Friday, January 29, 2016

Digital giving

A couple of years ago I was shopping with our son and paid my bill with a check. On the way out of the store he said that I was the only person he knew who still wrote checks. Like many young people he pays his bills online and uses a debit card when making purchases. he writes one check each month for his rent, and that's only because the rental company requires it.

I still use checks, but I've been noticing that more and more stores no longer accepts checks. At some time in the near future check writing will probably be a thing of the past.

Churches need to think about what that's going to mean for them. Even today many millennials struggle knowing what to do about giving to their church. With no opportunity to give online or a way to use their debit card they are forced to use cash or give nothing. Many choose to do the latter.

Some larger churches offer online giving through their website while others have ATM machines in their lobbies. I doubt that many smaller churches have such options, and it could be costing them. At a time when many churches are seeing a decline in their giving our churches need to make it as easy as possible for people to give.

This is probably something many small churches have never considered. We have been so used to our envelop systems and passing the plate that we've not considered that there are now two generations that doesn't fit this model. If we want them to participate in the financial life of our churches we have to offer them options that fit their lifestyles and habits.

Personally, I'm not sure that small churches need ATM machines, but there is no reason some method of online giving could not be offered. As I've promoted before in this blog, every church needs a website, and that site could include a method of giving to the church. Drop-down menus could be available so people could give money to the church, to missions, or to a special offering the church might be receiving. It may be that this option would not see much use at first, but as younger people begin to replace us older ones it's likely the church would also see a shift to online giving.

This may seem strange to some churches and perhaps even a little nonspiritual. But, over the centuries the church has had to make many changes, and each of them no doubt generated doubt and criticism. It's time churches began to consider offering different ways for people to give.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

How healthy is your church?

My most popular book has been The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues. Judicatory leaders have passed copies out to every church in their districts. One church asked me for 90 copies to pass out to every family. Once they received their copies they began a church-wide study of the book and invited me to lead a half-day seminar on healthy churches. I recently received word of another church that ordered copies for each person in their adult Church school and began a study of each chapter of the book. I've been invited to lead numerous seminars and conferences for various denominational groups in the US and Canada on this topic.

I cannot tell you how pleased I am that this book has been so well received and how many churches and leaders have found it helpful. There is nothing more exciting than a healthy church ministering to the community where God has placed it. Lives are changed in healthy churches. Marriages are restored, and people find renewed hope in such churches. Most important, people find salvation in Jesus Christ in healthy churches where the Gospel is proclaimed.

Unfortunately, many churches struggle with health related issues. Unhealthy churches are found in all size churches, and such churches are simply unable to function as God intends. Part of the reason I wrote the book was so these churches could diagnose themselves and identify what makes them unhealthy.

After spending the first 15 chapters exploring some the characteristics of a healthy church I conclude the book with a chapter to help churches diagnose themselves. In this chapter I provide questions that pertain to the prior 15 characteristics so the church can compare themselves to a healthy church. I further recommend that every church use these questions to give themselves a check-up every year to see how they are doing in each of these areas. Let me share just a few of these questions.

  • How many adults are involved in Bible study and faith development?
  • What is your church's vision?
  • How many people in your congregation can explain that vision to others?
  • What specific aspects of your worship service help people experience God?
  • How would you rate the spiritual maturity of your lay leaders?
  • How is the postmodern era in which we live affecting the ministry of your church?
By answering each of the questions included in this chapter your church will have a good idea of its overall health and if there are specific areas that need addressed. My recommendation is that the leadership review these questions annually and provide honest answers to each of the questions.

It's important to remember that God wants every church to be healthy. It's also important to remember that no matter how healthy your church might be, it can always be healthier. A healthy church is an exciting place in which to worship and to serve, and it makes the greatest impact on those it's called to serve. I encourage you to do everything possible to make your church the healthiest it can be.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Should Christian leaders endorse individual candidates?

Several years ago when I was still a pastor my father ran for a local political office. One day the call came that I was dreading. He wanted to put one of his campaign signs in my yard. I refused to let him do that. I explained that although I encouraged our congregation to be involved in the political process, to vote, and to consider running for office, I did not feel as a pastor that I could endorse a particular candidate, not even my father. I assured him of my vote, but I could not allow a campaign sign in my yard. I knew he was hurt and could only hope he understood my view. It took a few weeks, but I think he finally understood.

This is why I am bothered by religious leaders endorsing candidates in the upcoming election. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has endorsed Donald Trump as has some other religious leaders. One pastor I know criticizes Trump on Facebook every chance he gets and is promoting Ted Cruz. I think this is the third person he's endorsed as the other two have virtually dropped out of contention. His congregation and FB friends must be getting real confused by now.

Pastors have an obligation to address moral and social issues that may be hot topics in the political arena, but to endorse a political party or a particular leader, in my opinion, crosses the line. Believe me, I was all over Clinton when the news broke about his affair with Lewinsky, but I would have done the same thing if it had been Reagan or Bush who had been involved.

Endorsing a particular individual is a very divisive thing to do in a church. I understand that a pastor has the right to personally endorse anyone he or she wants to as an individual. But, has any news outlet not included the fact that Falwell is the President of Liberty University as they've reported his endorsement of Trump? As a pastor we are connected in the minds of others with the church we serve, and any endorsement we make will come across as an endorsement by the church. In a private conversation with friends I might talk about who I believe is a stronger candidate, but I am not going to announce that to the newspaper, post it on social media, or discuss it from the pulpit.

Several years after my father ran for election he walked out of a church service one Sunday morning. Later that afternoon he called to tell me what he had done. The church had an interim pastor who, my father said, went on week after week about how evil the Democrats are. My Dad was a long-time worker in the local Democrat party, and he got tired of hearing how everything the Democrats stood for was wrong. On that Sunday morning my Dad, a deacon in that church, walked out. He told me when he got to the car he sat there for several minutes, shaking, trying to compose himself. That was not something he thought he would ever do, but he had had enough of partisan politics in the church.

Partisan politics in church erects barriers that do not need to exist in the church. When the pastor endorses a particular candidate for office another wall goes up for someone who prefers a different candidate. The church is about proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The cross is enough of a stumbling block. Let's not add to that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What is needed to be a soul-winning church?

Before the Lord ascended into heaven He gave the church its marching order: the Great Commission. The primary mission of the church is to reach out to those who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, help them come to faith, and then assist them in growing in their new-found faith. This charge was not limited to large churches nor was it given only to those who have the gift of evangelism. This commandment was given to all churches in every age.

One would think that since we really have only one thing upon which to focus that we would be very good at it, but we're not. Many Christians will not lead a single person to faith in Jesus Christ in their entire lifetimes. Each year numerous churches fail to reach anyone with the Gospel. I once spoke with a pastor whose church had not baptized anyone in 50 years. This bivocational pastor was going to do his first baptism in that church, and he wanted it to be very special in hopes it would get the church excited about reaching out to the unchurched in their community.

We could scratch our heads and ask why churches fail to evangelize, but I think it's better to focus on what a church requires in order to become a soul-winning church. The first thing it needs is a pastor who is a soul-winner.

No pastor should complain if his or her church is not seeing lost people come to faith in Christ. If it's not happening in his or her church it means that he or she is not reaching the lost either. Pastors should not expect their congregations to do something he or she isn't doing. A soul-winning pastor will develop a soul-winning church.

Secondly, there needs to be a passion about soul-winning. Back many years ago before I started preaching (and door-to-door visitation was still OK) our church began a mid-week visitation program to reach the lost in our community. The first few weeks we met, had a light meal, and went out in pairs to various sections of the community to meet people, invite them to church, and share the Gospel when we felt it was appropriate. After a couple of months passed we noticed the numbers of people showing up for the visitation was growing less and less. Soon it was just the pastor and me going out each week.

Evangelism is hard work, and you can go for extended periods of time with little results to show for your work. It's easy to get discouraged, especially if you have little passion for it anyway. The rest of the people who signed up for the visitation program became discouraged, and their discouragement soon overwhelmed the little passion they felt about the visitation. Eventually, we pulled the plug on the visitation program, and everyone went back to complaining about the lack of growth in our church.

The third requirement is that people must actually believe that lost people are going to hell. That's not a very popular belief today in our postmodern world. Even those who still believe in some concept of hell often believe that only the worst of the worst will end up there. Surely, no one they know is bad enough to deserve hell so why embarrass them by talking to them about asking Christ into their lives.

I've challenged this thinking in some recent sermons I've preached in various churches. I've reminded the listeners that they believe that the Bible is true which means that when it speaks of Christ being the only way to God that is also true. When it says that all have sinned and come short of God's glory that is also true. When it says that the wages of sin is death, that is also true. Finally, I remind them that "all" includes everyone outside of Christ including the nice grandmother who lives next door, the sweet young person who checks out their groceries, and their own children, parents, and grandparents.

The church must recapture the biblical belief that people without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ are lost, separated from God by their sins, and if they die in that state they will be eternally cut off from God. Until we do we will never have the passion for evangelism that we need to be soul-winners.

Monday, January 25, 2016

When the leader loses hope

This was one of the most popular articles on this blog in 2015 based upon the number of people who read it. It obviously found an audience. Because I know how discouraging ministry can be at times I decided to post it again in the hope that some will find encouragement and some helpful advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 22, 2016

Adult education in the church

One of the things lacking in many churches today is a strong adult education program. For a long time we assumed about half of the people attending the worship service would also attend Sunday school, but I find that number is quickly becoming less in many churches. The children's Sunday school may still be somewhat strong, but there seem to be very few adults, except for the senior saints, who see the education program of their church a priority for themselves. Obviously, something needs to change.

Years ago, before I went into pastoral ministry, my pastor told me he wanted to start a new young adult Sunday school class. The current class was getting rather large, and it was difficult for new people to feel comfortable. I agreed to teach the class. We didn't take anyone out of the other class, but people who wanted to change classes were allowed to do so. New young adults would be brought to the new class. Although we didn't have the best place to meet, the choir loft, the class grew and helped new people assimilate into the church.

Most of our adult Sunday school classes have been around forever. Since they continue to be made up of the same people, it can be very difficult for new people to feel comfortable. In order to grow the adult Sunday school program a church needs to be regularly adding new classes. A good rule of thumb is that 20 percent of your adult education classes should have been started within the past two years. It's very difficult to grow an existing adult class that has been in existence for more than 18 months so starting new classes is a must if your church wants to grow.

We live in a time when people like options so churches need to consider giving people options when it comes to its education program. Offer both short-term and long-term classes. You may want to offer a six or eight week class to people who do not normally attend Sunday school. These classes might focus on a particular topic. At the end of the period the participants can be asked if they want to continue.

Rather than just offering age-graded classes in your adult education program consider offering classes based upon people's interest. One class might feature more in-depth Bible study. Another class might focus on biblical responses to various social issues confronting our culture. Short-term classes could be taught on personal finance, child rearing, aging, or a whole host of issues that might be important to the people in your church and community.

Finally, your adult education program needs to be outward focused, and not merely inward focused. A relevant education program that addresses real issues can be an excellent side door into your church for people who do not attend church. Just be sure you are offering an adult education program that is done with excellence and is seen as relevant to today's needs.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The new bivocational pastor

We have traditionally thought of a bivocational pastor as one serving in a church, usually a smaller church, that could not afford to pay the salary and benefits required of a fully-funded pastor. This typically continues to be the case, but there are some interesting changes taking place in bivocational ministry.

Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, recently wrote a very interesting article on what he calls marketplace pastors. You can read his article and the various comments he received here. Marketplace pastors are bivocational ministers with one important difference. They are often found in churches that can, and sometimes do, pay a fully-funded salary. These pastors are bivocational by choice because they find opportunities to share the gospel in their other careers.

Rainer lists eight characteristics of these marketplace pastors. Some of them are very similar to those of the traditional bivocational pastor such as their ability to enjoy a long tenure in their church, the freedom they feel to deal with critics, and their capacity to assume numerous responsibilities.

However, there are some significant differences. Perhaps the most noticeable difference will be the size of church these pastors will serve. Rainer says that the greatest concentration of these pastors will be in churches with worship attendance ranging from 1,000 to 1,999. Obviously, they will not be serving as solo pastors!

My wife's doctor pastors a church in our community, and Rainer sees this becoming more common. Doctors, lawyers, business leaders, and other professionals will be serving as marketplace pastors. This means that their level of education will be greater than found in many who serve in a bivocational setting, but they will still need theological training which they likely will receive online.

Like Rainer, I see this as a healthy trend in our churches. It brings a new energy and perspective to pastoral leadership in the church. Even in a large church setting the pastor is more engaged with the public, and this can be a very positive thing for the health and growth of the church.

We are living in a time where the church is undergoing tremendous change. This trend towards marketplace pastors could be one of those changes that God is introducing to the church. While many churches would not find this appealing, it might be wise for those churches seeking new pastoral leadership to consider if calling a marketplace pastor might be God's plan for them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

God's call is always relevant to the times

As many of my regular readers know, I retired as a Resource Minister this past December. For 20 years I served as the bivocational pastor of a small church in Indiana before accepting a new call to be a Resource Minister with our judicatory where I spent the next 14 years. I've seen a lot of changes in ministry during these years, and I believe such changes will continue at an even more rapid pace in the next years. I further believe that no one can predict with any accuracy what future ministry will look like. Some of the old models will survive; others will not.

Much of what we've done in the past has been mechanical in nature. Pastors were trained to manage institutions, churches and denominations, provide pastoral care to church members, and lead public worship. Much of our focus was on the institutional church and those who made up its membership. We enjoyed certain advantages in a "Christian" culture. Those who were effective in one size church could expect to be considered for larger churches and/or ministries. This model of ministry is changing, and people entering the ministry need to be aware of this change.

In his book A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders Reggie McNeal asks the question "What did you answer the call to do?" He explains why this question is so important at this time.

Young people who are still immersed in the church culture may be contemplating a call to minister in a world that simply will not exist in only a few years. What then for them? This situation is not hypocritical. Thousands of church leaders in their late fifties experience this reality. They have been hit hardest by the tectonic shifts in the culture both inside and outside the church in the past fifteen years. The world in which they entered the ministry has passed away in many respects. Their ministry experience seems ill suited to take them to the future. The trip they prepared for has been canceled. Many of these leaders have the internal drive and determination to retool, but many more do not. Fearful and anxious, those in the latter category are trying to hang on until the pension can rescue them. Many are not finishing well...God's call is always relevant to the times. He is not in the business of recruiting leaders to serve the past.

In this rapidly changing world it is imperative that spiritual leaders focus on heart issues. Being proficient at the mechanical aspects of ministry will no longer be enough. As McNeal points out, "People increasingly will abandon the kinds of ministries and ministry leaders that seem more interested in institutional concerns than in assisting individuals to develop spiritually. People will support leaders who help them discover who they are created to be and then empower them to employ their talents, energies, and passions."

In order for us to meet this expectation we need to first focus on our own heart and allow God to shape our hearts through the various experiences that He allows to enter our lives. As we better understand our life's purpose, we can help others understand what God wants to do in and through their lives. As we discern God's vision for our lives, we can help others do the same.

I found McNeal's book very insightful and helpful in understanding the challenges facing those considering ministry and those already serving in a ministry role.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Preach the word

2 Timothy is the last letter Paul wrote before he was martyred for his faith. We often assume the last words a person speaks are important and deserves special consideration. It's safe to assume that Paul wanted to convey his deepest desires in his final letter to young Timothy.

One of the things he exhorts Timothy to do is to preach the word. He goes on to explain that the time will come when people will not want to hear sound doctrine but will prefer to hear sermons that are pleasing to hear and not challenging to their sinful lifestyles. Paul's warning was not only for Timothy in his time but also should challenge those of us called to preach the Gospel today.

We live in a very diverse, pluralistic society that has rejected absolute truth and absolute morals. All religions are considered equal, and morality is left up to each individual to decide for himself or herself what's right and wrong. Of course, we can only decide right and wrong for ourselves. It would be intolerant for us to presume to tell others what's right and wrong for them. The last thing people want today is to hear sound doctrine that begins with "The Bible says...." And yet, this is exactly what we've been called to preach.

This rejection of sound doctrine isn't limited to just those outside the church. Many sitting in our churches don't want to hear sound doctrine either.

Several years ago a retired pastor and his wife began visiting our church. They lived about an hour away so they only came 3-4 times a year. One Sunday he seemed a little upset after the service but didn't say anything. After he walked out, his wife explained that he didn't like sermons about the blood of Christ. He didn't feel it was necessary to talk about such things in church!

  • Hebrews 5:9 tells us that we have been justified by His blood.
  • Ephesians 1: 7 - "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace."
  • 1 Peter 1: 18-19 reminds us that we were not redeemed with corruptible things but with the precious blood of Christ.
I could go on, but there are numerous verses that tell us that we have forgiveness of our sins because of the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed on the cross. How do we preach the Gospel and leave out that important part? Even more, why would we want to? To appease people who find such talk uncomfortable? People need to know the price that was paid that would make it possible for them to have a relationship with God. They need to know just how horrible their sins are that such a price was necessary.

Our job as preachers is not to preach a watered-down Gospel that will make people feel good. Our responsibility is to preach the word, not to beat people up, but to give them hope and to point them to a God who loves them.

I came to Christ because I had people who loved me enough to point out the poor choices I was making in my life and who showed me what God had done to offer me forgiveness and a new life. They didn't sugarcoat the Gospel but spoke the truth in love. Because of them I came to understand that God loved me just as I was but loved me too much to leave me there. But, the choice was mine as to whether or not to accept his offer of a new life. This is the message that our world needs to hear today, and they will only hear it if we are not afraid to preach the word.

Monday, January 18, 2016

You are what you choose to be

I often tell churches that they are today what they decided they would be 5, 10, and even 20 years ago. Decisions they made in the past have determined what they would become. There is little we can do about those past choices, but we are free to begin making new choices. It's important that we do that because our churches will be five years from now, ten years from now, and even twenty years from now what we decide today to make them.

Every choice a church makes has a ripple effect in the years to come. Churches that choose not to engage their communities with the Gospel can expect to grow smaller in the years to come. A church that decides to not develop an effective discipleship program can expect to see the people within their congregations become more immature and worldly. Churches that choose to mistreat their pastors can expect in the years to come that they will have trouble attracting good pastors to serve there. Churches that choose to allow controllers to run the church will find good leaders will abandon them, and they will earn such a poor reputation in the community that they will have little to no influence.

Of course, positive choices will result in good consequences. When you see strong, growing churches you can be sure that it is the result of good choices those churches made in the past.

I've often worked with small churches who offered many excuses for why they were small or unable to grow. Now, there are legitimate reasons a church might be small, but in many cases the excuses they gave were just that, excuses. Very rarely did a church say their problems were the result of choices they had made in the past. Even rarer were the churches that wanted help to start making better decisions.

In Dt. 30: 19 Moses tells the Israelites that God "has set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live." This is a good message to the church today. Before us is life and death, blessing and cursing, and we get to choose which we will receive. The choice is ours.

Maybe your church is not in a good place right now. Can you identify the past choices that may have led to the present situation your church finds itself in? It might be helpful to know, but there's really nothing you can do about those choices now except to not duplicate them in the future.

What's more important is where your church wants to be a few years down the road. Once you have determined that vision you can begin to identify the choices you need to make that will make that vision possible. Every choice your church confronts needs to be filtered through that vision. You just continually ask, "If we make this choice will it lead us closer to the vision we believe God has given us for this church?" Trust me, it will make your choices much easier to make when you use this filter. Choose life for your church.

Friday, January 15, 2016

There are exciting days ahead for the church

No one would argue that the church in the US is not facing serious problems. Declining attendance. declining finances, aging congregations, a general mistrust of millennials towards religious institutions, divisions between and within denominations, and a general rejection of traditional biblical teachings by lawmakers and the courts have diluted the church's impact on society in the 21st century. Still, I believe there are exciting days ahead for the church.

The things that have had a negative impact on the church in recent decades teach us that doing church as usual isn't an option, and that's a good thing. The church had become too complacent over the years, and the problems facing the church has forced us out of that complacency.

Right now we are living in an in-between time. We may recognize that what we've been doing isn't working, but we still haven't identified what will work. We have more questions than answers. How do we reach the millennials who have little respect for organized religion? How do we present the Gospel to a postmodern culture that rejects absolute truth? How do we help Christians mature in their faith? How can the church respond biblically to the immigration issue that has so divided our nation? The same question can be asked about the racial divide that continues to plague our society. These are just the tip of the iceberg of all the questions the church needs to answer if it wants to have any sort of effective ministry to our society.

The questions are tough and so are the challenges facing the church, but I remain an optimist about the church for one very simple reason.  Jesus said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Mt. 16:18)" Although we may not know the answers to all our questions, He does. We may not know how to address the many challenges confronting the church, but He does. As the church seeks Him and allows Him to lead us, those answers will be revealed to us.

I'm convinced the church will look much different in the next few years than it does now. Some find that threatening, but I find it exciting. Those changes will enable the church to once again minister to an ever-changing culture. Just as Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the church will rise above its current struggles and once again become a light to the world pointing a lost world to the Lord Jesus Christ, and that is exciting!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Don't be afraid to ask a pastor search committee hard questions

Several years ago I interviewed with a pastor search committee that was of a different denomination than the one I was serving. The interview had gone very well. They asked the usual questions I've heard from previous search committees, and when they finished I began asking my questions. As usual, I had many more questions than they did.

The interview was nearly over when the chair of the committee commented he believed I was the person they should present to the church. The other committee persons agreed. I thanked him for his support and said that I only had one more question. "Are people of all races and cultures welcome to attend and become members of this church?" The chair responded that the church loved everyone and that minorities had attended there in the past. I then explained that I asked that question because my daughter is married to an African-American, and I wanted to be sure they could attend church with us when they came for a visit.

The atmosphere in the room changed immediately, and everyone's discomfort was obvious. The chair stammered and stuttered until he finally asked, "If you preach a trial sermon here will you tell the people what you just told us?" I replied that if this might be a problem the committee should tell the church before I came for a trial sermon. The interview ended within minutes, and I never heard from this church again. In two minutes I went from being the person the committee wanted for their next pastor to "Don't call us, we'll call you."

What if that question had not been asked? I may have gone to that church only to run into certain problems within a very short period of time.

I tell this story and provide a list of all the questions I asked of search committees in my book The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry. As I point out in the book it's important for a pastor to be a good match for a church, and by asking the right questions it becomes easier to determine if you and the church will be a good fit. No matter how tempting a church might be, or how good of a church you think it is, if you are not a good match for that particular congregation you will soon have serious problems.

I often find the pastor search process resembles a mating ritual. The church and candidate are both putting forth their best appearance hoping to attract the other. Everyone is smiling and saying nice things. Hard questions are often avoided by both parties. I have found search committees in many smaller churches don't know what questions they should ask. Few people get married after only one date, but churches will sometimes call a person to be their pastor after only one interview and a trial sermon. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it leads to a big disaster.

When you interview with a pastor search committee, don't be afraid to ask hard questions. Ask about their finances, their board and committee structure, their vision for the future, and anything else that is important to you or that will impact the future ministry of the church. It's better to find out upfront that you will not be the right pastor for that church than to find it out six months into your ministry.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Manage your time as a bivocational minister

There are so many things that demand the time of a bivocational minister, and its easy to lose track of the more important things to attend to lesser things that scream for our attention. Early in my years as a bivocational pastor I tended to focus on the squeaky wheel and failed to make sure I addressed all the important areas of my life. It ended up costing me dearly.

There are five areas of life a bivocational minister must ensure to keep in balance.

  1. God
  2. Family
  3. Church
  4. Work
  5. Self
If any of these are ignored while too much focus in given to others it will cause your life to become unbalanced. The neglected areas will suffer, and eventually it will bring pain in your life.

We often talk about time management, but time management is really all about life management. When I address this in my seminars I talk about the importance of setting priorities in life. Priorities flow out of the vision you have for your life. What do you want to accomplish in life? What means the most to you? Where do you want to be in five years? What do you want your family relationships to look like? What vision do you have for your church and ministry? Where do you want to be financially, physically, and spiritually?

Achieving the vision you may have for your life seldom happens accidentally. It requires that you are intentional in each of these various areas, and the way to achieve that intentionality is to determine priorities for each of them. Those priorities should then be reflected in your planning calendar and your personal budget.

For example, clergy families sometimes suffer when ministry continuously takes priority over family activities. More than one pastor has been divorced because the spouse could not compete with the pastor's mistress, the church. You'll notice that family is listed above ahead of church, and this is done because I intentionally made the decision that I would not sacrifice my family on the altar of ministerial success. Since family was one of my priorities, how did that show up in my planning?

During my pastoral ministry my wife and I had a date set aside for every Friday evening. We would go out for a nice dinner, maybe do some shopping or something else, and grab a Starbucks for the ride back home. It was normally nothing elaborate, but the nice thing is that we went to a city an hour from our home. Sometimes the best part of the evening was the two hour drive we had on those dates when we could talk without fear of interruption. (This means you turn your cell phone off!) We also did other things together that we both enjoyed, but this Friday date was sacred to us. To ensure nothing interfered, her name was in my planning calendar so if anyone asked me to do something on Friday evenings I could legitimately tell them I had a previous appointment.

Both our children were involved in school sports, and we rarely missed any of their events. As soon as their sports schedules came out I put the dates down in my calendar and planned around them. Sometimes at an away track meet we might be the only parents from our school in attendance, but we were there.

You can manage your time only if you learn to manage your life. You might have to say no to some things that will interfere with your priorities. But, if you've not determined those priorities, others will determine them for you, and you may not be happy with the priorities they choose for you. Develop a personal vision for your life and determine the priorities you will need to achieve that vision. You'll find your life will be better balanced and much more enjoyable.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What do first-time guests look for in a church?

From 1981 to 2001 I served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana. I went there with no pastoral experience and no education beyond high school. The only thing I had was the absolute conviction that God had called me into the ministry and that He had called me to that church. I wish I had one other thing when I started.

Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn wrote What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church which is one of the best guidebooks for pastors that I have found. The book covers just about every area of church life and gives specific advice for each of these areas and ways to measure how well your church is doing in those areas. Those of us in church leadership are always looking for ways to evaluate how well our church is doing, and I believe this book provides some very helpful means of doing so.

Most churches want to grow, but many of them are not very intentional about being inviting to new people. The authors point out that first-time guests are primarily looking at six areas of your church when they visit.

  1. The friendliness and warmth of the church. I know your church is the "friendliest church in town." I've heard it for years, but is it actually true? After 14 years of worshiping in different churches almost every week I can tell you that many of these churches are not actually very friendly towards outsiders. They suggest if your church has less than 25 percent of first-time guests return in six weeks or less, your church may have a problem in this area.
  2. The character of the worship service. People want integrity and meaning in worship. They want to experience the presence of God. I was recently talking with an individual whose family is seeking a new church to attend. He told me that he wants to feel something when he goes to church. They are still visiting churches.
  3. A place for children. This will be the most important issue for some who visit your church. They want a safe and secure place for their small children, and a church that will teach moral and spiritual values to them.
  4. An adult program. Contrary to popular wisdom, many adults are hungry for spiritual meaning in their lives. There is also much interest in the person of Jesus. Furthermore, many adults are looking for answers to their questions about marriage, finances, coping with loss, raising children among other things. The more programs a church has to address these various interests, the more outreach opportunities the church has.
  5. The church building. Cleanliness is crucial. Landscaping, fresh paint, adequate parking, and clean bathrooms may not be the most spiritual aspects of your church, but if any of these are missing it can be a reason your guests do not return.
  6. The church's image. What is your church known for in your community? Are you involved in ministries outside your church? Are you known for doing positive things in the community? Do you allow outside groups to use your facilities for meetings? Is your pastor involved in civic groups and schools in the community? Or, are you better known for your inner conflicts and for the things you oppose? It will be very difficult for a church to grow if it has a poor reputation in the community.
As you look at each of these six areas, how well does your church stack up? Are there some intentional things you can do to improve any of the six (or all of them?)? Making those improvements might mean that you will begin to retain more of your first-time guests.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Intentional leadership

One of the great needs of the church today is strong leadership. By that I am not referring to dictatorial leadership. That kind of leadership exists only in unhealthy churches. Strong leadership continues to be servant leadership, but it is also very intentional in its efforts.

Too many pastors and lay persons serve as leaders in their churches without any sense of what real leadership is about or what it should do. Pastors are often voted into their position, as least in my tribe, if they interview well and provide a good trial sermon. Little is known about their leadership ability or if they even want to lead.

Lay people, especially in smaller churches, are often selected for leadership positions based upon their seniority in the church or because of their last name. In some churches it would be unthinkable to have a committee or board that did not include a member of the leading families in the church regardless of whether they had the gifts and/or abilities for the position.

Churches without strong pastoral and lay leadership are like ships without a rudder. They drift along aimlessly wondering why they never seem to reach any kind of significant destination. They seem to travel long distances throughout the course of the year only to find out they've never really left the harbor.

Several years ago Paul Meyer and Randy Slechta wrote an excellent book entitled The Five Pillars of Leadership: How to Bridge the Leadership Gap. A person who is intentional about being a leader would do well to follow the five pillars of leadership the authors identify in the book. These are

  1. Crystallizing your thinking so you know where your organization is today and where you want to go.
  2. Developing a written plan for achieving your goals for the organization.
  3. Creating a desire and passion within yourself and others within your organization to want to achieve these goals.
  4. Developing confidence and trust in yourself and your organization's members to achieve these goals.
  5. Fostering commitment within the organization to follow through on the plan regardless of the obstacles and challenges that are sure to come.
Think about how your leadership would change if you began each day reviewing these five pillars and making sure you were doing something intentional each day in each one of them. What if you held your lay leadership responsible to do the same? Would this make a difference in how your church operated and what it accomplished? My guess, in many churches it would make a big difference.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Local church pastors in the UMC

MinistryMatters recently published an article by Ed Trimmer that looked at the growing numbers of local church pastors in the United Methodist Church. You can read the entire article here. In view of this growing trend Trimmer asked several important questions regarding education and inclusion of these pastors on national boards and agencies. These questions are similar to comments I made in this blog a few weeks ago about the need for denominations to look at how they support their bivocational ministers.

Trimmer points out that not all local pastors in the UMC are bivocational, but 60 percent of them are. He believes the number of local pastors will continue to grow which indicates that the number of bivocational pastors in that denomination will probably grow as well.  Leaders of most denominations will say this is true for them as well.

One of the interesting comments in the article for me personally was that one of the conferences that has a large number of local church pastors is East Ohio. A few years ago I led a workshop for UMC small church pastors in eastern Ohio that was very well received. The following year I was invited back to lead another workshop for a group of pastors in that conference who had been asked to serve as coaches for their growing number of bivocational ministers. This seems to me to be one way denominations can stay in touch with these pastors and provide them encouragement and assistance.

Twelve experienced pastors, most of whom were fully-funded, although a few were bivocational, had agreed to serve as coaches to the bivocational pastors in that conference. My responsibility that day was to teach them about bivocational ministry and principles of coaching and how to tie the two together.

This seems like a good example other denominations could copy especially if some form of theological training is also provided. The American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky offers the Church Leadership Institute (CLI) to provide educational opportunities to our lay leaders and bivocational pastors. CLI was originally created to offer training for the lay leaders in our churches, but some of those lay leaders went on to become bivocational pastors upon graduating. Some who were already serving as bivocational pastors began attending CLI to receive basic ministerial training to better serve their churches. CLI has proven to be an asset to our churches and church leaders, not only in our region but in all places where similar training opportunities exist.

Our next term begins tomorrow, and the class I teach is one of those offered this term. I teach "Personal and Family Health" which looks at how people can best manage their time, set realistic goals for their churches, themselves, and their families, and how to live life in according to their core values and priorities rather than letting others determine how they will live. We also look at how to set up a salary and benefit package in a small church. Such practical classes along with biblical and theological classes provide a good base for lay leaders and bivocational ministers.

If a district or region offered some combination of formal training and coaching from experienced pastors it could help resolve some of the educational challenges faced by their bivocational and local church pastors.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The atheists respond

In yesterday's post I asked why atheists spend so much time trying to disprove the existence of a God they don't believe in. That post generated more Twitter comments than any post I've ever written. Most of the comments were negative ones from various atheists, and most of them contained personal attacks on me. I was called an idiot, a village idiot, and other similar comments. Included in the personal attacks were demands that theists provide objective evidence that God exists.

I found the level of personal attacks interesting. I've posted nearly 17,000 tweets on Twitter and never once been personally attacked for any of them until this one. Obviously, I hit a nerve! The personal attacks did not bother me. As I've told people recently, once you become medicare-eligible you really don't care what people think of you! This is especially true of those you don't know and are unlikely to ever meet.

I did click on a couple of the people who responded to that post and found that they attack anyone who challenges atheism. It seems they often make derogatory comments about the person advocating for God, demand evidences that God exists, and then accuse the person of running off instead of providing such proof.

First of all, it's a little difficult to prove the existence of God in a 140-character tweet. Personally, I quit debating people on social media a long time ago, and I refuse to engage in any conversation with people who make personal attacks on those with whom they disagree. This is not only true of atheists but other Christians as well. Some of the nastiest people I've seen on social media are Christians, and I refuse to respond to their comments as well.

From looking at the Twitter accounts of some of those who attacked my post, it appears they really aren't interested in anyone providing evidences of God. If they were, they could read any number of excellent apologists such as William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, or Ravi Zacharias. These individuals do an excellent job of responding to the various challenges many atheists have towards theism.

To be fair, many atheists are sincerely seeking answers to their questions regarding the existence of God. They are willing to engage in serious debate without resorting to personal attacks. I also have to admit that too often when they look to the church for the answers they seek they are disappointed. As one whose previous ministry required me to be in different churches almost every week I will admit that it would have been difficult to have found evidences of God in some of them.

One of my favorite books continues to be Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians. It is a true story of Jim, a Christian, who paid Casper, an atheist, to attend church with him every Sunday for several weeks. Casper was willing to believe in God if he could find sufficient evidence to prove God's existence during this experiment. They attended some of the best-known churches in America, but in the end Casper was not convinced. As the subtitle states, the book contains frank conversations between Jim and Casper about their experiences in these different churches and why Casper never found the proofs of God's existence in any of them.

The book provides a powerful indictment against the church and its failure to address the concerns of both those who do not believe in God as well as its own members. We should not be surprised that so many Christians are also abandoning the church and seeking other ways to experience God that go deeper than a commitment to attend a 60 minute service each week.

There are those churches who understand the spiritual concerns of people today and are intentionally addressing those concerns. May their tribe increase and include all churches.

I'm sure I'll get hammered again for this post, but that's OK. I don't hate atheists, even those who attack those of us who believe in God. I do feel sorry for them because they are missing out on the blessing of having God in their lives. And I pray that one day they will realize that only God can fill the void they feel in their lives.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Why do atheists try so hard to disprove God?

A thought that often occurs to me when I hear an atheist speak or read something they have written is why are they so insistent that God does not exist? I don't believe in Santa Claus or the Easter bunny, but I don't spend time writing volumes trying to prove my point nor do I engage in endless debates with those who do believe in either of those childhood stories. Whether others believe in Santa Claus or the Easter bunny really doesn't impact my life so I spend no time in trying to prove my worldview that they don't exist.

If an atheist doesn't believe in God, other's belief in God doesn't impact that atheist's life. He or she is free to live their lives as they please. So why do some of the new atheists work so hard to convince others that God doesn't exist?

For some I'm sure it's financial. Some well-known atheists have written best sellers and get invited to share their beliefs in the media and on college campuses. Their unbelief in God can be very lucrative. Perhaps that drives some of their obsession with trying to convince people there is no God, but I doubt that is the primary reason they are so insistent that God does not exist.

Perhaps the real reason is that if God does exist that means they are not God. Dallas Willard has written, "God being God offends human pride. If God is running the universe and has first claim on our lives, guess who isn't running the universe and does not get to have things as they please. (Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ)"

It is only when people can convince themselves that God does not exist that they then can become God. They can choose their own moral principles and live the lives they wish to have. The real reason people reject belief in God is not intellectual, it is moral. They understand that if God does exist they either have to conform their life choices to his teachings or live lives of disobedience and will one day face his judgment for their disobedience.

Every attempt to remove God from the public square is to be able to make the state God. As God, the state can then enact laws that reflect its own views of right and wrong. Behavior that God calls sin becomes legitimatized through the passing of laws and rulings of the courts. At that point a society begins to call good evil and evil good and in danger of God's judgment (Is. 5:20) so it becomes even more important to eliminate belief in God.

We are often told that we are in the midst of a culture war, but it goes much deeper than that. We are in a spiritual war with the very soul of the nation at stake. Too often, the church has been sitting on the sidelines letting others determine when it's proper for us to engage. It's time to get off the sidelines and enter into the battle.

It's past time that we proclaim the word of God without apology. Just as the Old Testament prophets stood up to the false gods of their day, the church today must stand up to the false gods of our day. Billy Graham and other preachers of his generation spoke with authority to the masses because they depended not upon their own personal wisdom or philosophy but stood upon the authority of the Scriptures they proclaimed. We can do no less today if we want to see God move once again in the lives of men, women, and young people.

Let the nation rage and people plot a vain thing against God (Ps. 2:1). They will not prevail against God nor against a church that proclaims the Word of God.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Spiritual formation

I began my devotional reading this year with Dallas Willard's book Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ. Much is said today about spiritual formation and its importance for the Christian. However, Willard points out that all people have their spirit formed by something. He writes

"All people undergo a process of spiritual formation. Their spirit is formed, and with it their entire being...Spiritual formation is not something just for especially religious people. No one escapes. The most hardened criminal as well as the most devout of human beings have had a spiritual formation. They have become a certain kind of person."

One's spiritual formation may have been a positive one or a negative one, but each of us have been shaped by that formation. Through it we have developed a worldview that impacts how we view every experience.

Our spiritual formation comes through a lifetime of the books we read, the life experiences we have, the movies we watch, the friends we have, the education we receive, the religious training we receive (or its lack) and the way significant people relate to us. Virtually everything we experience from birth forms our spirit.

This is why we cannot be satisfied with simply seeing people come to faith in Christ. The act of accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior cannot undo a lifetime of experiences when it comes to spiritual formation. We may become new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), but we need to have our spirits transformed so that this new creation becomes a living reality.

Unfortunately, it is here that many churches fall short. We only have to look at how many Christians live their lives to see that those lives are often not much different from those who have never accepted Christ. Attend a business meeting in many churches and watch the immaturity of people as they oppose anything that might threaten their position in the church, and you will see people whose spirits have not been transformed. Listen to the theological beliefs of many Christians and you soon realize their lack of understanding of even basic doctrine.

The church has fed its members milk far too long. It's time we added some meat to the menu if we want to see people grow and mature in their faith (Heb. 5: 12-14). We must begin to take discipleship seriously if we want to see people's spirits transformed. We must begin to preach and teach the whole counsel of God even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

Believe me, when I went away to Navy boot camp in 1967 I found it a very uncomfortable experience. But, it was a necessary one. The military needed to change the way we had been taught all our lives how to think and act, and it needed to happen in a hurry. Until they could change our previous ways of understanding the world, they couldn't train us in how they wanted us to think and act.

One of the reasons the church has been so ineffective in the past few generations is that we haven't challenged our people to change how they think and act. Oh, we give people a list of things they shouldn't do any more, but we often don't explain why. Even worse, we don't teach them to observe the things Jesus taught us (Mt. 28: 20). We do little to help them experience a spiritual transformation.

Let's make 2016 a year we change this. Every church needs to take a look at its discipleship training and determine how effective it has been in training disciples. If it's effective, praise the Lord! If not, then let's begin to make some changes to help our people experience the spiritual transformation each of us needs.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Starting a new year

When I was a pastor I always enjoyed the start of a new year. I felt like the church and I had a fresh, clean page on which we could begin our work. Previous weeks had been spent on goal setting and sermon planning, and I was always ready to get started when January 1 rolled around.

Some people suggest spending time at the first of the year reflecting back over the past year. This gives you an opportunity to look at what worked and what didn't. I think such reflection is good, but I always wanted to do at the end of the year as part of my goal setting process. I wanted to enter the new year looking forward, not backwards.

Let me share some things I have found helpful. Perhaps you will want to use some of them as you get your year off on the right foot.

  • I wanted a new devotional plan for the new year. Sometimes that included reading devotional books although I often found them lacking depth. It often included reading through the Bible in a year which is an excellent discipline. In the years I did that I would purchase a new Bible in a translation I had not yet read. A couple of years I did some in-depth study of a book of the Bible as part of my devotions by reading through various commentaries and other Bible study aids. Whatever plan you choose make sure you are doing something intentional to grow as a Christian.
  • Prior to January 1 I planned out my sermons for at least the first quarter of the year. This allowed me more time for sermon preparation rather than spending valuable time trying to decide what to preach each week. It also ensured that I had the resources I needed to prepare those messages. Plus, it gave the church the added benefit of allowing our music leaders time to develop a worship service that fit in well with the message.
  • Our church provided me with an annual book allowance. Our annual business meeting was held the second week of the year at which time we approved the budget. At the end of that meeting I already had an order form filled out for several books I wanted which I gave to our treasurer to mail in with the check. I usually spent about half of my annual budget in that initial order, but it ensured that I had the resources I needed for the sermons I planned to preach as well as other books I wanted to read.
  • Controlling your calendar is vital if you want to control your life. I would spend time filling in essential meetings such as board meetings, business meetings, and other events that occurred at regular times. Once that was done, my wife and could discuss when we wanted to take vacations or short trips and get those on the calendar. I learned the hard way that if these things are not on the calendar other things will find their way on there making it difficult to find a good time to get away. I also put our date night down each week and guarded it as well. You will not enjoy balance in your life if you do not plan for it.
  • As I've written elsewhere, goal setting is important to me, and if one wants to accomplish those goals it's important to begin from day one. Starting January 1 I would begin tracking the Key Result Areas I had identified as necessary if I wanted to achieve my goals for the year. As a bivocational minister it's too hard to play catch-up at anything. It's always easier to stay ahead.
These are some of the things I did to help get my new year off to a good start. There are many things in life we cannot control so it's important to focus on those that we can. If you will be intentional about how you approach the new year you will likely to find it much more productive and enjoyable than if you just drift through the year.