender, and it does not make an exception if the money borrowed was for education.  I frequently listen to Dave Ramsey podcasts and many of the callers to his program are struggling with student debt.  Ministers have enough challenges without having the additional challenge of debt and especially student debt.  The student loan program was probably started with the best of intentions, making education available to anyone who wanted it, but it has developed into something that creates huge problems even years after one graduates.  It also directed people away from the way education used to be paid for, and that was paying for it as you went.  Is it possible to cash flow education today?  Yes, if we're smart about how we approach it.

As many of you know from my books, when I began my pastoral ministry I had no education beyond high school.  After a couple of years I decided my ministry would always be limited by my lack of education so I enrolled in a Bible school.  I was working full-time, pastoring a church, and caring for a family.   Because I could only attend on a part-time basis it took me four years to complete their two year program.  I felt I gained so much from what I learned that I enrolled in a university as a part-time student.  It took seven more years to earn my bachelor's degree, but it also allowed me to cash flow my education.

This also allowed something else to happen that enabled me to earn my degree with no debt.  My employer paid for most of my tuition.  The company's policy was to pay the tuition for any class that could be seen as potentially helpful to the company, and very few of my classes did not meet that criteria.  My only costs was for travel and books.  Some companies will pay for any class, no questions asked.  This is a great way to have your education paid for.

Some will read this and say they don't want to spend eleven years getting their education.  I suppose they would rather go off to school, rack up a ton of student load debt, and spend the next twenty years paying it off.  My story may not be for everyone, but it will allow anyone to get an education who wants one, and without debt.  Even if you don't work for a company that will pay for education, you can attend school part-time, take the classes you can afford to pay for, and complete your education debt-free.

We'll continue this discussion tomorrow.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Is your church ready for the future of worship services?

Church Service of the Future 
PASTOR: "Praise the Lord!"
CONGREGATION: "Hallelujah!"
PASTOR: "Can we please turn on our tablet, PC, iPad, cellphone, and Kindle Bibles to 1 Cor 13:13. And please switch on your Bluetooth to download the sermon."
"Now, Let us pray, committing this week into God's hands. Open your Apps, BBM, Twitter and Facebook and chat with God..."  
"As we take our Sunday tithes and offering... Please have your credit and debit cards ready." "You can log on to the church Wi-fi using the password Lord909887." Ushers circulate mobile card swipe machines among the worshipers: *Those who prefer to make electronic funds transfers are directed to computers and laptops at the rear of the church. *Those who prefer to use iPads flip them open. *Those who prefer telephone banking, take out your cellphones to transfer your contributions to the church account. The holy atmosphere of the Church becomes truly electrified as ALL the cellphones, iPads, PCs and laptops beep and flicker!  
Final Blessing and Closing Announcements... *This week's ministry cell meetings will be held on the various Facebook group pages where the usual group chatting takes place. Please log in and don't miss out. *Thursday's Bible study will be held live on Skype at 1900hrs GMT. Please don't miss out. *You can follow your Pastor on Twitter this weekend for counseling and prayers.

I recently received this in an e-mail and thought it was too funny not to share.  I can't find the original author so I can't give proper credit, but he or she might be on to something.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reading is essential for anyone in leadership

A couple of weeks ago I was telling a group that it was time for me to start downsizing my library.  My bookshelves are packed, and I refuse to buy any more.  Besides, seven bookshelves are all that will fit in my study.  I am at a stage in my life and ministry that I really need to decide what to do with my books, and especially those that really don't fit in that well with my current ministry.  Of course, every time I decide to get rid of some I begin to think but I might need that book one of these days!  Of course, I'm not sure how serious I am about wanting to downsize my library anyway...I went to the bookstore and bought five more books this week to add to the stack of unread books.  I can't help myself!  I...must...have...books! 

Very early in life I developed a love for reading.  We only went to town about once a week when I was growing up, but nearly every trip included a visit to the library for me to pick up a couple of books to read.  My passion for reading has served me well through the years especially after I became a pastor.  As I've written in previous posts on this blog, leaders are readers, and I cannot see how I could possibly have served in the leadership roles I've had without the reading I've done that has given me the insights I've needed to be successful in these roles.

One book I am currently reading is Hacking Leadership: The 11 Gaps Every Business Needs to Close and the Secrets to Closing Them Quickly by Mike Myatt.  Although it is written primarily for business leaders, much of what he writes is applicable to ministry leaders as well.  In one section he discusses some interesting facts about the reading of books.  Some of what he writes is
  • The average American reads only one book a year, and 60 percent of average Americans only get through the first chapter.
  • CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read an average of four to five books a month.
  • Active readers are likely to have annual incomes more than five times greater that those who spend little or no time reading.
  • Until a few years ago Rick Warren read a book every single day, and Teddy Roosevelt was rumored to have read two books a day.  This is not uncommon among some of the most effective leaders throughout history.
For many years I have averaged reading one book a week.  Very few of those were fiction.  Most were books on some aspect of ministry, leadership, or business.   Each year there are usually a few books on political issues or historical events added to the mix, and last year I added a couple of military history books that looked interesting.   I am an active reader, and what I mean by that is I mark up the books I read, I write in the margins, and the material that is highlighted is filed away on my computer for future reference.

Reading is not optional for the leader.  It is not something you do when you're bored or can't find anything else to do.  Reading is so important that leaders set aside time to read.  When I was working on my doctorate I sat aside chunks of time on my calendar for reading and writing, and leaders must do that if they want to stay current with their reading.  All of us make time for the things that are really important, and I believe reading is that important.

Myatt states in the book, "If you're not learning, you have no business leading."  He then asks, "How can you possibly be expected to grow an organization if you're not growing yourself?"  I think it's a great question.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Developing teams in the bivocational church

Over the past few years I have officially coached several bivocational ministers and worked with dozens of others.  At some point in those coaching relationships the problem of time has always come up.  I have yet to meet a bivocational minister who doesn't struggle with finding the time to accomplish everything he or she needs to do.  I've tried to address this in several of my books, and especially in The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.  I also talk about it in a couple of the workshops I lead for bivocational and small church ministers.  While there are several things that can be done to help ease the stress of time pressures, one of the best ways to address it is by developing teams in the church to handle some of the ministry tasks that too many of us in bivocational ministry try to do ourselves.

When I began my ministry I really believed that I had to touch everything that happened in the church.  I was young and a self-admitted workaholic so that wasn't a problem for the first few years, but it eventually caught up to me.  I was close to burning out.  I was diagnosed with clinical depression that was due in large part to pastoring a church, working a full time job in a factory, attending a Bible school, and trying to meet the needs of a wife and two children.  When I write or talk about the dangers of living an unbalanced life it comes from my own personal experience.

At an annual meeting of our region I sought out my judicatory leader and told him of my struggles.  He explained that much of my problem was that I was trying to be the church.  I was doing it all.  He went on to say that I was also depriving the congregation of the opportunity for them to be the church.  He helped me understand I was cheating them out of the privilege of doing ministry.  The next week I shared with our congregation what I was going through and my conversation with this leader.  I also announced some changes in how I would serve as their pastor.  One of my challenges at that point was that I didn't know how to do anything other than what I had been doing.  It was a learning curve for me as well as for the church.

A resource I wish I had back then is a great book written by someone who is as committed to bivocational ministry as I am.  Terry Dorsett has written a book called Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church.  Bivocational ministers do not have to do everything in the church, and we shouldn't.  Our biblical role as explained in Ephesians 4 is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.  Terry's book is one of the best I have found to help the pastor identify and train the various teams that a particular church might need.  He provides worksheets for both the pastor and the students to use as their work on various ministry roles in the church.  Evaluation forms are also provided so it can be determined how helpful the training was in these various roles.  This is an excellent resource that should be in the library of every bivocational minister, but don't just put it on your library shelf.  This is a resource that is to be used over and over again to continuously be training people how they can use the gifts God has given them to serve both him and others around them.

John Maxwell has a saying that "Teamwork makes the dream work."  I think that's true.  Most of us went into bivocational ministry because we sensed God was calling us to do so.  We began our ministries with wonderful dreams of making a difference for God.  However, for too many of us those dreams turned into nightmares as we allowed ourselves to become over-extended.  If we want to see those original dreams accomplished we need to invest ourselves into developing and training teams in our churches that will allow us to enjoy far more ministerial success than if we try to do everything ourselves.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A radical thought about ministers and salaries

I read a blog post over the weekend that challenged business owners to charge what their services or products are really worth instead of always low-balling to get the business.  The article especially singled out consultants, speakers, coaches, marketing people, and web designers.  The blog writer pointed out that sometimes large corporations will choose a higher priced marketing group or speaker over one who charges less simply because they believe the higher price must indicate a higher quality of service.  Small business owners often struggle with knowing what to charge because if they charge too much they fear they won't get any business, and if they charge too little they run the risk of not making a profit, and without a profit they won't be in business very long.  It truly is a balancing act.  The article was an interesting read, but I couldn't help but begin to think of how this plays out too often in the church world as well.

When I was in pastoral ministry I interviewed with a few churches who were seeking a new pastor.  I never went to any of those churches believing after the interviews that God was calling me to remain in my present church.  As a judicatory leader I have worked with dozens of pastor search committees.  In virtually every case, the deciding factor for the church was whether or not the candidate was willing to come for the salary and benefit package they offered.  Most churches did inquire about the candidate's theology, education, and other aspects of his or her life, but regardless of how qualified a candidate might have been, if he or she could not accept the financial package the committee continued to look elsewhere.  In some cases, the minister accepted the package knowing that is was not sufficient to meet his or her family's needs which usually created problems within a year or two after arriving at the church.

The thought I had after reading the blog post mentioned above was what would happen if pastors begin to insist that churches pay them a salary and benefit package commensurate with their education and experience and refused to continue to subsidize the poor level of stewardship found in many of these churches?  We all know of many churches who continue to fool themselves into believing they have a fully-funded pastor even though if the pastor's spouse did not work and provide income and insurance that their pastor could not continue to serve there.  As I have worked with some of these churches in their search for a pastor I have challenged them on this.  I must admit it makes for an uncomfortable discussion, but I think it is one that needs to happen in many of our churches.

Pastors are often their own worst enemy when it comes to advocating for a decent salary.  A few years ago a pastor asked me to stop referring to full-time pastors as fully-funded.  He felt it was improper because he did not feel his church paid him a sufficient salary for him to be fully-funded.  He wanted me to return to the old titles of full-time and part-time instead of fully-funded and bivocational.  I told him I would not demean bivocational ministers by calling them part-time ministers, and if he didn't think his church was paying him a decent salary then he needed to talk to the church about that.  That conversation never happened.

I understand the reluctance of pastors wanting to talk to their churches about their salary.  In many churches the pastor is not even allowed to be in the room when the finance committee discusses this as a part of their budget proposal, and often the pastor must leave the business meeting when the budget is voted on.  That was my experience, and I always felt it was a shame that grown Christian people had to resort to secrecy when it came to any discussion about the pastor's salary.  Complaining too much about one's salary can lead one to be unemployed, but there are other ways to make a living that would also provide opportunities to minister to others.  If these churches were challenged often enough maybe they would begin to realize they need to do something different than they've been doing. 

The Bible is clear that a workman is worthy of his hire.  Maybe it's time denominational leaders begin to be more assertive when it comes to what churches pay their ministers.  I understand some denominations do have certain guidelines their churches must follow, but in most congregational churches it is up to the congregation to determine the salary and benefit package for their ministers.  Still, there are some things that denominations can do to make pastoral salaries more equitable, and this is something that needs to be explored.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Every week has a Sunday

One of the pressures of pastoral ministry is the knowledge that every Sunday the minister must be prepared with a sermon.  For those churches that still have Sunday night services and a mid-week service that means the minister is often expected to prepare three messages every week.  Assuming four weeks vacation each year (which many don't get) that is 144 messages a year.  It's no wonder many pastors feel the pressure of message preparation.  I am convinced that one reason many pastors do not remain at one church for more than 3-4 years is that they can take their "sermon barrel" with them to the next church and reduce the stress of sermon preparation.  However, I believe there are better ways to address this.

Sermon planning can help reduce the stress of sermon preparation.  As a bivocational pastor I soon learned that it was time well spent to think ahead about the messages I needed to bring to our congregation.  There are few feelings worse for a minister to arrive at Saturday night and not even know what you are going to preach the next morning.  By planning ahead the minister can use the time he or she has for the actual preparation of the message.  My planning would include both single messages and sermon series.  Each year I would preach through a book of the Bible, so the text gave me the theme of the message.  It was then my job to put meat on that skeleton.  In my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry I go into detail about how I planned out my sermons in advance.

The actual preparation of the sermon is made easier with a good library and a good filing system.  As I visit with pastors I am often shocked at how bare their libraries are.  I've wondered more than once how they were able to prepare sound messages with the resources they had available to them.  I know books are expensive.  Believe me, I've bought plenty, but it's important to look at them as an investment in your ministry and not just as an expense.  There are now some very good Bible study software programs available with excellent resources that are much less expensive than purchasing books.  For those ministers who are tech savvy this may be a good option.  But, the best library in the world is of little use if you do not have a good filing system so you can find the material you need for a particular sermon.  One of the biggest time wasters in sermon preparation is in trying to find something that you remember reading in some book or publication.  Again, in the book I mentioned above I describe the filing system I began using in the mid-1980s and continue to use today.  It might work for you as well. 

Many churches expect their pastor to deliver all the messages, but that may not be a realistic expectation.  Sometimes the minister puts that expectation on himself or herself.  There are other options that can sometimes be helpful to relieve some of the stress of preparing sermons.  As a pastor I would occasionally show a video on Sunday night.  Twice our church bought a series of videos that focused on some of the significant sites in the Holy Land.  Our people enjoyed viewing these sites and learning more about their importance to the biblical story.

Two of our lay leaders filled the pulpit for me when I was away on vacation.  Later, two other lay leaders accepted the challenge of delivering a sermon.  Each of these individuals did an excellent job, and our people enjoyed their messages.  It was obvious they put a lot of work in their preparation, and it was enjoyable for me to be able to not have to prepare a message that week.

Preaching creates a stress for ministers that will never go away, but here are some simple solutions to help ease some of that stress.  I always found preaching to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of ministry, but it's enjoyable only when you are able to reduce the stress that often comes with it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Making tough decisions when it's time to change

A number of years ago I mailed a publication to a couple of hundred bivocational ministers and judicatory leaders.  That ended when I began sending a monthly e-newsletter to hundreds of bivocational ministers and others around the world.  The e-newsletter was quicker to publish and send and less costly.  It allowed me to touch far more persons interested in this ministry that the quarterly paper I was mailing out.  A few years ago I found it was taking a lot of my time to keep up with the e-mail address changes that my recipients had.  I had began writing this blog, so I made the decision to replace that monthly e-newsletter with blog posts that I could do 4-5 days a week.  I had no real way of knowing how many people actually read the e-newsletter, and this way people could either follow the blog or not.  Far fewer follow the blog than received the e-newsletter which leads me to believe that a lot of the time I spent trying to keep up with address changes was not time well spent.

During all these transitions I also maintained a website.  In recent years it became more difficult to keep that site current, especially with the time I spent writing my blog posts.  Even though the site did not generate enough book sales to pay for itself, I still struggled with closing the site.  This year I finally pulled the plug on the site and went off line this week.

I have to admit I struggled to make the decision to do that.  For some reason I really felt it was important to have that site, but at the same time I recognize that things change.  It can be a challenge some weeks to write 4-5 posts for this blog.  It became an even greater challenge to put fresh material on the website when I was committed to posting on this site.  Without fresh material a web site soon stops attracting people.  I believe this blog is a far more effective tool to help church leaders and bivocational ministers than the web site so I am convinced I made the right decision to let it go.

Isn't that the struggle we often have in our churches?  We've done something for so long that used to be much more effective than it is today but we find it difficult to let it go when it stops being effective.  I've often told small church leaders that their churches will enjoy a much more productive ministry when they realize they can accomplish more by doing less.  Yet, we often find it difficult to let go of some of those things that have become more of a hindrance that a help.  In some cases those sacred cows have become idols that must be preserved and honored even if doing so limits our ministries.

Change is not easy.  Letting go is not easy.  But...neither is being stuck.  Our churches need to take a serious look at everything they are doing and ask the tough questions.  Are these things still producing the results they once produced?  If we never did this again, would it make any real difference in the life of our church?  If Jesus came back today would we want him finding us doing these things?  Is what we are doing today worth the life of the Son of God?

These are tough questions, but they are important questions churches need to be asking.  We often forget that most of the things we are doing today once replaced something else that was no longer working.  Maybe it's time the replacements are replaced with something that will be more effective in the 21st century. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Investing in yourself

One of my core values is to be a life-long learner.  That is the reason I pursued a master's and doctoral degree at an age when many people are thinking about retirement.  It is also the reason I try to read so many books and blogs.  I cannot understand why so many high school and college graduates never read a book once they graduate from school and why so many people are not interested in personal growth.  We have been told for years that the average person uses only about 10 percent of his or her abilities.  What could change in a person's life if he or she decided to tap into some of that remaining 90 percent?  Most of us will go to great lengths to plan a one-week vacation and yet many will spend virtually no time developing a plan for personal growth.

Investing in ourselves is the one investment that can not be taken from us.  Financial investments can be lost overnight if the market changes or if someone cheats us through some fraudulent act.  We can spend years at a job only to see it moved to another country or eliminated because of technology or a takeover from another company.  Virtually everything that people try to accumulate can be gone in moments, but the one thing that can never be taken from us is any investment we've made in ourselves.

If you are a minister reading this post there are so many things that one can learn about ministry.  I would love to have the opportunity to relive the twenty years I spent as the pastor at Hebron Baptist Church with the knowledge I have now about ministry that I did not have back when I was the pastor there.  My ministry would look so much different, and I know it would have a positive impact on the life and ministry of the church.  If you are a leader in any organization, there is so much new information on leadership that if you are not growing personally your organization is operating far short of its capacity.  Even if you are not currently a leader, an investment in yourself is the way that you can create and enjoy a better life for yourself and your family.

In my opinion, one of the most important books John Maxwell has written recently is The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential.  Again, this is only my opinion, but I believe out of all the books he has written (and I have most of them) this is his second most important book only behind The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (10th Anniversary Edition).  The reason I feel so strongly about his book on the 15 laws of growth is because he describes so clearly what one must do in order to grow as an individual.

One of the laws he discusses is the Law of the Rubber Band.  He notes that rubber bands are useful only when they are stretched.  Pursuing personal growth will always stretch us, but it is only when we are stretched that we become useful.  Too many of us are satisfied with the status quo.  We are satisfied with being average.  In the chapter Maxwell provides a description of average, and one of the items in that description says, ""Average is the top of the bottom, the best of the worst, the bottom of the top, the worst of the best.  Which of these are you?"  Looking at it this way, average doesn't seem so great after all, does it?

Yet, we shy away from being stretched.  Our churches claim they want to grow, but they don't want to be stretched.  Businesses talk about wanting to grow, but they are often averse to doing anything that might stretch them and take them away from their comfort zone.  As leaders, we should want to be growing if we want to lead growing organizations, but many of us avoid anything that would stretch us.  We won't take a class or read a book or meet with a mentor or do anything that might be uncomfortable even if it would promote personal growth.

This is the second time I've read this book, and I found new insights that I had missed in my first reading.  I made several new highlights in the book during my second reading.  For any leader serious about wanting to grow I think this is a must read.  At the very least it will give you some specific areas in which each of us should grow and some direction for how growth can occur in those areas.  As leaders, we must invest in ourselves if we want to effectively lead our churches and other organizations.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Being grateful

My Internet just came back on this morning after being down for two days following a snow and ice storm.  We've been driving my wife's garage-kept car while my two outside vehicles sat under a sheet of ice.  Yesterday, I took an ice pick to open the doors so I could start them and begin clearing the windows.  I have do doubt that the ice was the reason our Internet went down.

For me, it's frustrating to be without Internet.  So much of what I do is on-line so a lot of the things I wanted to do was on hold.  I've now got a ton of e-mails to answer, and it's no telling how many millions of dollars I've lost from being unable to respond to my good friends in Nigeria who want to share their wealth with me.  However, as I went to bed last night my prayer was one of gratitude.

Our son has been without power for three days.  Our electricity and heat has never been off.  I thanked God we are in a warm house with food to eat.  I heard last night a friend was recently diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live.  Hospice has been called in.  My family and I enjoy good health.  These storms were the cause of numerous accidents which at the minimum created problems in people's lives, and in some cases took people's lives.  We have been safe as we've traveled the roads.  There is so much pain and heartache in so many marriages.  I thanked God for a wife who has been a joy and blessing to me for nearly 48 years.  Rather than asking God for things last night I simply spent some time thanking him for everything we already have.

During my twenty year pastorate there were times when I was frustrated with things that occurred at the church.  More than once I considered leaving, but then I would look around at what was happening in some other churches.  That was often enough to cause me to stop complaining and begin thanking God for the people he had given me, and for the ones he didn't!  Our church may not have been everything I wish it was, but it was a blessing to serve there for two decades.  Although I do not question my call to the ministry I have now, there are times when I miss serving as the pastor of that church.  My ministry there is one of the greatest joys in my life.

I recently told a young person who was making bad choices in life that one of his problems was that he was not grateful for what he had.  I began to describe some things that could have happened in his life and did not because of the family and support he had.  That lack of gratitude is not limited to young people but can infect anyone regardless of age.  Society does a good job of creating a sense of entitlement that causes us to want more than we've got and makes us dissatisfied with the things we do have.  That's why people will stand in line overnight to buy a new cell phone to replace the one they bought last year.  It's also why too many pastors never unbox all their possessions when they move to a new church.  They are always on the lookout for the next church or ministry rather than being grateful for the one they have.

The next time you are complaining about rather insignificant inconveniences in your life take a walk through a children's hospital.  Spend a week on a mission trip to Haiti as I have done.  Talk to someone who has a missing child.  Visit a hospice facility.  After doing even one of these things compare your inconvenience to the situations others live with every day of their lives.  If that doesn't help you become grateful for all you have something is seriously wrong.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You need to be willing to create your own circumstances

In 1980 I told our church I felt God was calling me to pastoral ministry.  The church licensed me to the ministry, and I began preaching at various churches in the area.  I would preach in any church regardless of denominational or independent affiliation.  One church asked me to serve as their interim pastor while they searched for a pastor, and I spent five months at that church in that role.  When that ministry ended I went a long time between preaching opportunities.  Finally, I decided if I wasn't being asked to preach anywhere I would create my own preaching opportunity. 

A friend of mine and I rented a building at the local fairgrounds and began to advertise a revival would be held there a month later.  We contacted some local gospel singing groups who agreed to provide special music.  We found someone to lead worship.  He and I divided the six nights with each of us preaching three of them.   I thought about that this weekend as I was re-reading John Maxwell's book, The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential.  This is a great book that I read two years ago and felt led to begin re-reading last week.  Maxwell writes "You cannot win if you do not begin!  The people who get ahead in the world are the ones who look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, they make them."  Two weeks after the revival Hebron Baptist Church called me to be their pastor, and I stayed there twenty years.  Some of the people from that church attended those revival services, and I've often wondered if that played a role in my being called to that church.

Too often those of us in leadership are waiting for the right circumstances to occur so we can move forward.  There is a time to wait, but there is also a time to take action and create your own circumstances.  A dear friend who attended the church I pastored often said, "God promised to feed the birds in the air, but he never promised to throw the food into their nests."  Sometimes we have to create our own opportunities if we want to move forward.

I recently did that again.  One year ago I received an auctioneer's license.  I enjoy going to auctions and decided to take classes so I could take the exam that would allow me to get my license.  All last year I would run ads in the paper offering my services, and no one called asking me to have an auction for them.  In late December I rented a building in our community and began advertising that I was going to have an auction.  I ended up having nine people contact me asking me to sell items for them.  The auction lasted four hours, which is a good time for an auction, and we had some excellent merchandise.  After the sale a buyer there told me that he had items he would like me to sell at my next auction, and my sellers have said they want me to call them when I have my next sale.  I could sit around and wait for someone to call or I could take action and create the opportunity I wanted to have happen.  I decided to do the latter, and it's worked out.

What are you wanting to see happen in your life or ministry?  While it's important to wait for God's timing there is also the danger of failing to act.  Sometimes opportunity comes disguised as hard work, sometimes it comes disguised as risk, and sometimes it doesn't come at all until you create it yourself.  What would have happened if we had rented a building for a revival and no one came?  I don't know because we rented a building, and people did come.  What would have happened if I rented a building for an auction and no one asked me to sell things for them?  I don't know because I rented a building and nine people contacted me wanting me to sell for them.

Maxwell is can't win if you don't begin.  Let's stop sitting around moaning "If only...."  Take the initiative and make something good happen in your church or in your family or in your organization.  Make something good happen in your own personal life.  If you're not sure how to begin to make that happen I strongly suggest you read Maxwell's book.  Like me, you'll probably find one time reading it is not enough.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Worship with The Freedom Quartet

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Switzerland Baptist Church in Vevay, Indiana where the Freedom Quartet was leading worship.  I first became acquainted with this group a few years ago when they were a trio.  After some personnel changes they have become a Southern Gospel Quartet that is one of the most talented I have ever heard.  John Rulapaugh, who has become a friend of mine over the years we have known each other, sings tenor.  Burman Porter sings bass.  Dale Shipley is their lead singer, and Preston Garner sings baritone.  If you are familiar with Southern Gospel music these are names that will be familiar to you as these individuals have sung with some of the top groups in the country.

Those who know me know that I dearly enjoy Southern Gospel music.  For many years my wife and I had permanent seats at the annual Southern Gospel Quartet Convention.  That gave me the opportunity to hear the top groups in the nation many times, and I will tell you that the Freedom Quartet is as good as any I have heard.   I enjoyed them as a trio, but I believe they are even better as a quartet.

However, talent only goes so far when it comes to ministry.  For me, the thing that sets this group apart from many others is that when they are on stage they do more than just perform; they lead the audience in worship.  Yes, they are talented.  Yes, they are entertaining.  But, more important than either of those two is that they lead people in worship.  There are many talented, entertaining groups out there, but not all of them will lead you in worship.  Freedom Quartet leads worship.  I left the service yesterday feeling like I had been taken into the presence of God.

By now, some of you may be wondering if I am now their booking agent.  I can assure you I am not.  I do not receive one dime from any bookings they get.  They don't need me to try to drum up business for them.  I just believe when we find something good we should share it with others.  I had a great time of worship yesterday with some real fine folks from Tennessee.

If you would like to schedule them for a worship service or some other event you are hosting, you can get more information at