Thursday, February 26, 2015

Do people in small churches want in-depth preaching?

Do people attending small churches want in-depth Bible preaching? Some people doubt that they do. We've all heard complaints about how many in our churches have a shallow faith and are not interested in sound biblical preaching. Maybe it's because they've not been exposed to such preaching in the past.

As I think of many of the small churches in the area in which I live, for years many of them were served by student pastors. These pastors usually stayed for a couple of years until they graduated from seminary, and then they moved on. Short tenured pastorates do not lend themselves to in-depth preaching.

Most of my regular readers know I was the bivocational pastor of my small, rural church for 20 years. My experience was that our congregation enjoyed in-depth sermon series and grew theologically as a result of them. After a few years at the church I began a habit of preaching through a book of the Bible after Father's Day. If I remember correctly, the book of Romans took about 18 weeks, Sunday morning and night, to complete. Nobody complained, and most seemed to enjoy the opportunity to go deeper in this book of the Bible. I did similar series with other books of the Bible. The series I preached on the Sermon on the Mount was another lengthy series, but it was so rich in all that it taught.

Although I was reluctant to do so, the congregation urged me to preach through the book of Revelation. I finally agreed to but only on Sunday nights. It took an entire year to complete that series.

We did other lengthy series as well.  Twice, we did a "Journey Through the Bible" on Sunday nights. We purchased notebooks that had outlines of the series for each family. This was a way to give people an overview of the entire Bible in one year. It was another rewarding exercise.

When you preach through books of the Bible you are able to go much deeper in a passage than in a single sermon. You also can't skip over the difficult passages. Every preacher has certain favorite Bible themes that he or she enjoys preaching, and we all have those topics we would prefer to ignore. When you preach through an entire book you have to cover it all. That's good discipline for the preacher and for the congregation.

Another advantage to preaching through a book of the Bible is that it makes sermon planning much easier. You don't have to wonder what you are going to preach next week; you just pick up where you left off. That is a huge time saver for a bivocational minister. You can also assure you have the study tools available to help you prepare your message. Once I determined which book I was going to preach through I would purchase two to four good commentaries on that book to assist me in my preparation.

As you think about your preaching calendar for 2015 I hope you'll consider preaching a lengthy sermon series. I think you will find that it will help your congregation deepen their faith and their understanding of the Bible.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Guard your spiritual life

Eugene Peterson never fails to challenge me with his writing. Addressing the common tendency today of many ministers to approach their calling from a managerial and secular perspective he writes in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, "The greatest errors in the spiritual life are not committed by the novices but by the adepts. The greatest capacity for self-deceit in prayer comes not in the early years but in the middle and late years."

As he notes earlier in the book, once a person has served as a pastor for a period of time he or she "can conduct a fairly respectable pastoral ministry without giving much more than ceremonial attention to God." He compares ministry to a triangle and writes that the "visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration." It is those lines that our people evaluate, and if we provide those three things we often win the approval of our congregation. However, Peterson points out that we often fail to address the angles of that triangle which he describes as prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. If we disconnect the angles from the lines we no longer have a triangle.

The challenge for many of us in ministry is that the longer we are in ministry the more we are tempted to ignore the angles. The busyness of ministry and life prevents us from times of prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. We know how to do ministry so we continue on, but without that connection to the angles we eventually find that we are functioning solely on our own power.

I have to admit that this has been a challenge for me throughout my ministry. As a bivocational pastor I've frequently found myself too busy to spend the time in prayer and the study of Scripture that I needed to function in my calling. It's never been an intentional thing on my part; it's just a problem that creeps up on me. One day I realize that my devotional life has grown weak, and Peterson's words come back to haunt me. I write this because I doubt that I am the only one who struggles in this area of life.

What happens when we ignore the angles? Frustration. Depression. Burn out. Loss of spiritual zeal. Confusion. Lukewarm preaching and living. Questioning our call to ministry. Do any of these sound familiar?

Of course, the problem is that our congregation does not see us when we are on our knees in our study. They don't see us as we study the Scriptures, not for our next sermon, but for our own spiritual development. They see us when we stop in a hospital room or attend a Little League game to cheer on players from the church. They see us when we give the prayer to open the Rotary meeting and when we stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning. They see us when we attend the many meetings on the church's schedule. It is those visible times of ministry that they see, and applaud, and for which they reward us.

However, we must never forget that God does see us when our congregation cannot. He sees and hears us when we pray. He sees us diligently searching the Scriptures that we might know Him better. He sees us when we offer spiritual direction to one who is lost. "And your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."

The reward is that we will not have to do ministry under our own power and abilities. The reward is that our ministry will be more effective, not for our honor, but for His glory. The reward will be when we enter into heaven and hear those wonderful words, "Well done, good and faithful servant...."  Do not neglect the angles.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Will it preach in Haiti?

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians  Jim, a Christian, pays Casper, an atheist to attend church with him throughout one summer. They attend some of the best known churches in America, and the purpose is to see these churches through the eyes of an atheist. Casper admits that he is open to becoming a Christian if it can be proven to him that God exists, but at the end of the book that had not happened. There is much about the book that interested me, but one of the things I found most interesting was Casper's take on much of the preaching he heard in these churches. He was not impressed.

You're invited to read the book where the names of each church are given so I'll not mention names in this post. The prosperity message he heard in some of these churches made Casper angry. He said that rather than promoting hope they "make appeals to the worst in people. They appeal to people's greed, selfishness, envy, pride...." Unfortunately, he's right.

I've never attended any of the churches mentioned in this book, but I have heard plenty of that kind of preaching. The "health and wealth" gospel can draw large crowds, but does it change people's lives? I remember reading a review many years ago of one service with this kind of preaching The reviewer said the audience was made up of two kinds of people. There were people sitting there in their furs and diamonds, smiling and nodding in agreement and many more people writing furiously everything the speaker was saying hoping that they one day would also enjoy the financial benefits of giving to God.

My question to those who preach such messages is why are you not walking through hospitals healing the sick patients lying in the beds? Why don't you take your message to places such as Haiti or Iraq or Somalia and tell those people how God wants them to be rich? If your message won't preach in those places, it isn't the true gospel.

The Gospel is good news. It brings hope to those who hear it and receive it. It points people to Jesus Christ, not to BMWs, yachts, and Rolex watches. It offers forgiveness of sins and a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It doesn't promise that the believer will escape suffering, but it does promise that he or she will never walk through that suffering alone.

Pastor, what Gospel are you preaching? The Bible tells us that there will come a time when preachers will tickle the ears of the people telling them what they want to hear. I pray you are not doing that, but that you are preaching the only message that has the power to transform people's lives. Jesus said if he is lifted up that he will draw all people to him. I pray that you are lifting Jesus up in every message you preach. The people in Haiti and Iraq and Somalia need Jesus Christ, and so do the people in your community.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pastors finding help through coaching

Product DetailsThe first pastor I had as an adult began working on his doctorate a few years after leaving our church. I was able to have lunch with him one day after he began his studies, and he told me that he was enjoying this degree work much more than the previous ones. At the time I was still working on my bachelor's degree and didn't give his words a lot of thought. Many years later I decided to go back to school for a DMin at Liberty Theological Seminary. I'm glad I did because it was also the most enjoyable time as a student I had.

My project, "Coaching Bivocational Ministers for Greater Ministry Effectiveness" was approved. I had previously coached a number of ministers, but for this project I signed coaching contracts with six bivocational pastors from the US and Canada for three months of coaching. It was a joy working with those pastors who brought a variety of issues to the coaching relationship. As part of our agreement, each of them was required to write a brief report of how the coaching relationship impacted their lives and ministries. My dissertation was written and defended. It would later be published as a book my publisher entitled The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide.

The first section of the book examines both bivocational ministry and coaching. The second section reviews the coaching relationiship I had with ten pastors, mostly bivocational, that I coached as part of the DMin project or outside that project. For each of them, the book looks at the various issues they needed addressed, some of the possible solutions we identified to each of those issues, and what happened as they applied those solutions.

These ten pastors were chosen because their issues are identical to the issues that many pastors must address. Through coaching, these pastors were able to find solutions to problems that, in some cases, had kept them stuck for months and even years. In every single case, each of them reported their ministries and personal lives were strengthened through the coaching relationship.

Sure, I wrote the book, but even if I hadn't I would still recommend it to pastors simply because it addresses the problems many of us face, and shows how real pastors found real solutions. I wrote it to help the reader self-coach when possible, and if that doesn't work to see how an experienced coach could help the pastor become more effective in ministry, in family relations, and in life.

I recently wrote a post here about how lonely some ministers feel. Too many of us are struggling with problems by ourselves, and for some of us those problems are starting to weigh us down. Unable to find an answer to those problems are causing some to leave the ministry. You don't need to do that. Find a mentor, find a coach, find a resource that can help you find the answers you need. You are too important to the Kingdom of God to remain stuck.

Friday, February 20, 2015

When people lack confidence in your leadership

In 1979 many people of my generation tuned in to listen to a speech given by then President Jimmy Carter. At the time America was facing a major energy and economic crisis, and Carter's approval rating was down to 25% which was even lower than Richard Nixon's during the Watergate crisis. For a week before the speech Carter met with various political advisers and other leaders. The plan was that his speech was to inform the American public of what he had learned and his plans for leading them out of their current crisis. Instead, much of his speech was directed at the American people for their lack of confidence in America. Refusing to admit his failures as a leader, he blamed the American people. The speech became known as the "malaise speech." Although his approval rating did improve during the next few days, it dropped again as President Carter was unable to provide the leadership the American public expected of their leaders. The following year Ronald Reagan defeated Carter's attempt to win a second term by offering America a vision that was optimistic and promised to restore our nation back to health and vitality.

Today, America faces serious challenges around the world. I started to list some of them and found that doing so took up too much space in the post. Terrorism, economic issues, immigration reform are just the tip of the iceberg, and it has grown increasingly obvious that our current administration and the legislature have no clue how to effectively deal with any of them. A Gallup Poll in June 2014 found that only 29 percent of Americans had confidence in President Obama's leadership and only 7 percent had confidence in Congress. Voters demonstrated their crisis of confidence in the mid-term elections by replacing a number of incumbents in Congress. Leading up to the mid-term elections President Obama said in a speech that his policies were on the ballot during that election, and it appears that the majority of voters were clear about what they thought of his policies and his leadership.

This blog is not about politics as much as I enjoy the subject. It is about church leadership, and especially leadership in smaller churches so what can we learn from these two political examples? One, it's not easy to lead when people lack confidence in your leadership. President Obama can continue to provide leadership through Executive Orders, but these orders are coming under fire from federal judges and even the Supreme Court. It's likely that many of them will be overturned as unconstitutional. Pastors do not have the power of Executive Orders, at least not in most small churches I know. Even if they did, that is not leadership.

This means that if people lack confidence in your leadership, you must find a way to regain that trust. You do not do that by blaming them for their lack of confidence. You do it by finding out how you lost their confidence and looking for ways to regain it. You begin to rebuild relationships and you learn to work with people with whom you disagree. After Carter's speech he demanded resignation letters from each member of his cabinet and accepted several of them from those who disagreed with him the most. Obama has chosen to ignore Congress and do whatever he pleases without their input and support. Neither tactic will work in the long run. A true leader is a servant leader, and this means that the leader must find ways to work with a broad range of people including those with whom you have disagreements.

To regain confidence in your leadership don't point out problems without having some idea of how you are going to deal with them. You don't have to have a completed plan for solving the problem, but you must have at least some steps you are going to take as you begin to address it. Stating that we have an energy crisis and suggesting that we address it by everyone wearing sweaters in the winter as Carter did in one speech is not leadership, it's admitting that as a leader I don't have a clue for solving this problem.

Sometimes there is no way to regain people's confidence in your leadership. As a pastor you may need to resign and seek a new place of ministry, but before you go to your next assignment make sure you determine what led to that lack of trust people had in your leadership.  Not all the criticism that was directed towards you was valid, but some of it probably was. You have to decide what failures did occur in your leadership and ensure that you don't make those again. You may want to use a outside ministry developmental agency to help you process what went wrong.

In my opinion, neither of the presidencies mentioned in this post were positive for our nation. However, after President Carter left office he has been involved in a number of very positive endeavors including his work with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center's efforts to promote peace and reduce conflict around the world, and a number of diplomatic efforts he has done at the request of most of the presidents who followed him. President Carter has enjoyed a very productive and effective life as a leader since leaving office. Of course, President Obama is still in office for two more years. It will be interesting to see the role he will assume after leaving office. Intelligent and charismatic, he, too, is likely to do well after leaving office.

If you have a pastorate that does not end well because people lost confidence in your leadership, that does not mean that your next ministry won't be much better. Again, find out what went wrong, correct the problems, and go into your next phase of ministry with a better understanding of how to serve the people as a servant leader.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The loneliness of ministry

One of the stresses of ministry is the feeling that many of us have of being alone. It is a fact that much of what we do is done when we are alone. Sermon preparation is often done alone as we spend hours researching our text and preparing our message. When we counsel others we are often told things that we cannot share with other people including our spouses. We may have to make decisions based on information that others do not have. We are not always free to reveal that information to other people even when we are criticized for the decisions we made. We endure the criticism alone.

This sense of being alone can have devastating effects on us and our families. If a person believes that he or she has no one to talk to it can create enough stress in our lives to change our body chemistry and cause depression. This is known as endogenous depression and can be difficult to diagnose and treat because it may not occur until after the stressors are gone.

Loneliness can lead one to leave the ministry. One study found that feeling alone and isolated was one of the top four reasons clergy gave for leaving the ministry.

Loneliness has also been connected to sexual addictions and misconduct. A study found that 75 percent of the people who left the ministry due to misconduct indicated that they were lonely and felt isolated from others.

Anything that stresses us will also cause problems in our families. We don't walk out of the church office and flip off the STRESS switch. That stress goes home with us and impacts how we relate to family members.

What can we do to reduce the pressure of feeling alone? There are several that I discuss in my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. One entire chapter is related to this problem, and the material in this post comes from that chapter. Here I will just list the suggestions made in the book for easing the stress of feeling alone.

  • Regardless of the size of church, every pastor needs to develop a ministry team to help share the burden of leadership.
  • Pastors need a prayer team who will meet with him or her on a regular basis to pray specifically for the pastor and the pastor's family.
  • We need to identify trusted colleagues with whom we can meet. This may be other pastors, a denominational leader, a coach, or a trained counselor the pastor sees on a regular basis.
  • There was a time when it was assumed a pastor would have a spiritual director. Few pastors have such a person in their lives now. Such a person could be a valuable ally to help us overcome our sense of loneliness.
  • We must never forget that we are never truly alone as God is always with us. A sense of being alone may indicate that we need to spend more time in prayer.
For more help with this pressure, and many others that pastors experience, I encourage you to read this book. You do not have to endure the various pressures you may feel in ministry alone. There are ways to address each of them. We may not be able to eliminate them, but we can certainly reduce the stress they cause us.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Relationships are key in the small church

In a small church, everything is about relationships. Small churches are family churches.  Sometimes the membership is made up primarily of two to four families who are related through blood or marriage. The matriarchs and patriarchs of these families are often the leaders in the church. If a pastor serving such a church does not understand the importance of relationship in that church he or she is unlikely to enjoy a productive ministry.

When a pastor begins his or her ministry in a smaller church it is important to determine who the families are that have influence in the church. It's good to study the records of board meetings and congregational meetings to see whose names appear most often. Those names will often be the E. F. Huttons in that congregation. They are the persons of influence whose opinion others respect. Pastors need to understand that these lay leaders are the true leaders in that church regardless of what your job description may say.

In order for the pastor to effectively lead, he or she must learn to lead through the leaders. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that the approval or disapproval of the pastor's plans will go a long way to determine if the rest of the congregation will agree to them.  Until the pastor earns the right to lead this church, and that can take years, it is best to discuss your plans with these leaders first.

Some pastors reject this advice and say they are not giving such control to these patriarchs and matriarchs. While it is giving them some control, you need to realize that they already have that control. You are recognizing that reality, and, more importantly, you are seeking their input and advice. They know much more about this church than the new pastor, and they may be able to point out how you can improve on your plans in ways that will make them even more effective in this setting.

I remember my first church business meeting as a pastor. A proposal I made, which was in line with one of the priorities the church had given me, was firmly resisted by every person in that meeting. I went home wondering what I had got myself into. A few minutes later one of the church matriarchs called and explained some history in that church that caused such resistance. I had not been there long enough to know this story, but with that information I was able to revise my plans so that they were later accepted.

If a small church pastor will begin by working with the lay leadership he or she will eventually earn the right to lead the church. Working with people who have invested much of their lives in the church builds up trust, and that trust is the currency you need to lead.

Do not ignore the importance of relationships in the church. When a pastor draws a line in the sand and asks people to choose between the pastor and the existing relationships in the church, the pastor will lose every time.

One final thought.  If you are not a relational person, you cannot pastor a small church. These churches are not seeking a CEO, a biblical scholar, or an administrator. They are looking for someone to be part of their family who will love them and minister to them. Do that well, and one day you will earn the right to also lead them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sharpen the axe

Years ago I read the story of a young lumberman who cut down ten trees on his first day on the job.  The second day he worked just as hard, but he was only able to cut down eight trees.  He decided to start earlier the next day so he could cut down more trees, but on that day he only dropped seven trees. The next day he cut down five trees, and the following day he only managed to cut down three. Early the next morning he was chopping a tree when a man asked him why he didn't stop and sharpen his axe.  The young man responded, "I can't.  I'm too busy cutting down trees."

I tell this story in my book The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry.  The point of the story is obvious.  We can work as hard as we possibly can, but if don't pause long enough to sharpen our axes we find our ministries becoming less and less effective.  What does it mean for us to sharpen our axes?  It means that we take the time to renew our spirits, our minds, and our bodies.

Renewing our spirits requires us to spend time in the Scriptures, and not just for sermon or lesson preparation.  We need to read the Bible to allow it to speak to us and feed our spirits.  We need to spend time in prayer, again not just the pastoral praying that we do as part of our pastoral duties.  We need to pray in order to spend time alone with God.  We need to listen to what he might be saying to us.  We need to spend time in worship.

When I was a pastor I needed more than what I experienced in a worship service.  It's not always easy for a pastor to experience worship when he or she is focused on leading worship for other people.  I needed time with God for my own worship.  I needed to listen to Christian music that spoke to my soul.  Sometimes I needed to listen to the sermons of others so that my own soul would be fed.  Each person is different, but anyone in ministry needs to find ways to renew his or her spirit.

We have to renew our minds.  For me that most often involves reading good books.  We need to read not just ministry-related material but read in other areas of interest to help broaden our knowledge of issues and challenges people are facing.  While I read very little fiction, some people find it very helpful in renewing their minds. I prefer to read ministry-related books and books on leadership and small business.

I just finished reading Timothy Keller's book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God which I read as part of my devotional reading.  Other books I'm currently reading are Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition by Robert Cialdini, What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church by Gary McIntosh, and On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision written by William Lane Craig. These books force me to think and help to sharpen my axe.

In addition to reading, I listen to a variety of podcasts when traveling.  Some days I'll spend anywhere from two to six hours on the road.  Much of that time will be spent listening to podcasts I've recorded from Dave Ramsey, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, and others.  This is a great time to be exposed to the thinking of Christian leaders who never fail to give me new ideas.

Finally, sharpening our axe requires us to take care of ourselves physically.  This means having times of regular exercise, getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, developing good friendships, and taking time off for vacations and time of relaxation and fun.

Most ministers I know work very hard.  However, like the lumberman, we can work so hard that we allow our axe to dull, and our efforts will produce less results.  Take time to sharpen your axe, and you'll find you will accomplish much more.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Good intentions are not enough

Last week I was listening to a Dave Ramsey podcast when Dave began to interview John Maxwell.  Maxwell said something that continues to play over in my mind.  He said that many people have good intentions but they never do anything with intentionality that will make those good intentions happen.  I can't get those words out of my mind.

Think of all the New Year's resolutions that have already been forgotten.  People have good intentions to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more, attend church more faithfully, read their Bible each day, etc., but unless they take some intentional steps to make these things happen, it is highly unlikely anything will change in their lives.

As I work with various churches I hear them talk about all the great things they want to accomplish.  They share with me their dreams for ministry and their desire to impact their communities through their ministries.  However, in most cases these things never occur.  They never do anything with intentionality that would enable those things to happen.

I frequently hear from church leaders that their churches need more leaders, but they never do anything to develop leaders.  Few churches, especially smaller ones, have anything in their budget for training.  Most of the churches I work with have no training program in their church except for Sunday school.  They don't send their lay leaders and potential leaders to workshops.  Nothing intentional is done, and yet we continually hear complaints that our churches need more leaders.

As I shared in last Friday's post, most churches say they want to grow.  What are they doing with intentionality that would produce that growth?  In that post I referred to the book What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church by Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn.  Here are just a few of the rules they recommend for attracting new people to your church.

  • Offer at least nine entry events per year for effective community outreach.
  • Provide a minimum of two side doors every year.
  • Train at least 10 percent of your people in friendship evangelism each year.
  • Each worshiper should have an average of nine or more unchurched friends or family members.
If you don't know what an entry event or side doors are, you should.  That alone may be enough for you to want to read this book.  The reality is that it is increasingly difficult to get unchurched people to come into the church through the front door (worship services).

Each of these rules, and most of the other 97 rules, will not happen accidentally in the church.  We must be intentional about doing each of them.  This does not mean that we have to start tomorrow doing all 101!  Your church may only be able to do 2-3 at first, and that's OK.  Determine which 2-3 will give you the best opportunity to accomplish your vision for ministry and start with them.  But, do something with intentionality!  Otherwise, we are left with only good intentions, and we all know where they lead us.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Rules about church growth

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a workshop led by Dr. Gary McIntosh that was based on his book What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church.  The workshop was sponsored by the Center for Congregations which always offers excellent events such as this one.  McIntosh obviously couldn't cover all 101 rules found in the book, but he did discuss four or five in this workshop.  One that I found especially interesting was that a church needs the same number of guests from a 20 miles radius of the church each year as it has in average worship attendance.  This was a ratio I had not previously seen, but his explanation made sense.

According to McIntosh, a church will lose approximately ten percent of its members each year.  Some of this loss will be due to death, some because of people moving away, and some will occur as people leave the church for various other reasons.

If a church wants to grow it needs to have the same number of guests as its average attendance and keep 15 percent of those guests.  Here's how the math plays out.  If a church has 100 people attending its services, and it loses 10 percent, at the end of the year it will be down to 90 people.  If it has 100 guests and is able to retain 15 percent of them it will have the 90 people plus the 15 new people who were retained equaling 105 people attending at the end of the year.  (100-10=90; 90+15=105)

This places a premium on attracting first-time guests and finding ways to encourage them to return a second or third time which dramatically increases the likelihood of keeping them as regular attendees of the church.  The book describes some ways a church can go about this in a very focused and intentional manner.

I've known very few churches, regardless of size, that didn't claim they wanted to grow.  However, most of them had no system in place that would promote growth.  Many of them open their doors each week hoping that this will be the week that new people will come.  Without hope it's difficult to do anything worthwhile, but hope is not a strategy.  Churches need a plan for how they are going to reach out to their community, help people connect to their church, offer great hospitality to those who do come, and follow-up with their guests.  Along with a strategy for how to do each of these things, people in the church need to be trained in each of these areas.  If a church is not committed to developing and working a strategy and training people for how to implement that strategy it should not be surprised if it doesn't grow.

I really enjoyed the workshop, and I'm looking forward to reading the book.  It looks like it's filled with information that will be very helpful to a pastor and other church leaders.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Transitioning into bivocational ministry

This week I received a question from a reader of this blog who senses that he will soon transition into bivocational ministry after spending years as a fully-funded pastor.  One of his primary concerns is what he will do to supplement his ministerial salary.  It is a question I receive with increasing regularity.

The concern goes something like this.  An individual graduated from college and seminary and went directly into pastoral ministry.  Other than summer jobs he or she has never really done anything except ministry.  Now it appears that he or she will need to become bivocational or find another church to serve.  The minister really doesn't want to change churches, but at the same time isn't certain what kind of skills he or she has that will be marketable outside the church.  

When this issue is raised there are some questions I like to ask as I coach them through this transitional challenge.
  • What kinds of jobs have you had outside of ministry?  Maybe these were summer jobs, but they gave you work experience in the secular world.  Did you find these jobs enjoyable, and is this something you can do again as a bivocational minister?
  • Did you always know you were called into the ministry or did your sense of purpose change as you were going through college?  One pastor replied to this question that he actually planned on going into teaching after college, but before graduating realized that God was calling him into pastoral ministry.  As we discussed this he became excited that he could fulfill his earlier desire to teach while serving as a bivocational minister.
  • What was your major in college?  This is a close cousin to the previous question in that it reveals a previous interest in a potential career.  It also shows the minister that he or she has some education in a career other than ministry.  It opens up possible options for them.
  • What pastoral gifts do you have that might be transferable into other careers?  A pastor who is naturally gifted in counseling may consider pursuing a career in counseling alongside his or her pastoral ministry.  One who is gifted in the area of administration might find work as a leader in an organization.  I know one bivocational pastor who was asked to head up a local organization that works with families and youth.  It is a perfect match for his gifts and passion.  You may have to take some courses before being certified in some field, but this could be a great investment in yourself as you transition into bivocational ministry.
As you begin to answer these questions it will quickly become apparent that you have many marketable skills that are needed in the secular workplace.  It then becomes a matter of seeking out the right position that will be a good match for those gifts and that will be a good match for your ministry.

Transitioning from being fully-funded to becoming a bivocational minister is often difficult, but it's not impossible.  Spend some time with a good coach, work through these questions, pray, discuss things with your spouse and church leadership, and then begin looking for the right opportunities.  If God is calling you to make this transition you can trust him to open doors that will make it possible.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bivocational ministry in the 21st century

Most denominations report that the numbers of bivocational ministers in their denomination are growing.  A number of churches that were traditionally led by fully-funded pastors now seek bivocational ministers when their former pastors leave.  The reasons for this increase in bivocational ministry are many, and these bivocational ministers and the churches they lead need a number of things from their denominations to make this transition successful.  For the past few years I have offered a seminar on "Bivocational Ministry for the 21st Century" to help meet some of those needs.

For twenty years I served as the bivocational pastor of a small, rural church in Indiana, and for the past thirteen years I have served as a Resource Minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky.  Although I serve churches of all sizes, the majority of the churches in my Area are smaller churches, many of them bivocational.  I have published eight books on bivocational and small church ministry.  Obviously, I have a passion for such ministry.

The purpose of this seminar is two-fold: I want to encourage the individuals who have accepted the call to bivocational ministry and the churches they serve, and I want to give them information that will help them in their ministry.  Sometimes, churches with bivocational leadership struggle with self-esteem issues, especially if they have called a bivocational minister after having a fully-funded pastor.  Many bivocational ministers struggle with doubts about their ministry and often feel isolated and forgotten.  My seminar addresses these problems.

In the seminar we look at

  •  how common bivocational ministry is today and address how we should measure success in ministry.
  • some of the advantages of bivocational ministry to the church and to the minister's family.
  • some of the unique challenges of bivocational ministry and the ministry challenges we all face in ministry today.
  • how to prepare for bivocational ministry and the importance of being a life-long learner.
  • how to maintain balance in five areas of our lives while serving as a bivocational minister.
I've been privileged to present this seminar to numerous denominations in various settings.  The bivocational ministers who attend have been very appreciative of the information they received and the affirmation they felt from the material.  They have also appreciated the fact that their denominational leaders offered something especially geared for them and their needs.

Some of the material from this seminar comes out of my book The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry. If this sounds like something you would like to offer to the bivocational ministers in your denomination or judicatory, please contact me.  Together, let's equip our bivocational ministers so they can best fulfill the call God has given them.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Descaling our lives

Most evenings my wife and I enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, and sometimes my wife will fix a drink with honey and cinnamon.  Our daughter gave us a Keurig as gift which we use for these single serving drinks.  It works great until it needs to be descaled.  Calcium deposits from the water build up inside the machine which prevents the water from flowing properly.  Even though I use filtered water, these calcium deposits still develop over time.  As I was preparing myself a cup of coffee yesterday evening only a few drops of coffee came through and the machine started flashing a warning saying that it needed to be descaled.  This morning I began the process of descaling so we should be good for our evening cups tonight.

As I was working on the Keurig I thought of how often we need to be descaled ourselves.  Even when we try to live our lives according to the Scriptures, outside influences can begin to build up inside us.  We may find that we begin to carry resentment towards some person or group.  Time demands begin to impact the time we give to our devotional life.  Our thoughts begin to wander into dangerous territories.  We become critical of others.  Ministry becomes a burden rather than a blessing.  The list can go on and on, but as these things begin to build up inside us it reduces our ability to live our lives in way that is pleasing to God and to those around us.  Even we can reach the place where we don't like what we are becoming.

In Psalm 139: 23-24 David prays, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."  David understood that we can become blind to the little things that can build up inside a person so he asked God to search his heart and shine a light on those things that were an offense to his life and spiritual development.

Of course, this is a dangerous prayer because it is one that God is likely to answer, and we may not always like the answer.  When God does reveal something to us we then become responsible to address it.  What we are most tempted to do is to repent and move on without really dealing with the underlying causes of the sin.

As I was reflecting on this need for us to descale I begin my devotional reading which is currently Tim Keller's book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.  In today's reading I came across this paragraph.

It is possible to merely assent that something is a sin without getting the new perspective on it and experiencing the new inward aversion to it that gives you the power and freedom to change.  Put another way, there is a false kind of repentance that is really self-pity.  You may admit your sin, but you are really not sorry for the sin itself.  You are sorry about the painful consequences to you.  You want that pain to stop, so you end the behavior.  It may be, however, that there hasn't been any real inward alteration of the false beliefs and hopes, the inordinate desires, and the mistaken self-perceptions that caused the sin.

Keller goes on and shows through some of the writings of John Owen how we should approach repentance in a way that will help us see how our sin grieves God.  Such repentance makes the sin more hateful in our sight and weakens its hold on us.  This brings about transformation in our lives and deepens our walk with God.

Descaling isn't just for coffee makers.  It's for Christians as well.  Just as it enables the coffee maker to fulfill the purpose for which it was built, it will enable us to better fulfill the purposes God has for each of us.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Leaders and credibility

As a Navy veteran I have been frustrated for the past few days over the recent apology Brian Williams issued for his statements that he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by rocket propelled grenades during the invasion of Iraq.  Eyewitnesses of the event in question claim that Williams' account is false and that the aircraft he was in arrived in the area about an hour later.  Although Williams has repeated his story, even as late as 2013 on the David Letterman show, he now says that he somehow conflated one aircraft with another.  I personally find it difficult to understand how one is confused about which helicopter one is on when one has been hit by enemy fire and the other wasn't.  I think most people would know which chopper they were on.  As a result of this issue, some are now questioning some of the claims he made as he reported on things he saw as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

NBC news is conducting an investigation of Williams' claims although some sources are now saying that Williams himself is not being investigated.  Williams has removed himself from his anchor news chair for a few days while this investigation continues.  There are calls for his resignation, but there is a widespread belief that the network has too much invested in Williams for that to occur.  Regardless of what happens, his credibility as a journalist will now be questioned by many and it will be interesting to see how his ratings will be impacted if he does return to his anchor chair.  Personally, I have watched NBC news since the Huntley-Brinkley days, but since this has occurred I've decided it's time to check out the other network news.  If Williams returns to his anchor chair, I will switch to another news source because I frankly can't trust him to report the news accurately.

For a person to be successful in a leadership position they must earn the trust of the people the serve.  Without credibility one cannot earn that trust.  Credibility occurs when one is honest, treats people with respect, keeps his or her promises, maintains confidences, and does his or her job with excellence.

Credibility is essential for those of us in ministry just as it is for anyone in leadership positions.  When church leaders fail morally, ethically, or financially they lose credibility with those they had been leading.  Often, they are never able to regain that credibility.  It takes time to earn the trust of people, and if that trust is violated it takes even longer to gain it back.  Sometimes, such trust is never regained and the opportunity to return to ministry is lost forever.

How do ministers maintain credibility with those we lead?  First, do what you say you are going to do.  Maybe you realize you agreed to something that will be more difficult that you thought.  Too bad, do it anyway because you said you would.  If you find out it is impossible to keep your word, immediately contact the person and explain why you can't.  Secondly, be honest in your dealings with people both inside and outside your congregation.  No church wants to hear that their minister has been involved in shady dealings with people in the community.  Third, treat people with respect.  You may not agree with their theological beliefs, their lifestyle choices, or anything else about them, but never forget that they are persons for whom Jesus Christ gave his life on the cross so that they can be saved.  That makes them persons of great worth and persons who should always be treated with respect.

Fourth, maintain confidences.  Your counseling session on Tuesday should not be your sermon illustration on Sunday.  Fifth, communicate to the people in your church.  I hear from so many church members who complain that their pastor never seeks their advice but just does whatever he or she wants to do.  Most churches want a leader; they do not want a dictator.  Sixth, pay your tithe to the church.  I'm sorry, but your service to the church is not your tithe.  If you want to teach stewardship you must first model stewardship, and it begins with the tithe.  Seventh, serve your church with excellence.  Most ministers I know work very hard and put in long hours.  However, the ministry is also a great place for lazy people, and I've known a few ministers who would fall into that category.  God has called you into ministry; your church has called you to be their minister, so do your ministry with excellence.  Last, but not least, serve your family well.  Most churches appreciate the minister who refuses to sacrifice his or her family on the alter of ministerial success.  Those who don't appreciate that don't deserve to have a minister.  Be an example of how one should love his or her spouse and children.

Will you always do all these things perfectly?  No, none of us will.  I have found that most people will be very forgiving if we will quickly admit when we fail.  I have made many mistakes in the ministry, but people were willing to forgive me because they knew that these mistakes were not intentional.  I never set out to deceive them, and when I realized I had made a mistake I quickly admitted it and asked for their forgiveness.  If you do that, you will likely find that most people will forgive you as well.

Credibility is essential if you want to enjoy an effective ministry.  If you will follow the eight recommendations listed above, you will enjoy great credibility with those you lead.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A long fascination with books

I grew up on dairy farms.  As the oldest of five children I spent much of my childhood helping milk and feed cows, raise crops, put in hay, and do other chores necessary on a working farm.  I was driving a tractor before I was even old enough to know how to turn the steering wheel.  Dad would put me on the tractor seat and tell me to hold the steering wheel straight so the men could load the hay wagon.  When we came to the end of the field he would jump on the tractor, turn the tractor and wagon down between the next rows of hay, and give the steering wheel back to me until we reached the end of that row!  And I wasn't even wearing a helmet!  Today that would probably be looked upon by some as child endangerment, but in the 1950s that was how a lot of us were raised, and few of us were harmed by the experience.

Life was challenging on the farm, but one of my favorite memories  about growing up back then was going into town with Mom on Saturdays.  Most weeks that meant going to the library.  I would return the books I got the week before and pick up one or two to read the following week.  In the summer our library would have a reading club, and the winner was the person who read the most books over the summer months.  Most years I won my age category.  If I was in the house I usually had my nose in a book.  I loved to read and still do today.

Looking back, I believe this was one way God was preparing me for ministry.  We've all heard the cliche "Leaders are readers."  I believe this is true for pastors as well as others in leadership positions.  I cannot imagine how a pastor can serve a congregation in the 21st century without spending time in books.  Had I not learned to love reading as a small child I do not believe I could have enjoyed ministry or been effective as a pastor.

In the late 1970s I told my pastor that I felt called to the ministry.  One of the first things he did was to hand me a key to his study at the church and tell me to feel free to use it and his library at any time.  I was like a kid in the candy store.  At that time my experience with commentaries, theological books, and books related to ministry was very limited.  This opened up a new world for me and helped confirm God's call for me to go into the ministry.

Today, I am at the stage of my life when I need to start reducing my own library.  Two weeks ago I began listing a few books on, and some of them sold within a week.  Some are so marked up with highlighting and notes in the margin that I anyone will be interested in buying them, and as I reread some of those notes it becomes hard for me to let them go.  They bring back too many wonderful memories.

I hope you love to read and that you surround yourself with good books.  Sometimes pastors say they are so busy they just can't find time to read, but I don't think we in ministry can afford to not read and stay current with what is happening in our world and how the Scriptures and faith can speak to those events.

But we don't want to read just for information.  Some of our reading must be for our own personal development.  The books you read influence the person you become.  As I often say in my workshops, God called us to be something before he called us to do something.  Our best doing will come out of our being.  If we fail to grow as persons of faith we will limit our ability to minister to others.  Charlie "Tremendous" Jones is well-known for saying that "You are the same today you'll be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read."

I want to encourage you to develop an intentional reading plan for 2015.  If you can't afford to buy books go to your local library or to a nearby university or seminary library and start browsing.  Many colleges and seminaries allow non-students to have a library card and check out books.  Select books that will help you grow as a person or that gives insight into some aspect of your ministry.  If you have not been a reader, I think you will find this will change your life and your ministry.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Behold his glory

For my devotional reading I am now reading Tim Keller's book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.  It is one of the best books on prayer that I have ever read.  In my reading today I came across some thoughts on beholding the glory of God in our prayers.  In part of this section he refers to the writing of John Owen, a Puritan theologian.

To behold the glory of Jesus means that we begin to find Christ beautiful for who he is in himself.  It means a kind of prayer in which we are not simply coming to him to get his forgiveness, his help for our needs, his favor and blessing.  Rather, the consideration of his character, words, and work on our behalf becomes inherently satisfying, enjoyable, comforting, and strengthening.  Owen insisted that it was crucial that Christians be enabled to do this.  He reasoned that if the beauty and glory of Christ do not capture our imaginations, dominate our waking thought, and fill our hearts with longing and desire - then something else will.

How much of our prayer life focuses entirely on the character, words, and work of Christ?  I must admit that most of my prayers do not, nor do I hear this in the majority of prayers I hear prayed by others.  Such prayer takes time.  It takes time to read and meditate upon Scripture.  It takes time to get our focus off our needs and desires and upon nothing but the glory of God.  It takes time to still our hearts enough that God's glory bursts through all the noise that makes up so much of our lives.  And who has that kind of time?

Life is lived at great speed today.  We rush from one activity to another, and if we pray at all we offer up brief snippets asking God to bless whatever is the next item on our agenda.  Scripture does tell us to pray without ceasing, and I find it helpful to pray brief sentence prayers as I go throughout the day. But, it is not enough.  We must also take the time to behold the glory of God.  We must take the time to align our thoughts upon his word and to reflect upon his character.

A shallow faith that gives God one hour on Sunday mornings, when we can spare it, is not sufficient to behold his glory.  A faith that leaves our Bibles in the back seat of our cars so we'll know where to find them next Sunday will not help us behold the glory of God.

I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years, and I feel I am still very much a student of prayer.  I wish I could report that I have mastered this concept of beholding the glory of God through my prayer life, but I cannot.  There are occasional breakthroughs when it seems the heavens open up and I see the Lord "high and lifted up."  Those are holy moments, but they are too rare.

This passage from Keller's book really spoke to me this morning, and I felt it needed to be shared with my readers.  Perhaps God will speak to some of you as powerfully as he spoke to me, and he will use it to enrich your prayer life and your walk with him.