Monday, March 31, 2014

Let's not ignore the rural church

In recent months I've read numerous blog posts and articles about the new church planting strategy of many denominations.  That strategy focuses on large urban areas in an effort to reach the largest numbers of people.  As more and more people are moving to the large cities it just makes sense that denominations will focus their church planting efforts and resources on those cities.  The problem with this strategy is that it ignores the rural areas and small towns that dot our nation's countryside and acts as if the people who live in those places are inconsequential to the Kingdom of God.  As you might imagine, I don't agree with that at all.

Sixty percent of all Protestant churches in America average 60 people or less on Sunday morning.  Many people look at these churches as dead or dying with little to offer, and for too many of these churches this is true.  But, there are other ways of looking at many of these churches.  They are well positioned to have an impact on the lives of people far larger than their size might indicate.  The missing element in these churches has often been a lack of good, long-term leadership and a lack of any kind of God-given vision for ministry.  Without these two things most churches will drift along without purpose or impact including the smaller, rural churches that too many want to write off today.

Studies have demonstrated for several years that many pastors refuse to serve in such churches.  For numerous reasons seminary trained pastors view these churches as beneath them.  They do not offer the facilities, the opportunities, the prestige, and, let's admit it, the salaries and benefits these pastors are seeking.  When the smaller, rural church comes calling they can spiritualize their reasons for refusing to go there, but in reality they often never really gave that potential call any real consideration.  Denominational leaders do not encourage their better pastors to consider these churches either, and in fact may discourage them from going to such churches as it could harm the pastor's opportunities for further advancement in ministry.

As the pastor of a small, rural church for twenty years and now a judicatory leader for the past thirteen years I have seen the problems and potential of smaller churches up close and personal.  I have seen the problems that result from inadequate leadership and the absence of vision, and I have seen the amazing potential some of these churches have achieved when both good leadership and vision were present.  I know of churches sitting in the middle of corn fields that continue to experience amazing growth year after year.  To ignore the possibilities that exist in the rural and small town communities is a mistake.

I've begun reading Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O'Dell.  It tells the story of his reluctance to accept a call to a small, rural church in which he saw few possibilities and how that church has now grown to become a multi-campus church of several thousand people with national and global outreach.  I've only started the book, but so far it has been a fascinating story of challenges, resistance, and reluctant change on the part of the congregation.  I'm looking forward to reading of the obvious breakthroughs that allowed such a transformation of that church to occur.

Do I believe every small church can accomplish what O'Dell's congregation has achieved?  No, and perhaps that demonstrates a lack of faith on my part.  What I do believe is that many of the smaller churches found in rural and small town communities can transform into significant ministries in their communities in accordance to the plans that God has for each church.  I also believe that serving in these churches is a worthy calling of God on a person's life that should not be ignored just because it appears to be an insignificant ministry, and I further believe that denominations must not ignore these churches either.  Put resources into planting new churches in the larger cities if you choose, but if denominations continue to ignore the possibilities many of their smaller churches offer they will find that God will do an end-run around those denominations and raise up ministries in those churches they did not believe possible.  When that happens, those denominations that ignored their smaller churches for decades should not be surprised when these churches ignore them in the future.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

At what point is survival not enough?

One of the few questions the pastor search committee of the church that later called me asked was if I thought there was any hope for their church.  I should have followed that question with several of my own about the situation in that church, but I was too na├»ve to do so.  Only later did I learn that when the previous pastor resigned the church had discussed closing.  They decided to try one more pastor, and I was it.  I was there for twenty years, and the church is still doing well today.

However, today this is a question that many churches are asking.  Even if the question is not asked aloud some in the church are wondering if there is any future for their church.  I hear the question behind some of the responses I receive when assisting churches with their pastoral search.  I hear it when I visit with pastors and lay leaders.  The question is most evident when the church is clearly operating out of a survival mode.  I hurt for those churches that struggle with the fears that their church may not be there much longer, but I also believe that is not the question some of them should be asking.

A better question might be, "Has God called us to merely survive and keep the doors open as long as possible?"  We have many churches that are surviving only because faithful people in the past gave sacrificially and the church was able to put money into saving, but some of these churches are burning through those savings at a rapid rate.  How is that biblical stewardship?  Many of these churches are probably hoping for a last minute miracle that will keep their doors open, and if that miracle doesn't happen they will finally lock the doors for the last time when their endowments and savings run out.  Is that the best we can do with God's resources?

Would it not be better to give those resources, including the property, to a ministry that is doing good ministry in the community?  I know people have deep connections to their churches, and nobody wants to see a church close, but there comes a time when mere survival isn't enough.  If there is no vision for ministry, if there is no one left in the church with a passion for the unchurched that leads them to action, if there are no real leaders in a church, then it is time for that church to accept that its time has passed.  God is always raising up new ministries to replace those that are not longer on mission with him, and the most responsible thing some churches could do would be to provide whatever resources they have remaining to these new ministries.

This is not only for churches.  As I look at what is happening in many judicatories and denominations, I'm convinced that some of them are going to have to make hard choices in the future.  A couple of years ago I was scheduled to lead a small church conference for a United Methodist district.  A couple of months before the conference I was informed it was cancelled due to that district having been merged into another district.  This same thing is happening in other denominations as well, and I believe we will see this increase in the near future.  Many judicatory and denominational bodies have seen significant declines in financial support since the recent recession, and no one really expects that to improve any time soon.  Many of these groups have reduced staff and services, some to the point of offering very little support to their churches.  Maybe its time that these bodies face some tough facts and think about merging with other districts, regions, or conventions.

This is not admitting failure or defeat.  It is recognizing that the religious landscape has changed in America.  People expect different things from the church, and not every church can meet those expectations.  The role of denominations are changing as well, and not every denominational body will find it easy to adapt to those changes.  For churches, judicatories, and denominations to continue to operate as usual while depleting their finances and providing little, if any, real ministry to their constituents is wrong.  As leaders of these organizations we must realize we are accountable to God for our stewardship and refuse to settle for mere survival.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Church Leadership Institute

Several years ago the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky began to seek a new way of developing leaders in our churches.  After about a year of studying similar programs we developed a two-year study we called the Church Leadership Institute (CLI) and began the first class.  Our goal was to have ten people in our first class.  Thirty-two enrolled, and we have never looked back.

The primary purpose was to train lay leaders for our churches, but as the first class began to work its way through the program they started asking what was available for them when they finished their studies.  The development team decided to add a second level which would also be for lay leaders but could provide training for persons serving in bivocational churches who may not have a seminary education.  The first level consists of eight courses which can be completed in two years, and the second level is an additional five courses which requires a third year to complete.  Each course consists of four classes held on Saturdays over a two month period.

By any measurement, CLI has been a success for our region.  Dozens of students have completed either the two or three year programs.  Several of them are now serving as bivocational ministers in our region, and the rest are providing exceptional leadership to their churches in various capacities.  These students have received an education that could not be offered in most local churches by qualified instructors who hold advanced degrees in the fields they are teaching and/or have experience in those areas.

Due to the generosity of Franklin College all our classes have been offered on their beautiful campus until last year.  Our primary campus remains at Franklin, but we now have sites in New Albany and Vevay where our classes are also offered.  We hope to soon be able to have a site in northern Indiana to make this program more accessible to churches there.

Another change that occurred last year is that we opened CLI up to anyone regardless of their denominational affiliation or church membership.  Prior to this it was only available to members of our region churches, but we believe that this training can benefit more churches than just those in our particular denomination.  We already have a few individuals from other denominations participating in CLI, and our prayer is that we will see this number grow.

As a pastor for twenty years I know that in nearly every church there are a handful of individuals who want to go deeper in their training and in their walk with God.  I also know that it is very difficult for a pastor to spend the time with these individuals that he or she would like to spend.  There are so many demands on a pastor's time that it is very difficult to invest the amount of time in these folks that would be needed.  I also know that no pastor has the experience and knowledge in each of the subjects we teach to give their people what they need to go deeper. 

We want to help you and your people grow deeper in their walk with God and in their leadership capabilities.  CLI has proven its ability to do that for the past dozen years, and we would like the opportunity to work with you and your church to do that for you. 

For more information about CLI go to our website at www.abc-indiana.org and follow the links to CLI or contact Jennifer Greene at jennifergreene@abc-indiana.org

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

How much time should a bivocational pastor be away from the church?

When I began my pastoral ministry in 1981 the church gave me two weeks of vacation a year.  That seems to be a fairly common practice for many churches whether they are served by a bivocational pastor or one who is fully-funded.  After several years I requested a third week which was granted, and a few years later a fourth week was added.  A survey I conducted of bivocational pastors in 2004 found that very few received more than two weeks of vacation regardless of how long they have been serving their church.  This needs to change.

Several years ago I interviewed with a church that was seeking a pastor.  I had been getting four weeks vacation for a couple of years from my current church so I asked the search committee how many weeks of vacation the church would give me.  They responded I would get two weeks.  I said that was not acceptable, that I was getting four weeks now and I expected four weeks of vacation.  Their response was that they always started their pastors out with two weeks, and if I stayed there long enough I would be given more.  I answered that although I might be starting out in that church I was not starting out in the ministry; they said the church needed an experienced pastor, and if they wanted me the church would have to agree to four weeks of vacation.  They took my request back to a congregational meeting, and it was approved.  I believe one of the reasons churches automatically want to give their pastors two weeks of vacation is because that's what they've always done.  Nobody has challenged them about the practice, so they've never considered doing more.  That is why I always advocate for four weeks vacation for a pastor any time I'm working with a pastor search committee.

Time is the least expensive thing a church can give their pastor.  The cost to the church for a pastor to have four weeks vacation is nearly the same as if he or she received two weeks.  The pastor's salary is already figured into the budget for the year and will not change if he or she is present at the church 48 weeks or 50 weeks (at least it shouldn't in a healthy church).  Most smaller churches pay a very small stipend to a guest speaker, and in many churches there are lay leaders who could fill the pulpit when the pastor is away if the church wants to avoid paying any stipend.  The cost to the church for its pastor to receive four weeks vacation is minimal, but the benefits are great.

Families of bivocational ministers often pay a big price for the amount of time the pastor is away from family activities.  That extra two weeks can give a family some extra time together which most families appreciate.  Four weeks vacation can help reduce the minister's stress level just knowing he or she can get away a little more often.  The church often benefits from having a fresher minister who appreciates the church's willingness to provide some additional time away.  This makes it more likely he or she will remain longer at the church which is a key component of growing churches.  If lay leaders fill the pulpit while the pastor is away on vacation those extra two weeks provides them with more preaching opportunities which helps their growth as leaders.  The list goes on.

The challenge for some churches is to get their pastor to take the vacation he or she does have coming.  I've talked with more than a few who seldom took all the vacation they were entitled to take, and in some cases they refused to take any.  By the way, early in my ministry I only took one of the two weeks I was entitled to, and I can tell you that is nothing but pure arrogance.  It demonstrates that we believe if we are not at the church, God can't do anything.  Let me remind you that the cemetery is full of indispensable people.  Here is what I tell churches to do if their pastor is like that.  Give him or her four weeks of vacation and then pass a motion in your business meeting that any week of the pastor's vacation that is not taken during the year will result in his or her pay being docked for that week.  I bet your pastor's spouse will make sure every week of vacation is taken!

Healthy churches are led by healthy pastors, and pastors need time away to remain healthy.  Giving your pastor four weeks of vacation is one very simple thing your church can do to help your pastor stay refreshed and energized.  For more suggestions of how to help a pastor enjoy a healthy life and ministry be sure to read my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Life's unexpected surprises

As a Baby Boomer approaching retirement age it's often funny to read some of the differences between when we were younger and our lives today.  One of my favorites is "When we were young we listened to the Rolling Stones; now we have rolling stones."  After this past weekend that may not be one of my favorites any more.

In an earlier post I commented on how much I enjoyed speaking at a small church conference this past weekend in Boston.  What nobody knew until now is that when I arrived in Boston I was beginning to pass a kidney stone.  I suspected what was happening because this is not the first time I've experienced this.  Nothing like thinking that you may have a kidney stone when you are several hundreds of miles away from home in a place you've never been.  Fortunately, although some symptoms continued during my trip there was no pain involved, and I was able to complete my assignment and return home without incident.  On Tuesday morning the stone passed.  It was small enough that it caused only minor discomfort, but it did create a lot of uncertainty during the process!

I've had one stone that was large enough that it had to be surgically removed, and a couple that created enough pain that I went to the hospital ER.  No kidney stone is a pleasant experience, but they pale in contrast to what others are experiencing.  A couple of my Facebook minister friends have reported on their sites in the past two weeks that they have been diagnosed with cancer.  Another FB friend recently shared that his college-age daughter has also been diagnosed with cancer and is currently seeking advice on how to best address it.  I know another pastor who has just been released from the hospital after spending weeks in Intensive Care and rehab. 

We often go through life thinking we know what the future holds when, in realty, none of us does.  An accident, a diagnosis, a betrayal are only a few of the things that can change our best-laid plans.  Many of us, including myself, want to be in control of our lives, but life has a funny way of reminding us that we are not.  It is during such times that I wonder once again how people can handle life's unexpected surprises without God.  Even more, I wonder why they would want to.

Life may often catch us by surprise, but it never catches God by surprise.  He understands what we are going through.  Although I often wish that he would protect us from the negative events that come into our lives he does not.  He does guarantee that he will never leave us nor forsake us as we walk through all the things that come into a person's life.  It was a promise I reminded him about several times in the past few days, and a promise that always brings me comfort.

Anyone involved in ministry for a length of time will find an abundance of surprises!  No matter how long one is in ministry people will continue to surprise us with their immaturity, their expectations, their lack of vision, and sometimes their mean spirits.  Fortunately, we will also be surprised by those who will excite us with their rapid spiritual growth, their passion for the things of God, their willingness to serve, and their unconditional love.  And, when we are with either groups of people, God is there with us.

My prayer for you is that the next time you are in the midst of one of life's unexpected surprises you will experience the presence of God and know the peace that comes with that presence.  Sometimes that may be the only thing you have to hold onto for a season, but I've been through enough of those kinds of times that I know that is enough to sustain you. 

Have a blessed week!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Focus your ministry efforts for greater effectiveness

One of the things I've been telling those who attend my workshops and conferences is that the smaller church will often accomplish more by doing less.  Sometimes a smaller church feels it must compete with the larger churches in the community to attract people.  This is always a mistake because the smaller church simply does not have the resources to offer the same ministries as a larger church.  Such a shotgun approach to ministry also misses another fact: God has a unique vision for your church.  Our churches are not called to duplicate the ministries of other churches but to discern the vision God has for each church and begin to fulfill that vision.

Several years ago a leader of a smaller church called saying their church was going to launch a youth ministry and wanted my advice on how best to do that.  My advice was to not do it.  The reason was that in that community there were several much larger churches with youth ministries that attracted hundreds of young people every week.  As I said to the caller, "Your church has three kids.  How will you compete with what the other churches are doing?"  He understood and clarified my comments by asking, "So you are saying we should look for another ministry to offer the community?"  Yes.

There is certainly nothing wrong with a church having a youth ministry, but in many cases the reason smaller churches want a youth ministry is they see it as the way to preserve the future of their church.  Trying to start a youth ministry is a problem if the church has no youth for a base group and no one in the church is gifted and passionate about doing youth ministry.  It is much better to build a ministry in your church by identifying and using the gifts of your members, helping them find what ministries they are passionate about doing, and seeing if that will meet a need in the community.

This takes us back to the vision discernment comment.  God will not give your church a vision for ministry if there is no one in your church with the spiritual gifts to make that happen; he will not give your church a vision for ministry if no one in the church is passionate about doing that ministry; and he will not give your church a vision for ministry if it does not meet needs in your community.  Where these three things come together is where you will find your God-given vision.

In most churches there is usually a lot of activity, but at the end of the year what advancements have actually been made?  I think back to my own pastoral ministry.  There were some years we could look back over the preceding months and see positive things that had been accomplished.  Other years we were just as busy but had no real results at the end of the year.  We had done a lot in those years but accomplished very little of lasting value to the Kingdom of God.  Just staying busy is no guarantee of a successful ministry.  We need to focus on the things that will really make a difference in people's lives and on fulfilling what we believe to be God's vision for our church.

I often say to church leaders that if their churches stopped doing 80 percent of what they are now doing, no one would ever know the difference.  That percentage may vary between churches, but the fact is that much of what we do really matters very little.  Let's begin to focus our resources and efforts on the things that really will make a difference to the people in our communities, and in December, when we look back over the year, I think you'll see a big difference in what you accomplished.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When do you show grace?

I read this past weekend about a ministry called "People of the Second Chance."  This ministry informs the work of a church one of the founders leads.   Mark Batterson mentions this church in his book All In: You Are One Decision Away From a Totally Different Life.  He has preached in this church a few times and writes that he has never seen so many people in a church that one would normally not expect to see there.  He says it looks more like what a person might see at a Vegas show or at a tattoo parlor.  Everywhere in the church is posted "It's OK to not be OK."  This is not a church that ignores sin, but it also believes that people don't have to pretend that everything is OK when it's not OK.  They want to offer grace to people before they change, not just afterwards, and isn't that the kind of grace we are called to extend to others?

One of the things I have found fascinating is that I seem to develop relationships with people who are not always living the kind of life I try to live.  When I worked on an assembly line I became friends with a biker who had the same job I had.  We were very much opposites, but we enjoyed one another's company and talked about everything.  After a time he transferred to another job on another shift, and I didn't see him for several months.  One day I ran into him and he began to talk to me about this church he was attending.  Of course, I asked for more details and learned that he had become a Christian.  A few years later I invited him to speak at a Biker Service we had at the church I pastored.  It was then I heard him say that one of the reasons he gave his life to Christ was because of the friendship he had developed with me.  The fact that I never judged him encouraged him to consider what I told him about becoming a Christian.

The same thing happened to me several years earlier on that same assembly line.  I was not a Christian but had observed several who were.  Their lives were radically different from mine.  There came a time when my life began to close in around me, and I knew I needed to do something different.  I approached these individuals and requested reading material and began to ask questions about being a Christian.  They never judged my lifestyle but extended grace to me.  After some months I did become a Christian but still had a lot of things to clean up.  Again, there was no judgment on their part.  Only grace, and that grace helped me make the changes I needed to make.

When do you offer grace to people?  Is it before they turn their lives around or afterwards?  Perhaps one of the reasons the church finds it so hard to connect with unchurched people is that they feel that we are judging them.  Yes, there are lifestyle choices we may not agree with, but didn't Jesus demonstrate that the way to help people overcome those choices is to love them unconditionally?  Is there anyone reading this who was perfect before they became a Christian?  I doubt it, and in fact we're not perfect now.  We all need grace, and if we are going to be the recipient of grace then should we not also extend grace to others? 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Small church conference

Photo
 

This past Saturday I had the privilege of speaking at a Small Church Conference in Massachusetts.  The Old Colony Baptist association had been planning this event for several months and did a great job of promoting it, bringing in workshop leaders, and arranging for an excellent event for small church leaders in that association and throughout Massachusetts.  Diane Badger and her team deserve a great round of applause as does the host church who was so hospitable and made the event even more enjoyable.  About 100 people participated in the conference, and the response I've seen on social media and from comments by the participants the day of the event have been very positive.

I frequently hear from bivocational and small church leaders that they want these kinds of events in their judicatories and often voice a great deal of frustration to me that they aren't scheduled more often.  Here was an example of an association that decided to not wait for someone else to schedule something they wanted.  They did it on their own, and the interesting thing is that when they did they found others who would come alongside and help with the funding and promotion.  They also opened it up to churches throughout their judicatory which allowed many more people to attend than would have if they had limited it to just their association.

These types of events could also be offered in conjunction with other events such as denominational annual and biennial meetings and the various national gatherings denominations hold.  One track at such events could be focused on bivocational and small church ministry with one or more speakers who would speak specifically to the leaders of those churches.  I've been fortunate in the past few years to lead workshops at a number of these types of events for several different denominations.  Most of them drew leaders from smaller churches who said they probably would not have attended the larger gathering if nothing had been offered specifically for them.

One of the things that is important for these types of events is to make sure that they are open to the lay leadership and not just pastoral leadership.  Several pastors who attended this recent Saturday event said that one of the things they appreciated was that their lay leaders who attended got to hear someone else say some things they had been trying to explain to their churches.  These pastors felt that this would make a difference in their churches as they went forward.

Many in denominational leadership recognize that the numbers of bivocational ministers are growing in their denominations.  They are very aware of the large numbers of smaller churches in their denominations that are led by both bivocational and fully-funded pastors, and they are also not blind to the fact that many of these smaller churches are doing good ministry.  But, too often we are still not providing these leaders and churches with the training opportunities focused on their needs that they need.  It's time we in judicatory and denominational leadership become much more intentional about providing those types of events.  I believe that if we do so we will find that it is an investment that will pay great returns.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do you really love your church?

One of the first things a smaller church wants to know about their pastor is "Do you really love us?"  This question comes out of the importance of relationships in the smaller church, and it comes because of the way many pastors are unwilling to invest more than two or three years in a smaller church before moving on to a larger one. 

When I went to Hebron Baptist Church in 1981 their average pastoral tenure was about 12 months, and it had been that way for many years.  After I had only been there about six months I learned that some of the leadership assumed I would soon be leaving them for a better church which was the term they were using.  No one could have guessed I would stay there twenty years.

A challenge I had was to convince the church how deeply I cared about them.  After all, if your family was abandoned every 2-3 years by someone it would be very difficult for you to believe them when they said they loved you.  And, in the smaller church, it is very difficult to accomplish very much until the pastor has built relationships with people, and the basis for such relationships is trust and a belief that this person truly does care about us.  It took me about seven years to build such trust because of the self-esteem the church had over having been abandoned by so many pastors over the years.

There are legitimate reasons to leave a church to accept a call to another one.  There are also many illegitimate reasons.  I cover both in my book The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry, and I also discuss the benefits of remaining in your church for an extended period of time.  The benefits for the pastor, the pastor's family, and the church are many and should be carefully considered before making a hasty decision to seek a new place to serve.

I once read that many years ago a pastor wrote in his diary, "This morning I prayed hard for my parish, my poor parish, my first and perhaps my last, since I could ask no better than to die here.  My parish!  The words can't even be spoken without a kind of soaring love...I know that my parish is a reality; it is not a mere administrative segment, but a living cell of the everlasting Church."

What a beautiful expression of love by a pastor for the church he was serving!  This is the kind of love each of us should have for the place where God has called us.  This is also the kind of love the smaller church desires from its pastor.  Does this describe the love you have for your church?  If so, have you told this to your congregation?  They would love to hear it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Don't be surprised if your dream dies.

Leaders must be dreamers.  To be an effective leader one must always be dreaming of a preferred future for his or her organization.  What might your church be like five years from today?  Where do you see your business going in the next five years?  How do you see your role changing over the course of the next five years?  What about ten years?  To simply sit and address the day-to-day affairs of an organization isn't leading.  That's management.  Both are important to the success of every organization, but the leader must be constantly be looking into the future and dreaming about the possibilities that exist.

Of course, most leaders can tell stories of when their dreams died.  They thought they had everything planned out, and suddenly everything changed, and their dreams were no longer viable.   Some never overcome their disappointment.  They stop dreaming, and they stop leading.  They assume that because their dream didn't come to pass in the time they planned and in the way they planned that it was not going to happen.

God had promised Abram that he would be the father of many nations, and yet his wife Sarah did not conceive.  God renewed his promise several times, and each time it appeared less and less likely that it could come to pass.  Both Abram and Sarah were well advanced in years and passed child-bearing age.  Yet, when Abram was 100 years old Sarah gave birth to their son, Isaac.  Why did it take so long for Abram's dream to come to pass, especially when it was one given to him by God?  I agree with those scholars who believe it was so God would get all the glory when it came to pass.  Both Abram and Sarah were well past the ages where anyone would expect her to conceive, so when Isaac was born there was no doubt that it was a miracle brought about by God.

In recent weeks I've read several accounts of ministry leaders who had a dream to plant a new church in a certain location.  Despite their best efforts, those church plants never worked out.  Their dreams seemed to have died until they later felt led to start a new church or ministry in another location.  Those new churches flourished.  Did these leaders misunderstand the location of the new church in their original dream?  Did they miss God's timing?  I can't answer either of those questions, but even though their original dream died they never stopped dreaming, and eventually they saw their dreams come to pass.

Mark Batterson wrote a great book called In a Pit With a Lion On a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars.  He had written several manuscripts before this book was accepted for publication, but none had been accepted.  He felt called to write as part of his ministry, but his dream of being a writer was dying with every rejection.  Imagine his joy when this book was accepted!  Imagine how he felt later when the editors made him completely rewrite the book a second time before it was published.  Even that book went through a death and resurrection.  As a writer myself I understand how precious that book was to Batterson and how painful it must have been to have been told it had to be rewritten.

Nearly every leader has had dreams that seemed to die and then were later resurrected so don't be surprised when it happens to you.  Continue to dream big dreams that will require God to achieve.  Share those dreams with others and ask them to pray with you.  Expect the dreams that seemed to have died to be resurrected later, but don't be surprised if they look a little different than you thought they would.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Are all beliefs the same?

In the book of Judges we read that everyone did what seemed right in their own eyes.  That phrase explained much of the chaos that occurred during that period of Israel's history.  There was no king, there was no law, it was a time when everyone did pretty much as they pleased.

We live in a very similar vacuum of moral order today.  Postmodernism has challenged anything claiming to be truth by denying that there is no such thing as absolute truth.  Of course, no one has explained how an absolute truth such as there is no absolute truth can be true if there is no absolute truth.  Postmodernists cannot be bothered with logical inconsistencies such as this, and the majority of the public seem not to be bothered by such inconsistencies either.  They hear some university professor or media star or entertainer repeat the mantra that there are no absolute truths and they assume it must be true.

Without absolute truth there can also be no absolute morality.  It must follow if there is no absolute truth there is nothing to say that one set of moral beliefs is superior to another.  We are all free to live as we please seeking those things in life that bring us pleasure and comfort.  I am free to choose the lifestyle and belief system that seems right to me, and you are free to do the same for yourself.  Because we live in a diverse society with an absence of moral absolutes we are all free to live as we please.

Of course, that diversity and freedom ends if your beliefs cause you to challenge other beliefs and lifestyle choices as wrong.   In America today some beliefs do trump other beliefs with Christian values and beliefs always holding the lesser hand. 

As early as the 1950s C. S. Lewis recognized the danger that comes when all moral ideas are given equality.  In his classic book Mere Christianity he wrote these words.

"If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality or Christian morality to Nazi morality."

Lewis understood what the postmodernist of today does not: all beliefs are not the same, and different moral values will lead individuals and a nation in different directions.  One question that needs to be asked today is what is the direction our nation has taken in recent years as people have turned from Christian morality to doing whatever seems right in their own eyes?  Have we become a more civilized society or a more savage society?

The challenge for the church is to continue to stand for and proclaim the values and moral principles found in the Bible.  Let the church "speak the truth in love" and in so doing point mankind to the person of Jesus Christ and to his teachings so that they might find true life that is rich and meaningful in the present and the eternal life that awaits them when this life is over.  We must not water down the gospel message in an effort to conform to the expectations of society, but rather it is time to teach clearly the moral principles and truth that was given to us through the Scriptures.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ministry challenges in the 21st century for bivocational ministers

"Bivocational ministers have the same responsibilities as fully-funded ministers.  There are sermons to prepare each week, people who seek counsel, conflicts that arise in the church, administrative tasks, meetings to coordinate and attend, congregants who need to be visited, and the various other general expectations people have of ministers, regardless of church size.

"There are also challenges associated with living in the 21st century.  It's not easy to be a minister today.  The way people think and believe is rapidly changing.  Expectations are higher today than ever before, and if people can't get their expectations met, they will simply move on to another church.  Denominational affiliation matters little in the 21st century.  If people have to attend two or three different churches to have their expectations met, they will do so.  In the past, it was enough for ministers to be able to exegete the Scriptures in order to preach to people.  Today it is just as important to exegete the culture to understand how best to reach it, but when we do so, we begin to see just how difficult it is to minister to this postmodern, pre-Christian society in which we live."

This is an excerpt from my latest book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide.  In the book I go on to discuss several of the reasons it is so difficult to minister today.  I will just list them here.
  • Rejection of Absolute Truth - It is very difficult to proclaim Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the only way to God to a culture that sees all truth as relative.  With the rejection of absolute truth also comes a rejection of absolute morality so we find ourselves living in a society in which everyone does what seems right in their own eyes.
  • Generational Differences - It can be a challenge to develop a worship service that will be meaningful to four and even, in some churches, five generations.  Preparing a message that will speak to each generation at the same time will also be difficult.
  • Membership Issues - We live in a time in which people have little interest in joining organizations but are very interested in being involved in things they find meaningful.  Many churches will need to revisit their membership requirements or risk losing talented people.
  • Rapid Cultural Changes - Society is changing at a much quicker pace than most churches to the point that the church is always playing catch-up.

In addition there are some challenges unique to bivocational ministers that are also addressed in the book.  These include
  • Time Constraints
  • Self-esteem Issues
  • Lack of Support
  • Challenges of Serving in Smaller Churches

The book does more than just identify the challenges.  It uses real-life examples of individuals I have coached who were wrestling with many of these problems and shows how we were able to help them overcome their challenges.  This is an excellent book for bivocational ministers, for denominational leaders who work with pastors, and with lay leaders of bivocational churches.  It will help you coach yourself through some of the challenges you face, give you some tools you can use to assist others, and encourage you as you read the stories of others who overcame the same obstacles you face.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Racial reconciliation must begin in the church

In recent weeks there have been several sports stories about athletes being the target of racial slurs.  College athletics is looking at assessing penalties if certain words are used during a game.  From what I've seen of some officiating I'm not sure some referees need additional policing duties.  They seem to have their hands full just handling the basic calls.  Still, I applaud the governing forces for looking into the problem.  From the comments from some former college and professional players, racial slurs coming from the stands and opposing players are not a new phenomenon.

It is amazing that here in the 21st century racism is still the problem it is.  While we have made tremendous strides since the 1960s, this is a struggle that still goes on.  Laws have been passed that make it illegal to discriminate against a person because of his or her race, and these laws have been effective in reducing the blatant racism that existed for many years, but they have not been effective in addressing the hidden racism that continues to exist.  In Matthew 12:24 Jesus said, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."  When someone utters a racist slur or says something derogatory about a person due to his or her race it is because that is what is in that person's heart.  Laws cannot change a person's heart.  The heart can only be transformed by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The church has not, in my opinion, done enough to address racism.  During the Civil Rights movement many churches and clergy marched and advocated for racial reconciliation, but once laws were on the books it seems that the church has backed off.  Maybe we thought the work was done, but it obviously isn't.  And, perhaps, some of the work we did do was misguided.

A bivocational pastor friend of mine is on staff at a university.  He tells the story of how he often challenged his African-American colleagues to become a part of the university community and be a part of what the churches were doing in their community.  A well-respected African-American pastor challenged him one day with this question:  "You are always inviting us to join you.  When are you going to join in what we're doing?"  He took that question to his church which soon voted to become a member of that African-American association of churches.  Maybe we have made a mistake in always asking the Black community and churches to join in what we're doing when we've shown little interest in joining in what they are doing.

I live in a state (Indiana) that had a history of KKK violence.  As a child I was unaware of the discrimination that existed in our small community until I read a book a few years ago written by a number of African-Americans who lived in our community in the pre-Civil Rights era.  I grew up hearing the slurs and the contempt poured out against people of color, and some of that was from people in the church.  While the language is often more politically correct today, I still hear the contempt that is behind some of the comments that are made.

Several years before I became the pastor of a church a young woman in the church married an African-American.  That was something that was not done at that time in this community.  It led to a discussion in the church about who could be members of that church, and a vote was taken that declared that anyone, regardless of their race, was welcome to be a member.  This was a bold step by a small, rural church in an area that still practiced discrimination in many areas.  That was more than 40 years ago, and we need churches to continue to take bold steps that promotes equality among the races.

Roughly 15 years ago I interviewed with a pastor search committee of a church that was from a different denomination than the one I serve.  The interview went very well, and the chairperson of the committee even made the comment that he believed they had found the person they wanted to present to the church for a vote.  Other members of the committee agreed with him.  That was before I asked my last question.  That question was "Is everyone welcomed to attend and become a member of this church?"  For several minutes they did their best to convince me they loved everybody.  I then told them the reason I asked the question is because my daughter is married to an African-American, and when they visit on the weekends they attend the church where I serve, and I just wanted to make sure they would be welcomed.  The stunned looks on their faces told me everything I needed to know even before they thanked me for coming and promised to get back with me.  Of course, I never heard from them again.

We will never resolve the racial issues in this nation until we first resolve them in the church.  Laws can force obedience, but they can't change person's hearts.  The church must not assume racism has been erased from society or from our churches.  It has not!  We in the church must take the initiative to address this issue and begin to change people's hearts.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What are you willing to give up?

In his classic book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (10th Anniversary Edition), John Maxwell discusses The Law of Sacrifice which teaches us that "A leader must give up to go up."  There is a price to be paid if one wants to be successful in ministry, in business, in family life, or every other area of life.  The more success we want to achieve the more it will cost the leader and the organization.  Think of the President of the United States and the personal costs associated with that position.  The president's every move, every word, and every inaction is scrutinized by everyone and criticized by many.  Millions of people are impacted by decisions he makes, and for some of those impacted it is truly a matter of life and death.  For the rest of his life he will live with a lack of privacy as he will continue to be protected by Secret Service agents.  For many, including myself, those are costs they are not willing to pay.

As a bivocational pastor the differences between being a pastor and a worker were quite obvious.  My factory job required me to be there 40 hours a week and do my job.  For eleven years I worked on the assembly line, so for those years I attached parts to a diesel engine as it came down the line.  I worked on various machining lines during my years with that company, and I would simply go in and operate my machine.  There was very little pressure associated with any of those jobs.  I had few decisions to make, and my job was protected by our union.

As a pastor my role was much different.  Each week, regardless of what else was going on, I had to spend time in sermon preparation.  There were meetings to attend and administrative decisions that I had to make.  People went into the hospital and expected their pastor to visit while others needed advice on how to deal with personal and family related matters.  And, as a Baptist pastor, I was never more than one business meeting away from being asked to resign if people became dissatisfied with my ministry!

There is no doubt that I had to make many more sacrifices as a pastor than I did as an employee of a manufacturing company, but these sacrifices are all maintenance type activities.  Everything I just described is just basic Pastor 101.  To take one's ministry to another level more sacrifices are going to be required.  As Maxwell writes in the book, "The Law of Sacrifice maintains that one sacrifice seldom brings success.  James Allen writes in As a Man Thinketh, "He who would accomplish little must sacrifice little; he would achieve much must sacrifice much; he who would attain highly must sacrifice greatly."

Too many ministers are satisfied with doing the basics believing that is all that is really required of them.  I would imagine that these basic pastoral roles are all they were taught in seminary, so when they accomplish them they feel they have done their jobs.  But, if a pastor wants to lead his or her church in doing great work for the Kingdom, more will be required.  Both the pastor and the church will have to make much greater sacrifices than many are comfortable making.

I can't tell you what those sacrifices would be because they would be different for every pastor and church depending on the ministry needs of the church and community.  It may be the death of some sacred cows that haven't produced anything of value in years.  It may be a significant investment of time and money in a new ministry that is needed in the community.  It may require investing time in learning some new skills.  Perhaps the church needs to give up its current meeting location and move to a new place that will provide it with better ministry opportunities.  The list is endless, and each ministry leader and church must prayerfully decide what they need to give up in order to go up.

Monday, March 3, 2014

When you are uncertain about your call

As part of my doctoral project I coached a number of bivocational pastors.  One of the individuals in that project was struggling with his sense of call to the ministry.  When he first entered ministry he had no doubts that was God's plan for his life, but after a very difficult staff position and a divorce from a person who did not want to be married to a minister he was struggling with his calling.  As we began our coaching relationship he wanted to explore his sense of call and discuss the possibility of becoming a bivocational minister.

One of the assignments he agreed to do was to talk with three people who knew him well and find out what they thought about his call to ministry.  He did this, and all three people affirmed his call to ministry, but they also cautioned him to return slowly to ministry until he completed some other  tasks he had begun.  Despite this affirmation, he continued to struggle throughout our coaching sessions with his acceptance of that call.  He had been deeply wounded by two churches and a failed marriage, and these wounds were creating huge doubts in his mind about whether or not God could ever use him in the ministry.  If you want to find out how this ended you can read about this, and several other coaching relationships I've had with ministers, in my book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide.

There are few things more damaging to one's ministry effectiveness than when one begins to doubt God's calling on his or her life.  Ministry is difficult, to say the least, and some churches can be extremely difficult to lead.  During those times when it seems that nothing we do makes any difference it becomes quite easy to question whether or not God really did call us into the ministry.  At the same time, it is often our conviction that he did call us to our ministry that enables us to continue on despite the difficulties we face.  That is why I believe it is essential to remind ourselves from time to time of God's calling on our lives

Few people supported me when I announced I believed God was calling me to the ministry.  My wife had her doubts initially but soon became one of my biggest supporters.  I learned a few years after the fact that my father became very upset at my going into the ministry although I never learned why.  As I understand it, he made some comments in the presence of one of my aunts who read him the riot act!  Years later he became a very effective deacon in the church I pastored.   During those times of little support I had to rely on what I believed to be God's call on my life.

Pastoring a church as a bivocational minister was difficult enough, but when God began to challenge me to pursue an education in addition to being a bivocational minister, that difficulty went to a much higher level.  Again, it was only my conviction that this is what God was calling me to do that gave me the strength to continue my education while working and pastoring a church.  Every time I have ever considered giving up I have returned to the call on my life that has shaped so much of my life.  This is what you must do as well.

Some reading this post may be close to abandoning God's call on your life.  The pain of ministry may be nearly overwhelming right now.  You may be struggling with church issues, personal issues, or family issues that makes walking away from the ministry sound very appealing.  I would encourage you to review your original calling.  Think back to the time you first felt God calling you to the ministry.  What were you doing?  How did that calling come to you?  How did it make you feel?  Have you felt God releasing you from that call?  When I have asked these questions I've always felt empowered to continue in the ministry simply due to the power of that call on my life.  I think the same will happen to you.