Monday, November 30, 2015

The worst deception is self-deception

This past Thanksgiving week has been pretty exciting, especially around the dinner table. We enjoyed two different Thanksgiving meals as our son came in the week before Thanksgiving and we had another big meal the Sunday after Thanksgiving when our daughter and her family came. It's a good thing I had set the bathroom scales back ten pounds before the holiday or I would have really felt bad about the weight I gained!

OK, I didn't really set the scales back ten pounds, but it was tempting. Just like we're often tempted to try to deceive ourselves in other ways. Like when we excuse our sins by pointing to persons who commit worse sins (in our opinion) than we do thereby justifying our behavior as "not so bad." Or the times we convince ourselves that the problems in our church, or our family, or our business is the fault of everyone else.

I still remember the day I attended a John Maxwell conference when he was promoting his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (10th Anniversary Edition). At the time I was frustrated with the way things were in our church and in our family-owned business. Neither was growing the way I wanted, and I was blaming our congregation and our business employees for that lack of growth. Then Maxwell starting talked about the Law of the Lid and how no organization could grow beyond the lid of its leadership. Suddenly, his words hit me. I was the leader of both organizations. Our problems were my responsibility and were a reflection of my poor leadership. It wasn't the fault of other people; I was the lid keeping our organizations down.

As long as I was content to blame others for our problems we were stuck. That's what makes self-deception so harmful. When we deceive ourselves we are unable to see new ways of doing things. How often do you hear someone (perhaps yourself) say, "I've tried everything there is. Nothing going to change this." The reality is that you haven't tried everything there is to try, but as long as you keep thinking that you'll never identify a new approach that might succeed. Actually, there are probably dozens of things you haven't tried. Winston Churchill once said, "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." How does one do that? By knowing there are many other things yet left to try that will result in eventual success.

Self-deception will also prevent a person from growing. I've met people, including some in ministry, who believed they already knew everything they needed to know. Now, most of them would not say that, but you can tell by their attitudes that this is their belief. You can also tell it by their lack of attendance at training events. If they do attend some conference or workshop they seldom stay for the entire event. They have too much to do that's more important. People who already know everything will not be committed to life-long learning.

That's a shame because much of the knowledge and skills we've learned in the past is no longer useful today. Medicine has changed so much that doctors must work very hard to stay current on new treatments, available medicines, and the latest technology if they want to serve the patients well. This is no less true for those of us in ministry. If we are not growing as ministers we will be unable to lead our churches through the challenges of the 21st century.

What this means is that if we deceive ourselves in thinking that the problems in our church are always the fault of others and that our seminary diploma means that we've learned everything there is to know about ministry we will quickly forfeit our right to serve in ministry. We will be unable to lead our churches forward, and our self-deception will make us unable to understand why.

As we approach 2016 it may be a good time to take a hard look at ourselves. In what areas did we grow in 2015? What knowledge or new skills do we need to focus on developing in 2016? How will we develop them? Are there ways our leadership is actually hindering our church's ministry and, if so, what can we do about that?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Turn lemons into lemonade

Several years ago our small church invested in new sound equipment. We had it professionally installed, and it was working great. At least we were no longer picking up the trucker CB radios as they went down the highway about a mile away! A few weeks later someone broke into the church and stole the equipment.

We reported it to the police and to our insurance company. Someone from the local paper heard about the theft and contacted me for an interview.This was a great human interest story about a small, rural church that had its new sound system stolen just a few weeks before Christmas. It made the front page of our hometown newspaper.

A few days later I was contacted by a television station in Louisville, Kentucky who wanted to interview me for their news program. The reporter came to our church, interviewed me, and a day or so later our church was on their news broadcast.

One of the questions that was asked was how this theft would affect our Christmas. My response was that our sound system had been stolen, but no one could steal Christmas. We would proceed with our usual Christmas plans. I remained very positive throughout the interview

The insurance company quickly got us a check to replace the sound system and we were able to have it installed before our Christmas program. What was really amazing was what happened a few days later. I received a call from a security company who had seen the story on the news and offered to install a security system in our church at no cost. It turned out to be a great system!

In January the sheriff's office called to tell me they thought they had located our sound system. A local farmer had been walking along a hill on his farm and saw a bunch of equipment that had been thrown over the hill from the road. I took one of our church leaders to the sheriff's office and we were able to identify it as our equipment that had been stolen. Evidently, between the local paper and the Louisville news story the equipment was too hot to keep so the thieves tossed it.

Having our new sound system stolen was a real downer. My first reaction was disbelief which quickly turned to anger. However, remaining angry wasn't going to solve anything. Our congregation was understandably upset as well so it became important for me to lead us in getting our focus back in a positive direction. I was very proud of our church at how quickly we were able to do that. As a result, we not only got the system replaced in time for our Christmas program we got a new security system as well, but ever more importantly, we had the opportunity to grow deeper in our faith and have a positive witness to our community.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Making a re-commitment to church membership

Louisville megachurch, Southeast Christian, recently deleted everyone from their membership rolls at all four of their area campuses. Following five weeks of sermons that focused on core beliefs they asked people to recommit to being a member of the church and to the mission of "connecting people to Jesus and one another by loving where you are." Thousands of people signed colored tiles making a renewed commitment to church membership and to the mission. Hundreds of baptisms also occurred during this emphasis.

At a time when many question the value of church membership this church has emphasized its importance to its congregation and to those they are seeking to reach. But, it's not just signing on to be a member of a church. It's also asking for a commitment to being involved in their mission of reaching people for Jesus Christ.

Too often we are content to "dip 'em and drop 'em" as one writer put it. There is often little discipleship done with these new members nor are they challenged to be involved in the mission of their new church. If they prove to be somewhat faithful in attending services they may eventually be asked to serve on a committee or teach a class.

Growing churches, and Southeast Christian is certainly growing, are not afraid to challenge people to engage in ministry. In fact, I would say that there is a culture of expectation in growing churches that its members will engage in ministry.

There is one element here that does not exist in every church. Southeast Christian has a clear mission to which they can challenge people to engage. If a church has no sense of purpose, no vision for ministry, and is not actively involved in doing intentional ministry, what can they challenge people to do? Mostly, serve on a committee, and that's not very appealing to people who want their lives to make a difference.

What would happen in your church if you removed every member from the church roll? How many would recommit to membership in your church? More importantly, how many would commit to being engaged in the mission of your church? Final question...exactly what is the mission of your church?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Where there is no vision....

A few days ago I was talking with a friend about the church he attends. His church is in a different denomination than the one in which I serve, but the problems he mentioned sounded very familiar. Their church has struggled for the past few years meeting its budget. They find it difficult to bring in new members or to attract younger people.

When I questioned him about his church's vision he admitted the church had never, to his knowledge, pursued a vision for ministry. In fact, he said he had been waiting for the pastor to present a vision for ministry. We began to talk about vision and how vision discernment isn't just the work of the pastor but should involve others within the church.

Earlier in the same week I was talking to an associate minister in another church about some of the challenges that church is facing. This church does have a vision statement, but it is a very generic statement. It certainly is not one that would be specific to that church. I pointed out that such a generic statement really doesn't give much guidance to ministry in the church, and it's impossible to ever know if and when that vision is achieved.

Both of these churches, one smaller and the other much larger, are both struggling because they have no clear vision that actually influences what the church is doing. When I talk about vision I am referring to a statement that lends itself to easily identifiable goals and steps that will lead to reaching those goals which in turn achieves the vision.

Here's an example I often use in workshops I lead. Let's assume a church has discerned a God-given vision of reaching one percent of its unchurched community over the next five years. Further, let's assume the population of that community is 20,000 and we've determined that half of those people, 10,000, is unchurched. That means our vision is to reach 100 new people for Christ over the next five years.

From that we can begin to set certain goals that we need to achieve that will enable us to fulfill that vision. Some of those goals may include developing small groups to reach out into the community, starting new Sunday school classes, identifying and training people to lead these small groups and classes, developing better ways to greet first-time guests and creating an effective follow-up system to ensure that those guests do not fall through the cracks. A church might need to check as to whether it has sufficient space to handle a hundred new people and sufficient parking, and some goals might have to be set to address these space issues. As these various goals are established, Key Result Areas (KRAs) can be identified that will break each of these goals down into manageable actions. As the church intentionally works through these KRAs it is working towards the achievement of each goal and eventually to the fulfillment of the vision.

The key word here is intentional. No longer is the church drifting from week to week hoping that someday something good will happen. It is now actively pursuing a God-given dream, and such intentional ministry will always beat drifting if a church wants to impact its community.

As I prepare to retire from my current ministry one of my prayers is that I will be able to help churches ready to become more intentional in its ministry to those outside the church. If I can of service to you, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A missionary mindset

In yesterday's post I addressed the entitlement mindset that runs rampant in today's society. We also looked at how that same mindset impacts our churches in a negative way and prevents us from fulfilling our mission in the world. Today, I want to look at the mindset that should be seen in our churches.

We spend a lot of time focusing on church membership. Churches are concerned that people are not willing to join their churches as members. This is really the wrong thing to worry about.

Church membership is all about rights and privileges. If I am a member of the country club I can go there and play golf or use their pool or tennis courts. I can attend dinners and parties there because I am a member, and with membership comes privileges.

As a church member I am entitled to certain privileges. I may get free weddings for my children or a free funeral when I die. I can pick out the styles of music we'll have in our services and when those services will begin. I get to vote on things that happen in the church because I'm a member, and with membership comes privileges.

Is it not time to stop seeing ourselves a merely church members and begin to see ourselves as missionaries? Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit has given gifts to every believer to be used in ministry, but many church members are not involved in any ministry that uses their gifts.

No matter how gifted your pastor is, he or she can only be in one place at one time doing one thing. What if your church had 50 people who saw themselves as ministers? Now, you would have 50 people in 50 places doing 50 things. Would you rather grow your church by addition (1+1) or by multiplication (50X1)? I am full agreement with the individual who said that our baptism was our ordination into ministry. It's time that every Christian develop a missionary mindset and abandon the entitlement mindset.

Along with that, we need to stop seeing our churches as merely churches and begin seeing them as mission stations that have been placed in the midst of a rapidly emerging pagan culture. Our society is rapidly growing worse as it abandons the biblical foundations upon which it was founded. The church has been called to be salt and light in the midst of darkness, and we now live in a very dark time that is only going to get darker. If we are going to ever have an impact on the 21st century we are going to have to become missional in our thinking, and that is going to be a much different mindset that many of our churches now have.

I believe God is now raising up an body of believers and churches that will have this missionary mindset. Those who want to continue in their entitlement thinking will fade away into insignificance until finally "Ichabod" is written above their door. Each of us can choose which mindset we will have.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The entitlement mindset

Recently, while on vacation, I witnessed a young boy of about eight years old screaming and crying because he had not been the winner of a costume contest. This kid had lost it! He was out of control. To make things worse, his mother just sat there letting him act out in public. I mumbled to my wife, "There's a kid who's going to know a lot of disappointment in life," while she was trying to get me to be quiet.

Children are now being raised by helicopter parents who hover over their kid ensuring that he or she never falls down, always wears a helmet, never hears the word no, and gets everything his or her little heart desires. On the sports field everyone gets a participation award, and schools put smiley faces on homework instead of grades. We wouldn't want to hurt their self-esteem. They may not be able to read their graduation diploma, but at least they'll feel good.

Now that we've taught little Johnny and Mary that they are entitled to anything they want we should not be surprised at any demands they make. You've probably read about the recent million student march that demanded free college tuition and student loan forgiveness. In their mind, an education is a right and making people pay for their education denies them that right.

 It's a shame they weren't raised by my parents who told me more than once, "Society doesn't owe you anything. If you want something you have to work and earn it." When I got my driver's license and wanted a car all I had to do was get a job and buy it. I wasn't entitled to a car, and nobody was going to buy one for me unless I bought it myself. So, I worked all through high school so I could afford to buy a car. There is a certain dignity to earning the things you want in life rather than waiting for someone else to provide everything for you.

There is a very simple way to avoid student loan debt. We need to be teaching our children is that student loans should be avoided at all costs, and the best way to do that is to work and pay your way through school. Don't lay around all summer playing video games and spend your spring break laying out on some beach. Get a job. Have some dignity about yourself. Go to school part time and pay for your education as you go. That will help you grow up and keep you out of student loan debt. And by the way, you are not entitled to a college education. If you want a college education, then you pay for it.

To help you understand where I'm coming from, I didn't decide to go to college until I was in my mid-thirties. I was married with two children, working in a factory and pastoring a church. Working full-time I could only go to school part time, but that allowed me to cash-flow my education. By the time I eventually finished my education I had three degrees and never borrowed a dime for any of them.

Now that I'm off that soapbox let me say that unfortunately that same entitlement mindset exists in our churches as well. People leave the church because "they are not being fed." They leave because their feelings get hurt. A lady called me once and said she just didn't think she and her husband could attend their church any longer because she didn't like the way their pastor dressed. After 15 years in a judicatory role I should not be surprised at anything I see in churches, but I continue to be surprised at the pettiness and childishness I see in supposedly mature Christian adults.

Until we recognize that it's not all about us our churches are never going to function as God intended. People are going to hell while we argue over the color of carpet we're going to install in the sanctuary and whether or not the daycare should use the crayons in the Sunday school rooms.

In tomorrow's post I'll share the mindset we need to have rather than an entitlement mindset.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Many ministers would benefit by having a coach

My Doctor of Ministry degree thesis was "Coaching Bivocational Ministers for Greater Ministry Effectiveness." The project involved me coaching five bivocational ministers in the US and Canada for six sessions each. As is the custom for coaching, in each session we focused on the felt needs of the person being coached. My thesis reported on the results of that project and later became the foundation for my book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide.

As a result of that project I became convinced that nearly every minister would benefit from having a coach. A coach helps a person get from where they are to where they want to be. Where a counselor often looks at the past, a coach will focus on the future. Coaches are not usually focused on solving problems as much as we want to develop people. As one coach explained, if he helps someone solve a problem he has influenced one decision, but if he helps people grow in their ability to make great choices he's impacted every decision they will make for the rest of their lives.

What kind of people benefit from a coaching relationship?

  • People who feel stuck. Many pastors feel stuck in their ministries. Nothing seems to be happening, and they are not sure what to do about it. Coaching can help such a person get traction and begin to move forward once again.
  • People who are at a crossroads and unsure which direction to take. A coach helped me decide to return to school for my DMin degree. I was struggling to decide whether to pursue the degree or to go in another direction with my life, and my coach led me through a discernment process that convinced me to return to school. It turned out to be the right decision.
  • People who want to enjoy more success in their careers. Some think coaching is just for people who are having problems, but it can be very helpful for those wanting to take their ministry to a higher level.
  • People who are struggling with some issue in their lives. Some people I have coached were struggling with time management issues. Some have had family issues. At least one was struggling with his sense of call to the ministry. One was a new bivocational pastor who wasn't sure how to begin his ministry.
In short, just everybody is a candidate for coaching and would probably benefit from having a coach.

The book includes case studies from ten ministers, most of them bivocational, I have coached. The studies examine the issues each of these ministers presented. the process we used to address them, and the results achieved. You may find the help you need in some of those stories. At the very least, you may find that having a coach would benefit you.

I would be glad to talk to you about entering into a coaching relationship. Just contact me and we'll begin the dialogue to see if coaching will benefit you as much as it did the ones in the book.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Lessons learned while serving our country

*I am reposting this from last week. I was traveling and was not able to properly download it. As a result, very few people were able to read it.

Veteran's Day has always been a time of reflection for me. I served in the Navy from 1967 - 1971 and spent three years aboard the USS Enterprise. I've often thought I might have made the Navy a career if I had not been married. I was away from my wife and daughter far more than I wanted and could not imagine doing that for the next twenty or more years. However, this reflection is not about what might have been if I had stayed in; it's more about the lessons I learned in the military. These are lessons that have served me well in life and ministry.

Very quickly, you learn respect for authority. Your first day in Boot Camp will teach you to respect those in authority or pay the price. This is a lesson that is not taught in many homes today. When I hear of teachers being beat up in the class room and unable to defend themselves, it's obvious that there is little respect for persons in authority. People disrespect a police office and hinders him or her from doing their job and wonder why they get arrested shows a lack of respect for persons in authority.

It hurts no one to say "Sir" or "Ma'am" when speaking to another person, especially if that person is in a position of authority or elderly. Showing respect will earn you the right to question or even disagree in most cases. While serving as pastor I had times of disagreement with individuals, but these were able to be worked out because we could engage in civil conversations about those disagreements. If I had been disrespectful they may not have turned out as well as they did.

The military also teaches you to have respect for yourself. Uniforms are clean, you are well groomed, dress shoes are shined. I was recently walking through a parking lot and a young man was getting out of his car. The top of his pants was barely above his knees with most of his boxer shorts showing and his hair looked like chickens had roosted there all night. He had no respect for himself. I was immediately reminded of a Zig Ziglar quote, "I'll defend your right to look like that all day, but I won't give you a job."

Pastors need to respect themselves if they want others to respect them. That's doesn't mean we have to wear suit and tie all the time. That was expected in earlier generations but not so much today. But, at the same time our dress, our language, our demeanor should demonstrate that we have respect for ourselves and for those we encounter throughout the day.

Leadership is a key component of the military. As one advances in rank more leadership is expected of that person. I enjoy reading about military battles and the strategic planning that went into those battles. But, as important as that planning was, the leadership on the ground was even more important because it was there that those plans would be carried out, or it was there that leaders would have to adapt to changing situations to ensure the goals were achieved.

Few things are more important to the success of the local church than leadership. We need pastors who can adapt to changing situations in their churches and communities so the Kingdom of God can be advanced. We need leaders who can cast vision and set goals that will enable that vision to be achieved. It takes leadership to introduce and lead necessary changes, and it takes leadership to confront controllers who would try to prevent the church from moving forward.

Some will argue that many churches do not want such leaders as their pastors, and in some cases that is true. But, if ministry leaders respect themselves and respect the history of the church and others in the congregation, that leadership will be accepted and followed in many churches, and the Kingdom of God will advance.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A political rant on term limits

Since the purpose of this blog is to encourage and resource small church leaders I try to stay away from political commentary. However, now that this recent off-year election is over and the next election is coming up, it's time to make some comments.

There are few people who would argue that this nation is in bad shape. Washington can talk about a growing economy, but that doesn't mean much to people who can't find a job or those who are working 2-3 jobs to earn a fraction of what they used to make. Culturally, we are in even worse shape as the moral foundations of this nation are crumbling, and those that continue to stand are under constant attack.

There is both a spiritual and a political element to this. America is in desperate need of a spiritual revival. Too many of our churches exist in name only and, for all practical purposes, are dead. While many people claim to be Christians, their actions do not support that claim. If all those who claimed to be Christians stood up with one voice, many of the problems we have as a nation would not exist. This is all material for another post; today we are going to touch on the political element.

Americans are dissatisfied with the lack of leadership in Congress. A recent Gallup poll found that only 13 percent of the people approved of the work Congress was doing. This is not a recent problem for Congress. For the past several years the approval rating for Congress has hovered around 20 percent or lower. However, in the 2014 election 95 percent of House incumbents were reelected and 82 percent of the Senators up for reelection kept their seats. How is it possible that Americans can claim to be dissatisfied with the work of Congress and yet the same people are reelected year after year?

Former Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, published a book in 1987 which I still have in my library. In the book he tells how early in his political life he learned that all politics is local. If you take care of the people in your district you can vote just about any way you want to in Washington and still be reelected to office. Make sure the roads get paved, help people in your district deal with Federal bureaucracy, ride in the local parades, get your picture taken with the small town politicians, and the people will blame all the other members of Congress for the mess things are in. You'll get reelected.

For several years now we've heard calls for term limits for members of Congress. While that might be a good idea, does anyone think that Congress is actually going to approve such a thing? They didn't spend millions of dollars to be elected to an office they can only hold for a certain amount of time. Congress is unlikely to ever approve term limits, but we don't need them to do that. We already have term limits in place; they're called elections.

Every two years we have an election to vote on persons to represent us in various national, state, and local governments. Voters have the power of term limits in our hands if we will use it.

I'm a big believer in that you can't solve a problem with the same people who created the problem. In this recent election I voted against people I voted for in previous elections. I did so because I didn't think their work deserved a second vote. Someone else needed to have that office to see if they would do better. As we prepare for a national election in 2016 I have the same opinion.

America has big problems. The people who have been elected to office to solve problems have done nothing except make them worse. We cannot solve the problems that exist in this nation with the same people who created the problems, and they've already proven they do not have any solutions to solve them. It's time to give someone else the opportunity.

Don't worry about getting your street paved. The next person you elect to office will make sure that happens. Your next congressman or Senator will continue to take care of the local needs, and maybe he or she will also begin to address some of the critical issues facing this nation. And if they don't...there will be another election.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ministers and debt

Finances have long been a source of conflict in many clergy homes. Few people go into the ministry with the thought of becoming wealthy, but many are not prepared for the reality of what churches provide in the way of salary and benefit packages. Often, it is not enough to provide financially for the family so the spouse works or the pastor becomes bivocational. The alternative is that the pastor leaves the ministry to find a career that will meet the financial needs of the family.

Unfortunately, personal financial management is not a subject that is often taught in college or seminary Perhaps one reason for this lack of education in this area is that if the schools taught their students how to be financially responsible there would be a lot less student loan debt. Regardless of the reason, many enter the ministry with little to no idea of how to properly manage their finances.

According to various studies, it is not uncommon for a minister to go to his or her first church with $35,000-40,000 worth of student loan debt. I have talked with pastors who had as much as $90,000 of such debt and recently read of a pastor whose student loan debt was over $100,000! This is a huge amount of debt for someone who may be making no more than $40,000 a year in salary. It is not uncommon for such ministers to also have additional debt such as car loans, medical bills, housing costs, credit card debt, and other debt. Such ministers are fortunate to make minimum payments on their debt much less have money left over for other things.

When I meet such ministers I encourage them to focus hard on paying off their debt as quickly as they can. I always refer them to Dave Ramsey's book The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness. Ramsey provides one of the best plans for getting out of debt that you will find anywhere. It is not an easy solution, but neither is spending your entire working life making minimum payments on debt. However, the book does more than address the debt issue. He also explains how to save for retirement, the proper way to purchase automobiles and homes, and the importance of being a giver.

Scripture teaches us that the borrower is slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7). I have been in debt before when I felt like I was a slave to that debt. (Maybe that's why they call it Master Card!) Debt prevents one from being able to do things that one would otherwise do. There is a reason more people don't tithe to the church. They have to pay off their loans, and there's nothing left. It may also be why many pastors don't tithe. Debt also keeps us from being able to give to other worthwhile causes. It prevents us from being able to save properly for retirement. I know pastors who need to retire but cannot because they have nothing in savings and know they cannot live on Social Security. Debt also brings strife into the family and sometimes leads to divorce. As you can see, nothing good comes from having debt.

Debt is a symptom that one is addicted to instant gratification. Rather than save the money and paying cash for what we want we are told that for only a few dollars a month we can have it now. Like a screaming kid in Wal-Mart we want what we want and we want it now, and plastic allows that to happen. We have to be smarter than Congress and realize that we cannot continue to spend more than we have and not expect a crisis to come sooner or later.

We cannot undo the past. If you realize that you have a debt problem the first thing to do is to realize that you have a problem that needs to be cleaned up. The second thing is to stop digging your hole deeper; no more debt. The third thing is to find a plan that will help you pay off your debt as quickly as possible. Again, I point you to Ramsey's book. You may also want to have your church host his Financial Peace University. Believe me, you are not the only person in your congregation struggling with debt. This nine week program could be a huge benefit to you, to your congregation, and could even be an effective witness to people outside your congregation.

I want you to be free to minister as the Lord leads. Debt can sometimes limit that freedom. That's why it's important to clean it up as soon as possible.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Ministry in small, rural churches

Check out this article from Word and Way on ministry in small, rural churches. It looks at the advantages of such ministry and the challenges of finding pastoral leadership for these churches. You can read it here.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Maybe you are not called to be a pastor

It always hurts me to watch someone who wants to succeed as a pastor but leaves a trail of heartache and issues everywhere he or she serves. They know they have been called to be a pastor. They've invested in the proper education. They tell me they don't know how to do anything else. But, their entire ministry has been marked by heartache and disappointment as they've gone from one church to another with no noticeable positive results of their having been there.

The call of God on an individual's life is something very personal and private. Different people experience that call in different ways, and it is a mistake to tell someone that their experience wasn't valid simply because it differed from your experience. Also, each one of us have been given gifts that are to be used in ministry. My ministry will look different than another person's ministry because of those differing gifts. This makes it difficult to question someone's call to the ministry.

At the same time, there are certain characteristics a person who has been called into the ministry should possess. Some of these are

  • The ability to build relationships with people. As I have written before, everything in a smaller church is dependent upon relationships. A person who cannot build relationships with persons in a smaller church cannot pastor there.
  • The ability to communicate. Few pastors will be skilled communicators like a Charles Swindoll or a Billy Graham, but at the very least we should have some idea of how to develop a sermon and deliver it in a way that will engage the listener. I've left too many church services unable to figure out what the pastor had been trying to say.
  • The ability to lead. No organization can rise any higher than the lid of its leadership. The 21st century church needs pastors who are leaders if they are ever going to get out of their maintenance-mentality.
  • The ability to lead a congregation in the discernment of a God-given vision. This is one aspect of being a leader, but the fact is that many serving as pastors today have no sense of what God is wanting to do in and through their church. They have no vision for ministry and are seemingly content to drift along from Sunday to Sunday hoping something good will happen.
  • The desire to be a lifelong learner. Many of the things you learned in seminary you will never use as the pastor of a church. (Sorry, but it's the truth.) The things you will use will be outdated within a few years after you graduate. For you to remain an effective pastor you will have to transform yourself and your ministry many times throughout your ministry.
  • A passion for people. The joke is that ministry would be great if it wasn't for the people. Of course, ministry is all about people. Jesus Christ gave his life for people, and it will be the heart's desire of a God-called person to want to minister to people.
  • A willingness to work. I sometimes tell people that the ministry is a great place for lazy people. We don't punch a time clock. Very seldom does anyone ask for us to give an account of how we use our time. Quite frankly, some of the laziest people I have known have been ministers. Successful ministry requires work on our part, and if a person is not willing to put in the work it's fair to question whether God has called that person into the ministry.
We could list more, but this should suffice for now. Please understand something. I am not saying that you have to be an expert or polished on all the things listed here. I recently reviewed some of my early sermons from the 1980s, and they are really bad. After I had been at my church for two or three years one of the deacons said to me on his way out after the service, "You know, you are starting to turn into a decent preacher." Knowing him I understood that to be a compliment. If you are a lifelong learner you are going to be learning new skills that will help you become a better communicator, a better leader, and a better pastor. But, if you do not show any talent in any of these areas and you haven't improved in them after some time in the ministry, it's time for a gut check. Maybe you should have a different role in the church.

There is nothing greater than to be called by God to serve him in a ministry role, but there is nothing more frustrating that to be in that role when he hasn't called you. Please contact me if you feel you need to look into your calling.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Beware of the church survey

It was a familiar story. A pastor of a small church that averages about 60 people in attendance has been at odds with some in the congregation for several months. It's nothing serious, but it has been uncomfortable. Finally, the board chair decides the congregation needs to be surveyed to determine what they think is needed for the church to move forward. Questions are determined and the anonymous survey is sent out. What no one anticipates are all the comments written in the margins and at the bottom or back of the page. The pastor calls me saying that the comments are not favorable towards him, and he's not sure he will be able to remain there as pastor. The board will meet later in the month to discuss the findings of the survey.

This is a story I've seen played out numerous times, and it never ends well for the pastor. This pastor believes the board chair had no evil intentions in surveying the congregation, and that may be true. In other cases, church boards have used such surveys as "gotcha tools" to justify their desire to replace the pastor. Rather than discussing their issues with the pastor like adults, they hide behind anonymous surveys hoping to get enough ammunition to ask the pastor to resign. They can point to the surveys to show the pastor that his or her leadership is no longer needed or desired by the congregation.

The mere fact that lay leaders of a small church sends out such a survey indicates that they are not really seeking information to benefit the church. If you are a leader of a church that runs 60 people and you don't know what the church needs, you don't need to be in leadership. Furthermore, you aren't likely to find it in a survey of the congregation. What you will find are criticism, complaints, and often the rehashing of old issues.

It would be far better for a church in this situation to invite someone from the denomination or a consultant to meet with the pastor, the leadership, and at some point, the congregation to discuss whatever issues need to be discussed. Out of those meetings could come recommendations from someone who has experience in helping a church turn itself around. Some of those recommendations might require retraining of people in the congregation, and such training might be made available as part of the consultation. In some cases it might be necessary to encourage the pastor to resign. In other situations church controllers may need to be confronted. (I've done both as a consultant.) There are a myriad of possible recommendations that might come out such consultations, but at least they will have been made after having honest dialogue with the leadership and congregation.

Reacting to anonymous surveys seldom produces anything of benefit to a church or pastor. Being proactive in using outside resources to help address problems in a church will usually be much more effective.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Church consulting and coaching

Everywhere I go people ask what I'm going to do after I retire at the end of the year. While there are several things I plan to do, two of those things are to do consulting with churches and coach pastors and church leaders. My current ministry responsibilities did not allow me to do as much of that as I would have liked, especially with churches outside our region.

I should hasten to add that the Executive Ministers I was privileged to work with in our region never objected to my leading seminars throughout the US and Canada. In fact, they encouraged me to do so. One told me that I was one of the few who was doing such seminars and conferences for bivocational and small church leaders, and he would certainly not prevent me from leading those. At the same time, I felt that I had to be careful to not ignore my primary work in our region.

With my upcoming retirement I will have more time available to lead such events. I already have four speaking engagements scheduled for 2016, and I have been in conversation with one church about the possibility of consulting with them in 2016.

Like many churches, this church is not associated with a denomination, so there is no one they can contact to help them address some issues in their church. The church leaders are currently deciding whether to invite me to come and work with them.

One of the things I enjoy is coaching church leaders. My DMin thesis was "Coaching Bivocational Ministers for Greater Ministry Effectiveness." That thesis later became the basis for my book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide. That work demonstrated how effective coaching can be for church leaders who are ready to move forward with their lives and ministries. In my retirement I would like to coach church leaders who are feeling stuck, facing problems, or are just ready to move to a higher level of effectiveness. I believe this will be a great way to add value to their lives and ministries.

Conferences, consulting, and coaching. Three of the ministries I enjoy doing the most. If your district is ready for a conference to help train your bivocational and small church leadership, give me a call. If your church needs a consultant to help them work through a challenge they are facing, I may be able to help. If you are a church leader who is ready to move forward, let me coach you through that process.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A faithful ministry

On the wall directly across from my desk is a picture of George Younce and Glen Payne, two of the founding members of the Cathedral Quartet. For those readers not familiar with Southern Gospel music, the Cathredrals were one of the major quartets in that genre. While some members of the group came and went, George and Glen remained the heart and soul of the Cathredrals. For over 30 years they toured the nation singing in churches and quartet conventions. As they were preparing to retire, Glen Payne became ill and passed away, and the group did retire at the end of that year.

There is a reason their picture is on my wall. My wife and I had permanent seats at the National Southern Gospel Quartet Convention, a week long event held annually, for many years. The last year the Cathredrals were to perform there Glen Payne was absent from the stage. During their set, he was connected to the auditorium by telephone from his hospital bed. He thanked everyone for their support over the years, asked for their prayers, and sang a powerful song over the phone. Of course, we had no way of knowing at the time, but a few weeks later he passed away.

When they finished their set, I never heard the next group that came on the stage. I felt the Lord telling me that he wanted the same level of faithfulness from me that the Cathredrals had demonstrated throughout their long ministry. Like any other music genre, there are some in Southern Gospel music whose conduct has been less than Christian. I do not know of a single accusation that was ever lodged against the Cathredrals. They seemed to have been held in high esteem by both their fans and their peers. They were never involved in a scandal and were true ambassadors of Christ. That, I felt that night, was what God was saying he wanted from me.

The next year at the convention it was announced that a painting had been done of George and Glen and prints were available that night. George and Glen's widow would autograph them. I immediately left my seat and went to the sales area and got in line. I paid more that night for a print than I had ever paid for one in my life, but I wanted to hang it where I would be reminded every day of the faithfulness God was asking of me.

We often measure success by numbers, and numbers are important, but true success in life and ministry is found in remaining faithful to the task God has given us. We won't always have the biggest church, write a best selling book, be invited to speak at national gatherings, or be a household name, but that's OK. What God wants from each of us is simply to be faithful to the work he has given us, to use the gifts he has given us, and to be faithful in word and deed to the cause of Christ.