Friday, May 30, 2014

Smaller churches must take advantage of existing technology.

What do you do if you are a small church in a small community?  Do you accept the prevailing opinion that you are not going to be able to grow and that death is inevitable, or do you look for other ways to reach people?  Most churches in that situation are accepting the prevailing opinion that they will never grow.  They have been small for so long they really cannot see themselves ever growing or having any type of significant ministry.  If they are located in a small or rural community, they have probably watched as their communities have also dwindled in size as more and more people are moving to larger cities.  In fact, some denominations have decided their primary focus in the future will be on the cities, and they are willing to virtually write off their small community and rural churches in order to have more resources for their city churches.  It's very hard for a small church to not be discouraged and see little future for their ministries.

I recently completed reading Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O'Dell.  In 2003 the author accepted the call to pastor a small church averaging about 30 people in a town of 100.  Today, the church has about 2,000 people who worship in one of their several satellite church sites with an additional 1,500 registered attendees who join in the worship in one of their many iCampus sites.  They are able to satellite feed their services all over the world giving them outreach capability far beyond the few people who live in their community.

It's an exciting story, but it is not one without problems.  Early in his ministry at the church O'Dell challenged some of the sacred cows in the church and experienced tremendous push-back and eventually saw many in his congregation leave the church.  As painful as that was it did not stop O'Dell.  He was a man who believed he had a vision from God to lead that little church into a world-wide ministry, and he did it.

As you might imagine, he didn't take the church from 30 people to 3,500 overnight.  He began slowly to make use of social media technology to connect with people in his own church and community.  It is here that so many of our smaller churches get stuck.  Anytime someone suggests using social media for ministry people give many arguments why it won't work.  Their people don't use social media. (The fastest growing group on Facebook is over 60 years old so that argument doesn't really work any more.)  If your folks don't know how to use Facebook, teach them.  Many pastors will argue that they don't know how to use computers and other technology.  Sorry, but that argument just doesn't cut it any more.  Either learn how to use it or step aside for someone who will.  In today's culture for a leader to say he or she doesn't know how to use computers is really saying they are no longer a leader.  Leaders are expected to be learners, and there is really no valid reason to not be able to at least do basic things on a computer.

You may never have a vision like O'Dell's that would include using satellite technology to send your messages and services across the world, but through the use of common technology like Facebook and Twitter you can easily send messages to members of your church and community.  People are now willing to drive an hour to attend a church that offers meaningful worship and messages.  What if you could save them the trip by opening other sites in nearby communities where your messages and worship would go?  Would these folks be likely to invite their friends to those services if they were held closer to where they lived?  The answer is probably yes, and all of a sudden you have expanded the ministry of your church.

I've enjoyed reading O'Dell's book not just for the out-of-the-box thinking he does but because he shares my passion for the small church.  At a time when many have written off the smaller church, many of these churches are finding creative ways to do ministry.  While some smaller churches do close their doors each week, those who find new ways of ministering have a bright future.  For many of the latter churches, the use of technology will be a significant new way of ministry.  I believe every church needs to examine how technology and social media can make your ministry much more effective.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

My computers are back!

Sunday afternoon when I returned home from church I tried to access the Internet on my computer.  Nothing happened.  Throughout the day I would try again thinking that perhaps the server was down.  I finally called my provider and was told there were no issues in our area.  I tried my laptop and was able to get online.  That convinced me that something was wrong with my desktop, and my fear was that I had contracted a virus.  That became more likely when I realized that my virus detector was shut down and nothing I did could open it back up.  Not wanting to bother my IT guy on a Sunday I began using my laptop when suddenly it went off-line and refused to get back online as well.

Monday morning I called my IT person who asked me to bring my laptop to his home.  About two hours later I left there with a system that would go online.  It had some minor issues but now it was working great.  I was given a couple of things to try with my desktop, but neither of them worked.  On Tuesday the desktop went in for repairs, and late Wednesday evening I received a call saying it was fixed.  A really bad spyware had got in that was difficult to detect and find but very destructive.  I wish I knew how it got in my computer, but the good news is that I'm back online.

What was so troubling is how dependent I realized I am on my computers.  I was receiving e-mails by phone, but phones are not conducive to long responses back to e-mail questions.  Virtually everything I started to do the past few days I was unable to do because I needed to go online to retrieve information or I needed to contact someone.  It was very frustrating.

More and more those of us in ministry are using computers to make our work easier.  There are great Bible study programs available that can make researching a message much easier.  I've often advocated on this site how important it is for ministers and churches, regardless of their size, to have a social media presence that allows for rapid communication with people.  Every week more ministers are taking tablets to the pulpit with them rather than their Bibles and notebooks.  There is no question that computers can be a valuable tool for ministers.  There is also no question that we can quickly become quite dependent on our computers, and if they go down we can find ourselves in trouble.

Another danger with this dependency is that we can begin to neglect the personal contact that leads to better ministry.  It is not enough for a pastor to sit at his or her desk and wear the keys out on the computer.  Pastoral ministry requires the pastor to go out and spend time with people.  He or she needs to be visible in the community as well as to the congregation.  The old adage about pastors is too often true:  Invisible six days a week and incomprehensible on the seventh.  When pastors spend time with people they are less likely to be incomprehensible because they have a better idea of how a message can speak to people.

Computers can also be a huge time waster.  Although we often talk about the time they can save us, they can also prevent us from making good use of our time.  If we have to stop and check our e-mail every time we receive another message or if we feel compelled to check Facebook every five minutes, we will find that we've lost a lot of time by the end of the day.

Most of us ministry will continue to be pretty dependent on our computers.  They do make ministry much more efficient, but let's not trade efficiency for the personal touch that ministry requires.  Let's also not give control of our lives over to our computers either.  They are just a tool that needs to be properly managed as a part of our lives and ministries.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What should smaller churches look for in a new pastor?

For the past 14 years I have served as a Resource Minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky.  One primary responsibility I have is to assist our churches when they seek new pastors.  Over the years I have worked with dozens of churches during their search, many of them smaller churches. A question I always ask these committees is what they are seeking in their new pastor.  After they give me their answers I then ask them what the vision of their church is.  Despite having worked with many churches, not one has ever been able to tell me the vision that drives the ministry of their church.  I explain that until they have a sense of where God is leading their church it will be difficult for them to call the right pastor.

I know many smaller churches believe that they need a pastor who can grow their church or one who can attract young people to their church, but that is not always the case.  What is God's vision for your church?  It may not be to have a great youth group or even to grow numerically into a large church.  God's vision may be for your church to offer a specific ministry to your community that no other church offers, but that ministry may not lead to great numbers of people attending your church.

One small church is located in a small community that enjoyed a country music hall that attracted some of the top names in country music.  A church was started in the community with a specific ministry to the people who visited the community each weekend to hear the entertainers who came to that hall to perform.  Services were held at a time that permitted visitors to the community to attend church and have time to return to their hotel room before check-out time.  The music in the worship services reflected the same style of music the people had heard the night before.  Over the years thousands of visitors from all over the world attended that little church and signed their visitor book.  Some of them found Christ while visiting that small church and returned to their homes changed people with a message that could change the lives of others.  This church may never grow to be a big church, but that doesn't appear to be God's vision for the church.  His vision is for this little church to have a world-wide ministry by reaching out to a specific group of people.

This church needs a pastor who can buy into this vision and minister within it.  They probably don't need a pastor who can reach youth because that is not the audience they are serving.  They don't need a pastor who feels called to pastor a megachurch because this church will never be a megachurch.  They minister in a small community primarily to people who are visiting their community for a short period of time for a specific purpose.  They don't need a pastor with great gifts in administration as there is not a lot of administration needed in the church.  They need a pastor who can relate to country music fans, who can share the Gospel with unchurched people from various cultures, and who has an appreciation for small communities.  Now, if God's vision for the church changes then what they will need in a pastor will change as well.

If your church is looking for a pastor you need to begin by understanding God's vision for your church and then looking for a pastor who have the gifts and a passion for that vision.  If you are a pastor looking for a church you should begin by seeing if your gifts and ministry passions match what the church has identified as God's vision for their future.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How many doors allow people to enter your church?

During a doctoral class Elmer Towns spoke about the difference between people coming into our churches through the front door and those who would come in through the side doors.  For many years the church has invited people to attend their worship services.  This was the attractional model, and is the model for those churches who still expect people to come into their church to attend the worship service or Sunday school program.  This model was effective when the culture was more favorable towards Christianity and the church than it is today.  However, the attractional model is much less effective today.

Side-door outreach invites people to become involved in various activities your church offers.  It is a much more relational way to reach out to unchurched people in your community.  These folks are invited to participate in activities that may not be spiritual in nature, but it allows them to develop relationships with people in your congregation.  These relationships will often encourage them to begin asking questions about your faith and provides you with opportunities to share your faith with them.  

A church can have many side doors.  It might have a ministry that provides meals to needy people that may be very attractive to someone who has a passion to help the less fortunate.  Another side door might be a small affinity group that meets in a room in the church or elsewhere.  Perhaps there are some individuals who enjoy fishing and decide to meet once a week to discuss new fishing techniques and equipment.  Others who enjoy fishing can be invited to join the group.  There may be a group of people who enjoys quilting and builds a small group around that interest.  Again, non-churched people can be invited to be a part of this group.  Side door activities can be very nonthreatening and yet offer a great opportunity to reach out to unchurched people.  There really are no limits to how many side doors a church may have, and the more the merrier because it offers a church greater opportunities to connect with the people who may have faith questions.

There are some cautions about side-door ministries that a church needs to know about.  In today's culture people are suspicious of churches, and if they believe that your group only exists to add another notch on its spiritual gun they will not be part of the group.  If you have an affinity group based on a love for fishing, then you better be going fishing together.  You need a leader who has a passion for fishing and enjoys teaching others about his or her love.  You are looking to build relationships around common interests.  You will be praying that through the relationships you are creating with others that you will have the opportunity to share your faith at an appropriate time, and in the meantime you will enjoy fishing and spending time with people who enjoy fishing as much as you do.  (At the least, you might be asked why you don't fish on Sunday mornings...assuming you don't!)

People are looking for opportunities to create authentic relationships with other people who share common interests.  The key word in that sentence is "authentic." Nobody wants to be somebody's project.  Even more, people don't want to feel like they've been used.  But, when done well a side-door approach can be a very effective way to reach out to persons in your community who are not connected to any church.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Military memories and a salute to all who have served

In 1967, just a few months before my first wedding anniversary, I left for Navy boot camp.  We were deep into the Vietnam war at that time, and I expected to be drafted at any time.  Rather than wait for the letter from Uncle Sam I decided to enlist in the Navy.  Even though that mean four years of active duty instead of two, I felt that this would give me an opportunity to receive some training and perhaps see some of the world other than the jungles of Vietnam.  The Navy had a 120 day delayed program that allowed a person to enlist and wait four months before reporting.  During that 120 days I did receive my draft notice, but all I had to do was show our draft board my enlistment papers and my draft notice was cancelled.

Following boot camp I was sent to Electricians school for about six months.  My wife and I lived off base while I was in school, but after graduation I was assigned to the USS Enterprise that was currently on station off the coast of Vietnam.  That was the first of two tours I made to Vietnam on the Big E, but I also had the opportunity to see places like Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Rio, and various cities on both the East and West coasts of the US.

Unfortunately, that also meant that my wife and were separated for long stretches of time.  In one 18 month period we saw each other for three weeks.  I first saw our daughter when she was two months old.  I spent two weeks with her and did not see her again until she was ten months old.  We would have been apart even longer if it was not time for the ship to be refueled, a process that took 18 months.  When the ship left port after the refueling it was only a few months before my enlistment ended and I returned home.

Maybe it's because of Memorial Day or the fact that I'm getting older, but I've thought a lot in recent weeks about my time in the Navy.  Maybe the fact that the Enterprise made its last voyage last winter and was decommissioned has made me think a lot of my time on the ship.  I know there were a lot of things about military life I didn't like.  I proved that when I didn't re-enlist, but most of those had to do with being apart from my wife and daughter a lot.  Actually, I made rank rather quickly and turned down one promotion rather than extending my enlistment three months to have enough time to qualify.  Duty on the Big-E wasn't bad, and once you were assigned to a carrier you often returned to one when your shore duty was over.  It was not unheard of for people to be reassigned to the Enterprise numerous times after completing their shore assignments.

You make a lot of friends in the military.  Most are not people you stay in contact with after leaving the service, but they are people you never forget.  Nor do you forget some of the experiences you shared with them.  A few people you do continue to talk to like Dennis DelCotto.  He and I were shipmates almost the entire three years I spent on the ship.  When the ship was in Virginia during refueling he spent a lot of time at our house on the weekends playing with our daughter.  He got married during that time, and he and his wife remain some of our closest friends.  We don't see each other often enough, but we do enjoy some extended phone calls once in a while and make occasional contacts on social media.

I also think about my spiritual life when I was in the Navy.  I usually attended worship services on the ship and often carried a little Gideon New Testament in my work shirt pocket which I read.  But, I certainly could not claim to have lived a Christian life when I was in the Navy nor could I call myself a Christian.  Despite that, I can see now that God was calling me to him even back then.  Sometime I'll tell you about a time that I believe God spared my life on the ship.  There was an accident on the ship that caused extensive damage and took the lives of a number of sailors, and had I not chosen to take a different route that morning I would have been in the midst of the damage.  God had a purpose for my life, and even though I was not living for him at the time, he spared my life so I could fulfill that purpose.

On this Memorial Day I want to thank each one of my readers who served their country in military uniform.  Our nation has enjoyed tremendous freedoms because of the courage and commitment of brave men and women who have been willing to sacrifice their own comfort, and even their lives, to make that possible.  When I served the military was not respected by many in our nation, and I'm glad that has changed.  Not only do we salute our fellow servicemen and women, but let's not forget those families who were left behind while we served our nation.  Spouses, children, and parents pay a price as well.

Today I pray a blessing on each of you who have served our nation and the families of those who have served.  I also pray for the families of those brave men and women who lost their lives while serving.  May God bless each of you, and may God bless America.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pastoral work that is seldom seen

Most pastors are very busy people with a lot of responsibilities.  If you ask most Christians what their pastors do you will hear that they preach, teach, visit people, and handle the administrative tasks required by the church.  These are the things that people most often see pastors doing, and these are the things by which most pastors are evaluated.  When I have conversations with people unhappy with their pastor the usual complaints I hear are that the pastor is not a good preacher or that he or she doesn't visit people, or that they are unorganized and the church is not being well-managed.  The interesting thing about each of these tasks is that once a person has been in ministry for even a short period of time he or she can do a decent job in each of them without any reliance on God.

Eugene Peterson makes this point in his book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.  He refers to the tasks I mentioned above, with the exception of visitation, as the visible lines of ministry, but he goes on to say that these lines must be connected to the proper angle or they lose the God-given shape they should have.  Those angles are prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction.  If the angles are given their proper place, the lines of ministry will fall into place, but if the angles are ignored we will eventually no longer have pastoral ministry.  We may have a professional ministry, but we won't enjoy a pastoral ministry.

Professional ministers can meet people's expectations of what a minister should be, but that often leaves us feeling like something is lacking.  Peterson writes, "We can impersonate a pastor without being a pastor.  The problem, though, is that while we can get by with it in our communities, often with applause, we can't get by with it within ourselves."

I can recall times during my pastoral ministry when I felt like RoboPastor.  Dial my phone number and I will appear in your hospital room.  Punch a button and out pops a sermon.  It didn't take long to find out what made my congregation happy and how to produce that.  But, those times of ministry were never satisfying.  I may have been meeting the expectations of the congregation, but deep within myself I knew I was not meeting my expectations of what a pastor should be.  I was also not meeting God's.  Those times always felt empty.  Even before reading Peterson's book, the way I got out of those empty times of ministry was to return to the angles: prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction.

But, to set aside time for such things is not easy for many of us.  People want us to be involved in their lives.  Much of the time we hear it as that they need us involved in their lives, and many pastors need to be needed.  When the phone rings we are too quick to run right over to someone's house because they need us.  It keeps us visible before the congregation and often results in appreciation from the one who called, and who doesn't want to be visible and appreciated?

However, if the time we spend with our parishioners is to have any real value it will come after we've worked the angles.  We will have spent time in prayer, in reading the Scriptures, and in spiritual direction, and then when we minister to others we will do so with the ability to offer them something solid and lasting.  Otherwise, we will, to use another of Peterson's terms, be putting plastic flowers in people's lives.

The thing I have to remind myself, and what I want you to remember, is that God called us to be something before he called us to do something.  We are called to be disciples.  We are called to be growing in our faith.  Our best doing will come out of our being, but if we are not working the angles it won't be long before we really have nothing left to give others except our professionalism.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What expectations have you accepted?

One of the books I'm currently reading is Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive by T. D. Jakes.  Although I've only began reading it I am enjoying the insights he brings to the subject.  He makes a comment about people's expectations when he writes, "People adapt to their own expectations.  In other words, we often behave based on our perceptions more than the reality of our actual circumstances."  As I read that I realized that this describes the situations that exist in many of our churches.

Someone once commented: If you think you can or think you can't, you'll be right.  Often, what determines what we achieve is based not on reality or our circumstances but on our perceptions of what we can accomplish.  Self-limited thinking is what holds many people and churches back, not a lack of opportunities that might be before them.

A few days ago I had a post on this blog entitled "But we're just a small church."  Churches with this mindset often cannot see the opportunities for ministry they have because they've stopped looking.  In their minds, they are just a small church with such limited resources that they couldn't do anything anyway so why bother seeking out ministry opportunities?  They allow their church facility to fall into disrepair, they settle for poor leadership, both pastoral and lay, they offer outdated programs and ministries, they tolerate uninspiring worship services, all because they long ago stopped thinking they could do any better.  They adapted to their expectations of what small churches are, and those expectations became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It doesn't have to be like that.  Your church sits in the midst of a huge mission field that needs Jesus Christ.  God has placed you there so you can be the hands and feet and voice of Christ to a community that desperately needs to encounter the living Son of God.  Within your congregation are people with spiritual gifts that can be expressed in new and exciting ministries launched by your church.  Leadership can be trained and developed.  New ministries that actually touch the lives of people can be started.  Regardless of what your church has been in the past, it can have a brand new beginning and become what God has intended it to be all along.

For any of this to happen, it will require a new set of expectations on the part of your congregation.  They can no longer settle for what is but begin to look for new possibilities and believe that they can do something about those possibilities when they find them.  Your church must begin to believe that it has been placed where it is for such a time as this, and that God wants to do amazing things in and through your congregation.  You need to expect that something good is going to happen every time your doors are open and every time you represent Jesus Christ to those around you.

Expectations by themselves change nothing, but having the right expectations will provide you with the proper foundation to begin doing new things that will make a positive difference in your life, your ministry, and your community.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What would happen if your church didn't open next week?

Approximately 100 churches close their doors every week never to reopen them.  What if your church was one of them?  What would be the impact if your church closed its doors?  No doubt it would have an impact on the fellowship you have with the other members of your church, and those relationships are important, but they could be continued in other churches.  Assuming your church has a pastor, it would have an impact on the pastor and his or her family, but there are other churches looking for ministers.  If your church has historical value to the community there would be some loss in that sense as your church's long history of ministry in the community would be ended.  But, would your church's closure have any other impact on your community, or would many people not even be aware that it had closed?

Sadly, I am afraid that many of our churches could close and few people would know the difference.  These are churches that have little, if any, impact in the community.  Several years ago I was trying to find a church that had invited me to a meeting.  The directions I had been given were not very good, it was growing dark, and the church was located in the middle of farm country where I had travelled very little.  Even though I am a man, I actually stopped twice and asked for directions to the church.  Neither place could tell me where the church was.  I finally did find it, and when I did I realized I was no more than a mile or two from either of the places where I had asked directions.  If that church closed, would there be much of an impact on those who did not normally attend?  I doubt it.  People living within two miles of the church didn't know it existed or where it was.

Several years ago a big-box store came to our community.  Many people cheered because of the low prices the store offered.  A few remarked that it would probably result in many of the local shops closing, but few seemed to care.  That would later change when many of the local shops did close and their stores remained empty.  Within a short time people began to miss their local shops and the goods and services they offered.  While the big-box store offered lower prices, people missed the service they received from the now-closed local stores.  They found that the merchandise carried by the big-box store did not always have the same quality they were used to buying from the local merchants.  More and more one began to hear people saying they wished this store or that one had not closed, but now it was too late.  The stores were closed and would likely never be re-opened.

Would people be sad if your church closed, or would they even notice?  The answer to that will be found in how much of an impact your church is having on its community.  How involved in your community is your church?  Are you doing ministry-related activities that make your church visible to the community?  Are you doing things that are changing the lives of people?  If you are you will never have to worry about your church closing because the people will not let it close.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bivocational ministers and team ministry

Every bivocational minister understands the challenges that come when one tries to juggle his or her ministry with the expectations of their families, their other jobs, their own need for self-care, and their personal spiritual life.  It never seems that there are enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs to be done.  Regardless of which area of your life you are addressing at any given time, there are other needs screaming for your attention as well.  I served as a bivocational pastor of a church for twenty years so I understand this challenge quite well.  Sometimes I handled it fairly well, and other times I neglected some things that should not have been neglected.  When the latter happened, there was always a price to be paid.

A few years ago a friend and fellow bivocational minister, Terry Dorsett, wrote a most helpful book titled Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church.  This book is as much a manual to help a pastor develop the teams he or she needs as it is one to just read and place somewhere on a bookshelf.  After spending some time looking at bivocational ministry and various aspects of it, Terry begins to focus on the nuts and bolts of identifying the teams your church needs, the people who should serve on them, and how to develop them so they can provide the church with effective ministry.  This book walks the bivocational ministry through how to develop the leadership teams that will both enhance the ministry of the church and remove some of the pressure the minister often feels when trying to do it all.

In my experience, most bivocational ministers are probably Type-A personalities.  We, and I am including myself in this, want to make things happen, and we want them to happen today.  We often feel like we don't have time to spend on developing teams.  After all, the church called us to do the ministry.  Right?  Well, maybe the church called us to do the ministry, but that was not the call God placed on our lives.  According to Ephesians 4, God has called pastors among others to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.  Our role as pastors is to develop and equip those sitting in our congregations to do ministry.

Think of the difference this would make if each of us in ministry and our congregations took this Scripture seriously.  Regardless of how good you might be in ministry, you can only be in one place, at one time, doing one thing.  But, if you serve a congregation of 50 people who saw themselves as ministers and were trained to do ministry you would now have 50 ministers in 50 places doing 50 things.  Would you rather grow your church by addition or multiplication?  Which do you think is better: 1+1 or 1X50?  Which type of ministry would have the greatest impact on your community and your church?

As bivocational ministers we need to learn how to better delegate ministry responsibilities to others, but before we can do that those folks must first be trained.  Terry's book is a great resource to help you provide that training.  Yes, it will take some time in the beginning, but it will be time well invested because in the long run it will give you and your church a great return.

For other help on how to ease the pressures of ministry you may want to read my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.  It explores many of the pressures every minister, including those of us who are bivocational, faces and how to address them.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

But we're just a small church

For the past 30+ years I have pastored a small church and worked with countless others in my role as a judicatory leader.  During these years I have heard the argument "But we're just a small church." to justify why their church could not do certain things.  Maybe the proposal was to begin a new ministry, or someone suggested increasing the pastor's salary, or people were wondering why their church was unable to attract new people.  Regardless of the question or suggestion, the response was always the same: But we're just a small church.  There are two words that need to be removed from that statement: "But" and "just."

I have been privileged to see smaller churches do some amazing ministries.  Sometimes, they even surprised themselves by what they were able to do.  One thing each of these churches had in common was that they refused to define themselves by their size.  They were small churches, but they did not offer that as an excuse as to why they could not accomplish what they believed they were being called to do as a congregation.

This does not mean they ignored the reality of their size or their limited resources.  They just refused to allow those things to determine what they could and could not do.  They believed that if God was leading them to do a certain thing they would find the way to do it, and they moved forward.  When the church I pastored determined to build an addition to our church building I encouraged them to do so without borrowing money.  If God was leading this project as part of his vision for our church then I believed he would provide the funds necessary to build it.  Although not everyone was as convinced as I was, our church voted to move ahead with the project, and less than two years later the church had a new fellowship building that was completely debt free.  The church treasurer told me later that money came in from sources that were totally unexpected.

Small churches cannot do everything, but neither can large churches.  All churches have limited resources; some are just more limited than others.  But, every church can do whatever God calls it to do.  The key is to identify the vision God has for your church and to target your resources to make that vision a reality.  I find it interesting that smaller churches seem to want to offer ministries that will reach EVERYBODY while mega-churches with more resources target certain people for their ministries.  Saddleback Church has targeted Saddleback Sam while Willow Creek has identified Unchurched Harry and Mary as the focus of their ministries.  Both churches have developed a very clear picture of their targets and much of their ministries are focused on reaching out to those individuals.

Smaller churches need to target their ministries in the same way.  We can't do it all, but we can do some things.  Let's focus on the few things we can do with excellence that will provide the greatest impact with the financial and manpower resources available to us.  In my workshops I often tell church leaders their churches would accomplish much more by doing less.  You can probably eliminate 80 percent of your committees and nobody would ever tell the difference.  That would free up considerable man hours for more important ministry tasks that would make a difference.  Chances are your church has ministries and programs that have had little, if any, impact in years.  They continue to be done only because of tradition in your church, and because someone remembers how effective they were in the 1950s and doesn't want to eliminate them.  Ineffective ministries and programs need to be removed so resources are available for things that will work in the 21st century.

You are not "just" a small church.  You are a body of believers in Jesus Christ whom God wants to use to make a difference in your community.  He has brought into your fellowship people with the spiritual gifts and passions for ministry to accomplish his will for your church.  You have all the resources you need if you use them wisely.  Identify his vision for your church, direct your resources towards that vision, and see what amazing things can begin to happen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

You have to start if you are going to accomplish anything.

As some of you know, in 2013 I got an auctioneer's license.  I enjoyed going to auctions and decided to take the classes that would prepare me for the exam that would allow me to become an auctioneer.  At various times throughout the year I would run ads in several local papers offering my services, but nothing ever came from those ads.  Towards the end of the year I decided that if I was going to be an auctioneer I would have to have an auction.  I rented a facility for an auction in January, hired the people I would need, and began to advertise the auction.  The only thing I needed was something to sell!  A few phone calls to some folks and some advertising on Facebook and I had plenty of items consigned for the sale.  Several people couldn't believe that I actually rented space and hired employees before I even had anything to sell, but that's exactly what I did.  I'm now having auctions on a fairly regular basis and have people calling me now asking me to sell for them.

This is not the first time I've done something like this.  In the early 1980s I was beginning to preach in some local churches when their pastors were gone.  I went several months without having an opportunity to preach anywhere.  A friend of mine, who was also a bivocational minister, and I rented a building and scheduled a week-long revival.  We invited some local singing groups, took out ads in the local paper, and posted fliers up around town.  We attracted decent crowds and had a great week of services.  As the planning for this event was taking place Hebron Baptist Church invited me to fill the pulpit for them for a few weeks.  On the Sunday following our revival services I preached a trial sermon for that church who called me to be their pastor.  I then served that church for the next twenty years.

In 1996 I wanted to write a book that would help bivocational ministers.  I knew nothing about writing a book, but I began to write.  When I finished the manuscript I sent a query letter to a couple of publishers.  The first publisher rejected me.  The second said they might be interested, but my manuscript needed a lot of work.  I made several changes they recommended, and in 2000 my first book was published.

I'm a big fan of John Maxwell, and in his excellent book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential he writes "You cannot win if you do not begin!  The people who get ahead in the world are the ones who look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, they make them."  

Pastors and lay leaders often tell me they would like to see this or that happen in their church, but they do nothing to make those things happen.  They want their church to grow, but they do nothing that would cause the church to grow.  In a doctoral class I had with Elmer Towns he told us that we didn't have to worry about growing our churches.  All we needed to do was to identify the walls that had been built around our churches that kept people out and remove those walls.  Once those barriers were gone, growth would happen.  If you want to see your church grow, begin to remove those walls.  Don't wait until all the circumstances are perfect...just do it.

In virtually every conference I lead pastors complain that they have few people in their churches that are willing to help the church move forward.  Their deacons are resistant to change; few people in the church are willing to serve; most of the church is satisfied with the status quo.  These pastors don't know what to do, so they do nothing hoping that someday things will get better.

Guess what...they won't get better until somebody does something about it, and if you're the leader then that somebody better be you!  What I tell these pastors is to identify the ones who do want to make a difference and begin to work with them.  You have to run with the horses that want to run.  As a pastor you love everyone and you minister to their needs, but you invest yourself in those few that are excited about ministry.  You don't need large numbers of people to make a difference.  If you only have four or five people excited about doing ministry you can make a big difference in both your church and your community but only if you are willing to begin.

You can either sit around wringing your hands and complaining about how bad things are or you can get up and do something positive to improve things.  At first, it may only be you, but if you are consistent in doing the right things you will attract a few others to join you.  Soon, you may look up and see that several others have joined in as well, and one day you may be surprised to see how much things have improved.  The choice is yours, but you will have to start if you want to accomplish anything worthwhile.  But, it starts by you being willing to take the initiative and begin.

BTW - I highly recommend Maxwell's book I mentioned above.  It's one of his best.  I've read it every year since it was released.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Leadership requires a plan "B."

A recent election in our community rejected a proposal that would have allowed our local school corporation to borrow a large sum of money to remodel several of our schools.  If it had passed there would have been an increase in our property taxes, but I don't think that was the reason it failed.  John Kotter reminds us in his excellent book, Leading Change,   that the primary reason change efforts fail is that the leaders fail to create a sense of urgency.  I don't think there was a sense of urgency felt by the voters in our community around this issue.  Those who voted against the proposal seemed to believe there was a better way of addressing the admitted problems that exist in our facilities.

Perhaps what bothered me most about this situation is when one of our school officials was asked what the backup plan was if the proposal failed, and she responded there was no backup plan.  There was no plan B.  I couldn't believe what I was reading!  This was a major issue that certainly had a possibility of being rejected by the voters.  If there are no contingency plans then the problems may not have been as serious as was being claimed.  No plan B told me that there was no sense of urgency around this issue at all.

A pastor recently asked me about some significant changes he wants to make in his church.  I cautioned him to move slowly.  I encouraged him to try to think through the many objections he might face from his congregation so he would be able to respond to them immediately.  The more of those objections he could address when he presented his proposal to the church the more likely his proposal would pass.  I encouraged him to share his ideas initially only with the strongest lay leaders in his church who would be most likely to support them.  These folks can provide some valuable feedback and offer recommendations that might make the proposed changes more acceptable to others.  Finally, I told him he needed to have a back-up plan in case his proposal was rejected.  He needed a plan B in his hip pocket ready to offer to the congregation if they rejected his first proposal.  A good plan B can often provide much of what you hope to gain in your original proposal and cause less pain.  Leaders always want a plan B to fall back on if they believe the issue is serious enough to warrant making changes.

Another pastor was having a good ministry in his church until he tried to introduce some changes the church was not ready to accept.  Rather than introducing a Plan B that would have generated less concern from the congregation he kept pushing for his recommendations to be implemented.  Eventually, he had to leave that church.  A friend of the pastor told me that he believed the pastor could have had everything he wanted in time, but he wouldn't wait.  A good Plan B could have introduced the congregation to a taste of the changes the pastor was proposing which may have led them to accept the entire change at a later date.  Unfortunately, the pastor had no Plan B and was not willing to develop one.

A third pastor recognized the church he was serving was over-structured.  People were being asked to serve on too many boards and committees, many of which no longer served any real purpose.  Decisions had to go through too many different bodies before they could be implemented.  Like many churches, it was structured for a time where things moved much slower than they do today.  He wanted to change how the church was structured, but that would require a change to the church constitution.  The church was not prepared to do that and was not interested in making significant changes to how it had functioned in decades.  His Plan B was simple: set aside the church constitution for two years and try out the new structure he was proposing.  At the end of the two years the church could decide to keep the new structure or return to their old one.  When it came time for a vote, it was not even close.  The congregation recognized how much more efficient the new structure was and voted overwhelmingly to keep it.

Change occurs slowly in a church.  It's great to recommend changes that you believe will benefit the ministry of the church, but those changes will often be resisted at least until people have a chance to consider them.  A good Plan B can give them a taste of the recommended changes, and if Plan B works well the church may be more willing to try Plan A.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The importance of preaching

During my twenty year bivocational pastorate I preached a few "Saturday-night specials."  It didn't happen often, and I was never pleased when it did happen.  Some of those sermons worked out pretty good, but most of them were terrible flops.  More than once I complained to my wife on our way home that I felt like I wasted everyone's time that day.

Although I would have argued at the time that those poor sermons were the result of an ultra-busy week, the truth is that they were the result of poor use of my time.  If God calls a person to preach then that person has an obligation to be prepared regardless of the workload that particular week.  Preaching on Sunday gives a minister, especially one who is bivocational, the single best opportunity that week to impact his or her congregation.  Being unprepared is unacceptable.  After all, it should not come as a surprise to a pastor that Sundays come every seven days.

Unfortunately, not all pastors feel as I do.  As I am in a different church nearly every week I have the opportunity to hear a lot of different pastors in both larger and smaller churches.  More times than I want to remember I have left a worship service and wondered all the way home what the purpose might be of the message I just heard. 

Just a few weeks ago I attended such a service.  The pastor read a text and then preached a message that had little, if anything, to do with that text.  He would go one way for awhile and then begin talking about something else before jumping off on another point.  None of them connected with one another or with the text or what was supposed to be the theme that Sunday.  After the service I told my wife I felt like the sermon had been put together during the Sunday school hour.

Years ago I heard the joke about the pastor who wrote on his sermon outline next to one point "Point weak - talk louder."  This pastor must have thought that was actual advice because it seemed the weaker his points were the faster and louder he talked.  If that is a steady diet of the quality of sermons this congregation is receiving then I am sad for them.  My hope is that this was just an off-day for the pastor.  Any pastor who has been in the ministry for any time at all will have some Sundays when his or her message just doesn't connect as well in its delivery as it did in the study.  (Believe me, I've had those Sundays as well!)  But, I've been around enough of this kind of preaching to know that too many pastors have off-days 52 times a year.

When a pastor preaches many opportunities exist.  People's lives can be changed as they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior or as they learn more biblical ways to approach some of the challenges they are facing.  People can be encouraged and filled with renewed hope.  Vision can be cast that will lead the church into more effective ways of doing ministry.  People can be discipled as they are exposed to more of God's truth and how it applies to their lives.  Those who are grieving can be reassured that God has not abandoned them.  People can be led to worship God and encounter him in new and exciting ways.  The list goes on and on.

But, without good, biblically-based preaching none of these things are likely to happen.  In those churches where the preaching is weak the people come and return home inspired to eat lunch.  Nothing life changing happens in a church when the pastor does not take his or her preaching duties seriously.  I truly believe this is why we see so many dead and dying churches.  When there is a fire in the pulpit there will be a fire in the pew, but when the pulpit is weak so will be the church.

As I said earlier, there is no greater opportunity to touch people's lives than that period of time they allow you to speak to them from the pulpit.  If you are a pastor you need to come to the pulpit each Sunday with a fresh word from God's Word that will touch people's hearts and change their lives.  Your message must not only be biblical; it must be developed in a way that clearly communicates to those who will hear it.  It should end with a clear call to action so the people will know how they should respond to what they've just heard.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The mic is always on

The owner of an NBA team certainly learned that words have consequences in recent days.  Following reports of a recorded message in which he made discriminating remarks about African-Americans he found himself banned from any contact with the basketball team he owns.  Steps are now being taking to force him to sell the team.

He is not the first person to get into trouble for saying things he did not know would be heard by others.  Before the last election President Obama did not know a microphone was picking up his words to Russian President Putin when he explained to Putin that after the election he would have more flexibility.  Obama's critics were quick to question what he meant by those remarks.  Other presidents have had their own embarrassing moments when a live mic picked up words they never intended the public to hear.

Ziz Ziglar used to tell of a similar event in the life of a public figure before he would remind his audience that they should always remember that "The mic is always on."  By that he meant that anything we said might be heard by someone we did not intend to hear it, and words do have consequences.  What was intended to be a private comment can quickly go public bringing embarrassment and much worse to ourselves or to others.  For that reason we should choose our words wisely, and I think this is especially true for us in ministry.

In my role as a judicatory leader I am sometimes asked about my opinion on some church matter.  I have to be very careful how I respond to those questions because more than once after sharing my view on a matter someone has gone back to their church and reported that "Dennis believes that...."  A couple of times my view was misstated by the person, and I've had to go back and try to undo some damage and correct the individual's misconception of what I said.  These are never pleasant so I try to  avoid them in the future by making sure people clearly understands my response to their questions.

Inappropriate language and stories are also areas where church leaders can create problems for themselves.  I must admit that I may be old fashioned, but I simply do not understand it when I hear pastors use profanity.  You've probably heard the term "cuss like a sailor."  Well, I spent four years in the Navy and I was proficient at cussing like a sailor.  However, when I got saved God cleaned up my mouth.  Early in my pastoral ministry our church had a softball team that played in a church league.  One night I arrived at the ball park while the game before ours was to be played.  I heard someone in the field issue a string of profanity that I never dreamed I would hear at any church sanctioned event.  I asked who the person was who said those words and was told he was the pastor of the church.  I was truly shocked that night and continue to fail to understand why Christians, especially those in leadership, use language that casts Christianity in such a poor light.  Again, we must remember that people will judge us and what we claim to believe by what they see and hear.

Church leaders also need to be very careful about what they say about other people.  In some cases, even if people might agree with you, they will not respect you for saying negative things about others.

The Bible is clear about the difficulty of taming our tongue.  I suppose everyone has said things they later regretted.  I know I have.  Many times!  Once the words are out of our mouths they can never be taken back.  We can apologize for saying inappropriate things, but the pain they caused can take a long time to go away.  In some cases, the damage can never be undone.  We need to live every moment realizing that the mic is always on and adjust our speech accordingly. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Watch out for the little foxes

In Song of Solomon 2:15 we read that it is the little foxes that spoil the vines.  In biblical times the vineyard keepers had to watch for the foxes to prevent them from destroying the vineyards.  The principle behind this for us today is that it is often little things that create huge problems if left unattended.  This week I've battled some "little foxes" that were not huge issues, but they were a major distraction and source of frustration,

Ants.  Our wet spring has brought the ants in the house.  Leave an empty Coke can on the countertop overnight and you could be sure it would be surrounded by ants then next morning.  We tried a couple of home remedies that people told us about with limited results.  A friend of mine reported he had purchased something to get rid of ants and was convinced the main ingredient was watermelon juice.  He said he never saw so many ants after he started using it!  Mid-week I found a product that seems to have worked.  This is only the third day, but we are seeing a drastic reduction in the number of ants, and the ones we are seeing continue to eat the product we bought.  We are hopeful that within a few more days the ant problem will be resolved.

Dandelions.  Every year I use a fertilizer with weed control on my yard.  Most years we have virtually no dandelions in the yard, but this year has been an exception.  Again, maybe it's due to a wetter spring, but regardless of the reason we really don't like dandelions and we have many to dislike.  Early yesterday and today while the grass was still damp from dew I've spread more weed control on the yard. Again, we are hopeful this will resolve the problem.

Ministry is often filled with frustrations.  Sometimes it is big issues that keep us awake at night, but often it's the little things that we never address.  It may be a volunteer that is serving in a place that is not a good fit for his gifts.  He is frustrated and so are we, but we never address it.  Perhaps it's a small issue with the church property.  I recently talked with a pastor new to his church who was very frustrated with a moldy smell in one of the entrances to the church.  Over the years a small leak began in the roof that was never fixed.  Now the carpet in that entrance is nasty looking and smells musty.  This is a primary entrance many people use to enter the church, and the pastor is concerned about the impression this makes to first-time guests.  I pointed out that if the leak had been fixed when it was first noticed this problem would not exist.  I also reminded him that this is a very small area with a metal, flat roof over it.  My guess is the leak could be repaired, the carpet replaced, and the entry way repainted for less than $1,000.00.  A small amount to control a little fox and make the entrance more inviting to people.

I don't know what the little foxes are in your ministry, but I do know they can often be a source of great frustration.  They can also get in the way of effective ministry.  Little foxes have a tendency to not go away on their own.  Ignoring them is not a solution.  Dealing with them is, and the sooner the better.  Zig Ziglar used to say that if you have to eat a frog, don't look at that sucker too long.  When you identify a little fox, deal with it right then.  Once you do, you can move on to more productive ways to use your time.

I would encourage any church leader to read my book, The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry for additional helps in handling the various stresses of ministry.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The characteristics of an effective church

In my work with hundreds of churches over the past several years I have found that many of them struggle with how they can have a more effective ministry to their communities.  At pastor gatherings and workshops I will be asked by more than one pastor how their church can get out of their ruts and begin to engage their community.  In some cases, they already know the answer but are asking how they can get their congregations on board for the changes that need to be made.  Others really don't know what needs to be different.

In his excellent book, The Fly in the Ointment: Why Denominations Aren't Helping Their Congregations and How They Can, J. Russell Crabtree lists six characteristics of effective organizations.  I believe these apply to churches as well as other organizations.  They are:
  1. They recruit, develop, and retain effective leaders.
  2. They are externally focused.
  3. They are tactically nimble.
  4. They engage the whole person.
  5. They are relentless learners.
  6. They utilize best practices.
Sadly, I've been in churches where none of these things are being done.  Such churches should not be surprised that little ministry is occurring in their churches.  They are doing nothing to intentionally become an effective ministry.  These churches are often made up of some very nice folks who hope each week for a breakthrough that never comes.  Such breakthroughs seldom do come when the church, or other organization, is not ready to handle it, and churches that are not defined by these six characteristics are not going to be ready to handle the kind of breakthrough they desire.

Over the next few posts I want to briefly address each of these characteristics.  Today, we will focus on #1.  As I've, and others, have written many times before: Everything rises and falls on leadership.  Nothing good can happen in an organization if it does not have effective leaders.  In a church that includes both pastoral and lay leadership.

In many of the small churches I visit they are doing nothing to develop leaders.  Often, they have the same lay leadership they have had for years (decades in some cases).  Little is done to offer these folks training and even less thought is given to recruiting and developing future leaders.  For a church to enjoy an effective ministry over many years it must have future leaders filling its pipeline in various stages of development.

At this point, some will object and say their church doesn't have any future leaders.  That is a symptom of a lack of evangelism.  If a church is fulfilling the Great Commission there should be potential leaders coming to Christ and involved in the discipleship ministry of your church.

When I first began my pastoral ministry our church constitution called for six deacons with two rotating off each year.  The church had four deacons who had served for years because they didn't have anyone to take their place.  It took two or three years but we began to have new leaders come into the church, and within a couple of more years we had six deacons and were able to rotate them on and off the board each year.  All it took was doing effective outreach and leadership development.  It didn't happen overnight, but it happened because we were intentional about recruiting, developing, and retaining effective leaders. 

Great leaders will attract other great leaders.  Poor leaders will attract followers.  Which do you think brings the greatest benefit to the church?  As you develop leaders in your church they will attract other leaders, and when this cycle is working well any organization will benefit.  The key here is being intentional about leadership development.

How would you rate your church in this area?  What can you do to improve your recruitment, development, and retention of great leaders in your church?