Monday, October 31, 2016

Dining on sacred cows

There's a line in a song that says, "Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die." Similar to that line is one that says most churches claim they want to grow, but no one wants to make the changes necessary to grow.

A few years ago I was working with a church as they were seeking a new pastor. In my first meeting with the search committee I asked what they wanted in their next pastor. I got the usual answer: We want a pastor who will grow our church.

Although I had never done this before, I asked the committee chair if she was sure about that. I said, "You do realize that if you could grow by doing what you've been doing, you would already be growing. What you are telling me is that you want a pastor who will come in here and change everything you are doing. Is that what you really want?"

She looked at me and the others on the committee, smiled, and responded, "Well, maybe we better talk about that a little more."

Many churches have a number of sacred cows that cannot be touched. It may be the time  of their worship services. Just because a church has always met for worship at a particular time doesn't mean that time cannot be changed if a different time might be better for the people you want to reach. I know one new church that began by starting their worship service at 2:00.

Another sacred cow is the style of worship or the music. It seems we've been fighting these worship wars forever. The reality is that much of what traditional churches have done in worship does not appeal to younger people, the very ones churches claim they want to reach.

Another sacred cow is often how the church is structured. Too many churches are over-structured for their current size. When a church is structured for maintenance it cannot expect much ministry to occur, and without effective ministry a church will not grow. Remember, your church is perfectly structured for the results it is getting.

Some sacred cows have been members of the church for generations. Nothing happens in these churches unless the controllers approve, and they will not approve anything that might threaten their position or power in the church. One of the things they find most threatening is growth because growth means new people, and new people are seen as a threat to their standing in the congregation.

There are many other sacred cows that exist in various churches, but they all have one thing in common. They hinder a church's ability to grow. These sacred cows need to be removed and changes made that will facilitate new ministries and new growth.

What sacred cows exist in your church? What will you need to do to remove them?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Staying grounded in ministry

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a proponent of strong pastoral leadership. I don't believe in dictatorial, controlling leadership, but I do believe one of the reasons why the church struggles today is because of a lack of strong leadership from their pastors. I believe in discerning God's vision for the church, setting goals to enable that vision to be achieved, and being very intentional about hitting those goals. Sometimes I can become so focused on the doing aspects of ministry leadership that I can forget the being aspects of ministry.

Out of all the books in my library the one that has helped me stay grounded in the work of ministry more than the rest is Eugene Peterson's book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. In the book he describes the three tasks of visible ministry: preaching, teaching, and administration. Peterson calls these the visible lines of ministry. These are the tasks on which we are most often evaluated by our congregations. If we can perform these tasks well we can enjoy a fairly productive ministry that will be approved by most congregations.

However, the author points out that the invisible tasks of ministry, what he refers to as the angles, are prayer, scripture reading, and spiritual direction. Because these are seldom seen by anyone other than God we can ignore these at least for a season and no one will challenge us. As Peterson states, "It is possible to do pastoral work to the satisfaction of the people who judge our competence and pay our salaries without being either diligent or skilled in them." However, these angles provide the necessary foundation for a long-term, effective ministry.

Peterson writes, "Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors and priests. If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw in the lines. But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry."

Later he writes, "We can impersonate a pastor without being a pastor. The problem, though, is that while we can get by with it in our communities, often with applause, we can't get by with it within ourselves. At least not all of us."

Some of us in ministry leadership spend all our time putting out fires. It seems everyone wants a piece of our time. In addition to that there are the regular duties of the ministry such as sermon preparation and the administrative duties that are a part of the job. It's very easy to ignore the angles of ministry because no one notices them anyway. Few pastors are asked by their boards how much time they spent last month reading the Scriptures for their own personal growth or how much time they spent in prayer. But, many are expected to give a report on how many visits they made to parishioners and how many committee meetings were attended.

However, if we continually fail to practice the angles we will grow empty spiritually and have nothing of real value to give our congregations. This is one reason so many ministries go off track. The visible lines of ministry begin to shoot off in different directions because there are no angles to attach them to. I've seen it happen in my ministry and in the ministries of many others. That's why I re-read Peterson's book from time to time. I need to make sure I stay grounded in ministry and work the angles to keep the ministry God has given me healthy and spiritually productive.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Time management for ministers

This week I received an e-mail from a bivocational pastor telling me he will likely be voted in as pastor of a church this Sunday. This will be his third church, and while he's excited about it he's also concerned. He admitted he has always struggled with time management since entering the ministry. He wanted to know what he should do.

Of course, I suggested he buy two of my books! The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry and The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide both address the problem of time management for bivocational and fully-funded pastors.

All pastors struggle with managing their time well. The bivocational pastor has the added pressures of another job that complicates it even more, but the problem certainly isn't limited to bivocational ministers. What are some initial steps we need to take to better manage our time?

  1. Determine your priorities. If you don't, others will, and most of the time their priorities for your time will not be what you would have selected. There are five areas of life a bivocational minister must keep in balance: our relationship with God, our relationship with our family, our ministry, our other job, and our own self-care. You must set priorities for each of these.
  2. Know your strengths and work in those areas as much as possible. I want to work in areas where I am weak as little as possible. My primary gifts are in preaching, teaching, and leadership. When I work in those areas I am most effective. While it's not always possible to avoid working in areas of weakness, it's best to avoid it as much as possible. Find others who are strong in those areas and delegate.
  3. Own your calendar. There are some things that must go on there to pay the rent, but much of your calendar is discretionary. If you do not determine what goes on there, others will. Years ago my wife and I decided to have a Friday evening date every week. I put that on my calendar so if someone asked me to do something on Friday I could honestly tell them I already had an appointment.
  4. Learn to delegate. It may be easier to do it yourself, but that doesn't mean you should. As church leaders it's our responsibility to equip the saints to do ministry, not to do all the ministry. Part of the equipping process is letting others actually do the work.
  5. Take time off. That's part of the self-care mentioned earlier. The church is not going to fall apart if you take a week's vacation, and if it does you haven't done a very good job as a leader anyway. You and your family need to get away and enjoy life. Ministry is not a sprint; it's a long distance event, and you need to rest and refresh yourself along the way.
Realize that you may be following a pastor who did not do a good job of setting boundaries around his or her time. As Dr. Phil says, "We teach people how to treat us." You may be in a church that has been taught by previous pastors that it was OK to not respect their private time. In that case, you will have to retrain them about boundaries. You may be their pastor 24/7, but that does not mean you have to jump every time someone calls. You have other responsibilities, such as your family, that you need to consider as you work to balance out the many demands on your time.

Managing our time well is the responsibility of each of us in leadership. No one can do it for us, and if we struggle in this effort it's our fault. Having said that, there will always be a tension between the various demands on our time, and we will constantly be figuring out how to manage that tension. We won't always get it right, but if we begin to get it right more often than not, we will begin to enjoy greater productivity and greater joy in our ministries and our lives.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Changing strategies

One of my Twitter links today has Rick Warren describing how Saddleback Church has changed its outreach and evangelism strategies over the years. When he first graduated from seminary computers were large, slow machines used by very few people. The Internet was in its infancy and no one had heard of e-mail. The church used the tools that were available back then, and now that much of our society has become more digitized, they use the new tools that are available. They've never changed their message, but they have changed how they get that message out.

This is a lesson every church needs to remember. While the Gospel never changes, the tools we have available to us to share that message have changed, and we would be foolish to not use those tools. As I've worked with smaller churches over the years a majority of them have complained about the lack of young people in their churches. Yet, these same churches do little, if anything, to effectively reach young people. When I point out that young people spend a great deal of time on social media, the leaders of these churches often respond that they don't do social media. I've had a few pastors even respond that they have nothing to do with computers at all, and they wonder why the ones they claim they want to reach feel that these churches are irrelevant and out of touch.

As many of you know, I am currently serving as a Transitional Pastor. Last week I sent out a voice message on One Call Now, a new program the church recently purchased. This message reminded everyone on the church's contact list of an all-church gathering for the next Saturday. Young, old, teens, anyone who has given the church their contact info received that call, and it took me all of two minutes to do it. I had never used that program before, but I can see how effective it can be.

The church has a responsibility to use whatever tools are effective today to share our message with as many people as possible. This includes good (and I stress good) websites, social media, blogs, and whatever else we can find that the people we want to reach are using.

It also means that we must stop using tools and strategies that are no longer effective. Your older members and shut-ins probably enjoy receiving a monthly newsletter from your church, but most people are not going to read it. They are more apt to seek out  information about your church on your website. It's important to periodically review your outreach efforts and determine which ones continue to be effective and if there are any that need to be eliminated. Wise stewards will use their resources for those things found to be the most effective.

For a few years now I have posted a number of links on Twitter to articles that I thought would be helpful to bivocational ministers and other church leaders. I have a list of blogs that I read and select about 20 of the best articles to provide my readers with helpful resources. However, in recent months I've noticed a decline in the number of people clicking on these links. Yesterday, I made the decision to stop doing this.

It took roughly an hour a day to post these links to Hootsuite to be posted on Twitter throughout the day. I can no longer justify this use of my time based on the number of people reading these articles and the few responses I ever receive back from those who do. I plan to keep posting on my blog as its readership is a little stronger, and I will continue to seek other ways to add value to my readers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The power of goals

This is the time of year I normally begin to work on setting goals for the upcoming year. Several years ago I heard Zig Ziglar talk about the power of goals. He stated that the vast majority of people never set goals and tend to fare much worse in many categories in life than those who do. I don't remember now the figures he would share, but there was a substantial benefit enjoyed by those who set and achieved their goals. He offered a goal-setting program which I purchased and began to use. After just a couple of years I was convinced that setting goals did improve my life, and I have been a big believer in goal setting ever since.

Many people, perhaps a majority, drift through life hoping that something good will somehow happen to them. Some play the lottery and hope to win big one day. Maybe they jump from job to job, or marriage to marriage, hoping to find just the right match that will bring them great success and joy. Others have given up on life and simply live lives of quiet desperation. They go through the motions of living, but their lives are really empty shells of what they could be.

Those of us who set goals and work to achieve them experience life on a different level. While we also hope for good things to happen to us we also know that hope is not a strategy. We're not going to sit around and wait for something good to happen; we're going to make it happen. We going to identify the things we want to accomplish and determine the things we need to do to help make that happen.

I still use the same goal-setting system I purchased from Ziglar years ago. In this system you not only write down your goal but you go into detail about what it will take to achieve it. This requires some thinking, but it makes for a much more effective goal. On a sheet of paper I write down the goal and then answer a number of questions surrounding the goal.

  1. What are the benefits of reaching this goal?
  2. What are the major obstacles I can expect to face while trying to reach the goal?
  3. What skills or knowledge do I need to reach the goal?
  4. Who are the individuals or groups I need to work with?
  5. What is my plan of action? These are the steps I need to take to enable me to achieve the goal.
When I have my goal written down and I've been able to answer these questions I am ready to begin working towards achieving the goal.

I try to have one or two goals for many areas of my life including my family, my ministry, my auction business, my health, my finances, and anything I feel the Lord is especially wanting me to focus on in the upcoming year. I want to have short-, mid-, and long-term goals for some of these areas. I also want to have several action steps laid out in advance so I can track my journey towards achieving the goal.

There are few things more rewarding that to live life on purpose and with clear goals to guide your actions and thoughts. To complete an action step that takes me one step closer to achieving a goal is a very satisfying feeling. An even more rewarding feeling is realizing that the goal has been achieved. This is far more satisfying that drifting through life with no sense of purpose and little sense of achievement.

Begin today thinking about some worthy goals for your own life. Think through those goals so you can answer the questions listed above and then begin to write them out. If you do so I can almost guarantee you will find you've achieved far more this next year than you normally do and you'll find life much more rewarding.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The healthy small church

This past weekend I was privileged to lead a "The Healthy Small Church" seminar in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Grace Presbyterian Church. The event was sponsored by the host church and co-sponsored by United Faith Presbyterian Church. We had 52 people register for the event that included Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, and Church of the Brethren. I've led this workshop for numerous denominational groups across the United States and Canada and comes from my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues. This is my best selling book to date and the seminar I am most often asked to lead.

Too many people view smaller churches in a negative light. They see small churches as unhealthy, outdated, traditional, old, set in their ways, unwilling to change, and so forth. All of these may be true for some churches, but they do not define all smaller churches. Many smaller churches are healthy and robust with great ministries that are making a difference in the lives of their congregations and communities. Even better, for those churches that may not be as healthy as they would like, they can change and become healthier.

The book and the seminar addresses some of the issues that can cause a church to be unhealthy. A church without a vision will not be as healthy as one with a vision that informs the decisions of the church. Worship services that do not lift up people and allow them to experience God in meaningful ways will cause a church to be less healthy. Conflicted churches and churches that are inward focused rather than ministry focused will not be healthy churches. The list goes on.

However, the book and the seminar not only pinpoints some of the issues that cause a church to be unhealthy, they show how a church can address those challenges in ways that will promote health. A healthy church will be a growing church, and a growing church will be more effective in its various ministries.

Judicatory leaders have purchased the book for every pastor in their area of responsibility. Churches have purchased it for their leadership boards and studied it together chapter by chapter. One congregation called asking if they could get a discount if they ordered 100 copies to give to every family in their church. (YES!) A Nazarene pastor in Michigan led his congregation through a study of the book and told me later about the positive impact it made on the church. I later was privileged to preach in that church.

Although the book title indicates it is for small churches, the word small changes for different denominations. A small church in one denomination might well be a mid-size church in another. Also, the issues and principles addressed in the book are applicable to any size church. I intentionally wrote the book using small church examples because few books are written specifically addressing the needs of the smaller church. Everything in the book is equally applicable to larger churches as well.

The folks hosting this latest event did a great job of promoting it and with making sure it was a successful. I thank both the pastoral and lay leaders of these churches for inviting me and making the day special for all who attended.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Read through the Bible in 2017

Every year I read through the New Testament and every few years I read through the entire Bible. It's a great discipline, and it helps Christians grow in their faith. There are passages that I've read many times, but as I'm reading them again some of them will almost jump off the page at me with new insights I had not previously seen.

It's much easier to read through the Bible in a year than many people think. Basically, you only have to read three chapters a day to read through the entire Bible in a year's time. For most chapters that would only be about 15 minutes of reading. With some of the Psalms you can read three chapters in about two minutes. When I get to them I usually read a few extra to help me when I get to Psalm 119!

Remember, this isn't Bible study. This is reading, so you can go a little quicker than if you were studying the passages. Sometimes I will go back and spend time studying a passage I just read, especially if I did find some new insights there, but this is after I've finished my reading.

Another thing I often do is to buy a new Bible for my reading, usually a different version than I've read before. I often pick one that is a more modern version as they are easier to read. Sometimes when a passage is worded a little differently a new insight is revealed. This also adds to my collection of Bibles which can help me later when I am doing sermon preparation. Finally, it allows me to mark up a new Bible. When I read through something I've previously read and marked I tend to focus primarily on the marked sections which can cause me to overlook something new.

In many parts of the world owning and reading a Bible is forbidden by law. We in America have a tremendous opportunity to study the Scriptures due to our freedoms. It is a shame that so many do not take advantage of this freedom.

God told Joshua in Joshua 1: 8 "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success." This promise was not limited to Joshua but given to all who will read and study the Bible.

I've decided to make 2017 another year to read through the entire Bible, and I invite you to join me. If you want, buy a new translation you've not read before and prepare for an adventure reading God Word. You'll find reading three chapters a day is not difficult to achieve, and you will be amazed at the spiritual growth you'll experience.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

You can't solve problems with the same people who created them

Many people today are calling for term limits for those in political office. Some running for office state they are in favor of term limits. Of course, the ones saying that are not currently in office. To think that a politician holding office is going to vote in favor of anything that will limit his or her term in office is naive at best.

However, what many people do not realize is that we already have term limits. They are called elections. Every two and four years we have the opportunity to vote out of office those who are not serving this nation well. The problem is that too many of us do not vote, and too many who do vote do not do so intelligently.

For years Jay Leno did a "man-on-the-street" interview with people he met and asked them various questions. These questions often focused on political issues facing the country. Sometimes the questions were on significant historical events. It was incredible to see the complete lack of knowledge displayed by most of those he interviewed. Today, Jesse Waters does something similar for Fox News, and the results are the same. We have a lot of uninformed voters who make decisions based on the spin and outright lies that come from both political parties. Tell enough lies often enough and the uninformed person will believe them and vote accordingly.

Tip O'Neil served many years as the Speaker of the House. One of his favorite quotes was that all politics is local. What he meant was that if you got the potholes fixed and helped someone's cousin back home find a job, you could do anything in Washington you wanted and still get re-elected. It was true then, and it's still true today.

This year we are faced with a crucial vote that will have a significant impact on our nation. I think both parties wish they had a different candidate representing them. I doubt that there have ever been two candidates for the presidency with trust and likability levels as low as these two, but these are the choices we have. Since I do not care for either candidate, I have to look at the platforms they are standing on and asking which one do I believe will be better for this country in the long run. I have to look at the types of persons each candidate would probably select for the Supreme Court (and the next President could possibly appoint 2-4 judges), and decide which one would more likely select a judge who will uphold the Constitution and not attempt to rewrite it. These are the factors that will determine which candidate I will vote for in a few weeks.

We also must not forget the congressional races either. I doubt that Congress has ever had a lower approval rate than our current Congress. Given that reality, and the fact that it has done nothing for the past several years, why would we re-elect any sitting Congress person? In my opinion, with very few exceptions, there are none who deserve to be returned to office. You cannot solve problems with the same people who created them. We the voters have the power of term limits in our hands if we vote and do so intelligently. If we do neither, then we have no right to complain about the representation we get.

By the way, this is true as well in the church. When a church is struggling it's important to look at the leadership to determine their role in the problems. If a church has an ineffective pastor, a church board that refuses to lead, controllers who hold the church hostage or a congregation that refuses to change, it's time to make leadership changes. No organization can rise any higher than its leadership, and if the leadership is the lid preventing the organization from rising higher it's time to change the leadership.

I've talked with many pastors who have said their boards refuse to do anything to help the church move forward in a positive direction. I've also met with church boards who have said the same about their pastors. You will not solve problems with the people who have created the problems. Something has to change, and until it does the church will remain stuck and ineffective.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Christian, politics, and social media

A FB friend of mine, and a Christian denominational leader, recently posted a caution about how Christians use social media to make political comments. Some agreed with his warning while other accused him of hiding behind his own political agenda while refusing to stand up for the good of American families.

While I cannot speak for my friend about the motive behind his words I can respond to how I interpreted them. I did not see him saying that Christians cannot hold political views or express them. I read into his comments that we need to be cautious about how we express them. The way some people responded to his post is a good example of this.

The one person who accused him of hiding behind his own political agenda wasn't responding to the post as much as attacking the person who made it. Perhaps he felt he was responding to the FB post, but in reality he attacked the motives behind it, and by doing so was making a personal attack on the person who wrote it.

I've written earlier about how this political season is bringing out the worst in Christians, especially on social media. It's easy to hide behind social media and say things we would dare not say to a person's face. I once responded in agreement to something a FB friend posted and was attacked by another friend of his, not a mutual friend. She questioned my intelligence and informed me that she was a highly educated person and therefore knew more than I did about the matter. It turned out I actually had more education than she did, but that was beside the point. Rather than discuss the issue, she immediately went into full attack mode on my character and intelligence. My only response to her was to inform her that I did not engage in debates on social media and would not be responding.

We can hold political views, and we are free to express them, but it is important that we do so wisely. Attacking the character of those who disagree with us must be avoided. Calling candidates, and those who support them, vile names is hardly Christian. Let's support those candidates who most hold our values and beliefs, but let's do so in a manner that is fitting of the name Christian.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

For the beauty of the earth

Several evenings while we were on vacation in Panama City Beach we went down to the beach to watch the sunset. Sunsets are always beautiful, but when they occur over the ocean they are even more spectacular. I spent three years in the Navy on board an aircraft carrier. We would go weeks at a time without seeing land, but the ocean still fascinates me with its energy, its power, and its beauty.

A few years ago my wife and I rode our motorcycle through the bad lands of South Dakota and up to Mount Rushmore. Both were incredible. I've had the opportunity to fly over the Grand Canyon and even from the air could sense a little of how grand it truly is. I've watched whales swim in the Pacific Ocean and large pods of dolphins follow our ship into the harbor of Rio de Janeiro. I've walked through the Orchid Garden in Singapore and could not believe how beautiful it was.

Last night my wife and I watched the International Space Station fly overhead. Every time I know we can view it we go outside to watch it fly past even if it's just for a few minutes. It is such a technological marvel it never gets old.

Throughout my life I've had the opportunity to see many incredible sights, things growing up as a boy on dairy farms in southern Indiana I never expected to see. However, nothing will compare to the time when I will stand before God and be in His glorious presence. The Bible tells us that eye has not seen and ear has not heard what glorious things await us on that day.

It simply isn't possible for the mind to conceive what that will be like. To be in the presence of God, the Creator of all the universe, and His Son, Jesus Christ, who gave His life for my sins is an experience that our mortal minds cannot envision. It's no wonder the Scriptures say that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. We will be unable to stand in the presence of such glory.

Each of us will experience this at the end of our lives. For those who have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior we will be welcomed into the eternal presence of God. Those who refused to make that decision during their life times will be there to be judged for their sin and condemned to an eternity separated from God. Which group will you be in? The choice is yours to make.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Time away

You may have noticed that I've not had any postings on this blog for the past couple of weeks. That's because my wife and I enjoyed a two week vacation at Panama City Beach to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. The weather was great; the beach was beautiful, and I had my best friend for the past 50 years by my side. We have been to PCB for the past many years and enjoyed going back to some incredible seafood restaurants, and we even tried a couple of new places.

Our daughter and her children had rented a condo for a couple of months, so we stayed with them. The condo complex was real nice with 13 pools and a putt-putt course that we all enjoyed.

It was a little surreal knowing that while we were enjoying beautiful days on the beach the other side of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were being pounded by a hurricane. Many of those people lost everything they owned so I hope you are keeping them in your prayers and helping as you are able.

I also hope you have taken time away to refresh yourself this year. The demands of ministry can be rough and take a lot out of a person. In the Scriptures we even see Jesus going off by himself to rest and telling his disciples to do the same. We need to follow his example.

Some churches are a little short-sighted when it comes to time away for the pastor. Many smaller churches want to only give their pastor two weeks vacation a year and think they are doing him or her a favor even though many in the congregation are getting 3-4 weeks paid vacation. In a survey I did a few years ago of bivocational pastors some responded they did not receive any vacation time. One pastor told me he drove a couple in his church three states away so they could visit their son in prison in that state only to be told by the deacons when he returned two days later that those days would be counted against his vacation time.

When I assisted churches in their pastoral search process I always encouraged them to give their pastors four weeks vacation. Some followed my advice, but many did not. Then they wonder why they can't keep a pastor more than a year or two.

Of course, it makes no difference how many weeks vacation the church allows if the pastor does not use them. Pastors, you are short-changing yourselves, your family, and your ministry if you do not go away periodically to refresh and renew your self. Maybe you don't have the money to go to the beach or the mountains, but anyone can afford to take day trips to state parks or interesting communities you've not visited before. The key is to get away from the phone and the pressures of ministry and enjoy yourself and your family. If you'll do that four times a year you'll be surprised how different you'll feel.