Friday, January 30, 2015

Is there a place for a traditional church?

A pastor recently shared with me how his church had experimented with having a more contemporary worship service.  I'm not sure of all the details, but as I understood him the church had invested money in a new sound system and other items often associated with contemporary worship.  Their worship was led by a praise team.  The church tried contemporary worship for over a year, but I gather it was not enjoyed by many in the church.  After much discussion the church recently decided to return to a more traditional worship experience, and the church is going to market themselves as a traditional congregation in an effort to reach out to those who prefer a more traditional approach to worship.

Too often, contemporary worship is touted as the answer to all a church's woes.  Of course, one must define contemporary because it is going to differ from one congregation to another.  Is a contemporary worship service one in which persons sing praise songs from the 1980s?  Does a church have to use smoke machines, video projectors and use music from Hillsong to qualify as contemporary?  Is a Cowboy church that uses primarily Western Gospel music contemporary or traditional?  Where does liturgical dance and drama fit in?  Are these contemporary or traditional?

Sometimes people ask me about contemporary worship and music, and I often tell them they need to first determine who it is that God wants them to reach.  In his classic book The Purpose-driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message And Mission Rick Warren wrote, "Once you have decided on the style of music you're going to use in worship, you have set the direction of your church in far more ways that you realize.  It will determine the kind of people you attract, the kind of people you keep, and the kind of people you lose."

For this reason, I don't think every church has to become "contemporary" in order to reach people or to grow.  There are many people who continue to find more traditional worship styles and music meaningful.  These people also deserve a place where they can worship in ways that enable them to experience God in meaningful ways.  There is a place for the contemporary, in all its forms, but there is also a place for the traditional.

I applaud that pastor's church for their willingness to experiment with a different worship style.  I'm sure that not everyone was pleased with the decision to return to more traditional worship, and some of them will probably find their way to other churches that offer a worship style that is more meaningful to them.  That's OK.  While some will seek a church that offers contemporary worship, there will be others who will come because of the traditional worship they find in this church.

I also appreciate the fact that this congregation made an intentional decision about the worship experience it would offer each week.  They don't have to try to be all things to all people.  They can now concentrate their resources, planning, and preparation to make each Sunday's worship service meaningful and life-changing.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

What's happening in your church's youth group?

Several years ago when I was still a bivocational pastor our small church decided to bring on a bivocational youth minister to see if we could not develop a youth group in our church.  We found a young man who was energetic and had a great personality.  He planned a lot of activities that appealed to our young people who soon were inviting their friends.  Within a few months we had a good number of young people attending our church.

After about a year he announced he was resigning to accept a similar position in a larger church in a nearby county.  As he was making his announcement a young girl walked out of the sanctuary and never returned.  Within a few weeks nearly all of the new youth he had brought in had left as well.  We realized that he was good at reaching young people with the activities he planned and the various ways he entertained them, but there was no discipleship to anything he was doing.  When the entertainment disappeared so did the young people.

This is not an uncommon occurrence.  I recently read that 40 percent of Christian high school students end all church involvement once they graduate from high school.  For a long time, we blamed liberal colleges for causing our young people to question and abandon their faith, but the reality is that the seeds of this abandonment is planted long before they leave for college.  No doubt, the assault on Christian teachings and values that occurs on many campuses takes its toll, but our churches are also not without blame.  The fact is that many of our churches do a very poor job of helping young people develop a Christian worldview that is informed by biblical truth and understanding.

I recently began reading William Lane Craig's book On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision.  Craig is one of the premier Christian apologists and philosophers of our day.  His is one of the podcasts I download to my I-Pod to listen to when driving.  Early in the book he says that the church is failing young people by not training them in how to defend the truths of Christianity.  As he writes, "We've got to train our kids for war.  How dare we send them unarmed into an intellectual war zone?"

As I read that I remembered the youth groups we tried to develop earlier in my ministry.  We rented a nearby armory for the young people to play basketball on Sunday afternoons.  We had pizza parties and lock-ins and other activities our young people could invite their friends to attend.  We did a number of things to grow our youth group; we just didn't do much to grow our youth.  There was nothing wrong with any of the activities we were doing, but those activities were not enough.  Along with the activities we should have been helping them find a faith of their own  that they could defend.  As we tried to teach them what to believe we should have also been teaching them why they should believe it and why that belief was superior to other beliefs.  But we didn't.  It is one of the disappointments of my pastoral ministry.

What is happening in your church's youth group?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wandering in the wilderness

I find myself often preaching from the life and ministry of Moses.  There are so many lessons to be found in Moses that are applicable to both individuals and to churches.  When we think of Moses we often think of him leading the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years, but not many people realize that the actual trip should have taken no more than just a few days.  The reason for the longer journey was due to their refusal to enter the land God had promised to them.  God had brought them out of slavery to a land he had prepared for them, but they trusted the negative report of the spies more than they trusted God.  As a result of their disobedience none of that generation was allowed to enter the Promise Land but were forced to wander in the wilderness.

This story has many applications to churches today.  Just as God had a purpose for the people of Israel, he has a purpose for churches today.  Unfortunately, many churches will not even seek to know that purpose much less fulfill it.  Much like the spies did, there are people in these churches who loudly insist that the church cannot achieve the purpose God has for it.  They describe all the giants the church will face if they attempt to live out God's purpose for their church and the huge walls that stand between them and their dreams.  When churches decide to trust the negative reports more than they trust God they soon find themselves wandering in the wilderness while God seeks others who will follow him.

Many of these churches have been wandering in a wilderness of their own making for decades.  They cry out to God, they complain about their wilderness experience while watching other churches being used of God, they insist they want to have a positive impact on their communities, but they repeatedly refuse to be obedient to the vision God has for them.  I've seen some of these churches approach the Promised Land time and again only each time to turn away because of the perceived giants that live there.

Because of their refusal to obey God he is raising up new churches to do the work existing churches will not do.  Established churches often complain about their denominations providing resources to start new churches while their churches struggle.  "Give us that money and we'll be able to do more," they claim, but it's not a matter of resources.  It's a matter of faith.  Your church already has all the resources it needs to fulfill God's purpose for your church.  Do you really believe that God would have a vision for your church that you did not have the resources to achieve?  God will achieve his purposes, and your church can either be a part of that or continue to wander in the wilderness.

Tough words, but this is the decision the early Israelites made and it's the decision that many of our churches are making today.  Are you content to live in the wilderness or are you ready to be a part of what God is doing in the world today?  It really is your choice.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Another church dies

As my wife and I drove back from a preaching engagement recently we noticed a small church sitting back off the main highway.  This was new territory for us so we had never seen this building before.  The windows were boarded up and it was obvious the church building had been closed for many years.  I told my wife how saddened I am when I see such sights because I can visualize in my mind the sights and sounds that had once filled that sanctuary.  Men, women, and young people had found Jesus Christ in that place at one time.  People experienced renewed hope from the messages and songs they heard there.  Now, the building is boarded up and slowly rotting away from the elements.

The next day a pastor called asking about a pastor position he heard was open.  He learned after being called to his present ministry that before calling him as pastor the church had discussed closing.  That conversation was now happening again.  Too few people and resources were the primary reasons.  As I pressed this pastor further I learned the story behind the problems.  It's a familiar story I hear all too often.

No matter what the congregation wants to do, a controller prevents it from happening.  New people are brought into the church, and this same person soon runs them off by his actions and hurtful words.  He seldom attends worship services but does show up at all business meetings to enforce his rule on the congregation.  No one is willing to confront this person, and on those rare occasions when such confrontation does occur the challenger finds himself all alone and leaves in frustration.   Good people leave the church because a congregation does not have the courage to discipline a controller who is creating extreme disharmony in the church.

I've written numerous posts about church controllers in this blog because I find them so often in my ministry.  This pastor had evidently never read any of those posts because he talked about how he has tried to reason with this person.  I explained that you cannot reason with unreasonable people.  He said that some people had tried to tactfully address the problem but had failed.  Of course, they failed.  You cannot be tactful with controllers.  The reason these people keep the power they have is because churches are full of nice people who want to tactfully reason with them.  Nice people don't want confrontation and controllers thrive on it, but such confrontation is the only thing that they understand.

The only way to deal with controllers is for the church leadership to state clearly what they are doing wrong, what behaviors are expected of them, and that decisive church discipline will occur if they violate those expectations.   And, if those expected behaviors are violated quick, decisive action must follow.  By the way, the pastor cannot be the person who confronts the controller, especially if that pastor is relatively new to the position.  The controller will win almost every time that happens.  He or she must know that the congregation as a whole is confronting him or her.

Unfortunately, most small churches will not take the actions listed above.  They are too concerned that a long-time member will leave.  Yes, they know his or her actions are hurting the church, but, after all, that person has been here a long time.  The congregation has learned to accept this person's "personality," and have adjusted to it.  Such churches are willing to keep the controllers while good people, including their own young people, leave the church in droves to get away from such dysfunction.  These churches probably deserve to die, but it's still sad to see because it doesn't have to happen.

Does your church have controller issues?  If so, what are you doing about it?  Which is preferable to you: to keep your controllers or to have a long-term effective ministry in your community?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Where will your church be five years from now?

In the book Alice in Wonderland Alice came to a fork in the road she was traveling on.  She asked the Cheshire Cat which road should she take.  The Cheshire Cat asked her where she wanted to go, and Alice replied that she didn't know.  "Then,' said the Cat, 'it doesn't matter."

Before one can decide which choices he or she should make in life, one must have a destination in mind.  Otherwise, it really doesn't make much difference which road we take.  This is true in our family lives, in our businesses, in our careers, and it is certainly true in our churches.

I sometimes ask churches where they see themselves in five years, and I continue to be amazed at the number of churches that have never considered that question.  Without a sense of purpose, without direction, without a vision of what God wants to do in and through them, these churches are content to drift along Sunday to Sunday hoping that one day something good will happen.  It is only when we have a destination in mind that we become intentional about what we are doing.

Just as I believe that God has a purpose for each person I believe he has a purpose for each church.  We need to be intentional about seeking that purpose and then be intentional about taking the steps that will help us achieve that purpose.

So, where do you see your church in five years and what are you willing to do to achieve that?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Time wasters

Whether one is a bivocational pastor, a fully-funded pastor, or one who works in another profession, we are all faced with time challenges.  There just doesn't seem to be enough time in the day to do all the things we need to accomplish.  Our to-do list is often longer than the hours available.  We are often forced to make compromises in our use of time, and sometimes those consequences can lead to personal, financial, or relationship issues.

Each year I teach a course in our region's Church Leadership Institute called "Personal and Family Health."  The purpose of the class is to help people better balance the demands between their ministries and their personal lives.  We cover a broad range of topics in the four classes that make up the course, but in the first class we address the time challenges common to everyone.

The student's assignment for the second class is to list on a form I provide everything they do for one week in 15 minute increments.  They are to write a two page report on their findings.  The purpose of the assignment is to help them see that there may be pockets of time that could be used more effectively.  With very few exceptions, students report that they have identified numerous places where they are wasting time that could be better spent somewhere else.

Time management is really life management, and life management is really priority management.  When we set priorities around the major components of our lives and focus on accomplishing those priorities, it becomes much easier to effectively utilize our time.  The reality is that each of us have been given 24 hours a day, and our challenge is to use those 24 hours to their maximum potential.  In order to do that we need to identify the time-wasters that we allow to creep into our lives.  Some of those time-wasters may be
  • Unnecessary meetings that have no agenda and no real purpose.
  • Procrastination
  • Television
  • Cluttered work areas
  • Handling paper more than once
  • Misuse of social media
  • Misuse of cell phones
  • Doing things that should be delegated to someone else
  • Doing things that are not aligned with your personal or organizational vision
  • Allowing other people to set your agenda
There are many more items that could be added to this list.  What would you add?  I invite you to do the assignment my students do and list everything you do for one week in 15 minute increments and see if you learn anything about how you spend your time.  If you do, I would love for you to share with me your findings.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What do pastor search committees of smaller churches need to know?

Yesterday's post looked at several reasons why it is becoming increasingly more difficult for smaller churches to find pastors.  If you missed that post you can find it here.  Today we will discuss some realities pastor search committees in smaller churches need to accept.

The first is that it will become more difficult for you to find a quality person to serve as your pastor.  The good news is that God has someone for your church; the bad news is that it will likely take longer for you to find that person.  You and the congregation need to be aware of that upfront.

Secondly, it will be unlikely that you will attract a pastor with an MDiv from seminary.  As pointed out in yesterday's post, many of these individuals are not attending seminary with the intention of pastoring a church, half who graduate from seminary and enter pastoral ministry leave the ministry within five years after graduation, and many are simply unwilling to serve a smaller church.  They may or may not have a college degree and/or ministerial training.  Like I did, they may begin their ministry education after they are called to your church.

A third reality is that your next pastor will probably be bivocational.  For churches who have been served by fully-funded pastors this can be a huge paradigm shift.  The fact is that many so called fully-funded pastors were only able to remain at their churches due to their spouse's employment that provided income and insurance benefits for the family.  The marginal fully-funded churches will find it increasingly more difficult to find persons who are not bivocational to serve their churches.  If your church is struggling to make this transition I have written several books on bivocational ministry available in most Christian book stores and online at and others that can help you better understand this ministry.

Fourth, if your church is unhealthy or has considerable conflict it will be very difficult to find a quality pastor.  Believe me, the word gets out when a church becomes toxic towards its pastors, and good pastors avoid these churches.  You may even find it difficult to get help from your denomination.  A church that has been dysfunctional for decades recently asked me to help them find a pastor, and I told them that they first needed to determine where they wanted their church to be in the next five years and what they were willing to do to achieve that.  Until then, I will not work with them.  I am not going to sacrifice any more pastors to a church's dysfunction.  It's not fair to the pastors.  We don't have enough good pastors to send into these situations, and a bad pastor won't be able to help them.

Fifth, refuse to settle.  When a search takes too long there is the temptation to call someone just to have a person in the pulpit each week.  It seems that in every small church there is someone who has a cousin whose father-in-law works with somebody who preaches sometimes.  Why not just call that person since it doesn't look like we can find anyone else willing to come?  Sometimes, these folks do work out, but quite often they bring a whole new set of problems into a church that doesn't need any more problems.  I repeat, God has someone for your church and you should never settle for anyone until you are convinced this is the person God has called to your church.

The final one I'll mention in this post is that your church needs to offer a generous salary and benefit package to the person you call.  Too many small churches want to see how cheap they can go and still attract someone.  Offer a fair salary that is in line with your offerings and your savings.  Be kind with the benefits you provide.  There is absolutely no reason a church of any size cannot give their pastor four weeks vacation from the start.  You may not be able to pay a full-time salary, but to be generous with vacation and other benefits costs very little but can express how much you appreciate his or her ministry.

If you are in a small church that is struggling to find a pastor, please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns you may have.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pastoral leadership in the smaller church

Preacher by siervo - Preacher from the pulpit   "Why are we having so much trouble finding a new pastor?"  The question is one I hear a lot today from the pastor search committees in smaller churches.  For years many of the smaller churches in our area depended on students from a nearby seminary for their pastors.  All they had to do was call the placement office and a packet of resumes would be sent to them.  A pastoral search might only take a couple of months.  Those days are gone.

For a variety of reasons most students from that seminary won't pastor a church in our denomination so contacting the seminary is usually not helpful.  In my opinion, that's not a bad thing.  The churches that depended on these students were mostly spinning their wheels.  Every two or three years their pastor graduated and moved on to another church.  Little, if any, ministry occurred during that pastor's tenure.  The church had a person to stand in the pulpit each Sunday; the student gained experience; but little meaningful ministry ever took place.  The church grew older and smaller, and every two or three years got to repeat the cycle over again.

Now, these churches are finding it increasingly difficult to find someone willing to serve as their pastor. This is often a painful realization for many of these churches.  Many question their value to the Kingdom of God.  Some blame their denomination for not being more helpful while others question the commitment of upcoming pastors to their calling.

I try to explain to these churches why it's so difficult to find persons to serve as pastors to smaller churches.  Some of the reasons are

  • There is a growing number of ministers reaching retirement age which has made the pool of available ministers smaller.
  • One-half of all seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years after graduation making the pool even smaller.
  • Many pastors refuse to serve in smaller churches because they do not believe it is a good use of their gifts and training.
  • Some view smaller churches as being unhealthy and do not want to serve there.
  • The average seminary student completes his or her education with substantial student debt which is difficult to repay with the salaries offered by many smaller church.
  • Many enter seminary from larger, suburban churches and want to return to those types of churches upon graduation.  They would not be comfortable in the rural or small town settings where many smaller churches are located.
Just yesterday I read an article that offered another reason.  According to a study done by the Association of Theological Schools on the incoming students at 161 ATS schools in 2011-2012, 81 percent of them did not expect to serve as pastors and less than half planned to be ordained.  What does this say about the numbers of persons entering pastoral ministry in the future?

What do all of these reasons listed here suggest to smaller churches seeking pastoral leadership?  We'll try to answer that question in tomorrow's post.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Multitasking is a myth

Bivocational ministers are always looking for ways to save time.  Many of us like to multitask in an effort to accomplish as much as possible.  For a long time this was my mindset.  Unfortunately, research now shows that multitasking actually makes both tasks take longer because it is impossible to multitask.  In his excellent book What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done Matt Perman points to research that provided evidence that the human brain cannot effectively do two things at once.

Rather than multitasking Perman writes that we are actually switchtasking, switching back and forth between tasks.  Every time we switch between one task to another there is an interruption, and these interruptions have a cost associated with them.  These costs can add up and cause us to be much less efficient and effective.

Of course, bivocational ministers are not the only ones struggling with having the time to do all the things we are expected to do.  In our busy culture today most of us have that problem.  We need to remember that time is a resource, and like all resources it is limited.  Perman reminds us that "The scarcity of time is the reason we need to do one thing at a time."  We must concentrate on doing the most important thing first and then when that task is completed we can move on to the next task.

It's easy to be tempted to complete a bunch of small tasks early so we can concentrate on the more important stuff later.  I still fall into that temptation occasionally.  But, too often we spend so much time doing the small things that we find there is not enough time to complete the more important tasks that needed to be done.  We are then forced to scramble and sometimes do a poor job at the most important things we should be doing.

Many time management people will tell you that one of the most important things you can do is to take a few minutes each evening to look at the next day's schedule.  What is the most important thing you must do that day?  That becomes your number one priority, and that is where you start.  When you complete that task then you can move on to the next most important thing.  At the end of the day you may not have completed everything on your to-do list, but you will have done the most important tasks.

The ability to multitask would be great if we could do it, but we can't.  It's a myth and it's a costly one to pursue.  It is far better to focus on one thing at a time, stay on it until completion, and then move on to the next most important priority item.  At the end of the day we will have accomplished more and will have done the most important things that needed to be done.  That is how to make the most effective use of your time.  You may want to read more of Perman's book for other great ideas.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Renewing our minds

The following is one of my most read posts that was first published in 2011.  I hope you find it as helpful this time.

Renewing our minds

Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting a small town congregation for worship.  The pastor was preaching on the need to renew our minds.  Although I had heard numerous sermons on that topic I left there thinking this one was probably the best I've ever heard on the subject.  We spent much of our time in Philippians 4:8 for the message as he reminded the congregation of the types of things we should focus our thinking on if we want to renew our minds.  He also reminded us that it isn't easy because we are constantly bombarded with the other kinds of things that do not lead to renewed minds.

How many of the television programs you watch are uplifting and positive?  What about the movies you see?  The music you listen to?  Do you find that most news programs encourage you and focus on things that are lovely and of good report?  Do you find images on the Internet that burn themselves into your mind?  Did those images appear while you were looking for something else, or did you go looking for them?  What about your friends and people with whom you spend much of your time?  Are they encouragers, positive people with positive attitudes that uplift you just by being around them, or are they mostly negative people who spend much of their time complaining about all the negative things in life?

We cannot ignore that there are negative things in this world in which we live.  We shouldn't stick a finger in our ears and sing "La, la, la, la, la, la" real loud so we don't have to hear about the negatives and don't have to do anything about them.  We are called to minister in this world in which we live with all the negative and bad things that exist.  The challenge is to not allow these things to control what we dwell on.  Our focus is to be on the person of Jesus Christ and His call on our lives and on our churches.  We have to choose every day whether we will focus on the negatives that exist all around us or upon Christ and the good things He is doing through us to make a difference in this messed up world in which we live.  That choice will impact our attitudes and how we go about our days.

One other thing...we also can't focus on the negative things that goes on within our churches.  Virtually every week church leaders are confronted by the complainers, the controllers, the perpetual victims, the whiners, and the spiritually immature who have been languishing around the church for decades.  These people are real joy suckers.  Don't let them.  Minister to them the best you can but maintain your focus on Christ and His call on your life.  I've read where the typical pastor will leave a church because of seven people.  That's what happens when we focus too much of our attention on the joy suckers and fail to remember the many others whose lives have been impacted by our ministry.

Why not make Philippians 4:8 your verse for this week?  Write it down on a card and carry it in your pocket.  Every time you find yourself focusing on the negative things that are going on around you, pull out that card and read it.  Intentionally force yourself to begin to dwell on the positive and allow those thoughts to help renew your mind as you go about the day.  It might make a big difference.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Would your community miss you if your church closed?

I recently read a business blog that asked if the community would miss the reader's business if it closed.  Several years ago one of the big box stores opened in our community to the excitement of the majority of people.  Many of the smaller Mom and Pop stores in the community were forced to close.  One supermarket near our house remained open for several years but one day announced that it would soon be closing.  I told the owner I hated to see that happen, and he explained that he had done the calculations and knew to the month when his store would begin going in the red.  He simply could not compete with the prices the big box store offered.

His store did close and he began another career.  Although that occurred over a dozen years ago people are still talking about how much they miss that supermarket.  Maybe the selection wasn't as large and the prices were slightly higher, but the service was much better than anything the big box store offered, and there was a certain satisfaction in doing business with someone local who was involved in local activities.  His store is definitely missed.

Would your community miss your church if it closed?  I think this is a great question for a church to answer, but it's not one that should be answered too quickly.  Any answer you give must be supported by facts to support it.

Several years ago I was meeting with a pastor search committee of a small, rural church.  The church was located on a county road well off the highway.  It was dark.  The church had no directional signs once one left the highway and many of the county road signs were missing as well.  I finally stopped at a house and asked where the church was located.  No one knew.  I drove to another house and asked for directions.  They didn't know either.  About 15 minutes later I stumbled onto the church parking lot.  The church was located about a mile from both of those houses.  Would they miss that church if it closed?  I doubt they would even know it had closed.

What is your church doing to make itself known in the community?  What ministries does your church offer the community?  A business term that is popular today is Top-of-the-Mind Awareness (TOMA).  This means that when someone needs a service or product, the first provider of that service or product that comes to your mind has the highest TOMA.  Where would your church rate on the list of local church TOMA?

A common mistake is that people assume that the largest church in a community will have the highest TOMA, but that isn't necessarily the case.  A small church, if it is serving its community well, can have a very high TOMA as well. and for those people who prefer the smaller church it could even have a higher TOMA than the larger church.

If you want to impact your community for Jesus Christ, you need to minister to it in such a way that your church would be missed if it ever had to close its doors.  If you do, it's highly unlikely that you will ever have to worry about closing!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ministry on purpose

Last Saturday I spent the day with a small church leading them through vision discernment.  This church is in the process of seeking a new pastor which is a great time to begin discerning God's future for a church.  We had previously spent a couple of evenings helping them explore their core values and bedrock beliefs, and now it was time to bring all that work together in vision discernment.  Church members spent time alone in scripture reading and prayer to see what they heard God saying to them and then brought their thoughts back to the larger group for discussion.  It was a powerful time and a day well spent.  They did not leave that gathering with a clear vision for their future ministry, but they have began the process, they now have a common language to continue this discernment together, and they understand how critical it is to seek a fresh vision from God for ministry.  I am excited about the future of this church.

Earlier this week I met with the leadership of a larger church to discuss their need to go through such a process.  Like the smaller church, they have been drifting for the past few years without any sense of purpose or direction.  A new pastor has led them in making some organizational changes they needed, but they now sense it is time to really begin looking at what God wants to do in them and through them over the next few years.  I explained the dangers of drifting, the importance of a clear, unifying vision for a church, and the process we would use to begin that discernment.  The feedback was positive, and I am hopeful this church will decide to pursue this.

Most churches have no real vision for ministry.  Some may have a vision statement hanging in the pastor's office somewhere, but no one has really looked at it in years, and it has little if any impact on the decisions the church makes.  There is a huge difference between a vision and a vision statement.  Visions produce passion in a church because the people believe they are pursuing God's purposes for their church.  Who could not get excited about that?  With a clear vision the church is united around the church is ready to create its budget, it's ready to determine its ministry programs, and it's ready to do ministry on purpose.

Churches that just drift from Sunday to Sunday often find themselves drifting into trouble.  People in the congregation are not excited because there's nothing to excite them.  Attendance falters, giving goes down, it becomes more difficult to attract volunteers, guests seldom come and even more seldom return for a second visit, there is rapid pastor turnover, the facility becomes rundown as maintenance is ignored, and church youth leave as soon as they are able.  Even worse, the community around the church goes untouched for the Kingdom of God.

Is your church doing ministry on purpose or is it drifting along from Sunday to Sunday hoping that someday something good will happen?  If you are in a drifting church you can turn that around.  God has a vision for your church.  There are things he wants to do in and through your church, and if you will seek that vision and unite around it, great things will begin to happen.  It is not a difficult process to begin vision discernment, but it does require intentionality on the part of the church.  When we seek God is when we find him, and the same is true for his vision for our churches.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Prayer and the Christian minister

Has there ever been a Christian minister who has been satisfied with his or her prayer life?  I've never met one although I'm sure there are some who have rich, satisfying prayer lives.  Some who claim to be satisfied with their prayer lives have, perhaps, set a rather low bar to meet, but I have no doubt that there are others with a prayer life that is indeed powerful and vibrant.  I've often wished that was me.

Like so many believers, my own prayer life has its ups and downs.  I have known seasons when I felt my prayer life was rich and approaching what I felt it should be.  Far more often it has been something tacked on to the more pressing demands in my life.  I once read the confession of a minister who one day realized that there were days when he could go without prayer.  He was shocked that he could do that.  I wasn't because I've done the same thing.

This week I started reading Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller during my morning devotions.  In the first few chapters it has once again reminded me of the importance of intimate times of prayer with God and the impact such times has on the life of the minister.  Keller quotes the 17th century theologian John Owen who wrote, "A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more."

Whether one is a bivocational pastor or fully-funded, the demands of life and ministry can easily lead us away from prayer.  If we are not careful we one day realize that our prayer lives consist primarily of public prayers at events or worship services with little private time spent with God.  That lack of time spent alone with God eventually leads to spiritual dryness and an emptiness that affects every aspect of our lives.  I have been there at various times in my ministry, and it is not a fun place to be.

While my prayer life is not what I want it to be, I can say that it is much better than it has been in the past.  A doctoral class I took under Elmer Towns helped me approach prayer differently and had a positive impact on my prayer life.  Yet, I also know that I am still a student of prayer.  I think the same could be said for most of us.  That is why I chose this book as part of my devotional reading.

I want to encourage you to reflect on your own personal prayer life today.  Are you satisfied with it?  More importantly, do you think God is pleased with your prayer life?  If you aren't satisfied with your answers, what can you do to begin to improve?

Monday, January 12, 2015

How can denominations better serve their bivocational churches and pastors?

Last Friday my blog addressed the potential decline in denominational life as we now know it.  In the post I listed several reasons for this decline that came from the book Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God by Greg Ogden.  In addition to the reasons he named I suggested one additional reason: the failure of denominations to recognize and resource their bivocational churches and pastors.  You can read that blog post here.  I promised that I would suggest some ways denominations could better support their bivocational churches in a later blog, and that is what this post will address.

I frequently receive e-mails from bivocational pastors who tell me they feel lonely and ignored by their denominations.  Because of their other jobs they often cannot attend pastor gatherings held during the day time.  Many tell me they seldom, if ever, see their denominational leaders.  I once asked a bivocational pastor who was seeking a move to another church if he had told his judicatory leader of his interest in moving.  He responded that he had been in his church for five years, and his DOM wouldn't know him if he walked into his office.  I hear similar stories from bivocational pastors serving in numerous denominations.

The first thing a denomination can do to support their bivocational ministers is by simply being present.  I had two Area Ministers during my 20 year pastorate, and both of them attended at least one worship service at our church during their tenures.  One attended my mother's funeral service.  I spent time with each of them at various times in my ministry.  Some of those times they assisted with issues we had in the church.  Other times they were leading workshops in our church or preaching revivals.  I had an excellent relationship with both men and knew I could call on them at any time. Our region had three Executive Ministers during my pastorate, and all three of them preached in worship services in our church.  My church and I felt very supported even though we were a small, rural bivocational church.

I should say a word to bivocational pastors right here.  I was often asked how I got these folks to speak in our church, and the answer is quite simple.  I asked them.  We can't always place the blame on the denominational persons.  Now that I serve in that capacity I can tell you that we normally go where we are invited.  If I have a free Sunday then I will go to a church I haven't visited for awhile, but I don't have too many free Sundays. I have 133 churches in my area so I'm usually committed to going somewhere just about every Sunday.  It's not easy for me to just "drop" in on a Sunday.  I understand a pastor's frustration at never seeing or hearing from their denominational leaders, but sometimes you have not because you ask not.

Bivocational ministers run the gamut when it comes to theological education.  I've heard from some that never completed high school to others who have PhDs.  Some who have advanced degrees have them in fields other than theology or ministry.  Many bivocational ministers need practical ministry and theological training.  Few of them are going to be able to uproot their families and go off to college and/or seminary, so denominations need to find ways to offer the education and training they need.

Our region offers a program called the Church Leadership Institute (CLI) that is designed for both lay leaders and bivocational ministers.  We now have several CLI graduates pastoring some of our bivocational churches. and these individuals are doing a very good job.  CLI was never designed to replace a seminary education, but it does provide solid, practical ministry training as well as an introductory theological education.  We see the need to expand this program and have increased the number of sites where CLI is offered to make it more accessible and we're currently exploring offering it online.  Every denomination needs to look into offering something similar.

While there are many things that denominations need to do to support and encourage their bivocational ministers I will just mention one more in this post.  How often does your denomination showcase bivocational ministers?  Does your denomination ever have a bivocational minister speak at its annual meetings?  Is the good work done in some of your bivocational churches ever recognized in your denominational newsletters or at your major gatherings?  Are your bivocational ministers ever offered opportunities to serve on your regional boards or other significant denominational positions?

For a number of years our region recognized "Church of the Year" churches.  Similar size churches competed with one another for the award. The church I pastored received it twice, and that recognition did much to encourage our small church.  As a bivocational pastor I was asked to work with a number of our churches, both bivocational and fully-funded, in a major capital funds campaign our denomination conducted one year.  At our recent region biennial a bivocational pastor was asked to speak to the gathering about some ministries their church was doing and the impact it was having on its community.  These types of public recognition are not always found in every denomination, but they should be.

Bivocational churches are growing rapidly across denominations.  Many of them are providing wonderful ministry to their communities.  These churches and their pastors need support and encouragement from their denominations as well as the resources they need to take their ministries up to another level.  The denominations that offer such to their bivocational churches will flourish in the coming years.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The future of denominations

A book that has greatly influenced my thinking and ministry is Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God by Greg Ogden.  The primary focus of the book is that ministry does not just belong to clergy but is the responsibility of all believers.  After making his case, Ogden turns to what needs to happen in churches for this transition to occur.  It is an excellent book that I highly recommend to every pastor.

Earlier today I was re-reading a section of the book and came across a statement that I had previously underlined but had forgotten was in the book.  Ogden noted that "denominational life as we know it is perhaps fifty years from extinction."  He went on to give several things that were happening that caused him to make this prediction.  Given that this book was first copyrighted in 1990 and revised in 2003, I spent some time thinking about his prediction.

Of course, people have been predicting the death of denominations for many years, but Ogden's statement was that denominational life as we know it is perhaps fifty years from extinction.  At this point, his prediction is about 25 years old, and I don't think too many people would argue that denominations are weaker now than they were 25 years ago.  In the next 25 years could we see an even further erosion of denominational life and perhaps even the death of some denominational bodies?  I think so, for the same reasons Ogden notes in the book as well as at least one additional reason.  The evidences he lists are

  • Denominations existed to keep alive a theological tradition.  In many denominations today it is difficult to find any sense of clarity of their theological heritage.
  • With that heritage came a commitment to a style of worship.  Without ever looking at the name of the church one could usually tell what denomination a church belonged to by their style of worship.  With the variety of worship styles today that is no longer the case.
  • People under sixty have little loyalty to denominations, and this includes pastors.
  • Many denominational churches believe it is more of a liability than an asset to be associated with a denomination.  
  • Numerous churches are now removing the denominational names from their church title.  While maintaining their relationship to the denomination, these churches are minimizing that relationship to appeal to more people.
Each of these continue to occur in the church today, and they continue to weaken denominations.  In addition to the ones he mentioned I would like to suggest one additional reason: their failure to recognize the growing numbers of bivocational churches within their denomination.

It is not uncommon today for one-third to one-half of all the churches in a denomination to now be led by bivocational pastors, and yet these pastors and the churches they serve continue to be ignored by most denominational bodies.  There are numerous judicatories who are addressing the needs of these churches and their pastors, but at the denominational level there is very little being done to resource and serve these churches.  I hear from bivocational pastors on a regular basis how lonely they feel as their needs are being totally ignored by their denominations.

No business would last long if it ignored the needs of one-third to one-half of its customers, but this is what many denominations are doing.  These churches and pastors need support so they turn to para-church organizations or other resources for the assistance they need.  Their loyalty and financial support is then given to the ones who provide them with the resources they need.

For the foreseeable future I believe the numbers of bivocational churches will continue to grow.  The denominations who are able to recognize this shift and are willing to support these churches can have a bright future.  The denominations who refuse to do either will soon find they are no longer relevant to the majority of their churches and will be abandoned by those churches.  At that point those denominations will no longer exist.

I think Ogden is right, in another 25 years denominational life as we know it will no longer exist.  Denominations are going to have to make some major changes in how they relate to churches and the resources they make available if they want to have any kind of a future ministry.  I'll write more about this in a later post.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The effective pastor

The number one complaint I've heard from every bivocational minister I've talked to is the lack of time to accomplish all the things that needs to be done.  I often break down the life of a bivocational minister into five areas: God, Family, Church, Work, and Self-Care.  It is a real challenge to keep balance in these five areas of our lives.  I teach a class in our region's Church Leadership Institute that addresses this challenge, but I will be the first to admit that it's often difficult to balance these five areas in our lives.

One of the things I address in the class is the importance of setting priorities for how we manage our time.  If you don't set your priorities someone else will, and they will seldom have the same priorities for your life that you would have.  It is very easy for a bivocational minister to spend large blocks of time dealing with secondary issues and spending little time on the more important areas of our lives.

A book that I've started reading that looks like it will be very helpful is What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman.  In the second chapter he writes

When most people think of productivity, they think of efficiency - getting more things done in less time...While efficiency is important, it works only when we make it secondary, not primary.  It doesn't matter how efficient you are if you are doing the wrong things in the first place.  More important than efficiency is effectiveness - getting the right things done.  In other words, productivity is not first about getting more things done faster.  It's about getting the right things done.

Later in the chapter Perman reminds us of the words of Peter Drucker: "The most unproductive thing of all is to make more efficient what should not be done at all."  How many times have you been encouraged to download an app that someone insisted would save you a lot of time, but when you downloaded it you found that it did something that you really didn't need to be doing anyway?  That recently happened to me.  The app looked promising, but after downloading it I realized that it would take a long time to learn how to use it properly and it didn't do anything I wasn't already doing with another program that I already knew how to use.  I deleted the new app.

Looking back on my pastorate I have realized that many of the things I did really didn't need to be done at all, and if they did need done they should have been done by someone else.  My ministry became much less difficult when I learned to say no to things that I didn't need to do.  That gave me the freedom to do the things that actually needed to be done by the pastor that would help our church achieve the vision we believed God had given us.  I think you'll find the same thing to be true for you.

I can't tell you what things you need to do in order to be your most effective.  That will depend on the vision of your church and many other variables.  But, it is critical that you identify those things and begin to focus the bulk of your attention on them.  Delegate the other activities to other people.  If you say that you have no one you can trust for those other responsibilities then perhaps your first priority is to train people for those tasks.

The Pareto Principle teaches us that 20 percent of what we do gives us 80 percent of our results.  If we can focus more of our attention on that critical 20 percent our ministries will be much more effective, and, as an added bonus, we will feel much less stress in our ministries and lives.  That is a win-win!

For more information on how to better balance your life and ministry be sure to check out my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

When the leader loses hope

I was a pastor of one church for twenty years.  For the past fourteen years I've served as a judicatory minister serving the churches in our region.  I know how frustrating it can be for pastors who struggle to lead their churches only to see few results.  For those of us in my generation it is especially troublesome because it seems everything we learned earlier in our ministries is no longer applicable today.  The world is changing much more rapidly than our churches are willing to change, and it's changing much more rapidly than some of us can keep up with.

However, having said all that, it still bothers me when I talk with pastors and church leaders who have given up.  There is something sad about pastors and lay leaders who have lost hope.  These are people in positions of leadership in their churches and yet they have nothing to give those churches.  When you lose hope, when you can't see anything positive in what you are doing or see how things will get better, you can't lead.

Sometimes this is due to depression or burnout, but there are ways to address those.  Regular readers of this blog know that I've been very open about a period of depression I experienced in the mid-80s.  I couldn't see very much positive about what was happening in my life or ministry during those dark days, but I also knew that I was depressed.  Counseling and medication corrected that condition within a few months and I regained my confidence and hope.

The problem comes when the lack of hope isn't the result of illness but when it occurs because of difficulties in the church.  People leave for another church.  Controllers in the church create on-going problems.  Finances and attendance continues to decline.  First-time guests never return.  People claim they want growth but refuse to accept the changes necessary for such growth to occur.  It become more difficult to find volunteers.  The list of problems goes on and on, and it can become overwhelming.

Well...if you have been called to the ministry this is part of what that calling entails.  Did you think that the ministry was going to be all sunshine and roses?  Did you think your ministry was supposed to be easier than Jesus' ministry?  If so, I've got real bad news: it won't be.  There will be people who will disappoint you, who will hurt you, who will say negative things about you, and who will resist your leadership.  Your church may not grow as fast as the new church in town.  Again, the list goes on and on.

We can't control events outside ourselves or how others will behave; we can only control how we respond to those events and individuals.  If we allow those negative things to take away our hope then we have nothing to offer our churches.  If a pastor spends the majority of his or her time feeling sorry about himself or herself and complaining about how hard ministry is and how this church isn't ever going to do better, then he or she needs to resign immediately and probably leave the ministry.  Your church deserves better and probably won't ever improve as long as you are in the role of their leader.

A church will never overcome its challenges and problems with leaders who have lost hope that things will ever improve.  One cannot lead without hope, and it takes leadership to turn things around.

How does a leader regain and maintain a sense of hope?  Instead of focusing on the negative things begin to re-examine all the positive things that have happened under your ministry.  Look at the difference your ministry and church have made in the lives of other people.  Take a fresh look at the new ministry opportunities that exist in your community and begin to ask God how he would have you respond.  Quick looking at the resources you don't have and determine what resources are available, and then discuss among the leadership how those resources can best be used for ministry.  Spend more time with positive people who are excited about what's happening in their lives and ministries.  (BTW - If you walk around like Eeyore these people will avoid you like the plague, and you need to stay away from people like that too!)  Most importantly, refocus on God's call on your life and upon him.  God called you because he has great things for your ministry and the confidence that you can do them with his help.  Begin to believe in yourself and your ministry as much as he does and see if your hope doesn't return.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Is your church a safe place?

Small churches are often referred to as family churches.  In many of them, the vast majority of people have attended church there for years, sometimes for generations.  We all know everyone, sometimes too well!  This makes this post that much difficult to write.

Churches are to be many things to people, but one of the most basic is that they must be a safe place for people to attend.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  One reads of pastors, church staff, and others in churches who become involved sexually with persons in the church.  As a judicatory leader I occasionally have to work with churches dealing with this issue.  When it becomes known that a person has been sexually involved with a minor it then becomes a legal matter that has major ramifications for the individuals involved and the church.

The Catholic church has paid millions of dollars in compensation to the victims of sexual abuse and has received a great deal of negative press about its previous efforts to cover up this abuse.  Even worse than this is the impact this abuse has had on the victims.  What they believed would be a safe place turned out not to be, and someone that people thought should be trusted turned out to abuse that trust.  Unfortunately, such abuse is not limited to the Catholic church but occurs in Protestant churches as well.

The church must take steps to ensure that such abuse does not happen.  Churches should adopt sexual misconduct and sexual harassment policies that clearly state the behaviors expected of both staff and lay persons in the church.  Such policies should state how complaints of this nature should be addressed and guarantee to the one making the complaint that there will be no retaliation taken against anyone making such a complaint.  You can find numerous examples of such policies on the Internet that you can use as a template.  Church Mutual Insurance Company has a very good booklet that addresses child sexual abuse specifically that would be a good resource for many churches.

Many larger churches require background checks on anyone working with children and youth, but I have found few smaller churches that require such checks.  The mindset in these churches is that since everyone knows everybody such checks are unnecessary and demeaning.  That mindset needs to change. Sexual predators know that smaller churches tend to be quite happy to have new volunteers and often don't do background checks.  Some long-time members might be initially offended if the church sets a policy of doing background checks on everyone serving in the church, but it should be explained that the church wants to protect children not only now but in the future as well.  Such concern for the well-being of children should alleviate any concerns these long-time members might have.

Any allegation must be taken seriously and investigated immediately.  The policies your church established should describe how such investigations will happen and who will lead them.  It is critical that confidentially be maintained as much as possible.  However, when behavior falls within the legal abuse-reporting guidelines such reports must be made.

This is a very complex subject and certainly cannot be covered with a blog post.  My concern today is only that too many smaller churches assume nothing like this will occur in their churches, and they have not developed any kind of policies or plans for how to prevent such abuse or how to address it if it does occur.  There are many resources out there to help your church develop such policies, and any final document you draft should be looked at by your attorney and insurance agent.  They can be of great assistance in developing these policies.

Unfortunately, your church can do everything right and still not guarantee that abuse will not happen.  Nevertheless, it's critical that every church make the effort to prevent such abuse and harassment from occurring.  Our churches must be safe places for people to gather and worship God together.  Let's do everything we can do to make that happen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Change, decision making, and emotions

Unless you are Sheldon Cooper or Spock, logic only plays a small role in the decisions you make.  We can make lists of reasons for and against a decision, but when it comes crunch time our emotions will play a large part in the final decision we make.  Chip and Dan Heath makes this point well in their excellent book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work when they write, "When you strip away all the rational mechanics of decision making - the generation of options, the weighing of information - what's left at the core is emotions...The buck stops with emotion."

Perhaps one of the greatest of these emotions is fear.  We are afraid of making mistakes, of being wrong.  We are afraid of what others might think of us if we make one choice over another.  We are afraid that the choices we make will put us in a situation from which we cannot escape.

As many of you know, a couple of years ago I started an auction business and got my auction license.  It's funny to watch people struggling to decide whether or not to increase their bid by a couple of dollars.  I've seen people anguish over the decision to bid another five dollars on something they've already bid over a hundred dollars on.  It's obvious this is something they want, but fear takes over and prevents them from bidding.  About the time the auctioneer declares the item sold, they will raise their hand to increase their bid, but by that time it's too late.  Someone else owns it.  I think this gives them the psychological satisfying sense that they tried to buy it but waited just a split-second too long.

As I work with the churches in my area I've never had one tell me they didn't want to reach new people, or grow, or impact people's lives.  But, when you begin to talk about the changes they might have to make to accomplish any of these you can see the fear in their eyes and hear it in their words.  Logically, they want to do the things they say they want to do, but emotionally many of them cannot let go of the familiar to make the changes needed to accomplish those things.

As leaders, we make a mistake if we just focus on all the reasons why we need to move forward with the changes that are needed.  We will seldom convince others that we need to make changes with logic alone.  We must address the emotional aspects of those changes as well.  Too often we just focus on the "what" of the changes and never address the "whys."

In smaller churches, especially, the fear that is generated when talking about change centers around some basic questions.

  • How will this impact the relationships that exist in their church?  In smaller churches, relationships are key to everything, and change leaders must not overlook that.
  • How will this impact my role in the church?  People who have invested their lives in a church will certainly be asking this question, and their fear is that their role will change.
  • Will I even still have a role in this church is we move forward with the change?  Here the above fear is intensified.
To make better decisions and to be an effective change agent we must recognize the role that emotions play.  Effectively address those emotions and you will make better decisions and will see changes occur more frequently.  Ignore the emotions and few changes will occur in your life and ministry.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The well-being of a pastor

I know that now Christmas is gone the last thing you want to be told is to consider giving another gift.  I also know that the gift I am going to recommend you give is very self-serving: it's one of the books I've written.

One of my concerns is the well-being of pastors, especially bivocational pastors, but I also have great concern for those who are fully-funded as well.  I have shared several posts in this blog about my own struggle with depression in my earlier ministry and its causes.  I know first-hand what can happen when pastors do not maintain healthy balances in their lives and ministries.  I know what it does to the pastor, to his or her family, to the church, and to others around them.  It's not pretty.  I also know the pain of working through depression and the amount of time it takes to defeat it.  As we've often been told, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry was written to be that ounce of prevention.  It's not easy to maintain a healthy balance between life and ministry, but it's easier to do that than to deal with the effects of allowing your life to get out of balance.  Pastoral ministry in both bivocational and fully-funded churches is full of challenges, stresses, and strife.  There is no way to avoid all that, but we can be proactive and ease those pressures that goes along with ministry.

The very first chapter addresses the pressures that the families of ministers often face.  I started there because there have been too many horror stories of pastor's families falling apart while the minister was doing "God work."  I begin by identifying some of the common stresses these families face and then share some ways those stresses can be reduced.  Each chapter in the book follows that same formula.  In all, there are fourteen different stresses experienced by many pastors that are addressed in the book.

If you are the spouse of a ministry leader I encourage you to give this book to your spouse.  Read it together and talk about what you took away from each chapter.  The chapter on the family begins by talking about how lonely the spouses of ministers often feel, and there is even a piece from Bill Hybel's wife about her own experience with that loneliness as their ministry was beginning.  If this resonates with you, be honest and share that.  It may well be that your mate never knew that was what you were feeling.  Begin to discuss how you can make changes to enjoy a more balanced and enjoyable life.

If you are the ministry leader, give the book to yourself.  I am a big proponent in investing in ourselves, but this will also be an investment in your family and church as well.  A healthier minister will have a healthier family and a healthier church.  Everyone benefits.

Finally, if you are a judicatory leader you may want to consider giving this book to the pastors in your district.  As you well know, many of them are struggling with various pressures brought about by their ministries.  A number of judicatories have given copies of my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues to every pastor in their district to study, and I honestly believe this book is just as important to the health and well-being of our ministers and churches.

As I begin a new year of blogging I invite your comments and questions.  If there is a topic you would like me to address in a future post, please pass that on to me.  I've often said that I would like to see this blog become a community where those of us in bivocational ministry can share our thoughts and insights.