Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Every solution doesn't need a proof text

It's human nature for people to spend too much time focusing on their critics, and I am human. I came across such a critic who complained that my book on coaching bivocational ministers didn't make use of the Bible. He didn't elaborate on what he meant so I can't respond to specific concerns he might have had. Recognizing that assumptions are dangerous things I will still assume he thinks that every problem requires a "Thus saith the Lord" response. They don't.

Of course, Scripture should serve as the basis for our core values in life and everything we do should be God-centered and done in such a way that will glorify Him. At the same time, the Bible does not specifically address every issue that comes up in our lives. Every solution does not require a proof text.

In the book I mentioned one bivocational minister I coached whose wife was upset that some repairs and maintenance on the house were being neglected. He was struggling to find the time to do that while working a full-time job and pastoring a church.  Sound familiar?  However, there was an even deeper issue at work in his life. He wasn't convinced he was effective as a pastor, and as we dug deeper into this he admitted that he lacked a strong personal spiritual life.

As we looked at possible solutions he was able to identify two problems that he felt were major hindrances: finding the time to focus on his spiritual development and finding something that would help him start on this journey. We began looking at his schedule to find ways to create enough margin in his life to focus on his own spiritual growth. Finally, he decided to ask his wife to help hold him accountable. The remainder of that chapter reveals how this developed over the next several months. By the end of our coaching relationship his spiritual life had improved, he felt better about his ministry, and as our final coaching call was being done, some individuals from his church were there helping him make some repairs to his house.

He didn't need 30 scriptures on the need for spiritual growth. He already knew he needed to grow spiritually. He had enough guilt; he needed practical solutions around time management and how to pursue spiritual growth. He needed a coach who could help him realize that he needed to do what he would have told anyone else to do who came to him with the same needs in his or her life.

The book includes case studies of ministers, mostly bivocational, I have coached. It examines the issues they raised and some of the solutions we helped them identify. I believe every one of those solutions were God-honoring and scriptural even if they didn't come with a proof text.

I have found coaching to be a very helpful tool for ministers who are stuck or who want to develop even more effective ministries. I have found it especially helpful for bivocational ministers as it can fit in their busy lifestyles. This book was written to serve as a tool for ministers to see how others in their situations found solutions to their problems. My prayer is that you will find help in overcoming your own challenges from these case studies.  You can order the book here.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pursuing an education

For several years I have been privileged to serve on the Church Relations Council at Campbellsville University (CU) in Campbellsville, Kentucky. This past week we had our annual spring meeting on the campus. I never attend one of these meetings without being impressed with all that God is doing at this university and with the students who attend there.

Occasionally, I am asked to help evaluate the individuals who apply for the Baptist Leadership Award. I'm always grateful that I am part of a group of persons who evaluate these students and not responsible for selecting the winners myself. This year we had close to 100 applications, and I was amazed at the level of maturity and leadership these students demonstrate. There are some incredible students attending CU.

CU has a tremendous vision called Vision 2025: Preparing Christian Servant Leaders which is their blueprint for the continuing growth and development of the university. We had the opportunity to hear from the president, Dr. Michael Carter, and the deans from the various schools how this vision is shaping the direction of the university.

At a time when many colleges and universities are growing hostile towards Christian organizations on campus, I think it's important that we promote Christian higher education. Students come to CU from many different cultures and religions, but while there they have the opportunity to be exposed to the Gospel through chapel services, campus revivals, Bible studies, and mission trips led by campus ministries. Each year a number of students accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and when they return to their homes they take their new faith with them.

The School of Theology now offers five baccalaureate programs, a Certificate in Christian Ministry, an associates degree, and the Master of Theology. These programs are available on campus or online. This can be a big help for the bivocational minister who may not be able to quit work in order to receive a theological education.

I consider it a privilege to recommend Campbellsville University to individuals who are looking to further their education.  Last week a father called to say his son felt called to the ministry and wanted to know what he needed to do when he graduates from high school this spring. I encouraged him to look at the programs CU offers.  A pastor told me he wanted to further his theological education, and I told him to check with CU to see which of their programs would best meet his needs.

If you are thinking of furthering your education or if you have young people who are looking at colleges, I encourage you to check out what CU has to offer. I think you'll be pleased with what you find. For more information check out their web site at www.campbellsville.edu.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Focus is critical in a smaller church

One of the things I often stress when doing conferences for small church leaders is that many smaller churches are trying to do too many things. These churches are often trying to compete with a larger church in the area that offers more ministries or they may still be structured as they were when they were a larger church themselves. In either case, with limited resources it is a mistake to attempt to do too many things at the same time. Most smaller churches would accomplish much more by doing less, and then what they do offer could be done with excellence.

For some time multitasking was considered the way to get more done in an hectic environment. Recent studies have found that is not the case. One can actually accomplish more by focusing on one task at a time, and there are often fewer mistakes.

I had bought into the idea of multitasking and thought I was pretty good at it. That view began to change some time ago when I was on the phone with an individual. Quite frankly, it wasn't the most interesting conversation and one that I had with this individual and others before. I was only half listening when I noticed that I had several new e-mails. I thought I would scan those to see if any of them were important. While scanning them the caller said something that caught my attention. I knew it was important, but I had missed the background information he had given to put it in context. I had to ask him to repeat himself as I turned off my e-mail. Since that experience I have reduced my efforts to multitask by quite a bit.

When smaller churches attempt to do too many things it is a form of multitasking. Just as multitasking doesn't enable an individual to give his or her best effort to a task, it doesn't allow a church to do so either. This is when mistakes are made and when critical opportunities to do something really worthwhile are missed. When a smaller church focuses on doing one or two things with excellence it can accomplish much more and have a much greater impact for the Kingdom of God.

If you feel you have been trying to do too many things as a church the first thing to do is to evaluate everything you are doing. What has been the return on all the time and other resources you have given to each task? Which activities are making a real difference in the life of your church and community and which ones are being done out of a sense of tradition? Businesses talk about return-on-investment (ROI). If something doesn't have a good ROI they stop doing it. Churches may want to follow that model.

As you consider the mission and vision of your church, which of the things you do contribute to fulfilling that mission and vision? If your church is doing something, even if it's good, that isn't having an impact on your mission and vision then that's a sign it's time to stop that activity.

When smaller churches focus on doing one or two things with excellence they find their ministries grow and more lives are impacted. God doesn't call you to compete with other churches. He calls you to be the best you that you can be, and that will occur when you focus on the few things that enable you to achieve the purposes God has for your church.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Let's invite people back to church

This past week I was privileged to lead revival services for a small, rural church in our county. There was a good spirit in each service and very good attendance at each service. Revival services may be a thing of the past in many places, but for this church at this time it seemed like it was a very positive experience.

One of the interesting things that happened occurred as I invited people to the services. Everywhere I went throughout our community I invited people to attend the revival services. Two weeks ago I had an auction and even announced there I would be preaching at this church during this week. The interesting thing was the number of people who told me how they attended that church when they were younger. In fact, I even found out my wife had attended that church with one of her brothers and his wife when she was very young. At the last service I told the church if they could get everyone back who had attended there as a child they wouldn't be able to hold everyone!

Of course, that is true of many of our smaller churches. I don't know why all of these people stopped attending this church. Some may have married and started going to their spouse's church. Some probably quit going due to some disagreement that occurred in the church. The majority probably got out of the habit and aren't going anywhere.

Life does that to people. We can have good intentions but find that life gets in the way. We keep telling ourselves that we will get back in church when we get through this one obstacle, but of course another one soon follows. Soon, we're out of the habit of going to church and unless something drastic occurs in our lives we may never return.

Maybe it's time that our smaller churches begin to invite people back who used to attend there. This could be a good marketing plan for our churches. (I'm sorry if you feel that marketing is not a good word, and if that's the case feel free to use whatever word that makes you more comfortable.) Newspaper ads and radio spots could be used to invite people back to their church home.  Church membership rolls could give you the names of people who used to attend, and you could send them a direct invitation.  You might even want to plan a special service and an event after the worship service to allow people to get reacquainted.

This should not be used to encourage people to leave churches they may now be attending. This is to reach out to those who have simply dropped out of church life completely. It gives them a reason to return without feeling embarrassed about having been away so long.

This is also not to replace reaching out to unsaved people. The Great Commission is very clear that our purpose as a church is to reach those who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But, at this same time we are doing that we can also reach out to those who used to be part of our church family and let them know we would love to see them come back.

Finally, and this will be controversial to some, a church may not want to invite everyone back who has left. Controllers and others who create dissension in the church are not needed. Let them find another place to worship if they choose to do so. You do not need disruptive people who are more interested in pursuing their own agenda than pursuing the vision God has for your church. I have often said I am a believer in back-door revivals.  Sometimes, people need to leave a church before God can do great things in the church. Churches do not need to invite back those who have a history of creating problems in the church unless they have repented of their past ways and are ready to move forward with the church.

The good news is that I believe these will be a minority of people. Most who have left are good folks who just got sidetracked by life. Some of them might return to church if they were invited, and I think now is the time to do that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Second career ministers

Once upon a time people looked at retirement as the opportunity to enjoy life and do the things they never had time to do during their working careers. Some moved to the beach; others to the mountains. Others moved closer to their grandchildren to enjoy more time with them. While some people still look forward to such retirement, increasing numbers of people are finding new life in second careers.

There are a number of reasons for this.  One is financial. It has been well documented that most baby boomers have not saved enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement, and it appears that those generations that follow us will be in even worse shape financially when it comes to retirement. A second reason is the large numbers of people who take early retirement. Many companies offer such lucrative early retirement options that it's foolish not to take them. A third reason is that we baby boomers enjoy work. We like staying busy. One can only golf and fish so much before it becomes boring. Besides, we like to feel that we can still make a difference even in our sunset years.

Several years ago Bob Buford wrote the book Finishing Well: What People Who Really Live Do Differently! that looked at people who successfully transitioned into second careers. Buford interviewed 60 people who turned their retirement years into opportunities to do things that made a difference.  It is an inspiring read for anyone approaching retirement who wonders what he or she will do next.

Your Ministry's Next Chapter: Restoring the Passion of the Mid-Career Pastor (Pastor's Soul Series) by Gary Fenton looks at the various stages of a pastor's ministry including the retirement years. I've also found it to be an interesting and helpful read.

We are seeing a number of individuals entering the ministry as a second career. Many of these had felt a call to ministry earlier in life, but for one reason or another did not respond to that call. I know one individual who is currently working on his master's degree from seminary as preparation for his upcoming retirement. He currently fills the pulpit in churches on Sundays and plans to become a pastor when he retires from his current job. That retirement and his seminary degree will come at about the same time.

His example points out an important point. If you are planning to do something different in retirement, now is the time to begin preparing for that. If you need additional education, pursue it now before you retire. If you need to learn new skills, now is the time to get those. Don't wait until you retire before you begin preparing for a second career.

What about those of us already in ministry? What might we do as a second career?  Many choose to serve as interim pastors. This allows them to use their skills and experience to serve a church that is seeking a new pastor. A number of retired pastors become bivocational ministers. Again, this allows them to use their education and experience in ministry without many of the pressures of a larger church. Some teach in seminaries, Bible schools, and universities training the next generation of church leaders. Others become church consultants, coaches, or mentors.

Just because a job ends at retirement it does not mean that one's calling ends as well. There are many things a minister can do in retirement that honors God's call on his or her life. Even if you are a few years away from retirement, now is the time to begin thinking and praying about what second career options might be best suited for you.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Can your church make a difference in the world?

The title of this post is a question I asked a church yesterday as I began preaching a revival for them. The church is a small, rural congregation that has not seen much growth in a number of years.  I began the message by pointing out some of the challenges our nation and the world is facing and then shared my belief that only a God-sent revival can save our nation.

We cannot depend on the White House, the statehouse, or the courthouse to rescue us from the many problems we face as a society. In fact, it is often their policies that create the problems. Besides, at the core of many of our problems we are dealing with spiritual issues that can never be solved by man-made solutions, no matter how well intentioned.

Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions. As a nation, we must turn back to God. Church as usual will not be sufficient. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is clear that it is when God's people begin to humble themselves and pray and turn from their sins that God will bring healing to the land. This is the true revival that our nation needs, and it won't come just by inviting in a special speaker and some singers to get everyone excited for a few days.

There will be tremendous opposition to such revival. Secularists demand that religious beliefs, especially Christian, be kept within the four walls of churches. Genuine revival cannot be contained, and it will spill out into the marketplace. Lives will be changed as people are confronted with a holy God. Businesses that depend upon the sinful weaknesses of people will begin to shut down. Liberal churches will see their doors close as people leave for a real encounter with the true God. There will be great outrage, but we must remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of Satan.

I read recently that ISIS consists of about 20,000 forces. I also recently read one report that claimed there are about 270 million Christians in America. Each evening the news is focused on what ISIS is doing. Little is said about what the church is doing.

What could happen if revival came to the 270 million Christians in America? If even half that number is right, what impact on the world could 135 million Christians have if they experienced true revival in their lives?  Revival is an inside job. It begins with one, and then spreads to a few, and then spreads to a church, then to a community, and then to a nation.

God has sent nationwide revivals before, and He can do it again. But, it will only happen if churches and individual churches will humble themselves, turn from their sins, and pray and seek God's face. Can your church, regardless of its size, make a difference in the world? The answer is yes if you are willing to seek genuine revival in your lives.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Who are people trying to impress?

Anyone who has been called to pastoral ministry has to be a people watcher. The pure academic might be able to sit in the office and grapple with biblical texts and artifacts, but for those of us called to minister to real people we have to be an observer of our fellow human beings. What makes them tick? Why do they do the things they do? What are their felt needs, and how are they trying to achieve those? A good pastor needs to be at least an amateur sociologist if he or she is going to connect with others in a way that will be relevant to their lives.

That's why I've always enjoyed watching people in the malls. It's why I enjoy reading books that give insight into how people think and why they choose certain behaviors over others. Several years ago I read a fascinating book titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. In the book he showed how we have moved away from community and into lives of isolation. The title comes from the research he did that showed how team sports, such as bowling, have been replaced by other activities that we can do alone. His research also explained how this impacts politics, churches, and other areas of life in the US.

Currently, I'm reading Stop Acting Rich: ...And Start Living Like A Real Millionaire by Thomas Stanley. It's another interesting look into the research done by the author looking at the differences between how the wannabe rich live and the lives of actual millionaires. Stanley has found that a large percentage of real millionaires have little interest in impressing people with their wealth. It is often the pretenders who purchase the Rolex watches, the BMWs, the million-dollar homes, and hundred dollar bottles of wine, and many of them are barely keeping up with the payments their pretend world is costing them.

Why is a book like Stanley's important to a pastor? Because we may have someone like that in our church. Publicly, they exude nothing but confidence and success, but inside they are wracked with fear that their plastic world is about to crumble. Unless we can understand what drove them to live a life of such excess we will struggle to minister to them, especially if their world does crash in around them. J. P. Moreland says such people are plagued with an empty self and calls this an epidemic in America.

I preach a sermon that compares people to a puzzle. Even if you can put 999 pieces of a 1000-piece puzzle together but cannot find that one missing piece, that puzzle is not complete. There is a missing piece in each of our lives. Not able to find that piece many people try to complete the puzzle with a different piece, and for some people it is trying to convince others of their wealth and success. Such deception seldom works long-term, and these people are soon exposed for the empty selves they are.

That missing piece, of course, is Jesus Christ. Until we invite Him into our lives, there will always be something missing. As a pastor, it's important to be able to identify what people are trying to substitute for that relationship. At some point, we are likely to have an opportunity to explain to them why they never found the peace, joy, and happiness they were seeking in their pretend world. Then we can point them to the one who can complete their lives and give it purpose.

This is why I enjoy watching people and reading books like the ones mentioned in the post. The more I understand those I'm called to serve, the better I can serve them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Activity does not equal ministry

What does your church calendar look like? If it's like many, it's packed with various activities throughout the year. There are the usual ones like Sunday school, worship services, Vacation Bible School, and perhaps others depending on your traditions. In addition there are probably many committee meetings, church business meetings, staff meetings, board meetings, and other activities necessary to keep the church functioning. Add to this list various fellowship activities like Thanksgiving Dinner, Sunrise Service breakfast, Mother-Daughter banquets, and more, and you've got a pretty full calendar.

Now, at the end of the year what was actually accomplished as a result of all this activity? How many people outside your church were touched through the ministry of your church? How many were led to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as a result of these numerous activities? How many people were added to your church's membership role, and more importantly, to the Kingdom of God?

There is often a huge disconnect between a church's busy calendar and its impact on the community. Churches struggle to understand why it's so hard to reach new people especially given the fact that they have been so busy all year. What these churches fail to understand is that the vast majority of that activity was focused on the current membership of the church and keeping the church machinery running. The activities have been about maintaining what already exists, not in new ministries that will impact the lives of new people.

There is nothing wrong with any of the things I listed above that will be found on many church calendars. The question that needs to be asked if whether or not these activities are the most effective use of the church's resources. Some of these are sacred cows that many churches feel they have to continue, but are they still effective?

Our daughter became a Christian at Vacation Bible School. As a result, my wife and I soon asked Christ into our lives. A few years later I became a minister. VBS has always been important to me and was an important part of our church's ministry. But, even back in the 1990s I could see that it was less and less effective. People's work schedules made it difficult to have enough workers. Children were involved in so many activities in their shortened summers from school that attendance was often disappointing. Few received perfect attendance certificates. When I was a child, our churches offered two week VBS, when I was a pastor most churches only offered one week VBS, now I see some offering it over a weekend or one evening a week for four weeks. Maybe it's time to acknowledge that VBS was for a different time period and move on to another ministry that might be more effective.

These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking about everything we're doing. Does a church really need a monthly business meeting in 2015? Not really, unless this is a very low-trust church where people are paranoid about what others are doing. Do all committees really need to exist? I've said for years that most churches could eliminate 80 percent of their committees and nobody in the church would ever be able to tell the difference.

When you eliminate the activities that no longer have much impact you free people up to do ministries that do matter. When you do ministries that matter you will see the difference in your church at the end of the year.  For more on this, check out my book Intentional Ministry in a Not-So-Mega Church: Becoming a Missional Community.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The problem with secrets

There is much in the news today about Hillary Clinton and her use of private e-mail accounts for official business as Secretary of State. Of course, her response to the controversy did not satisfy many Republicans and even some Democrats, so this is likely to remain as issue for some time, especially if she does announce as a presidential candidate.

Secrecy is not limited to politicians. We find it in churches as well. Before I became a pastor I served on the board of the church I was attending. Prior to my coming on the board we would see the board and the pastor go into a back room almost every Sunday after services. A few weeks later, the pastor announced his resignation. The following year I was elected to the board and was selected as secretary. One day I thought I would check the secretary's record book where all meetings were recorded and find out what was happening in those meetings. All the pages from that time period had been torn out of the secretary's book!

One of the problems with secrets is that they are often exposed, and when they are exposed bad things can happen. This is certainly true in churches that have secrets. Recently I was having a conversation with a church leader whose church is suffering for a variety of reasons, but one of those reasons is the decisions that have been made in the past and kept secret from the congregation.  As a result, this once thriving church has a serious trust issue within the congregation.

A church is no healthier than the secrets it keeps. When a congregation learns that its leadership has made decisions without informing the congregation or, even worse, taking steps to ensure the congregation does not learn about them, the church is in trouble. People are not stupid. When such secrecy is exposed the congregation then wonders what else leadership has done that they do not know about. Distrust grows and a division occurs between the congregation and its leadership leading to a very unhealthy situation.

In many cases, the leadership thinks they are doing the church a favor. Sometimes difficult issues arise that require painful decisions to be made. In such cases, leadership will sometimes want to protect the church from the pain they have endured while addressing the situation. However, those issues and the resulting decisions often are eventually revealed, and when that happens the congregation may feel betrayed. Anger and a loss of trust often follows which can impact the church for years to come.

If you are in a low trust church that has struggled with secrecy it's time to become transparent. Congregations are capable of handling much more than they are sometimes given credit. To regain a level of trust in a church confess your role, if any, in the secrets that have been kept in the church. Personal issues that require confidentiality must be respected, but all other decisions must be communicated to the congregation. At this point, you cannot over-communicate. You are trying to rebuild trust, and that cannot happen if people still believe you may be hiding something. Transparency and communication are vital.

Trust will not be regained quickly. If people feel they have been betrayed in the past, it will take time to rebuild trust. You will have to be consistent in your transparency and communication for that to happen.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

For heaven's sake, do something

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a Dave Ramsey fan. I wish I had followed his financial advice years ago. It would have saved me from a lot of financial mistakes. I now listen to his podcasts when I'm traveling, and we have incorporated a lot of his material into our lives. It's not always easy, but it works.

Part of the reason I listen to his program is because the persons who call in often have interesting stories to tell. Some of those stories will just about break your heart, and you can't help but wonder how any one person can endure so many difficulties in such a short period of time. But, there are others that make you just scratch your head and go, "What?"

These are the persons who lost their job five years ago and haven't been able to find even a part time job since. Or the ones who racked up a six-figure student loan debt majoring in French art and now want to be a stay-at-home parent. Some of my favorites are those who call Dave asking for advice and then want to argue with him why his ideas won't work when it's obvious they don't want to make the lifestyle changes needed for his suggestions to work.

I think most people are sincerely looking for answers to their problems. Most of them, like myself, know they have made mistakes that they now need to clean up and just need some guidance. Others prefer to remain a victim. Yes, they've got a huge problem on their hands, but it's not their fault. The government should have some kind of program to bale them out. There should be something that somebody else could do to resolve their financial difficulties.

This also sounds like a lot of churches. Churches tell me all the time they want to grow. They want to reach new people. They want to see their church return to what it was a few decades ago. They use all the right words about what they want to see happen, but many of them are not willing to do what it takes to accomplish that.

When you begin to look at what they are doing in the areas of ministry or programming you soon realize that they are doing nothing different than what they were doing 30 years ago (or longer). Many really aren't doing anything but opening their doors on Sunday mornings hoping that this will be the day that God will do something to change their situation. Could it be that God is waiting on them to do something?

People in financial difficulty are not likely going to turn that around until they take the necessary steps to change it. This very often includes some major lifestyle changes. Churches struggling to offer ministries that transform lives, or to even keep their doors open, are not going to see that happen until they make the needed changes for such ministries to occur.

Waiting around hoping that somehow, something will improve is a recipe for disaster. For heaven's sake, do something. Start small if you want, but do something. Begin with something easy, but do something. After you do the small, easy things begin to do the more challenging ones that will begin to make a real difference in your situation. Your church can turnaround, but you are going to have to do something that will help that begin to happen.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Staying current in ministry

Two years ago I got an auctioneer's license. In Indiana every auctioneer's license expires on the same day and must be renewed. Before renewal can occur the auctioneer must have taken 16 hours of continuing education (CE). This is the year for the education so as soon as the new year rolled around I started receiving invitations from various auction schools to take my CE with them.

Since this is the first time I've had to do this I'm not sure what will be covered. I assume we will hear about any changes in the law that affects auctions plus hear about some new things that auctioneers are learning.

When I started receiving these I began thinking about a survey I did of bivocational pastors in 2004. In the survey a large number of bivocational ministers indicated they had not attended a single CE event related to ministry in the previous three years. Many of them had attended such training for their other jobs, but they had done nothing in three years to grow as a minister. That's a shame.

Almost every career requires on-going education as a condition of license renewal. I can't sell a box of tools at auction for more than two years without taking CE, but many ministers believe they can care for the souls of people without doing anything to grow and develop their gifts and skills.

I've been out of pastoral ministry now for 14 years, but a couple of weeks ago I attended a CE event designed for pastors. It wasn't information I needed for my ministry, but because I work with pastors I wanted the information covered in that seminar to share with pastors.

When I was a pastor I constantly received invitations to various seminars and conferences. Even though I was bivocational, I tried to attend 2-3 a year because I wanted to grow. It required an investment of time and money that I didn't always have, but I considered it an essential investment in my own personal development as a minister.

I hope you feel the same way and have already attended such a seminar or are scheduled to attend one or two this year. God calls us to ministry and gives us the tools we need, but it is up to us to keep those tools sharp. Invest in yourself and your ministry.

Friday, March 6, 2015

More research into bivocational ministry

In recent months I've posted some articles about various contacts I've had with individuals who were doing Doctor of Ministry projects on bivocational ministry. It is very rewarding to me to see this interest in bivocational ministry. I believe these studies indicate a growing awareness of the importance of bivocational ministry to many of our churches, and will provide helpful information to denominations, churches, and those called to such ministry.

Today, I am meeting with another DMin student who is working on a project that will examine the future of bivocational ministry in the denomination in which he currently serves. This individual is a bivocational pastor himself and wants to examine what is happening with bivocational ministry in his denomination. He asked to meet with me as part of his project to ask some questions regarding some of my previous studies on the subject.

What I anticipate he will find is that the numbers of churches in his denomination who are seeking, or will soon begin seeking, bivocational leadership is growing. This seems to be the trend across denominations, and I doubt his is any different. Given this reality, there are some questions that should naturally follow.

  • How can we begin to lift up bivocational ministry as a worthy call of God upon a person's life? I think we have made some advancements here in recent years, but too many people still view bivocational ministry as a second-tier ministry.
  • How do we help persons identify this possible call upon their lives? We have a growing number of smaller churches that are struggling to find bivocational leadership. I have to believe that God knows of their need and is calling people to meet that need, but how do we help them identify that call?
  • How do we equip and educate persons for bivocational ministry? Are seminaries the best place for such education to occur, and if so, what, if anything, needs to change for that education to better meet the demands of bivocational ministry?
  • How can denominations better serve their churches when they are seeking bivocational leadership? The particular process used in my tribe isn't all that helpful when it comes to finding bivocational ministers for our churches. 
  • How can we help our churches who will transition from having a fully-funded pastor to calling one who is bivocational? This is not an easy transition for many churches, and it often does not work out well for the church.
  • How do we help pastors who are asked to transition from being fully-funded to bivocational? I've had numerous pastors tell me they anticipate having to make this transition, and it frightens them. One of their biggest fears is what will they do for their other employment. Many of them do not realize that may not be their biggest challenge in such a transition.
I'm sure there are other questions that need to be asked, and I encourage you to share them with our readers. But, these are important questions that I've not been able to answer to my satisfaction. Hopefully, as more people begin to study bivocational ministry they will discover helpful answers to these questions and others.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Christian worldview

A worldview can be defined as the framework from which we view our world. Each person has a worldview which enables one to make sense of the world around us. We might think that Christians would have a biblical worldview, but that is not often the case. George Barna's research has found that only 4 percent of Americans had a biblical worldview and a mere 9 percent of born-again Christians held to a biblical worldview. In his book Revolution he states that only 51 percent of the pastors of Protestant churches have a biblical worldview. This should be shocking, but I must admit I am not surprised.

What are the alternatives? J. P. Moreland writes in Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power the alternatives to a Christian worldview are scientific naturalism and postmodernism. I am currently reading this book as part of my devotional reading. Moreland is a professor of philosophy with degrees in philosophy, theology, and chemistry. He points out the failures of the two alternatives and demonstrates how only the Christian worldview addresses the real issues of the day.

Prior to reading Moreland's book, my devotional reading in February included On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision by William Lane Craig. Craig holds PhDs in both philosophy and theology and is one of the leading apologists of our time. I download his podcasts to my I-Pod and listen to them when traveling. I must admit that some of what he says goes right over my head! That's why I was glad he wrote this book as it is written for the average Christian to give us the tools we need to defend our faith. This would be an excellent book for an adult class or small group to study, and Craig has other resources available on his website that can be used to teach this information in our churches.

If Barna's research is correct, it is easy to understand why our churches and our society is in the shape it's in today. We cannot influence our world if the vast majority of Christians hold to secular worldviews themselves. We cannot function properly as churches if we have no idea how to integrate the teachings of Scripture into the challenges that life presents. Before we can shape the thinking of society we need to reshape the thinking of fellow believers.

Helping my congregation develop a Christian worldview would be a major focus of mine if I was to return to pastoral ministry. I would not assume that every member had such a worldview, but my assumption would be that most of them did not. I would also assume that many of them could not identify their worldview nor defend it. This needs to change. There is too much fluff being spoon-fed to Christians when we need solid meat in order to grow into mature disciples of Jesus Christ who can once again turn this world upside down.

Our churches and our society needs revival, but I am convinced that revival will not happen until Christians once again hold to a biblical worldview that they can defend. This can only happen if pastors lead the way and begin to model and teach such a worldview.

If you would like one more resource to read in this area I would recommend Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message by Ravi Zacharias. Here is another apologist that has traveled the world defending the Christian faith. I've read just about everything he's written, and this book is among his best.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Success in ministry

If you follow me on Twitter you know that I post links to about 20 articles a day. These articles come from various blogs I read, and I post the ones I think may be helpful to ministers and others in positions of leadership. Some of these posts talk about how to achieve greater success in your life. Many of these are written from a secular perspective and focus on financial success or business success, but very often the principles are transferable to a ministry setting.

A fair question that can be asked is how do we define success in a ministry setting. Is success determined by counting nickles and noses? If so, many bivocational pastors are not going to feel that their ministry is very successful. In fact, the median size church in the US today is 75 people, so most ministers are not going to feel very successful if they compare their numbers with much larger churches. I believe that success is not measured by how many people attend our churches, or what neighborhood we live in, or the kind of car we drive, or any of the other means by which many measure success. Read these definitions of success from well-known Christian leaders.

  • "[Success is] discovering and developing your potential as well as seeing the new opportunities born all around you new every day." - Robert Schuller
  • "Knowing God and his desires for me. Growing to my maximum potential; and sowing seeds that benefit others." - John Maxwell
  • "Success is the continuing achievement of becoming the person God wants you to be and accomplishing the goals God has helped you set." - Charles Stanley
True success has nothing to do with what church you serve or how large you grow your business. Success is achieved when we understand God's purposes for our lives and we pursue those purposes.

If God has called you to serve a small, rural church of 30 people then pour your life into their lives. Give them the best ministry you are capable of giving because these are individuals for whom Jesus Christ gave his life. They deserve the best ministry possible. Look for new opportunities to expand the ministry of that church, and you may be surprised what God will begin to do. And, when you one day stand before God you will hear "Well done, good and faithful servant...."

If you would like to receive those links you can follow me on Twitter @DennisBickers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The danger of building church facilities with debt

Yesterday was an interesting day. Earlier I had a conversation with a lay leader of a church whose church is struggling with numerous issues. As a result, their attendance and giving are both down and has been this way for several months. The church is without a pastor, but their giving level is barely meeting their budget without having to pay a pastor salary and benefits. There are several reasons for this, but a major reason is the church has a large debt on an addition they built a few years ago. When their attendance was strong they were actually paying ahead on their debt, but now they would struggle making their regular payment and pay a pastor.

When I finished speaking with this individual I thought of another church that decided a few years ago to relocate. That decision was not without controversy and some people left the church when the decision was finalized. I feel certain that some believed that a new church facility would attract new people, the "build it and they will come" mindset. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and the church has struggled financially since moving.

About an hour later I was driving and listening to a Dave Ramsey podcast that had been downloaded on my I-Pad. Each day someone comes on the program to do a "debt-free scream." It's almost always a family who has followed Ramsey's plan and has gotten out of debt. However, this time the caller was the director of a church camp.

He shared how the camp board and others decided that they needed to pay off their mortgage to free up money for ministry. They challenged the churches in their denomination to support that decision. They were able to raise the money in less than one year to pay off their mortgage and become debt free. The director was delighted at how much more ministry they could now do without this debt hanging over their heads. It was quite a contrast to the two churches I had earlier been thinking about.

There are many good reasons for a church to build new facilities and even to relocate. I'm not sure there are any good reasons for a church to go into debt to accomplish that. We always enter into debt when things are going well, and we seem to forget that churches also have times when things are not going so well. In the good times we may not have any problems making our payments, but each payment is less money we have available for ministry. When times are tough, we may struggle keeping current on our payments, and in those times we often find we really have to cut back just to stay afloat financially. The things that we usually cut back are ministries, staff salaries, and mission support.

Some may argue that they are stepping out in faith when they borrow money to build. Such people reason that God will help see them through if times get tough. I'm not sure that is faith or presumption. If we can trust God to provide the money to pay off our debt, why can't we trust Him to provide the money up front and avoid debt?

When I was pastoring our small church we decided to build a new fellowship hall. We had outgrown the old fellowship hall, and we felt we could increase our ability to do ministry with a new facility. We spent months talking and praying about building this addition before finally making the decision to move forward. The only problem was that our architect estimated the cost of this building would be about $250,000. That was a lot of money for a church that averaged around 55 people.

During the time we were discussing the building we had raised about $30,000 towards the new facility. After we voted to move forward we had a Commitment Sunday and raised another $52,000 at that one service. We decided to begin work immediately. The building committee asked where I suggested we borrow the remainder of the money. I said we should let God finance it. We believed He had given us the vision to build this, and I felt we should trust Him to provide the necessary funds. I challenged our church to see what God would do.

Several months later the new fellowship hall was completed debt-free. Our treasurer told me that money came from places I would not believe. There was so much money left over that the church had all new furniture put in the kitchen and dining areas.

Proverbs 22:7 says, "The borrower is servant to the lender." This applies to churches the same as it does to individuals. Debt can be a heavy burden and can severely limit what a church is able to do. If God is leading a church to do something, He can certainly provide the means to allow it to happen. It may take a little longer than we would like, but that's because our timing and God's timing isn't always the same. But, when the project is done debt-free we are free to go about serving others without having to worry if we'll have the money to make our payments.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Where are the future pastors coming from?

I recently met with a pastor search committee to help them begin the process of finding a bivocational pastor. One of their questions focused on the number of available pastors that they might interview, and I gave them the answer I usually give: the pool is getting smaller. Many of us currently in ministry are nearing, or already past, retirement age, and many in seminary are not planning to enter pastoral ministry.

The Association of Theological Schools surveyed 6,900 students entering their schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Only 19 percent of those students indicated they planned to have a parish ministry position after graduation. The remaining 81 percent were planning on going into counseling, social work, chaplaincy, church planting, and various specialized ministry positions. Some reported they enrolled in seminary to further their own spiritual growth, and a number of them were undecided what they were going to do with their seminary education. Less than half of the students planned to be ordained.

Other studies have found that 50 percent of pastors will drop out of full time ministry within five years after graduating seminary. While it is not believed that we have a clergy shortage at present, given the above facts we must be concerned about the number of pastors who will be available to serve the future church.

For smaller, bivocational churches the problem is even worse. Studies indicate that many clergy persons refuse to even consider serving as a pastor in those churches for a variety of reasons. Clearly, with the growing number of bivocational churches in many denominations, this is something we must address.

What can we do to ensure an adequate supply of pastors for our churches and especially our bivocational churches? Let me present an initial list, and you can feel free to add to it.

  • We must begin to lift up pastoral ministry as a worthy calling for young people to consider. 
  • We need to pray that God will point us to persons who might be good pastors and then challenge those persons to consider if God might be calling them into ministry. I'm in the ministry today because a pastor asked if I had ever felt that God was calling me into pastoral ministry. He had, but I had not told anyone until the pastor asked me that question.
  • We need to lift up bivocational ministry as a valid calling of God on a person's life. I do not believe the growing need we have for more bivocational ministers has caught God by surprise.
  • We need to look at how we train and prepare students for pastoral ministry. It is especially critical that we seek new ways to make seminary education more affordable. There is something wrong with seminary graduates leaving school with student debts of $20,000-80,000.
  • Smaller churches may need to look within their congregation for their next pastor. People who have the gifts and passion to serve as a pastor, and who sense that God has called them to that role, can be trained in a variety of ways that does not require them to put their lives on hold for three years while they attend seminary.
We cannot and must not attempt to call anyone into pastoral ministry. That is God's work. But, we can talk with and pray with persons who may sense such a call on their lives. We can walk with them through the discernment process as they consider what that calling might look like in their lives. If someone determines that God has called him or her into ministry, we can support and encourage that call. Finally, we need to assist them as they prepare to answer that call.