Friday, August 29, 2014

Find a fresh vision

Last night I enjoyed an evening with the leaders of a small church who want to identify a fresh God-given vision for their future ministry.    The church has just began a search for a new pastor, and I encouraged them to first seek a vision for ministry to help them better identify the gifts and passions they will need from their new pastor.  The church leaders agreed and invited me to lead that process.

The session last night focused on the core values of the church.  I explained how core values shape the decisions individuals and groups (churches) make.  Any vision they identify must be congruent with their core values so it was important to begin by identifying those values.  Another evening session will look at their bedrock beliefs, and a third session (all day on Saturday) will be spent in Bible reading, prayer, and group discussions.

Although I've led this in several churches, last night's session was very enjoyable.  The people were engaged, and when I divided them into small groups for discussion they were very focused on the task at hand.  This church has been drifting for some time, and the congregation seems determined to become much more focused on doing intentional ministry in their community.

This church has been like a majority of the churches in North America.  They have been content to drift along Sunday to Sunday hoping that one day something good would happen.  Hope is a very powerful component in anything we want to do, but it makes a terrible strategy.  It is much better to identify God's vision for your church and develop ministries around that vision.  This latter approach provides the church with a much more focused ministry and allows it to move forward with a purpose and passion that often leads to a more effective ministry.

Without vision a church can do nothing but drift along with the currents.  Even worse, if a church does not have a common vision around which the church is committed it will have competing visions.  This often leads to conflict as these competing visions will eventually bump heads.

Let me ask a simple question: does your church have a unifying vision that directs the ministries of your church?  If I was to visit your church this Sunday could anyone in your congregation be able to tell me that vision without having to look at a piece of paper?  If the answer to these questions is no then your church is not functioning according to a God-given vision.  Chances are your church is drifting along with few results to show for its efforts.

The good news is that God has a unique vision for your church, and the even better news is that he wants you to know what that vision is.  It will require some effort on your part to identify that vision, and you will have to be willing to live into that vision once you know what it is.  As you think ahead to 2015 perhaps the best thing you could do is to begin a discernment process that will you know what God wants to do in and through your church in the coming year.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Take time to refresh yourself

A few days ago I shared an article on Twitter that looked at the need for pastors to take time to pause and refresh themselves.  A FB friend pointed out that may be the toughest thing for a bivocational pastor.  There is often little time to pause between the ministry requirements we need to meet and the demands of our other jobs.  Of course, he was right.  It is tough, but that doesn't make it any less necessary.

In a recent blog post I shared an experience I had in the mid-1980s with clinical depression.  The cause of that depression was that I had over-extended myself.  I won't go into the details for the sake of time, but for four years I had lived with little sleep and lots of adrenaline.  Eventually, that adrenaline wears out and depression is often the result.  To say I was busy would be an understatement, and I accomplished a lot during that time, but it was at a great personal cost.  I was not responding to demands the church was making.  The church I served for two decades was always good about respecting my personal time.  My over-extension was due to choices I made.

I went from one activity to another with little time in between.  We seldom went anywhere on vacation or even took little day trips to get away.  The church provided me with two weeks vacation, but I seldom took more than one week.  Eventually, it caught up with me as it will anyone who abuses themselves as I was doing.

My book, The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry, includes many of the things I learned in the process of healing.  One of those learnings is that you must take responsibility to care for yourself.  For bivocational ministers, the first of the four spiritual laws is that "God loves you, and everybody has a wonderful plan for your life."  If you don't control your schedule somebody else will, and I can almost assure you they will not have the same priorities for your life that you have.

After the depression I began taking both weeks of vacation from church.  A few years later they increased that to four weeks, and I took all of them.  We bought a bass boat and my wife and I began spending some evenings and Saturdays fishing.  We scheduled a regular weekly date night to get away from town.  These dates were written on my calendar just like any other appointment, and if someone asked me to do something when we had a date scheduled I just explained that I had another appointment at that time and could not do it.

I also learned the value of blocking out periods of time for important tasks.  When I began my doctoral studies I went through my calendar and blocked out 2-3 hour periods of time a couple of time a week for uninterrupted reading.  I was surprised how seldom other things interfered with that schedule, but I know without doing that other "important" things would have demanded my attention and kept me from doing the reading that was required.

As I wrote earlier, the church I served was very understanding and even protective of my time.  Not every church is like that, however.  You may need to do some training to help them understand your need to refresh yourself.  Dr. Phil says that we teach people how to treat us, and I think too many ministers have taught their congregations over the years that it is OK to demand their pastors to be available to them 24/7/365 for whatever reason.  If you are in such a church you may need to train them that it is not OK.

Sometimes, like in my earlier ministry, we ministers put these unrealistic expectations on ourselves.  Some people go into the ministry because they need to be needed, and they teach people to become dependent upon them.  Some seem to believe that they must be constantly present or things won't get done.  Maybe they even think God can't do it if they aren't there to help.  I would encourage such persons to drive through the nearest cemetery.  It's full of indispensable people.  They died, and the world continues on just fine in their absence.  Take time to rest and refresh yourself so you don't join them before your time.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Build up your library for little money

I just ordered Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry by Perry Noble for the Kindle device on my I-Pad.  The book was free.  Every week there are dozens of excellent books offered for free or at very low prices for Kindles.  This is a great way of building a library especially for persons just entering the ministry and for those who do not have a lot of money to spend on resources.

For the record, I still prefer buying real books, holding them in my hands, underlining passages that I find interesting, and writing my thoughts in the margins.  However, books are becoming more and more expensive and they take up a lot of room.  Right now I am looking at seven bookcases in my study all crammed with books.  I've got a few dozen on my I-Pad that don't take up any room at all, and most of them I either got for free or at little cost which makes them an even better deal.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I continually advocate that those who would lead a church must be a life-long learner and a consistent reader of good books.  When I was a bivocational pastor our small church was kind enough to provide me with a $400.00/year book allowance.  I spent every dime every year.  To make that money stretch I was always looking for ways to buy books at the lowest prices.  I went to our local library every year for their annual book sale and bought some great books for pennies on the dollar.  I visited a used book store close to a seminary on occasion and found some good bargains.  Yard sales, auctions, and the Goodwill store also proved to be an occasional source for some good books.  However, most of the books I purchased were new which quickly used up my allowance.  That was before e-books were available.  If e-books had been available back then my library would have been much larger!

It's easy to find the Kindle bargains.  Several websites list these deals every week (sometimes every day).  Aaron Armstrong provides a list several times a week on his site.  Tim Challie's blog often lists Kindle deals as well.  These are the two sites I use most often to see what's available, but there are dozens of others as well.

As I often say, leaders are readers, and these low prices make it easier for anyone to build a library that will prove most helpful to his or her ministry.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

When ministers battle depression

The suicide deaths of Robin Williams and last year that of Rick Warren's son has triggered quite a discussion in many Christian circles about depression.  Some have been highly critical of Christians who suffer from depression while others have called for greater understanding and more discussion in churches about the illness.  I fall in the latter camp.  I have also battled depression in my own life.

My first encounter was in the mid 1980s.  I was working full-time in a factory, serving as a bivocational pastor, attending a Bible college about an hour from my home, and trying to be a husband and father.  For four years I attended classes, and each class required about a 200 mile round trip drive from my house to work to school and back home.  A few months after graduating I began to have problems.  My doctor and a Christian counselor both diagnosed me with clinical depression.  For much of the next year I was in weekly counseling and on medication.  I continued to work and pastor the church, but it was a struggle.

The struggle was made worse because no one knew of my condition except my wife and our children.  I shared it with no one.  There were Sundays it took everything I could do to preach.  That summer I had planned to preach through the book of Daniel (not something I would now recommend anyone doing who is already depressed!).  I still remember the Sunday I was preaching on "Faith for the Fiery Furnace."  It took all I could do to not run out of the church that morning.  During the special music the thought kept going through my head that I had to be the biggest hypocrite in the world.  I was about to preach on faith for the fiery furnace, and I didn't have enough faith to blow out a match.

When I had recovered I shared with our congregation what I had been going through and apologized for not telling them sooner.  I admitted I should have told them sooner and asked them to pray for me and walk with me through my healing.

My healing took much of a year, and I consider that a year of my life that was lost.  However, there was much good that came from that experience.  For one, I have had many opportunities to minister to persons struggling with depression.  Because I have been where they are, they are willing to trust me. I have also been able to recommend persons to see their doctors when I have suspected depression in their lives.

I learned a lot about depression during that year.  I learned that it is an illness just like any other illness.  No one would hesitate going to a doctor if they had pneumonia so why should they hesitate to see one if they are depressed?  I learned that it is very treatable, and the quicker the treatment begins the quicker a person can often recover.

An important part of my education was about how to avoid future depressions.  Mine was caused from a lack of sufficient rest and living too much on adrenaline.  Because I failed to take care of myself my body shut itself down to protect itself.  I learned that self-care is not selfishness; it is stewardship.  It is stewardship of a very important treasure God has given you: you.  It is essential that we take time out to enjoy life, that we get sufficient rest, that we eat well if we want to stay emotionally healthy.

I also learned how to recognize if I am drifting towards depression.  Due to some unusual stresses a few years ago I found myself starting down that dark road again.  However, this time I was able to avoid it by talking to people, praying, and taking steps to avoid becoming depressed.  Thanks to the grace of God and the lessons I learned from the earlier struggle I was able to avoid depression that time.

Although I refused to talk about it when I was going through it, I have been quite open about it since my recovery.  We might be surprised to find how many people in our churches are struggling with depression and are afraid to say anything for fear of being judged.  I want people to know there is no shame in being depressed.  Again, it's an illness.  It's not a sign of spiritual immaturity.  It's not a sign of little faith.  It's not demon possession.  It's an illness that can be treated, and part of that treatment should come from the church as we love people and pray for them as they battle this illness.

The biggest mistake I made during my depression was not sharing my situation with our congregation.  They would have loved me, prayed for me, and protected me.  My healing may have been much quicker.  If you are a minister who is struggling with depression I encourage you to share that with your church.  If your church would not understand or think that there is something spiritually wrong with you then you are probably in the wrong church.  The second thing you need to do is to slow down.  Give yourself permission to rest.  Let some things slide for a few months while you recover.  Let others do some things you normally would have done.  Thirdly, seek the help of a trained Christian counselor.  I met with a pastoral counselor once a week and saw a Christian psychologist once a month which was required by my insurance company for the medicine I was taking.  These people understood what I was going through, and my healing was quicker because of their help.  Fourth, know that you will get better.  There were times I wondered if my depression would ever end, and one of the things that gave me hope was the constant reminder by those caring for me that I would get better.

If you are battling depression right now, please feel free to contact me and let me know how I might help you.  I care.  I really do.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why do so many church members resist change

This past Saturday I led a workshop for a church that averages about 300 people each Sunday morning.  Their pastor asked me to speak to their leadership about their need to become more missional.  Now, this is a healthy church that is having a positive impact in its community, but the pastor knew there was more that could be done.  He also knew that there were some in the congregation that believed their church should focus more on the current membership than on those outside the church.  Our meeting was very positive and I have little doubt that this church is going to be seeking a fresh vision for ministry to those outside the Kingdom of God.

Part of our discussion focused on leading change in a church.  Anyone who has been in church leadership for any amount of time knows that there is often resistance in a church any time someone suggests changing anything.  If this church was going to transition from being an inwardly-focused church to one that is more missional in its ministry it would have to be able to address any resistance to change that it might encounter in this process.  No doubt there are many reasons why church members resist change, but I shared just some of the most common.

Some people resist change because they are controllers.  These are people who believe the church exists for them and their loved ones, and they will oppose anything that threatens their position or power within the church.  While they will often work in the shadows trying to get people on their side, if challenged they can be very vicious and will be determined to win at any cost.  Fortunately, these people are often a small minority in churches; unfortunately, their power far exceeds their numbers because churches are often unwilling to challenge them.
Until churches are willing to confront these people they will never be able to move forward or implement any kind of significant change.

Another reason it can be difficult to implement change in a church has to do with the relationships that exist in churches, especially smaller churches.  Smaller churches are very relationship driven, and anything that might affect the existing relationships in these churches will be resisted.  (This is one reason many churches won't confront the controllers!  They prefer to maintain their relationship with these people rather than challenge their toxic behavior.)  Before suggesting any change, be sure to know how it might impact relationships in the church and be ready to address that.

A third reason people can be resistant to change has to do with their role in the church.  One question that will often be in the minds of people is how will this change impact their role in the church.  Even more importantly, will they even still have a role in the church?  These are serious questions for persons who have committed their lives to serving in a church, and they must be considered whenever planning to introduce change into a church.

Before attempting to introduce change into a church it is important that the leadership address these concerns on the front end.  They are going to be a factor in the change effort so you might as well be prepared and fire a preemptive strike.  Bring up these concerns before others do and share the answers to them as part of the initial presentation.  You will often find less resistance when you reassure people on the front end, and your efforts at change will be more effective.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Self-discipline is the key to success in any endeavor

This is one of my most popular posts of 2014. I hope you find it helpful again.

During a Q&A session at a bivocational pastor's conference I was leading a few years ago one pastor asked why so many churches stab their pastors in the back.  I responded that I wasn't so sure that we get stabbed in the back as often as we shoot ourselves in the foot.  While I have encountered some mean-spirited individuals who caused problems for every pastor they had, I have met even more pastors who made poor decisions that were the result of their difficulties.  In some cases, these pastors left a trail of such decisions behind them as they went from church to church, never learning from their mistakes and never understanding why their ministries were so troubled.

I know one pastor who got into trouble with his church because he played golf 4-5 times a week and was seldom available to church members except on Sundays.  Another pastor found himself in trouble over comments he made in social media that seemed unduly harsh and critical to the leadership.  A third pastor created problems over his inability to follow through on promises and tasks that he agreed to perform.  A fourth pastor refused to visit persons when they went to the hospital, and on the rare occasions when he did visit he would not pray for them.  The list goes on....

The root cause of each of these problems was a lack of self-discipline.  These pastors failed to discipline themselves to perform the ministry they had been called to do.  Even when they were confronted by leadership in their churches about their behavior and given specific steps they needed to take to make things better, they refused.  They saw this as an attack on them, not as an effort on the part of their church leadership to help them succeed in their ministry.

Tim Irwin writes about this same issue in his excellent book Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership (NelsonFree).  Irwin explores the reasons six well-known corporate leaders failed and eventually lost their jobs. While he writes about corporate leadership, there are many principles that easily transfer into ministerial leadership.  If I was the head of an organization this would be one of the books anyone in a leadership position would be required to read.  At the end of the book he lists five lessons that can be learned from these failures, but in my mind a lack of self-discipline is at the core of each failure.

Self-discipline will help you say the helpful thing, not the first thing that pops into your mind when you are upset or disappointed.  Self-discipline will enable you to complete the task you are working on as well as keeping your promises to others.  Self-discipline will help you take the high road in a conflict and look for a way for both parties to win whenever possible.  At the same time, self-discipline will give you the courage to stand for what is right and not back down when tempted to compromise your values or vision.  In the end, self-discipline will help you succeed in all your efforts.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Do you work while on vacation?

I used to tell my co-workers that I would be checking e-mails while I was away on vacation, and I did, several times a day.  I would also work on this blog and post articles on Hootsuite to be put on Twitter at night after my wife went to sleep.  It didn't really bother me that much because it didn't take much time away from our vacation, and most of what I did was late at night when I was the only one up anyway.  Two years ago I finally stopped doing that, and I have the motel we often stay at when we're on vacation.

We used to go to Panama City Beach for vacation, and we often stayed at the same motel.  We had not been there for a few years until deciding to return two years ago.  Reservations were made at the same motel.  It wasn't until we were in our room that I realized that this place didn't offer free wi-fi.  I was not a happy camper!  They charged about $25.00 a week for a wi-fi connection.  I'm too cheap to pay for something that the vast majority of places offer for free so I had to go the entire week with no Internet connection.  By the end of the week I realized I enjoyed not being able to connect to the Internet.  I still had e-mail and texting capabilities on my I-Phone so we could stay in contact with our children, but I couldn't work.  The one time I wanted to check something on Google for our personal information, I simply went across the street and parked in McDonald's parking lot while I got the info we needed off their wi-fi.

For too many years as a young pastor I thought I had to be available to our congregation even when I was on vacation.  How arrogant is that?  None of us are that important.  Do we really think our churches can't get along without us?  I guess I did at one time, but I got over it when I realized the cemeteries are full of indispensable people.  If you think the world can't get along with you, just die and see if the world stops.  Along the same line, what crisis do you think will occur if you don't respond to an e-mail or check your Facebook account while you're on vacation?  Chances are...none.

On my Twitter feed today I have an article by Michael Hyatt on how he unplugs while he's on vacation.  You can read it here.  I like most of what he suggests.  The one thing I do differently is that I don't leave phone and e-mail messages telling people I'm away for a week or two nor do I publish that on Facebook or other social media.  I don't post pictures of the things I'm doing on vacation until I get back.  No sense in telling some people that your house is empty for a few days.  I do agree with his recommendations that we unplug while we're away so we can recharge and enjoy our time away.

I hope you are planning some time away this year for yourself and your family.  You need that time, and so do they.  Even more, my prayer is that when you go away you get away.  No work.  No Internet.  Just take time to breathe and enjoy life and your family.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What to do with a minister's library?

A reader of this blog sent me a question last night about how to dispose of his ministerial library.  He retired from the ministry a few years ago and still has his library which he no longer needs.  Interestingly enough, this is a question my wife and I have been discussing for the past few weeks.  Although I am not retired, I left pastoral ministry 13 years ago to serve as a judicatory minister.  I have a large collection of commentaries and other Bible study books that I no longer use for sermon preparation.  A large percentage of the remainder of my library would be more useful to a pastor than to someone in my current ministry role.  I don't want my wife to have to deal with this when I'm gone so we've been looking at options.  (BTW - the thought of giving up my books horrifies me!)

Several years ago I sold a few commentary sets I didn't find helpful to Baker Books.  At that time, they were buying used books.  They paid for the shipping and a fair price for the books, but I don't know if they still do that or not.  A few years ago a young man began pastoring a small church.  I asked him about his library, and he admitted he didn't have much.  I gave him a very nice set of New Testament commentaries, and about three months later resigned from the church and moved away.  That didn't work out well!

I'm sitting here looking at seven book cases stacked full.  The vast majority are ministry related, and most of them are newer.  If you are retired, what did you do with your library?  If you are approaching retirement, what are your plans for your books?  I think this would be a great question for discussion on this blog, so let's here from you!