Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking ahead to a new year

Tomorrow will begin a new year.  Many of the blogs I follow have posted quite a bit this week their predictions of what 2015 will look like.  While some of them have been interesting to read, the reality is that none of us knows for sure what a new year will bring.  I shared in my message this past Sunday that some people are excited that 2014 is coming to an end because it's been the worst year they've had for a long time.  But, we have no way of knowing if 2015 will be any better.

There are things we can do on our end to make it a good year.  I certainly advocate being proactive by having goals to work towards and to take the opportunities that may present themselves to improve your life and the lives of others around you.  Much of what will happen to us this year will be the result of choices we will make, but there may also be things that occur over which we have no control.

We cannot control the weather, and there are certain to be some weather-related challenges for people in the coming year.  We can do many things to be healthier, but some people will face major health issues this year.  We can work hard and put money aside for retirement, but that doesn't mean that money can't disappear in another economic downturn.

In James 4: 13-15 we read, "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit'; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow.  For what is your life?  It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.'"

It's very risky to predict the future because there are too many variables, too many things we can't control.  The one thing we can be certain of in 2015 is that God will be with us in everything we face.  He will be with us during the exciting mountain top experiences of the year, and He will be with us during the deepest valleys we may have to go through.  He will never leave us nor forsake us no matter what may come into our lives.

We live in very trying times, and I do not understand how a person can live in such times without faith in God.  I do not even know why someone would want to.  I have gone through some very difficult times in my life, and I do not believe I could have come through them without God's help.

If you do not know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and you would like to know more about what means, please contact me.  I would love to discuss it with you.

To all my readers, thank you for your prayers and your comments about the various articles I have posted in 2014.  I wish each of you a very Happy and Blessed New Year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The influence of your associates

Yesterday's post looked at how the books we read influence our personal growth.  If you missed that post you can read it here.  Today we will examine how the people we associate with also influence our personal growth.

In his book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership John Maxwell tells that motivational speaker Joe Larson once said, "My friends didn't believe I could become a successful speaker, so I did something about it.  I went out and found new friends." It may sound harsh, but such action is required for anyone who wants to experience personal growth but is surrounded by friends and associates who are not growing or who believe that you cannot grow.

Many years ago I read a book by an author whose name I've long forgotten, but I do remember one of the things she wrote.  She said that there are "upstairs people" who want to pull you up with them and there are "downstairs people" who want to keep you down with them.  You can never grow or move upward if you spend your time with downstairs people.  They aren't going anywhere, and they don't want anyone else going anywhere either.  They will do anything they can to keep you at their level.  Sometimes we have to make the hard choice to leave such people and look for new acquaintances who will help us achieve the things we want to achieve in life.

When I became a Christian I had to make new friends, especially at work.  I was working in a factory where the humor and comments can be rather rough.  Some of the people I often associated with before becoming a Christian were not pleased with the changes that were occurring in my life.  Eventually, I had to make a decision about whether to continue my relationship with them or to find new people who would help me become the person I believed God wanted me to be.  I tried to remain friendly with everyone, but I began to seek out new people to spend time with and soon developed relationship with Christian men who continue to impact my life.

As a new bivocational pastor with no experience and no education I knew that I needed relationships with experienced pastors I respected.  As time allowed I made appointments with these individuals to ask questions and to learn as much as I could about ministry.  Again, that also meant that some relationships had to be let go.

Sometimes you just have to walk away from people who are toxic to what you are wanting to achieve in your life, but most of the time you will just drift apart.  At least, that's the way it's usually been for me.  As I have focused on growing in specific areas of my life, I have had to give up other things I may have enjoyed doing.  That sometimes also included the relationships that were part of those activities.

If you are serious about wanting to grow personally you need to develop relationships with persons who are one or two notches above where you want to go.  If you are a pastor, you want to associate with pastors who have effective ministries so you can learn from them.  If you are a business person you want to associate with people who have more successful businesses than you have so you can learn how they achieved their success.  If you feel ineffective as a spouse or parent, identify some people who appears to be doing what you want to do in your relationships and learn what they are doing.

Find upstairs people who believe in you and want you to achieve your dreams.  These are the ones who will help you grow.

Monday, December 29, 2014

How do you plan to grow in 2015?

Charlie Tremendous Jones is well known for saying, "You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read."  I agree completely, but I will take it even further.  You will be the same person at the end of 2015 as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read in the coming year.

Personal growth does not occur in five year increments.  It is on-going and is the result of decisions we make every day.  In economics we learn about opportunity costs.  All resources are limited, and when we make a decision to do one thing with our resources we are also making a decision to not do many other things with those same resources.  The things we cannot do are the opportunity costs of the decisions we make.

You and I have 24 hours a day to invest in ourselves and in others.  Every day we make choices about how we are going to use those 24 hours.  If we decide that we are going to use a portion of those hours in reading good books or spending time with quality people who can help grow or achieve our goals we are making an investment in our personal growth.  On the other hand, if we decide to spend that time watching television or doing something else that really doesn't add value to our lives we will miss out on those opportunities to grow.

Having worked with churches for over three decades as a pastor and a judicatory leader it's obvious to me that one of the critical factors for a growing church is to be led by a pastor who is growing personally.  Pastors who are satisfied to live in their personal ruts will also be satisfied to lead a church that is in a rut.  Pastors who are growing in their personal and leadership lives will not be content to serve a church that refuses to grow.  They will either lead their church in growth or they will find another church that is growing to serve.

When you invest in your personal growth you are also investing in the growth of your church, the growth of your family, and in the growth of all other areas of your life.  I am convinced that being committed to personal growth is a commitment to being a life-long learner, and much of that learning will take place through the books we read.

Last week I shared some of my favorite books from 2014 and the titles of books currently on my shelf waiting to be read.  I'm always wanting to find new books that will challenge me and help me grow as a minister and a leader.  I want to find interesting books that will help me learn new information about the world in which I live and help me better understand myself and others.  I may only be able to attend one or two workshops or conferences a year, but I can read every day.

If you want to grow in 2015 I challenge you to commit yourself to reading at least two books a month and to be selective about what you read.  Ask yourself in what areas you need to grow and begin to look for books that will help you do that.

I also want to spend time with people who will help me grow.  Leadership gurus often say that we should spend time with people who are further along than we are so we can learn from them.  I agree.  If we want to grow we need to spend time with these folks and let them teach us.  When John Maxwell was starting as a leader he identified some of the persons he wanted to spend time with and offered to pay them for an hour of their time.  He went to those meetings with questions written down that he wanted to ask and left with new insights that helped him grow as a leader.

In tomorrow's post I will write more about the people we need to spend time with and how we can choose the people who will help us in our personal growth.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On my bookstand

Yesterday I shared my top seven books of 2014.  Today, I want to let you know what I'm currently reading and what's sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

For my devotional reading right now I am reading Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N. T. Wright.  The back cover explains that this book "breaks down the barriers that prevent us from fully engaging with the story of Jesus in the Bible.  By appreciating the historical complexity of reading a two-thousand-year-old story and the distorting effect of two millennia of debate over these stories, Wright reveals a breathtaking vision of Jesus that more than matches the needs and complexities of our time."  I'm about half done with the book and appreciate the insights Wright shares.

Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics is written by Charles Krauthammer, one of the best political commentators of our time.  He is a Pulitzer Price winning syndicated columnist, political commentator and physician.  He left psychiatric medicine to work in the Carter administration and was a speech writer for Walter Mondale before becoming a conservative.  I always enjoy hearing his perspective on the events of the day and believe that he is one of the leading conservative thinkers in our day.  However, he is also a very independent thinker and conservatives will not always agree with some of his views especially around feminism, evolution, and the death penalty.  This book is a collection of some of his written columns from the past thirty years.  I find it to be quite enjoyable reading.

Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David Murray is on the Kindle app on my I-Pad.  I always keep at least one book on the Kindle to have available to read when I'm at the doctor's office or sitting in a restaurant or have some time before a meeting.  In this book Murray presents a way to find Jesus throughout the Old Testament.  It is an interesting study.

On the shelf are several books just waiting for me.

I'm looking forward to reading these and many others throughout 2015.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My top 7 books for 2014

For the past few years I've posted my top favorite books of the year.  Usually, I'll list my top 10, but quite frankly I didn't have ten this year to recommend.  My list consists of seven books this year.  I read a number of others that were good, but only seven of them really touched me.  The list is in no particular order.

Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale examines one of the primary questions non-Christians have about the Christian faith.  If God is truly all loving and all powerful why is there so much suffering in the world?  It's a fair question and one that many Christians find difficult to answer.  This book does an excellent job of providing answers to the question.

A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders by Reggie McNeal looks at how God shaped the hearts of four biblical leaders: Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul.  McNeal then shows how God is using the same influences to shape the hearts of religious leaders today.  I found this book to be inspiring and humbling as it demonstrated how God works so personally in the lives of those he calls.

Hacking Leadership: The 11 Gaps Every Business Needs to Close and the Secrets to Closing Them Quickly is written by Mike Myatt for leaders who feel their performance falls short and wants to understand why.  Written primarily for business leaders its principles are applicable for ministry leaders as well.  For instance, when he writes, "Show me people who never change their minds, and I'll show you static thinkers who have sentenced their minds to a prison of mediocrity and wasted potential.  If the world is constantly changing, if the marketplace is always evolving, if the minds of others are continuously developing, how can you attempt to be unchanging and still be relevant" his words are as applicable to ministry leaders as they are to anyone else.  I found the book to be full of such challenging statements.

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive is a wonderful little book by Thom Rainer.  As Rainer examined churches that died he found several common issues that led to their demise.  Many of these issues may be in your church.  The good news is that there are ways to reverse each of these problems and turn a church from one that is dying to one that becomes vibrant once again. This is a book every pastor needs to read and use to periodically evaluate his or her church.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God is the first John Piper book I've read.  Some will be shocked by that admission, but it is the truth.  It won't be the last.  Piper clearly states the purpose of the book is "a plea to embrace serious thinking as a means of loving God and people.  It is a plea to reject either-or thinking when it comes to head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith, theology and doxology, mental labor and the ministry of love.  It is a plea to see thinking as a necessary, God-ordained means of knowing God."  The book certainly challenged me and has changed the way I plan to read and study in the up-coming year.

There's Hope for Your Church: First Steps to Restoring Health and Growth is another excellent book by Gary McIntosh.  It's easy to become discouraged when you pastor a church that is shrinking in numbers and showing little spiritual growth.  However, the first thing that is needed is hope and the ability to see the potential that exists in the church.  This is where McIntosh begins and from there shows practical steps that can be taken to turn your church around.

Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership is by John Maxwell.  Regular readers of this blog knew that one of Maxwell's books would be on this list.  This is his latest (I think!) and one of his best.  He lists several reasons why leaders should always be asking questions and then shares the top ten questions people have asked him that had a positive impact on his life.  He then shares questions a leader needs to ask himself or herself and then the questions he or she should be asking others.  My copy is filled with underlines, highlights, and comments written in the margins.

I hope you will make reading a priority in 2015.  Tomorrow I will list the books I'm currently reading and those sitting on my shelf waiting their turn.

Monday, December 22, 2014

How can we make sense of suffering?

I have shared in this space before how much I enjoy the writing of Ravi Zacharias, one of the fine apologists of our time.  I listen frequently to his podcasts as well and enjoy them as much as his books.  He is not afraid to take on the toughest challenges to the Christian faith, and in his book Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense he does just that.  In fact, in the book he admits that "The question of pain and suffering provides the greatest challenge to belief in God."

The reason suffering is such a problem for many skeptics is due to what they call an insoluble trilemma.  They make three claims and insist these are irreconcilable.  These claims are
  1. God is all-powerful: He can do anything He wills.
  2. God is all-loving: He cares with an intense value for His creation.
  3. Evil is a reality: Suffering is an all-pervading part of this world.
On the surface it would appear that these statements are irreconcilable.  If God is all powerful and all loving, the question is then asked why does such evil exist? Obviously, at least one of them cannot be true, and since no one can deny that evil is a reality, one of the others must not be true.  Either God is not all-powerful or He is not all-loving.  If either of these are not true then, according to the skeptic, belief in God is irrational.

The trilemma is introduced in the first chapter, and in the remainder of the book Zacharias responds to it and proves that faith in God is rational and that there is meaning in suffering that mankind does not always understand.  As he begins his defense of the Christian faith he asks a question, "Why is it that we finite, self-serving, time-constrained, so-often-wrong human beings think we have all the wisdom needed in which to castigate God and hold Him before the bar of our wisdom within our timetable?"

I have read most of Zacharias' books and believe this one to be one of his most valuable, especially for pastors.  Every week we deal with people who are experiencing suffering of one type or another.  Every Sunday when we step into our pulpits we are speaking to hurting people.  For some of them, their pain is so severe that they are not sure how they will move forward with their lives.  Others are struggling to hold on to their faith and are not even sure they want to.  They question what have they done to deserve this pain they are experiencing?  Where is God?  Does He care?  If He doesn't care about what I'm going through why should I care about Him?  For some it's less painful to decide that perhaps God doesn't even exist than to believe that He doesn't care.

There is a good chance, pastor, that as you stand in your pulpit you are speaking to people who are struggling with these very questions and hoping you will give them answers to those questions.  I believe this book can help you answer those questions and give your people the comfort, the meaning, and the hope they need.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A church and its secrets

There is a belief in some churches that it's best to keep troubling news from the congregation.  In most cases, when church leaders keep such news from the congregation they do so convinced that if such news becomes common knowledge in the church and/or the community that it will create enormous problems.  I have seen churches keep information about clergy misconduct from the congregation and other churches do the same when they've found that a church leader has misappropriated funds or done something else unethical or illegal.  In a misguided attempt to protect the church, leaders try to keep these things a secret from the congregation.  Such secrecy seldom ends well.

A church is only as healthy as the secrets it keeps.  A church with a history of keeping secrets will be a church with little trust between the leadership and the laity.  People are not stupid.  They know when there is more going on than they are being told, and since no one is telling them what this is they have no recourse but to try to imagine for themselves what's going on.  This leads to gossip, meetings in the church parking lot, and cherry-red phone lines as church members discuss among themselves what they believe might be happening in their church.  None of these things leads to a healthy church.

Much of this can be prevented with open and honest communication.  I have found that congregations can handle the truth about what is happening in their church.  I have seen congregations presented information that was painful to share and painful to hear, but these congregations were able to process the information and move forward.  As disappointed as they might be in what they have heard at least they know they can trust their leadership to be upfront and honest with them.  As mature Christians they can work together to address the issues and take steps to make it less likely that this same issue will occur again.

What can church leaders do if their church has a history of secret-keeping that has resulted in a lack of trust within the congregation?  The best answer is to communicate.  In fact, over-communicate.  If there are problems, be up-front about them and address them.  Obviously, there are confidentiality concerns that must be protected, but at the same time there is much that can be shared with the congregation.  Don't speculate, but share what you have proven to be true and how the problems are being addressed.  Be kind and gracious, but also be truthful.

A number of years ago a church leader told me he was working with a congregation to help them get unstuck.  He thought he was making progress until one of the people reminded others in attendance that they could not do what they were discussing because of something that had happened in the church years earlier.  Newer members of the congregation knew nothing of the prior event because it was something that was never discussed.  I was never told what the event was, but even though the congregation had long ago locked it away in a secret place it was still impacting the church and limiting its ability to move forward.  That is what secrets can do to any church.  It's far better to address problems openly and correct them so the church is not held hostage by them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What will 2015 be like for you and your church?

It's always dangerous to predict the future, and no one can really say with any certainty what a coming year will bring.  The one thing we can say with certainty is that it will bring change.  It is highly unlikely that you will be the same person at the end of 2015 that you were when the year began.  It is also likely that your church will be different.

Now, you may argue that your church hasn't changed in 30 years and isn't likely to change in 2015 either, but that's not entirely true.  Especially if you are in a smaller church.  In most cases, those churches have grown older, grayer, and and attendance has probably declined for many of those 30 years.  That's change.  It may not be the kind of change we want, but it is change, and if your church doesn't change some other things the decline will probably continue.

The reason it is so difficult to predict the future is because there is no way to know what will occur that we cannot control.  Illnesses, deaths, accidents, are things that happen without our input or ability to control.  Other people make decisions that can have a major impact on us, and we cannot often impact those decisions.  Banks lend money to people who cannot repay their loans, the market collapses, and the economy goes into a tailspin.  People planning to retire find their retirement accounts gone forcing them to keep working.  They did everything right, but because of the actions of others their lives are forever impacted.  In short, life happens making it impossible to predict exactly what our lives will be like at the end of the coming year.

At the same time, it's important to know that much of what will happen in our lives in 2015 is within our control.  We can set goals for our lives and work to achieve those goals.  We can learn new skills and further our education.  We can choose to deepen our walk with God through the regular practices of spiritual disciplines.  We can make new friends.  We can choose to reduce our debt or get out of debt entirely.  We can choose to take better care of our bodies by eating healthier, getting more sleep, and getting regular exercise.  We can choose to read at least one book a month.  (According to studies this one thing will put you far ahead of the average American and have a significant impact on your life.)

Change is inevitable.  Whether you do anything or not, you will change in the coming year.  The good news is that much of the change you will experience is up to you.  Decide now the kind of person you want to be and what it will take to help you achieve that.  Now is also the time to begin discerning what God wants your church to be and begin working towards that.  Be proactive and you will find that much of the change you will experience will be positive and productive.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The pastor scholar

I have just finished reading The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry by John Piper and D. A. Carson.  These two men share their stories about how they have incorporated pastoral ministry and scholarship into their lives and ministries.  I found the book interesting and informative.

Too often pastoral ministry and scholarship are seen as two different paths, and in some churches scholarship is viewed as something to be avoided.  When I interviewed with the church that I eventually served for twenty years I was asked about my academic preparation for ministry.  At that time I had no education beyond high school.  One of the individuals on the search committee commented that he felt some of their best pastors couldn't even pronounce a lot of the biblical names right.  At that time, that church had only one person with a college education, and few, if any, in that church were concerned about scholarship.  They were looking for someone who would love them and provide pastoral ministry.

It wasn't until I had been at the church for about eighteen months that I realized that if I was to continue in ministry I needed more education than I had.  That decision led me to enroll in a Bible school and eventually to earning a DMin.

At times my blog posts may have sounded like I am anti-education, but that is far from the truth.  My concern is that a lot of seminary education does not prepare one for the realities of ministry in the 21st century and especially not for bivocational ministry.  At the same time, I believe that it is critical that one serving as a pastor be trained in how to think, how to read, and how to present the Gospel in ways that are both relevant to the listeners and theologically sound.  Persons entering the ministry should be committed to being both pastors and scholars.

Too many Christians today have a shallow faith that cannot sustain them in difficult times.  They are unable to share their faith because they do not understand what they believe well enough to explain it to anyone else.  I lay much of the blame for this on pastors who preach a message week after week with little substance because they are unwilling to do the difficult work of digging into the text and uncovering the treasures that can be found.

Those who are committed to being pastor scholars must be committed to life-long learning.  We must commit ourselves to reading and study while at the same time not neglecting spending valuable time with our congregation.  Admittedly, it's not an easy thing to balance, and it will require focus and the setting of priorities for our time. But, this is what we've been called to do.  This is what our congregations want and need from us.  We must not fail to be both pastors and scholars if we want to see the people in our churches grow and become mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time with family

One of the articles I'm linking to today on twitter discusses the importance of a pastor protecting family time during the Christmas season.  It's an important post, and I hope you'll read it, because it can be a challenge for a pastor to spend needed time with family during the holidays, and especially Christmas.

I came across the article today just a few hours after returning home from a visit with my son and his family in Pennsylvania.  My wife and I went there to celebrate Christmas with them.  When one has children living in different parts of the country one has the opportunity to celebrate Christmas several times during the month of December!  It's always too short when we visit, but we had a great time sharing stories and gifts.  But, for some pastors the Christmas season can be a frustrating time for both the pastor and the family.

Most churches have several special events planned during the Advent season, and many of them, if not all, expect pastoral participation or at least attendance.  Between small group parties, Christmas programs, Christmas Eve services, practices, and a myriad of other special events a pastor can find it difficult to be home creating the special memories he or she wants to make with their own family.

Pastoring a small church throughout my pastoral ministry I was not as involved in special programs as many pastors I know.  Our church did not have a Christmas Eve service, and, frankly, I would have resisted one if anyone had brought it up.  I know that this can be a special time in a church, but I also know that Christmas Eve was already a busy, and special, time in both my wife's and my family.  We were already stretched thin going to her family's Christmas Eve get-together early and then rushing to my family's gathering.  We never spent enough time at either to satisfy either family!  I can't imagine what would have happened if we had a church service that evening as well.

When our children got older, those extended family gatherings were replaced with our own gathering.  Again, those became times when we created some wonderful Christmas memories.  Now that our children are even older and living in different parts of the country we need several days in December just to celebrate Christmas with them and our grandchildren.  If we had church responsibilities for various Christmas activities it would really complicate things.

Church leaders need to look into the amount of time demands that are placed on their pastors and/or staff during the Christmas season and make sure that it doesn't create problems with their families.  Pastors need to protect time with their families.  That may mean that you can't make every Sunday school class Christmas party or it may require you to cut back on some other pastoral activities.  Some of the richest family memories we have are centered around things we did as a family during the Christmas season.  There will come a time when such memories will become very important to you and your family.  Make sure you take the time to make them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Your church will accomplish more by doing less

A common complaint in many smaller churches is the lack of commitment people have, but in reality I find that most such churches are actually over-committed.  They are structured for a time when they were probably a much larger congregation and have far more committees and boards than they need.  These churches often find it difficult to fill all their teaching and leadership slots and can only do so by having people volunteer for four or five positions.  If you want, you can argue that if more people would accept these positions then the few who are willing to work wouldn't have to have so many responsibilities.  However, the reality is that the Pareto Principle is alive and well in the church.  Twenty percent of the people are going to do eighty percent of the work.  Stop fighting that, accept it as reality, and adjust your workload accordingly.

When I meet with churches having this problem I assure them that if half of their committees and boards never met again, no one would be able to tell the difference.  Yes, some of these are needed in the church, but ask yourself how much real value do most of these add to your church.  How has your church been significantly impacted by the work of most of your committees?  The only reason some of them are still in existence is because they were created years (decades) ago to meet a real need, and no one has had the courage to suggest they are no longer needed.

Along the same line, many small churches try to offer too many programs and ministries for the resources they have available.  They do this thinking they must compete with the larger church in town.  That is like a Mom and Pop store thinking they have to compete with Wal-Mart on price.  It's not going to happen!  Mom and Pop, if they are to stay in business, have to find something that sets them apart from Wal-Mart and compete in that niche.  Small churches are the same way.  You cannot offer the same ministries the largest churches in your community offer because you do not have the manpower and finances to do so.  Attempting this will result in doing many things mediocre, and you cannot build a ministry around mediocre.

A much better ministry strategy is to identify the giftedness of your people, find out what they are passionate about, and then prayerfully begin to discern how God would have you use that to meet ministry needs in your community.  Believe me, there are many such needs going unmet where you live.  I am convinced that many smaller churches are uniquely positioned to meet those needs, and it is there where those churches are going to thrive.

However, you won't be able to do this if you insist on continuing to ask your twenty percenters to do more and more maintenance-type work.  They only have so much time to invest in church work so you want to use that time wisely.  Eliminate the tasks that add little if any value to the church and free people up to do ministry that will make a difference.  Then begin the task of discerning how to have the greatest impact on your community for the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pastors and the call to a ministry

As a Resource Minister in our region, one of my responsibilities is to assist our churches when they are seeking a new pastor.  I also work with pastors seeking a new place to serve.  While it is exciting to work with churches and pastors during this transitional time in their lives, there are some disturbing trends that I've noticed in the past few years.  One of those trends is the reason the pastors give for wanting to move to a new church.

Virtually every month I'll receive at least one call from a pastor who wants to relocate in our region.  The reason most often given is that they have family in the area and want to be closer to them.  I can understand that.  We have one child living two hours away and another one about ten hours away.  We would love to see them and our grandchildren more than we do.  And, I can also accept the fact that sometimes God may call us to serve in a place closer to family.  My problem is that this is nearly the only reason people give for wanting to make a move.  It seems that many clergy persons today have replaced a sense of calling with a desire for convenience.

During my two decades as pastor at Hebron Baptist Church I was contacted by numerous pastor search committees.  During one 18 month stretch an average of one church a week called me asking for an interview.  I think in all that time I interviewed with less than five churches because I never sensed that God was calling me to leave my present ministry.  Why talk with another church if God hasn't released me from where I'm serving?  When I did agree to meet for an interview it was because I began to wonder if I was missing God's leading, but after each interview I knew I was to stay where I was.

It was sometime during my 18th year at the church that I began to believe that my time there was drawing to an end.  Two years passed while I waited to see what doors God would open, and was quite surprised to find that it was in the role I have today.  I assumed it would be another pastorate but learned God had other plans.  When the opportunity was presented to me I had no doubt that God was calling me to leave my pastorate and that he was calling me to this position.  Nothing else entered into the decision except my wife's and my confidence that this was God's call on my life.

Ministers make a big mistake when they change churches and ministry positions based on anything except a confidence that God is leading them to make the change.  Now...God often gets the credit (or blame) for their decision, but I'm not convinced that God is actually behind many of those changes.  A pastor begins his ministry at a new church and announces how excited he or she is that God has called them to this place only to announce three years later that God has led him or her to another church.  For too many ministers this process is repeated ten or twelve times during their ministries.  I just don't believe God is that confused about where they are to serve!

Such ministers seldom accomplish anything of lasting value anywhere they serve.  When they retire they can't look back over a 30 year ministry; they can only look back at a string of three year ministries and find there is little to celebrate.

When God calls a minister to a place of service it will be for an extended period of time in most cases.  One exception to this is the person called to interim ministry who God will call to a place for two or three years while he or she helps the church prepare for a new pastor, and there may be other exceptions as well.  But, for most of us we need to pray and seek God's call to a place of ministry where we can put down roots and serve until we are convinced that he has called us to another ministry.  We need to be honestly seeking God's call to a place of ministry and not simply seek one to satisfy our own personal wishes and our convenience.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Practicing your sermon

Since getting my auctioneer's license last year there is hardly a time when I'm alone in the car that I do not spend a few miles working on my chant.  I do try to make sure I'm not around a lot of other cars when I'm doing this.  There's enough people in our community that wonder about my sanity, and if people started seeing me doing an auction chant in the car that number would probably increase!  Still, I find this helps me stay sharp between auctions, and I've had several long-time auctioneers tell me they still practice their chant while driving down the road.

Oddly enough, when I was a pastor I seldom verbally practiced my sermons before delivering them.  Maybe I was concerned that doing so would have a negative impact on the spontaneity of the message.  After all, what minister wants his or her sermon to sound canned?  I'm actually more tempted to preach at least a portion of my message on the way to church today, especially if I am driving some distance to where I'm speaking.  I find that doing so helps me deliver a better message.

  1. Sometimes I find that a portion of the message just doesn't fit verbally like I thought it would on paper.  It's better to learn that before you preach the sermon than to realize it in the midst of the message.
  2. Sometimes I realize that the sermon is running longer than I prefer, and this provides me an opportunity to cut out parts that add less value to the message I'm trying to convey.
  3. It always helps me better remember the message which means I am less tied down to my outline.  This allows me to maintain better eye contact with the congregation and to move more freely on the platform.
  4. Sometimes I will think of a better illustration than I was using in my prepared message which often strengthens the sermon.  I can then incorporate that illustration or story in the message.
If I don't have time to practice the entire message I want to at least practice the introduction and the conclusion.  Your audience will decide to listen to your message or tune it out based on the strength of your introduction.  I figure I only have a few minutes at the start of the message to draw them in or I will lose them so the introduction has to be strong.  Likewise, the conclusion is vital as it invites the audience to respond to what they've just heard.  I need to clearly give them the best ways to respond to the message and invite them to do so.  If the introduction and the conclusion are not strong then the middle part of the message will be much less effective.

If you do not currently practice your sermons before preaching them, I encourage you to at least try it for 3-4 months to see if it makes a difference.  Your preaching ministry is so important that it is worth at least trying this to see if it makes you stronger in the pulpit.

Since this post is about preaching...I read the other day in another blog that many ministers still find the classic On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons by John A. Broadus to be one of their favorite books on preaching.  In that book Broadus wrote, "The record of Christian history has been that the strength of the church is directly related to the strength of the pulpit.  When the message from the pulpit has been uncertain and faltering, the church has been weak; when the pulpit has given a positive, declarative message, the church has been strong.  The need for effective preaching has never been greater."  He wrote this in 1870!  How much more true are these words today?

This book has been in my library since the mid-1980s, and it had a major impact on my ministry.  You can order a copy of it here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Every day I post links to about 18 different blog articles that focus on ministry and/or leadership.  These come from the dozens of blogs I review each day looking for helpful information that I then pass on to my readers.  This is one more way I try to resource bivocational and small church leaders although leaders of much larger churches will probably find these articles interesting and helpful as well.

These links are posted on Twitter which then puts them on my Facebook page as well.  You can follow me on Twitter @DennisBickers.  In addition to these links I occasionally put other information on my Facebook page so I encourage you to friend me on FB as well.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pastoral priorities

The modern pastor is expected to be many things.  He or she is required to be an administrator, a counselor, a fund raiser, capable of working with both senior adults and children, a teacher, a preacher, a coach, and a friend to all people.  In some churches the pastor is expected to be skilled at plumbing, wiring, cleaning, lawn care, building construction, and driving a bus.  In a church of 50 people the pastor may have 50 different job descriptions in addition to the written one.  It should not surprise anyone that clergy have a very high burnout rate and many leave the ministry prematurely each year.  No one person can be expected to effectively do all these things, and the fact that many churches do have such expectations of their pastor shows how out of touch they are with what should be the priority of the pastor.

Ephesians 4: 11-12 tells us that God gave the pastor to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Verse 14 explains that this would prevent believers from being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.  In his final letter to Timothy, Paul urges him to rightly divide the word of truth so that he would not be ashamed to stand before God (2 Tim. 2: 15).  Later, Paul would add that he needed to be ready to preach at all times sound doctrine that the people would need to hear 2 Tim. 4: 2-3).

These verses, and more, indicate to me that the preaching ministry of a pastor must be one of his or her highest priorities.  A significant part of that preaching ministry is to set aside sufficient time for study of the Scriptures so that what is presented is sound doctrine.

I've just finished reading Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper.  In the book Piper challenges Christians to become more serious in their studies of the Scriptures.  Many Christians in North America seem to have a very shallow grasp of the Christian faith and its doctrines.  I think Piper would argue that part of the reason for this is that many of us fail to think deeply about what we read and hear.  Too often, we are content to listen to a 30 minute sermon on Sunday morning and go about our lives without really examining what was said.  Shallow thinking leads to a shallow faith.

Unfortunately, such shallow thinking is not confined to the pew.  It can be found behind the pulpit as well.  Here, the damage can be even worse.  Not only can it lead to a shallow faith in the minister, it can also lead to the spread of false doctrine that will poison the faith of others.  To correct this problem requires the pastor to be committed to being a student of the Word as Paul commanded Timothy.  Time must be set aside each week for study if the minister is to stand in the pulpit on Sunday to proclaim the truth of God's Word.  This often will require that some of the other expectations listed above will have to be given to others.

While this may not be popular in those churches that still have the mistaken belief that they have hired a minister to do all these things for them, this is exactly what the Ephesians passage is saying.  The pastor is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.  While I am not one who believes that the pastor should not visit people or spend time outside the church office meeting some of these other expectations, I do believe that the bulk of that work is to be done by spiritually mature and equipped lay leaders.  The pastor must have sufficient time to study and prepare his or her messages.  The pulpit ministry must have priority.

The Puritan preacher, John Owen, once stated, "The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word.  It is a promise related to the New Testament, that God 'world give unto his church pastors according to his own heart, which should feed them with knowledge and understanding' (Jer.iii.15).  This is by preaching or teaching the word, and no otherwise."

I have to admit that there were times reading this book that I felt convicted in my own ministry of allowing other pastoral duties to take me away from the proper study of Scripture.  Billy Graham has admitted that he now wishes he had spent more time in study and less speaking, and I share that regret.  However, it's never too late to turn that around.  One of my 2015 goals is to deepen my study of the Scriptures so that when I do speak I will have a word from God to share with my listeners.