Tuesday, April 29, 2014

People gravitate towards vision

In yesterday's post I wrote that the primary reason churches close is that they have lost their vision for ministry.  They have spent so many years focused on providing services for members and survival that they forget the reason their church was created in the first place.  As I remind those who attend my workshops and conferences, the mission of the church is quite simple and is found in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  If a church is not actively involved in those two things it is not fulfilling its God-given purpose.  A church that is only interested in caring for its members is a church that will eventually close.  We cannot forget about the needs of our members, but at the same time our primary focus must be on serving those outside the Kingdom of God.

Pastors of small churches often complain to me that they have few people willing to do anything in the church.  It seems the Pareto Principle is alive and well in the small church:  20 percent of the people are doing 80 percent of the work.  I think we will find that to be true in many churches, but we also must ask the question of why that is.  Are the 80 percent who are not very involved merely free-loaders, lazy people who want only to have their needs met, or is something else going on?  Having served as a pastor for 20 years I have met my share of spiritual free-loaders.  They enjoy hanging around the church as long as it suits their needs, but the moment they are asked to do something they disappear.  By the way, when you read the gospels you find Jesus had his share of spiritual free-loaders hanging around as well.  But, I think these people make up only a small percentage of those who are not involved.  For these people, their lack of involvement may be the result of what they are being asked to do.

Let's be honest here.  A lot of what goes on in many smaller churches is not very exciting.  Much of what people are asked to do is to serve on the various committees that churches seem to believe is necessary.  In many of our churches, if 80 percent of their committees never met again it is unlikely anyone would even notice a difference.  (The Pareto Principle at work again!)  You are not going to get people, especially leaders who are on fire for God, to serve on these kinds of committees.  They understand, even if the church doesn't, that these committees will not make a bit of difference in either the Kingdom of God or in what should be the mission of the church.  They are not unwilling to serve, but they are unwilling to waste their time on busy-work that does not matter.  They are waiting for something bigger.  They are waiting for a vision that captures their imagination and that will draw out the best they have to offer.

I am enjoying reading Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O'Dell.  In the book he writes, "The model of sharing workload with capable people is timeless and indispensable if you're going to grow a rural church.  And people are all waiting in the pews or chairs or benches to grab hold of the vision and the work.  If you have vision, you will have too many people wanting to do stuff.  The rural pastor has to know the people he needs are not at the First Big Baptist down the road or Monster Methodist across the county.  They are sitting in the pews...And they are waiting.  Just cast the vision."

I completely agree.  As you know, I served a small, rural church for twenty years.  As long as we were in maintenance mode the people sat in their pews smiling and satisfied and doing little.  When we were working towards achieving a vision we believed came from God, it was all hands on deck.  Virtually everyone jumped in and made that vision a reality.

People are looking for something bigger than they are.  Most do not want to serve on a committee that will determine who prepares the turkey for the church Thanksgiving dinner.  They want to be involved in something that will change people's lives.  They want to give their time and resources to a ministry or project that will make a difference in the Kingdom of God.  They want a vision for ministry that will demand their best, and it is to that vision that they will commit their lives. 

If you are reading this you are probably a leader in your church.  It is your responsibility to seek God until you understand his vision for your church.  Once you understand what that vision looks like you must then share that vision with others until the church understands it and buys into it.  When that happens you will be amazed at what people will be willing to do to achieve it.  But, if you're not willing to do the hard work of vision discernment, then don't be surprised when people sit on their hands and their pocketbooks, and don't come crying to me that you can't get anyone in your church involved in ministry.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Why do churches close?

Because I work so much with smaller churches a common question I'm asked is how can these churches avoid closing their doors.  The question is usually asked by a long-time member of a small church that has struggled for years.  They have watched their formerly active church that had a nearly full sanctuary a few decades ago continually shrink until they are a couple dozen people or less attending services.  For years they knew something was wrong, but as they see the slide downward continue they become desperate and want to know what needs to happen to keep their church open.

These folks have a right to fear their church may close.  Although the figures aren't exact, approximately 5,000 churches close their doors each year in the United States.  That's an average of 100 churches per week that lock their doors for the last time.  Some give lower figures, but it is still a large number of churches.  Most of these are smaller churches, but their size isn't what caused them to close.  Although I've not seen any studies to back up my opinion, I believe the reason most of these churches closed is because they lost their vision for ministry.

Everyone of the churches that closed were begun because someone had a vision for a church in that community.  As people moved westward and formed communities it was not long before a church was started.  Each of these churches were born out of a vision held by a number of men and women who recognized a church was needed in this new area where they were settling.  This church was important as a place where people's lives would be changed, the Scriptures would be taught, and lost people would be introduced to Jesus Christ.  As the years went by, however, that vision was lost and a maintenance-mentality took over.  The church settled into a routine and forgot why it was founded in the first place.  At first, people slowly began to leave.  Children grew up, married, and never returned to the church where they were raised.  If they went to church at all, they found other churches to attend.  In many of these churches, the decline was so slow that it really wasn't noticed at first, and by the time someone finally did recognize what was happening it was too late.  Either the church remained open but was largely ineffective or it closed its doors when its resources were too low to keep them open.

The key for a small church to remain open is to recapture a fresh vision from God for its ministry to its community.  If a vision gave life to a church in the first place does it not make sense that vision is going to be the life of the church?  It is my belief that God has a vision - a purpose - for every church.  That purpose is not mere survival; it is to be an effective witness for God in the community in which it serves.  That vision should compel the church to go out from its buildings into the community sharing and modeling the love of God to everyone who lives there.  A church that lives out its God-given vision will never need to fear closing its doors.  To read more about this check out my book Intentional Ministry in a Not-So-Mega Church: Becoming a Missional Community.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The call to bivocational ministry

One of the search committees I'm working with recently interviewed a candidate.  A traditional question that is often asked is for the individual to explain his or her call to the ministry.  When the committee asked that question the candidate could not respond.  The best answer he could give was that a friend suggested he attend seminary, which he did, and now he is looking for a ministry but had no idea what he was looking for.  In fact, he told the pastor search committee he really didn't think he wanted to be a pastor.  Well, at least with this church, he will get his wish.

When they told me of this interview I thought back to my own sense of call to the ministry.  I had only been saved a couple of years, but in that time I had accepted a number of leadership roles in my church.  Despite the things I was doing, I always had the sense God had more for me.  One day my pastor and I were riding to a meeting when he asked if I had ever felt called to the ministry.  I admitted that idea had come to me more than once, even as a young child.  A couple of weeks later he visited my wife and me to discuss this further.  Several months after that discussion I requested that our church license me to preach, and I began to fill in at various churches when I had the opportunity.

After about a year of this a church I had attended as a youth invited me to be their interim pastor.  I served there about six months in that capacity until they called a pastor.  By that time I was convinced God had called me into the ministry.  The one problem I had was that I had a good job, a wife and two children, and no education beyond high school.  The traditional college and seminary route didn't make sense to me at this time in my life so I wasn't sure what doors, if any, God would open for me to pastor a church.

A few months after ending my time as the interim pastor I learned of a small church in our county that was seeking a pastor.  I sent them a resume, and a few months later became their pastor.  I served there for 20 years before accepting a different call to ministry.

During my time serving as a bivocational pastor of that church I did pursue some education, but I never felt called to leave bivocational ministry.  Somehow, I knew this was the calling God had on my life.  Numerous fully-funded churches contacted me during that time asking me to meet with their pastor search committees, but I never felt led to leave the church I was serving nor did I feel led to leave bivocational ministry to serve in one of these larger churches.

Os Guinness has written a very helpful book titled The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.  One chapter is titled "Do What You Are."  In the chapter he refers to Paul's role as a tentmaker.  He writes, "But tentmaking was never the heart of Paul's calling, it was only a part, as all of life is.  As a part of our calling such "tentmaking" at worst is work that frustrates us because it takes time we wish to spend on things more central.  But at best it is work that frees us to get to that which is central. By contrast, whatever is the heart of our calling is work that fulfills us because it employs our deepest gifts."  The book offers a wonderful discussion of the importance and value of knowing God's call on our lives.

Throughout my ministry I have known that my calling was to bivocational ministry.  Never did I dream that God would allow me to publish books and lead workshops and conferences on the subject, but that was part of his plan as well.  My initial call was to a small, rural church where God placed me for two decades, and then he opened up that call to allow me to serve pastors and churches around the world through my writings and speaking opportunities.

The call to bivocational ministry is a real call of God upon people's lives.  Some resist it because they feel it is a call to insignificant ministry, but no ministry is insignificant.  Anywhere God has called a person to serve is a worthwhile place of ministry, and we should always give it our best efforts.  And, what we do not know is what God's future plans are for our ministries.  Looking back we can often see that the things we began doing prepared us for greater responsibilities later.  If you have been called to bivocational ministry, embrace it and thank God for the opportunity to serve in such a wonderful ministry.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Onward Christian Soldiers

"Onward Christian Soldiers" is a song I seldom hear sung in the church these days.  When I was growing up it was a song that we sang often, but today it's not even found in many of the modern hymnals.  Some believe it is not a politically correct song or that it presents the church as a military organization.  I don't know how many Christians read the news these days, but if they don't know it we are in a battle to preserve our beliefs and our nation, and it is past time that we begin to stand up for what we believe and stop wanting to hold hands around a campfire singing Kumbaya.

For the record, I am not advocating that we form a Christian paramilitary organization or a terrorist group.  What I am challenging Christians to do is to become informed about what is happening and be willing to stand for what we profess to believe.  Just this week I've read that one organization is challenging a high school sports team's right to wear T-shirts they have bought with their own money that has a Bible verse printed on it.  This morning the news contained a story of a school teacher who took a Bible away from a second grader who was reading it during personal reading time.  The teacher claimed it was not appropriate reading material even though the school has Bibles in its library.  Every year at this time various schools will forbid their student valedictorians from mentioning their faith.  Communities are restricting the right of homeowners to use their homes for small group Bible studies through zoning laws and restricting the rights of churches to build new facilities.  This week I read another story of an atheist group challenging the use of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance repeated in one school's classrooms.  The list goes on and on, and the really interesting thing is that we never read of any other religious faiths having their practices or beliefs attacked.  It is only the Christians who are having their religious freedoms taken away.

I believe there are two reasons for this.  The first is spiritual in nature.  The devil knows that there is no other religious belief system that can do him and his work any harm but Christianity.  For centuries he managed to keep the Bible out of the hands of the people, but once Christian people were able to read it for themselves he found his kingdom weakened greatly.  He then began to challenge the integrity of the Bible, and people became convinced that is was nothing more than fables and myths rather than the Word of God.  Even in the Garden of Eden he revealed this strategy by asking Eve, "Has God said...?" causing her to doubt the things God had clearly revealed to her and Adam.  It is a strategy that has remained effective even today.  Today he has managed to convince many people that there is no such thing as absolute truth, so nothing the Bible says or the Christian church teaches has any validity.  People are free to believe it or not, but we are not free to try to pass our beliefs on to others as true.  In many countries of the world if Christians attempt to convert someone to the Christian faith they are at risk of severe punishment and even death.  Could such laws be enacted here?  While many are convinced that could never happen, I am no longer so sure given the direction our nation has been going.

The second reason we are losing our religious freedoms is because we refuse to fight for those freedoms.  Very few Christians voted in the last election, and it is the politicians who have made it possible for our freedoms to come under attack.  If you did not vote for persons who hold to the Christian beliefs you claim to believe in, then you are allowing others to determine who will rule over you in the political arena.  If you will not remove School board members who buckle under to every threat that comes from atheist groups then you deserve schools that take Bibles away from second graders.  If you are not willing to publicly support decency and Christian values in your community then you deserve to live in a community in which those values are slowly being taken from you.

Those opposed to the Christian faith want it removed from the public square, and we must demand our right to be there.  It is time that Christians be recognized as people who are informed voters, that we will not sell our vote for free cell phones, and that we will not accept people to serve in public office who will oppose our values and our beliefs.  But, even more important than this, we must become people who are on our knees praying for revival for our nation.  2 Chronicles 7: 14 is still true.  If God's people will humble themselves and pray and seek God, He will hear those prayers and come and heal our land.  Voting addresses the political aspect of the battle we are in, and prayer addresses the spiritual battle.  Both are critical to the future direction of our nation.  I believe our nation is worth preserving for all the future generations who will come after us.  "Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war...."  We are in a spiritual battle for the heart and soul of our nation.  God has given us the weapons to win this battle, but we must choose to do so.  Rise up church!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The need to reinvent

I was raised in a time when things were fairly stable.  Marriages were expected to last forever.  You went to work for a company, stayed there until you retired, and received a gold watch.  You could attend virtually any church in a denomination and would find the services would be amazingly similar, they would be using the same materials and literature, and offer the same programs.  I am a product of that kind of thinking.  My wife and I have been married for nearly 48 years.  At age 18 I went to work in a factory, worked 30 years there, and when I retired I received my gold watch.  While working that factory job I accepted the call to a small, bivocational church where I served for 20 years before accepting a call to judicatory ministry where I've now been for the past 14 years.  On the surface, it appears my life has been fairly stable, but in reality there have been many changes along the way.

My pastoral ministry looked much different when I left that church in 2001 than it was when I began there in 1981.  When I started it was not uncommon to make visits to church members unannounced, but by the time I left the church I visited very few people without an appointment.  When I started we would go door-to-door in nearby neighborhoods inviting people to worship services or VBS or some other special event we were doing.  We also ended that practice when we discovered that most people considered that an intrusion in the precious few moments they have at home.  My leadership style changed as our church went from being primarily a board-led church to a pastor-led church.  As I earned the trust of our congregation I was given more freedom to lead.  One of my favorite stories is that at my first church business meeting my plan to take our young people to a nearby amusement park was rejected by the members.  Several years later I made the decision, with input from three people who were with me, to purchase a new digital piano for our church.  After the piano arrived I called a business meeting to get church approval for the purchase, and it was approved unanimously.  What a difference a few years make!

I changed my preaching style three different times while I pastored that church.  When I began I stayed behind the pulpit as I was heavily dependent upon my notes.  A few years into the pastorate I began preaching from a manuscript.  That experiment lasted about 18 months when I changed to a simple outline.  That outline also allowed me to move from behind the pulpit so I could freely move around the platform.  I also began to incorporate more stories into my messages as I learned that people could often identify with the stories and connect them to their own lives.  One of my favorite comments people sometimes give me after I've preached is that I make the Bible come alive through the stories I use.  The Bible is alive, and one of my preaching goals is that people experience that.

At a meeting a few years ago with other judicatory leaders I mentioned that I feel that I enjoyed a good ministry as a pastor, but I did not believe that much of what I did during those two decades would be as effective today.  I could not pastor today as I did then; I would have to reinvent myself as a pastor if I wanted to have a productive ministry.

Working with the churches in our judicatory and with various denominations around the country I see many pastors still functioning as they did 20-30 years ago and wondering why their ministries are not more effective.  They're doing everything they learned in seminary in the 1980s not realizing that we live in a much different time.  The expectations people have of church has changed.  People move more often making it more difficult to have a stable membership.  Children's ministries have changed with the increased numbers of single-parent homes.  Children are often with their other parent half the year making them unavailable for your church activities.  As the Builder generation dies off churches see their giving levels drop because the younger generations go not financially support the church at the same level the Builder generation did.  Fewer and fewer people are available for Sunday evening and mid-week services so efforts to maintain those are sure to be disappointing in many churches.  As a pastor, you may need to take a serious look at your ministry and preaching styles and see if you need to make some changes.

The same is true for churches.  I continually talk to small churches who insist they want to reach new people, especially younger people, and yet are unwilling to do anything differently than they did in the 1950s.  Any attempt to try something new is met by a controller who pulls out the church constitution, that was often approved in the 1950s, who insists that their constitution does not permit that to be done.  I'm currently working on a new book with a working title of Straight Talk to Small Churches so let me give you some straight talk.  Your church will either reinvent itself or it will die.  If you are more interested in protecting the way you've always done things than you are in reaching the people Jesus died for, then you are irrelevant to the Kingdom of God, and God will raise up another ministry to do the work you should be doing while he allows your church to die.

Learning new skills and new ways of doing ministry are not easy, but nobody said ministry was supposed to be easy.  Pastors and churches must continually reinvent themselves if they want to successfully impact a changing world for Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A shift in the inerrancy debate

When I attended Bible college in the 1980s there was much debate about the inerrancy of Scripture.  It was the hot topic on the campus I attended and played no small role in the denomination of which that school was a part making a shift from being rather moderate to becoming very conservative.  Numerous books were written at that time stressing the importance of holding to an inerrant view of Scripture.  I certainly held to that position then and continue to do so today, but today the discussion about inerrancy has shifted, and many ministers and leaders of my generation may not understand the shift.

David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw discusses this shift in one chapter in their book Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier.  They point out that the debate about inerrancy is not about the Scriptures themselves but the interpretation of those Scriptures.  Holsclaw writes, "I knew that no one my age cared about inerrancy because they were always questioning the authority of the interpretation rather than the authority of the text.  My friends all assumed that a hidden bias was always controlling the supposed objectivity of an interpretation...In their minds, every interpretation is an imperialist act, seeking to control other perspectives."

In some of my workshops I address one of the main reasons people give for not going to church: they find it irrelevant to their lives.  They believe we are answering questions no one is asking any more, and too often they are right.  In the case of biblical inerrancy, we are often giving answers to questions that people are not asking today.  If the authors of this book are correct, people are not nearly as interested in whether or not the Scriptures are inerrant as whether our interpretations are correct.

By saying this I do not mean to say that teaching the inerrancy of the Scriptures is wrong.  I believe the Scriptures remain the foundation of all we believe, and if we cannot trust that they are correct then our theological foundation becomes very weak.  But, we cannot limit our teaching to that question.  We must go beyond that and address the question that people are now asking: is our interpretation of those Scriptures correct?  In a postmodern world where there are no absolute truths that becomes a much more difficult challenge.  I can claim my interpretation of a particular passage is true while someone else promotes a completely different interpretation of the same passage, and too many today are willing to accept both as equally true.  So, how do we convince others of the validity of our interpretation?

The authors of this book point out that the way to do this is through allowing others to see the truths we proclaim to be lived out in our lives.  They write, "As prodigal Christians, we should rarely find ourselves defending the Bible's authority.  Rather, its authority becomes undeniable when its compelling reality become visible among us.  The story of God as displayed in a people speaks for itself."  The book then fleshes this out for the reader in the next chapters.

In my opinion, this is what separates a missional church from one that is merely involved in social work.  Too often, we limit being missional to being involved in one's community, but there is much more to being a missional church.  Yes, a missional church will be engaged in ministry to its community, but most social organizations will also be involved in community service.  What makes the church's ministry different is the way it lives out the Gospel before the community it is serving.

Christians often do a better job of talking about their beliefs than we do in living out those beliefs.  When we fail to walk the talk we should not be surprised that those outside the church question our interpretation of the Scriptures we claim to believe in.  If we talk about the grace of God, then they have a right to expect that we will extend grace to people.  If they see us continue to shoot our own wounded then they also have a right to question our interpretation of what grace is.  If we talk to them about the love of God we should not be surprised if they are confused by the lack of love we often show others both outside and within the Christian family.  Obviously, I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

To convince others that our interpretation of the Scriptures is correct we must consistently live out what we claim to believe and allow them to see the impact of living such a life.  If we do this well we will have answered one of their most important questions.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter brings tremendous opportunities to a church

It won't surprise too many pastors and Christian leaders to be told that this Sunday is Easter.  This Sunday will probably be the largest worship attendance your church will have this year, especially if you serve in a smaller church.  Families will come home for Easter and many of them will want to attend services in the churches in which they were raised.  Some of your absentee members will find their way back to church this Sunday, and some folks from the community are likely to drop in as well.  This provides your church with a tremendous ministry opportunity if you do some things well.

Be prepared for your guests.  Print extra programs.  Have extra greeters at the entrance and even in the parking lot.  Make sure the grounds and building are spotless.  If it's bad weather have people available with umbrellas to meet people at their cars.  You may even want to consider offering valet parking especially if the weather is bad or your parking is limited.  A visitor is someone who shows up unexpectedly like a vacuum salesman.  A guest is someone you are expecting, and you should be expecting to see new people on Easter Sunday so be prepared for them.

Don't insult your guests by mentioning how you haven't seen them since Christmas.  Don't embarrass them by asking that they introduce themselves or wear name badges or ribbons or do anything that will make them stand out.  Do welcome your guests and thank them for coming to the service.  If your church has pew Bibles do print the page number of any Scriptures you will be reading in the program to make it easier for them to read along with you if they choose.  Do try to capture their names and addresses so you can do follow-up with them afterwards.  A great way to do that is to ask everyone in the congregation to fill out a name and address card so you will have a record of their attendance.  This doesn't make the guest feel conspicuous while filling out their card.

This is a Sunday to present a very simple and clear gospel message.  Easter is a time of celebration, and your message should capture that.  Jesus Christ is alive!  He wants to be Lord and Savior of every person who sits in your congregation.  He wants to provide them with forgiveness for their sins and transform them into new persons.  You should have no problem preaching a dynamic message that offers hope and salvation to all who hear it.  It is likely that some sitting in your sanctuary this Easter Sunday have never heard such a message, and you have an opportunity to plant seeds in their minds and hearts that could lead to a transformation of their lives.

Close your service with excitement and anticipation that God has spoken to people through the music, the prayers, and the message.  Send them out with God's blessings upon them.

Do not fail to follow-up with every guest in the week following Easter.  This is critical if you have any hope of them returning.  Depending on how many guests you had that Sunday you may need to ask other mature, spiritual leaders in your church to assist you in this follow-up.  You may want to physically visit some guests depending on the level of communication you've had with them, but a letter and a phone call will often suffice after their first time at your church.  Send the letter out on Monday following the service and then call them later in the week asking if they've received the letter and if they have any questions about the church.  In both contacts be sure to invite them to return the next Sunday.

Easter Sunday is often the one Sunday in the year that provides a smaller church with the greatest opportunity to touch people's lives.  If you will treat people as you would like to be treated if you visited a church for the first time you are much more likely to see them return.  This is even more likely if you have shared with them a message of hope and grace that is only available through a living Savior.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The growing interest in bivocational ministry

Last week I received a Doctor of Ministry dissertation a student at Talbot School of Theology had written.  It had been approved, and he wanted me to have a copy of it since I was one of the people he interviewed as part of his project.  The title of the dissertation is Effective Strategies for Bi-Vocational Ministry.  I haven't read it yet, but it is on my reading schedule for later this month.

For the past few years I have been interviewed for two or three DMin projects each year that  explored aspects of bivocational ministry.  This excites me because it demonstrates that people are seeing the valuable contribution bivocational ministers are making to their churches and to the Kingdom of God.  Although I have not studied this, I would venture a guess that even ten years ago there were very few doctoral papers being written on bivocational ministry.  When my first book on bivocational ministry, Tentmaking Pastor, The: The Joy of Bivocational Ministry, was released in 2000 there were no more than a handful of books written on the subject, and I doubt there were any more doctoral studies on the topic than that either.  Today, that is slowly changing as more doctoral students are studying bivocational ministry and writing papers on their learnings.

Along with doctoral papers there are more books and magazine articles being written on the subject as well.  In addition to the ones I've written several others have contributed books on the subject.  My friend Terry Dorsett wrote one that I think is proving to be very valuable to bivocational ministers entitled Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church.  I am very thankful for these resources that will help bivocational pastors and the churches they serve.

More denominations and judicatories are scheduling training events for their bivocational and small church leadership.  As many of you know, in the past month I've led such events in Boston and in New Hampshire.  Both events were very well done, and I applaud the leaders who made these events possible.  This again reflects a growing appreciation for what bivocational ministers are doing.

It is also exciting to see universities and seminaries offering programs specially designed for bivocational ministers.  A few are offering dual-degree programs that will be quite helpful for those persons who feel specifically called to bivocational ministry, and I know of at least one other school now actively considering such a program.  Growing numbers of seminaries are now offering at least some of their degree programs entirely online making them more accessible to bivocational ministers who are already juggling family, work, and church responsibilities.  These programs will make it possible for many of these ministers to benefit from a seminary education.  Schools like Campbellsville University have certificate programs that have been developed for bivocational ministers who do not have a college education to make it possible for them to receive valuable theological and ministerial education.

When you combine all these new developments together it is easy to see the change in how bivocational ministry is perceived today compared to how many viewed it twenty years ago.  There is a growing interest in bivocational ministry because it is obvious that our numbers are growing, and the expectation is that bivocational ministry will increase even more in the future.  But, more than just the fact that our numbers are growing is the realization that we are bringing valuable ministry to the churches we serve.  We no longer have to try to justify our existence to others; our ministries provides all the justification that is needed.

I encourage my bivocational brothers and sisters to take advantage of the many opportunities available to you.  Buy the books that will help your ministry.  Attend the workshops that are offered.  Take the classes that will help you be a more effective minister.  When I began my bivocational pastorate in 1981 none of these things were available to me.  You are richly blessed that more and more resources are now available to you, so please use them.  Invest in yourself and your ministry.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The value of a vision

In my files are numerous definitions of vision, but my favorite comes from Andy Stanley who wrote, "A vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be."  Let's unpack that a little.  First, a vision is a clear mental image.  It is something you can see in your mind.  The image of a vision is as real to the one holding it as reality itself.  Second, it is a picture of what could be.  We often see our churches for what they are currently, but the visionary sees it as it could be.  Third, a vision is fueled by the conviction that what you are seeing in your mind is something that should be.  This is a preferred future for your church.  The visionary not only believes that what he or she sees is something that is possible but that it should be the way the church looks in the future.  This is a powerful definition of a vision, and it is this type of vision that has the power to transform churches.

The next question that must be asked is what value does having such a vision bring to a church (or any organization for that matter)?  First of all, a vision will help a church get out of its ruts.  Lyle Schaller once wrote that, "Without a vision of a new tomorrow, we are all inclined to attempt to do yesterday all over again."  For most churches, we've been doing yesterday for years, and most of us would have to admit that yesterday isn't working any more.  We need to get out of those ruts we are in and begin to do something new.  Vision helps us do that.

It also provides us with focus.  I always appreciated the story of Nehemiah in the Old Testament.  Charged by God to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem he refused to be deterred by his critics and enemies.  It seems the more resistance he encountered the more determined he was to complete his God-given task.  He had a vision from God that showed him what the city and walls surrounding it could look like, plus he was absolutely convinced that this was what should happen.  Let the critics and enemies come.  He was focused on the task at hand and could not be distracted.  If our churches are to be transformed we must have the same laser focus on our God-given vision as well.

Vision will unite the church.  If we return to the story of Nehemiah we see that those who returned with Nehemiah shared his vision, and because of that they were united around the task.  That unity enabled them to complete their work in only 52 days.

Vision will also enable people to move beyond their own self-interests.  If a church does not have a vision that has united the people it is possible that every person in a congregation will have a different vision of what the church should be and do.  Some of those competing visions are going to bump up against each other eventually and lead to conflict.  In fact, I often define conflict as nothing more than two or more visions competing for the same space.  However, if people share a common vision then they are more likely to work together to achieve it.

Finally, vision allows a church to be proactive rather than reactive.  Without a vision churches spend much of their time responding to things as they happen.  With a vision churches are making things happen.  Which do you think leads to a more productive ministry?

For more information about what vision can do in your church I encourage you to read my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues.  In it you will find several components of a healthy small church, and vision is one of those components.  This has been my most popular book, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to lead their church to become healthier.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Leaders set the mood

Those of you who know me know that for several years I managed a small  business our family owned.  The first several years was enjoyable and profitable.  (Funny how those things go together!)  The last several years of owning that business it was neither of those things.  A combination of the economy turning sour and several mistakes I made eventually led to our having to close the company.  I have written an e-book about those mistakes that is available here.

One of the mistakes I made was that I stopped being positive about the company and its future.  I would go into the office obviously discouraged and downcast.  I had plenty of good reasons for feeling that way, but my attitude affected everyone who worked there.  Because of me it was not a pleasant place to work.  Our folks were trying and working hard, but I'm sure they didn't feel their efforts were appreciated by me.  I'm also sure there were many days they were hoping I wouldn't even show up because my depressed attitude brought everyone else down.

Leaders do set the mood for the organization they lead, and this is true of churches as well.  As I meet with pastors I'm often bothered by how many have such negative feelings towards their current ministries and members in their congregations.  When I visit their churches I'm not surprised that it is not an exciting place of worship and ministry.  One could ask the chicken and egg question, I suppose.  Is the negative atmosphere in the church the cause of the pastor's discouragement or is the pastor's attitude responsible for the negative atmosphere?  Either could be true for different churches, but one thing I know is that things will never turn around in the church until the pastor's attitude towards it changes.  Until the pastor becomes positive about the opportunities that exist in the church no one else there will, and things will continue their downward spiral.

In 1994 H. B. London, Jr. and Neil Wiseman wrote what I believe to be a classic for pastors titled The Heart of a Great Pastor: How to Grow Stronger and Thrive Wherever God Has Planted You.  One of the things they wrote in their book has stuck with me all these years: "Most desirable places were difficult until a previous pastor loved the church into greatness."  Throughout the book they emphasize that our current ministries are holy ground and should be treated as such.  Rather than complain about how difficult our churches are, our attitude should be that God has called us to this place for such a time as this.  The church you currently serve will either be better or worse when you leave it, and our intention should be that it will be better.  What might happen if, instead of complaining and criticizing, we determined we would love it into greatness?

This doesn't ignore the fact that churches can be difficult to lead.  I served as a pastor for twenty years so I understand the frustration that comes with the position.  As I've told people in the past, I resigned from my church many times on a Monday morning.  I just had the good sense not to tell anyone but God, and before the week was over he was always able to help me begin to see things through his eyes.  I often told our congregation in my messages how much I loved them and how much they meant to me, and I was quite honest when I said those things.  The church was a much different place when I left that it was when I arrived, and I believe part of the reason was that they had a pastor who loved them.

Since my business closed I've often wondered why I could take that same positive attitude to that endeavor that I had with the church, and I've not found an answer to that question.  I am certain if I projected the negative emotions I felt with the business onto the church that the church would have never become the positive place it was when I left.  Just know this, as a leader in your church your attitudes will set the mood for the entire church. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Change, conflict, growth

Several months ago a pastor search committee for a small, rural church told me they wanted a pastor who would grow the church.  I had never done this before, but when they said that I responded, "Are you sure about that?"  They looked at me a little stunned as if I should not be asking that question so I continued, "If you could grow this church by doing what you've been doing you would already be growing.  So, what you are telling me is that you want a pastor who will come in here and begin to change everything you have been doing.  Is that what you really want?"  They looked at one another and began to smile.  One of them spoke up and said, "Maybe we need to rethink this."

Another church contacted me five or six years ago asking me to meet with their newly formed Church Growth Committee and talk to them about how they could grow their church without making anybody mad.  I told the caller that I would save myself a trip and them a meeting by telling them right now that what they wanted to do was impossible.  Once again I explained that if they could grow by doing what they've been doing they would already be growing.  If they were serious about growing their church they would have to make some changes, and some of those changes were going to upset some people and create problems.

As Shannon O'Dell explains in his book Transforming Church in Rural America, "If we are to fulfill our vision, we have no other choice.  It's change, conflict, growth; change, conflict, growth; and you have to walk through that process...we must go through change and then conflict in order to see growth."  This is not easy for a small, rural church that puts so much emphasis on being a family church.  The assumption is that families avoid conflict so anything that creates conflict is avoided.

There are a couple of things wrong with that assumption.  One, is that families do not avoid conflict.  Some families are known for conflict.  (As are some churches!)  But, even in the healthiest families there are going to be conflicts because families are made up of people who do not always agree.

The second thing that is wrong with that assumption is the belief that all conflict is bad.  We want to avoid conflict because conflict is bad, but not all conflict is bad.  Conflict is needed if the church is to move forward.  The way conflict is sometimes handled is bad, but the conflict itself isn't necessarily bad.  Too many churches are stuck because they try so hard to avoid conflict that they won't do anything new if even one person is opposed, and there will usually be at least one that prefers the status quo.

Change, conflict, growth.  These are the steps that must be taken if growth is the desired end result.  Growth can have many facets so it's important to begin with the desired growth and work backwards.  In what ways does the church want to experience growth?  Does it want to see an increase in worship attendance?  Does it want to see larger numbers involved in discipleship programs?  Does it want to see increased financial giving?  Does it want to develop new ministries either for the existing congregation or the community?   There are countless additional areas in which a church can grow, but the point is that the desired area of growth must be identified.  Once that is done the leaders can begin to work backwards.

What would have to change in order to make it possible to experience growth in your desired areas?  For most smaller churches, when they talk about growth they are referring to numerical growth.  So what has to change in order to make that happen?  Do you need to adjust the times of your worship services that would make it possible for more people to attend?  Does the format of the worship need to change to better appeal to unchurched people in your community?  Does the church need training in hospitality to make a better impression on first-time guests?  Does the church need a better image in the community?  I've had some churches admit to me that they have a horrible reputation in their communities because of past events that occurred in their churches.  Those churches are unlikely to see any numerical growth until they overcome the poor images people have of them.  Does your pastor need different skills sets?  Again, the list goes on and on, but you must identify the issues that are preventing your church from growing and begin to address those issues.

However, be assured that when you address even some of the worst issues that may exist in your church there may well be some people who want to preserve those issues.  That is where the conflict will occur, but until you overcome the conflict and change the things that are preventing growth from occurring, your church will never grow.

Change, conflict, growth.  It is a pattern that will exist in any church serious about growing.  O'Dell's book is a good resource to help the smaller church enter into that pattern whether the church is in a rural area of not.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Let's live our lives now

**Before starting the post let me encourage you to "follow" this blog.  Many more people read it each day than follow it.  By following the blog you will be certain not to miss any post.  I would love to see the numbers of followers double in the next week or so, and that can easily happen if each of you who read it will "follow" it.  Thanks!**

Several years ago I read someone who wrote that too many people live on Someday Isle.  Any time they are asked what they want to do they begin their answer with "Someday I'll...."  The problem is that day never arrives and they approach the end of their lives having never enjoyed living out their dreams.

I just finished reading Live Ten: Jump-Start the Best Version of Your Life by Terry A. Smith who addresses the same thing in one chapter.  He writes, "Some of us are spending our lives preparing for life.  We're waiting for someday or for when this dream comes true...that business gets started...my kids graduate from college...I pay off my debts...I retire.  Someday.  When?  To be growing people, we can't forget that as we're working on better, best, and preferred things, we still must show up in the present and be thankful for this moment."  The truth is it is often in doing the mundane things in life that we are able to move into a more preferred future.  Smith writes, "Keep doing the fundamentally right things regardless of whether they immediately pay off.  There's a lot to be said about getting up every day and doing those things until at some point over time, we experience a victorious result.  Great dreams, ideas, and futures don't happen overnight; they manifest through perseverance."

So many people I know seem to be preparing for life rather than living it.  I want to always be growing and have dreams for the future, but I don't want to miss out on what God wants to do in my life now either.  I don't want to be one of those people who die with the music still in them.  Yes, we need to be looking towards the future, but we also need to live in the present and allow ourselves to be used right where we are today.

A lot of churches live on Someday Isle as well.  Ask such churches what they are doing to impact people's lives, and they will respond that they are looking for a pastor who can lead them in a new vision, or they are waiting for someone to come who can build a great youth ministry, or they are waiting until their denomination comes up with a new program that will jump-start their church, or they are waiting for something else to happen so they can begin to be used by God.  Unfortunately, none of those things are likely to ever happen, and if they are still open in fifty years they would probably still be waiting for the same things to occur.

God has a purpose for your church today, and it can be fulfilled by the people and the resources you have today.  If your church isn't willing to live into that purpose now it should not think that God will bring a greater vision for ministry later.  You've already demonstrated that you prefer making excuses than using the talents and resources you have now for ministry today.  Be faithful where you are today, and God will bring an increase in both resources and ministry opportunities.

The same is true for you as an individual.  God wants you to live your life today.  Don't wait until everything is perfect in your life to begin living life because things will never be perfect.  There will always be something that could be better.  The devil will give you plenty of excuses to keep you from living the life God has for you.  Always be looking to the future, but live your life now.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The greatest lesson we can learn from failure

No one likes to fail.  I know I don't.  I'm a very competitive person who likes to win at everything I do.  But, the fact is that we often learn more from our failures than from our successes.  I became a better pastor as I worked through those times when I failed to reach certain goals.  As a leader of a small business and other endeavors with which I've been involved, I learned more about leadership during times of failure than I ever learned from my successes.  As others have said, failure really isn't failure if you learn something from it.  But, what is the best way to learn from our failures?  I believe it begins when we take a look in the mirror.

Mark Miller, in his book The Heart of Leadership: Becoming a Leader People Want to Follow (BK Business), writes, "Every time you experience an outcome that doesn't meet your expectations, look in the mirror and ask yourself how you contributed to that failure.  Ask yourself what you'll need to do differently in the future to get a different result.  Identify lessons from every failure - personal, team, or organizational.  A great question to ask is, 'What did I do, or fail to do, that contributed to this outcome?'"

This is not something most of us enjoy doing.  We usually prefer to blame someone else or some circumstance for our failures, but the reality is that we have often done or failed to do something that contributed to the failure.  Perhaps we failed to create sufficient urgency to make our proposed changes acceptable to those we are leading.  Maybe we failed to predict the level of opposition we would encounter if we attempted a task.  For newer leaders it may be an issue of not having established sufficient trust in those we are leading for them to follow us.  Maybe we failed to see the little things that should have warned us there were problems.  Leaders bear some responsibility in almost every failure we experience, and the greatest lesson we can learn from our failures is what we can do to avoid making those same mistakes again.  But, to learn that we first have to be willing to look in the mirror and accept responsibility for those things for which we are responsible.

Sometime back I wrote an e-book that looked at the mistakes I made that led to the closure of our small business.  The book is called Mistakes: Avoiding the Wrong Decisions that Will Close Your Small Business.  It is available as a Kindle book here.  In the book I discuss the many small mistakes I made that eventually led to us having to close our business.  Some friends who have read it have accused me of being too hard on myself, but I don't agree with them.  While many things did contribute to our losing the business, the ultimate responsibility of that failure rests on me and decisions I made (and didn't make) that could have led to a different outcome.  Writing that book was not an easy experience and could only happen after I looked in the mirror and asked the kinds of questions Miller poses in his book.  But, as painful as that experience was, I learned so much from it that I now carry on in my various leadership roles today.

As much as we may despise failure we can learn much from it if we are willing to look in the mirror and ask the hard questions of ourselves.  Use those disappointing times to grow as a leader.  If you do, you'll find fewer failures and greater successes in your future endeavors.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Is what you are doing worth the life of the Son of God?

I do not remember where I came across the title of this post, but it is a question that I use to challenge the church leaders who attend my workshops.  It is one of the most powerful questions that churches can ask of themselves.  I remember that the pastor who wrote about this question said he asks each of the committees and boards in his church to ask this question at the start of every meeting, and that he asks it of the congregation about once a month.  "Is what we are doing here today worth the life of the Son of God?"  As I explain to my workshop attendees I am not always as tactful as others so I will sometimes ask the question this way, "Did Jesus really die for this?"  The emphasis is on the "this."

The reason I think this is such a powerful question is that I doubt that Jesus really cares about much of what the church is doing.  I fear that we spend way too much time focusing on things that really don't matter and miss out on what God wants to do in our world through us.  Board meetings are spent hearing reports on how many hospital visits the pastor made last month while never getting around to discussing how the church can best reach out to the unchurched in the community.  Committees spend incredible amounts of time deciding on the color of carpet for the sanctuary while people within the shadow of their church's steeples are dying without Christ and children are going to bed hungry.  Does it really matter whether you put down blue or grey carpet when people are going to hell all around us?

Denominations form task groups to discuss and re-discuss issues that churches and our culture are never going to agree on while their baptism rates continue to decline.  They create position papers that few people outside of their denominational leadership will ever read and that will have zero impact on the vast majority of their churches while failing to provide the leadership that their churches do need to more effectively minister to their communities.

Why did Jesus go to the cross?  Because man is a sinner whose sins have cut him off from God.  Christ came to reconcile mankind to God and gave the church the task of proclaiming that reconciliation.  If we fail to do that then we have failed as a church no matter what else we might be doing.

The mission of the church is simple.  It consists of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  It does not matter if you are a church of 50 people or 50,000 your mission is the same: the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  Your vision will certainly look different because your vision will be how your church will carry out that mission.  Obviously, a church of 50 people will approach that mission differently than will a church of 50,000, but the focus is still going to be on the mission.  Anything that distracts a church from fulfilling that mission should be avoided because it is not worth the life of the Son of God.

Depending on the statistics you read, 3,000-5,000 churches in the US close their doors every year.  Most of these churches are smaller, but they do not close their doors just because they are small.  These churches do not shut down because they no longer have a mission to fulfill.  They shut down because they have lost their vision for ministry.  They long ago forgot their purpose for being.  They substituted activity for ministry and began a downward spiral that eventually closed their doors.

The next time you begin a committee meeting in your church begin by asking the question, "Is what we are doing here today worth the life of the Son of God?"  The next time your church's business meeting gets a little heated stand up and ask the question.  You may want to also ask the question at the end of your worship service: Is what happened here today worth the life of the Son of God.  Or, if you're feeling real bold ask it my way, "Did Jesus really die for THIS?"

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

God gave us a mind to use

In yesterday's post I discussed a little about my recent Church Relations Council meeting at Campbellsville University.  Our guest speaker for this event was Dr.Charles T. Carter from Beeson Divinity School at Samford University.  He is a powerful preacher who delivered a great message on both days.  His first message had to do with our minds and our responsibility to nourish them and use them.

Some people believe that Christians are mindless sheep who are willing to accept anything their leaders tell them.  While that is far from the truth, it's easy to see why some would believe that.  It is embarrassing to read some of the posts on Facebook and other social media from Christians who continue to repeat wild accusations that were proven false years ago.  It is even more embarrassing to read some of the replies that Christians make to people who disagree with them.  Some people find it easier to yell louder than to present facts that might prove their point.

Although it has always been true, we now live in a time where it is more important than ever that we can not only tell people what we believe but why we believe it.  I've met too many Christians who cannot do that.  Some of their theology may be sound, but they would struggle to defend it, and some of their beliefs are simply not biblical but they hold them because it is what they've always been taught.  We need to be like the Bereans who Luke said, "received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17: 11)"   In Paul's final message to young Timothy he wrote, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2: 15)"  Do you see the connection?  God's approval was linked to Timothy's proper handling of Scripture.  That required study on Timothy's part, and on us as well.

In 2001 I resigned as a pastor to accept a ministry in our judicatory.  For the last few years I served as pastor I was very concerned with the Sunday school material we used.  I felt it had been "dumbed down" to the point that it had very little content.  I taught the Young Adult class in our small church and decided to develop my own Sunday school material for our class.  I wanted our young adults to be exposed to something that would be more challenging than I was seeing in our material.  We cannot expect to raise up Christian leaders who are growing in their faith if we do not expose them to sound doctrine and encourage them to think about what they are learning.

One of the things that often bothers me when I visit the offices of bivocational pastors, and even some fully-funded pastors, is their libraries.  It is difficult to do sermon preparation well week after week, and without a well-stocked library it is even more difficult.  I realize that some pastors today use Bible study software on their computers, but I know that many of the ones I visit do not.  I have to say that I worry about the quality of their messages and what they are feeding their people based upon what I see on their bookshelves.

In Dr. Carter's message he noted his belief that the reason many pastors leave their churches every 2-3 years is because that is all the sermons they have, and they are too lazy to study and prepare new ones.  They take their sermon barrel to the next church and start over again.  If you are a long time reader of this blog you will recognize that as a statement I have made here a few times as well.  Timothy was challenged to study and handle the Scriptures well if he wanted God's approval on his ministry, and you and I have the same challenge if we have been called to the ministry.

I want to encourage you to develop a reading program that will expose you to some of the great Christian thinkers and writers, both new and old.  Right now for my devotional reading I am re-reading The Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition by James Montgomery Boice.  Some years for my devotional reading I have read through several commentaries on one book of the Bible such as Romans.  There is a big difference between reading these books in order to prepare a sermon and reading them for your own personal enrichment and growth.  One year much of my devotional reading focused on apologetics.

God gave you a mind to develop and use.  If he called you to a place of leadership within the church he also gave you the responsibility to help others develop their minds as well.  Let's use our minds for the glory of God and always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The need for Christian higher education

For the past 15 or so years I've been privileged to be a member of the Church Relations Council at Campbellsville University in Kentucky.  Last week we had our two-day Spring meeting on campus.  I currently serve as the chair of the Academic Committee so we heard reports from the various deans on campus about what is happening in their various schools.  It was exciting to hear about new degree programs that are being implemented and others that are being considered.  The President's report discussed the continued growth of the university both in numbers of students and in the new facilities that are being built and planned.  It is obvious that Campbellsville University has a clear vision of where it is going and has the plans in place to get them there.

The ultimate goal of the university is to prepare young people to be Christian servant leaders regardless of what careers they may enter.  The university seeks to accomplish this by integrating faith and academics in everything they do.  I believe it is that goal that encourages so many young people to pick this school over other possibilities.  These are young people who want more from a college education than just a degree.  They want to be leaders in their fields.  Maybe they don't know much about being a servant leader when they begin their studies, but by the time they complete their four years they will have learned that being a servant leader is the highest form of leadership there is.  Not all students who come to this campus are Christians when they arrive, but within a very short period of time they will be exposed to the gospel from their fellow students and in their chapel services, and many of them will come to faith in Jesus Christ before they leave the university.

One of the facts about Campbellsville University that always amazes me is the number of international students who attend this university located in rural Kentucky about an hour from Louisville.  A significant percentage of the student population come from overseas with 43 countries currently represented.  This provides the university with a great opportunity to provide a Christian witness to persons who may have never heard of Jesus Christ.  Some of the students will become Christians while on campus and then return to their homes and share the gospel with their friends and family.

On many university campuses today all truths are accepted as equally valid unless one proposes that there is such a thing as absolute truth.  All philosophies and religious beliefs are considered equal unless one is a Christian.  Christian values, beliefs, and morals are considered fair game for ridicule and outright contempt on many university campuses.  Christian young people who attempt to take a stand for their beliefs are often the targets of ridicule from their instructors and fellow classmates.  The toxic atmosphere on such campuses is not conducive to receiving a quality education nor learning how to be a leader.

This is why I continue to serve on the Church Relations Council of Campbellsville University.  I believe in the value of Christian higher education.  I believe there is value in a young person having his or her beliefs challenged, but I believe it should be done in a way that does not demean the person or the beliefs that are held.  If our beliefs are never challenged we may never know exactly what we believe and why we believe it, and I believe knowing the why is just as important as knowing what we believe.

Christian higher education begins with the premise that there is such a thing as absolute truth and begins to seek to learn what that truth is.  This enables a person to have a moral and ethical foundation upon which to build his or her life which is going to lead to greater success.  As mentioned before, Christian higher education combines faith with scholarship that produces the servant leaders that our nation and our world so desperately needs at this time.

If I was a Christian parent with high school age children I would want them to at least look at Campbellsville University when they begin to think about where they want to pursue their education.  This school is consistently rated in the top schools in the country by various publications that do such rankings.  It has a very successful athletics program, a beautiful campus, numerous degree programs to choose from, a low 13:1 student to faculty ratio, and leaders and faculty who truly care about the young people who attend the university.  Even more important, in my mind, is the fact that it has a clear vision about where God is leading it in the future and the quality education it offers to help your young person develop into a Christian servant leader.  You can check out the campus at www.campbellsville.edu.  You may also contact me if you have any questions, and I will try to answer them or direct you to the person who can.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Is bivocational ministry a calling?

Last night I met with the pastor search committee of a small church that has been through a lot of turmoil in recent years.  We pray that their worst days are behind them, but they are now searching for someone to come in and serve there as pastor.  Their congregation is small and so is their salary package, but this is a church with potential if they can keep their focus on the important things and not go back and relive some recent history.  They will be seeking a bivocational pastor.

One of the questions that came up regarded the age range of their next pastor.  It will take some time for many in this congregation to trust a minister again, so one person suggested they probably needed a younger person who could stay with them for a number of years.  Someone else was afraid if they found a young pastor he or she would not stay there long because that person would be seeking a larger church.  They had no concept of a person who might feel called to serve a smaller church as a bivocational pastor.  Their experience had always been that pastors use smaller churches as stepping stones to larger churches.

I explained to them that is not always the case and used myself as an example.  During my 20 years as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church I was approached by a number of fully-funded churches who wanted me to serve as their pastor.  Some of these were very tempting offers at the time, but I always declined because I felt called to do what I was doing.  I felt called to the church I served, and I felt called to be bivocational.  That may sound strange to some people, but I never felt I could go to another church until I felt called to leave the one I was serving.  That never happened until I was asked to come on staff in our judicatory and assume the ministry I now have.

I believe there are people who are in bivocational ministry due to circumstances, and they would leave bivocational ministry for fully-funded ministry as soon as their circumstances changed.  I also believe that there are those of us who feel called specifically to bivocational ministry, and it would be a mistake for us to enter fully-funded ministry.  Those who serve as bivocational ministers due to circumstances in their lives are often not very happy in their ministries, but for those of us who feel called to this ministry we find tremendous joy and freedom in serving as bivocational ministers.

One of the challenges we face in denominational work is helping people identify that call on their lives.  When I began my ministry I would have loved to have had someone come alongside me to help me process the call on my life.  There weren't such things as ministry coaches back then, and many denominational leaders weren't sold on the idea of bivocational ministry in the early 1980s.  Today, of course, bivocational ministry is more accepted by many leaders, and there are numerous ministry coaches who can help one sort through their calling.  For a good coaching resource that you can use to self-coach or to determine if a coach could help you is my book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide

This can be especially important for a younger person who may feel called to bivocational ministry and wants to pursue a seminary education.  This person may want to explore some of the dual degree programs some seminaries now offer to prepare for bivocational ministry.  Another option might be to pursue a degree for your other profession and take online courses through a school such as Campbellsville University that has a program especially developed for bivocational ministers.  There are now numerous options available for a person who feels called to bivocational ministry.

I have no doubt that God called me to bivocational ministry and that he is calling persons now to such ministry.  There is a growing need for bivocational ministers in our churches today, and I am convinced that this need has not caught God by surprise!  It is a worthy calling on a person's life, and if I can help you discern if this might be what God is calling you to do please contact me and let me help you explore that possibility.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sacred cows and dead relatives

In some of my small church workshops I ask the question, "How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?"  Answer - "What do you mean change the light bulb?  MY GRANDMOTHER GAVE THIS CHURCH THAT LIGHT BULB!"  It usually gets a laugh, but it also makes the point that the church is often not too excited about change, and often times the resistance to change efforts comes as a reference to dead relatives.

Perhaps a long-deceased relative purchased a pew or a pulpit that someone has recommended be replaced.  Often, if someone brings up the idea of relocating the church to another property people go into a panic because their parents or grandparents were married in that building.  In some churches everything you see has a memorial plaque on it honoring the persons who purchased the item or made some other important contribution to the church.  It can be very difficult to do away with those items even if they no longer serve any real purpose.

Sacred cows can be just as important to the nay-sayers as dead relatives.  Sacred cows are often the traditions that a congregation has developed over the years.  Nobody is sure why things are done the way they are, but we can't change them.  "We've never done it that way before," is the battle cry of those who watch over sacred cows.

It should be said that I respect the traditions of churches and feel certain that many of them once served a purpose.  However, that purpose may have long passed.  It is also highly probable that many of the sacred cows that people want to protect began as a new idea that was likely a threat to another sacred cow.  It may have also been resisted at the time it was proposed, but eventually it became the way the church did things to the point that now it is a tradition that must be preserved at all costs.  Traditions must never be allowed to impede ministry in the present or in the future.

I feel the same about honoring persons who have served the church well in the past.  When I pastored our church we took communion to our shut-ins each Communion Sunday.  One day while taking communion to one of our families the wife expressed her appreciation for what we were doing but asked, "Why do you do this for us?"  I responded that as I read through our church records I find their names on just about every page.  If it had not been for their faithfulness in the past the church might not be there for us today.  Taking communion to them now that they were unable to attend church was a way to remember and honor them for their many years of commitment.  However, that respect also cannot be allowed to curtail a church's ministry today.

Small church leaders walk a fine line between being visionary and respecting the history and traditions of the churches they serve.  I recommend pastors of smaller churches spend some time reading the records of the churches they serve and talking to persons who have been involved in the church for a number of years as well as people in the community.  Find out as much as possible about the history of the church and the people who have served there.  Do this before you begin suggesting changes.

This will allow you to consider how your proposed changes will be received and what some of the arguments will be that you may hear against your proposals.  This gives you an opportunity to plan for those arguments and enables you to have a response to them already prepared.  It will also help you know whether or not the timing is right for your recommendations.  I find that many pastors who get into trouble in their churches do not spend any time identifying the sacred cows and paying enough attention to those who have served the church in the past.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Can every church be a church planting congregation?

In yesterday's post I addressed the efforts of many denominations to plant new churches in large cities while seemingly ignoring the many rural churches that dot our countryside.  My question today has to do with who should be involved in planting new churches?  Is this the work of denominations or is this the role of churches?  My personal opinion is that planting new churches is primarily the task of the local church.  The role of denominations is to assist these churches by helping provide needed resources and training, but the primary work itself is done by the local church.

Healthy churches should be reproducing themselves by starting other healthy churches.  Jeff Iorg points out in his book The Case for Antioch: A Biblical Model for a Transformational Church that "The people in Antioch progressed from being an object of missionary outreach to a church sending missionaries while still first-generation believers."  And what did these missionaries do?  They started new churches.  And who were these missionaries?  Barnabas and Paul (Acts 13:2-3).  Their leaders!  This young church sent their leaders out to plant new churches!  Iorg states it this way, "Antioch sent its best leaders to carry the gospel to new cities, plant new churches, make disciples in new places, and later appoint elders in those churches."

Compare this to what happens in most churches today.  We take our best leaders, appoint them to every committee and board they will agree to, and bog them down in the maintenance tasks of our churches.  We do this because we lack the vision to see the ministry possibilities that exist in the planting of new churches and because we are afraid of losing the leaders we have serving in our churches.  We've done such a poor job of developing leaders and have so few in the pipeline that we want to keep the leaders we do have for ourselves.

I occasionally ask churches to consider starting a new church in a neighboring community.  Although I am always promised by the leadership that they will consider it, not once has a church followed through and actually attempted to start the new church.  They are so bogged down in their own church business that they never discern a vision for how their starting a new church in another community could advance the Kingdom of God.

A few years ago our judicatory was involved in a church re-start.  After the church was closed for a couple of years it reopened with people from several neighboring churches serving as a core group who could provide leadership.  Although the re-start struggled for a few years, today it has grown to the point where it is near capacity and needs additional space.  Nearly all the core group has returned to their churches, and the church is operating with new Christians.

Every church, regardless of size or age, can be, and should be, involved in planting new churches.  Perhaps your church is too small to start a church by itself, but it can cooperate with other churches to start a new church in a nearby community.  And who should you send?  If you follow the example of the church at Antioch you will send some of your leadership.

What would being involved in planting a new church do for your church?  I believe it would create a sense of excitement that is not always found in some smaller churches.  They would be involved in the birth of something new and exciting rather than wondering how long they will mange to keep their own doors open.  It would energize the younger people in your church as they witness your commitment to the work of the Kingdom and as they hear the stories of changed lives through the ministry of the new church.  It would encourage new persons to be interested in developing as leaders as they see the leaders of your church involved in more than maintenance activities.  It would lead to increased giving as people could see the important work their money was funding.  I believe a church that is committed to planting new churches would see a transformation that would take place in their church that would be every bit as exciting as seeing the new church take off.

Should your church be involved in planting new churches?  Yes.  Look around you and find communities that are underserved by good Bible-believing churches.  Talk to your denominational leadership to see if they have identified areas that need new churches.  Begin to pray about where God would have you start a new church and start talking to your leadership and congregation about how your church can be involved in this work.  Today is not too soon to begin.