Friday, December 30, 2016

What should a layperson do?

Almost every church has a job description for the pastor, but few have one for its lay people. Maybe this is why many lay people really don't know what their job is. A few years ago I read an excellent book by Randy Pope titled The Intentional Church: Moving From Church Success to Community Transformation. I'm in the process of reading it again and am finding it as helpful as it was the first time I read it.

Pope suggests that a biblically-based job description for lay people should include

  1. To discover and develop their spiritual gifts. Although there are many tools available to help a Christian understand his or her spiritual gifts, many Christians have no idea what their gift(s) might be.
  2. To view themselves as the primary ministers of the church. I often say that the church must move from a pastoral care model to a congregational care model.
  3. To spend the time needed to be equipped adequately to use their spiritual gifts. The pastor's job is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4). The layperson's job is to be equipped, and that takes time.
  4. To commit the time necessary to use their gifts in ministry. There is little value in knowing one's spiritual gifts and be equipped to properly use them if one doesn't take the time to do so. (Page 132)
This a far more challenging job description than it might first appear. For one thing, it does demand time from a lay person, and time is a precious commodity in our day. It takes time to identify our gifts, it takes more time to be equipped to use those gifts, and it requires even more time to actually use those gifts in ministry.

This job description also flies in the face of how many Christians view the roles of pastor and lay person. Many believers have adopted an entitlement mindset. They expect the pastor to serve their needs, to entertain them, and to provide a worship experience that will meet their preferences. As one lady told a pastor friend of mine one Sunday, "That's what we pay you for." (He resigned a few weeks later.)

But, think of what would happen if your church members began to view themselves as gifted ministers. Instead of having one minister your church would have numerous ministers involved in many different ministries throughout the community. This will allow your church to have a much greater impact on the community which will also make it more likely that your church will grow.

An added benefit is how this job description impacts the lay people in a church. We all want to feel that our lives make a difference in the lives of others, and living into this job description makes it far more likely that we will have a positive impact on other people.

Finally, this job description gives permission to lay people to do ministry. Some seldom do much ministry because no one has asked them to. Lay people do not need the pastor or others in church leadership to ask them to become engaged in ministry. God has already called every lay person to do ministry. We are all ordained at our baptism to fulfill the ministries that He has gifted us to do. No one has to wait on another person to ask them to do something. Find a need and meet it.

Your church likely does not have a written job description for its lay people. That's fine. Create your own job description using this as a model. If enough people in your church does this you will be amazed at the difference it will make in the church and in those your church is serving.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Pastoral self-care

I've had the good fortune for the past 15+ years of working with many pastors. As a judicatory leader in our region and in the various conferences I led for small church leaders I have worked with thousands of pastors. Most are hard working and totally committed to their calling. They are focused on serving the people in their churches through providing content-rich messages and faithful pastoral care. Unfortunately, many of them are not very good at caring for themselves as well as they do others.

That is why I wrote the book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. It was designed to help pastors identify problem areas in ministry and ways to address them. While it's not possible to eliminate the pressures associated with ministry, we can ease those pressures making our lives and ministries much more enjoyable.

I saw one pastor struggling with depression while trying to serve a difficult church and care for his family. When I asked him if he had seen a doctor he admitted he had not but knew he needed to. I asked if I could speak to his wife. When he agreed I told her that I was concerned that her husband was battling depression. Immediately, tears began to run down her cheek. She knew long before I said anything. I encouraged her to see that he talked with his doctor. Several months later I was told he had still not seen a doctor and was not any better.

Another pastor called saying he was going to retire. He did not want to, but the pressures he felt from his church was causing health problems. He was only 62 and wanted to pastor a church for several more years, but his doctor had expressed concern that he was doing permanent damage to his health if he didn't get out of that church. He did retire and was out of the ministry for several months. His health began to improve. I was able to help him find a healthy bivocational church that would have minimal stress, and he has enjoyed a very fruitful ministry in that church.

There are fourteen chapters in the book addressing different areas of potential ministry-related stress. I have experienced some of them in my own life and have worked with pastors who have struggled with each of them. These stressors are real, and they drive a lot of good pastors out of the ministry. That does not need to happen. There are healthy ways of dealing with each of them, and I try to point them out to the reader.

To be perfectly frank, this book has not sold nearly as well as I thought it would. Because I am aware of how many pastors struggle with the pressures associated with ministry I would have thought they would seek out a resource that would help them address those pressures.

If you know a pastor who is struggling right now with stressors related to the ministry, this might make a wonderful resource to give him or her. They will understand that they are not the only ones that have to deal with their particular problem, and they will find suggestions to help them address their pressures. It might just save their ministry.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Favorite reads of 2016 1-5

Today I'll finish my top 10 list of my favorite reads for 2016. Yesterday, I listed 6-10 so if you haven't seen it you can find it here.

5. Growing God's Church: How People Are Actually Coming to Faith Today by Gary McIntosh. McIntosh is a professor at Talbot School of Theology and a church consultant who knows what he's talking about. All of his books are must reads for anyone in church leadership. He and I were speakers at an event earlier this year, and I had a great time talking with him about this book. You need this book in your library.

4. Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges  by C. Stephen Evans. This is a very readable book that will help you respond to the skeptics and critics of Christianity. As you can see from these next few books, this year I was very interested in books on apologetics and how to speak to unbelievers. I'm convinced it will become increasingly more important to know how to do this in the future.

3.  Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy Keller. Anyone involved in ministry today knows how difficult it can be to talk to persons who are skeptical about God.  Keller lives and ministers in New York City. He is surrounded by persons who question the existence of God, and he has learned how to communicate with them. He shares that knowledge in this book and teaches the reader how to share his or her faith with skeptics. I found this book extremely helpful.

2.  Has Christianity Failed You? by Ravi Zacharias. Here is another one of my favorite writers on apologetics. I listen to Zacharias on his podcasts as well as read his books. Many people have left the church because they feel God has failed them. The author points out that individual Christians and the church might fail us, but God never will. His arguments will be very helpful to me as I run into people who feel that God has abandoned them or failed them in other ways.

1. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller. I knew when I read the first chapter that this would be my favorite read for this year, and it was. Suffering is common to all of us, and Keller shows how God is always with us in our suffering and walks us through it. Christians need to read this for their own spiritual understanding, and church leaders certainly need this book as they minister to others who are going through the various trials in their lives.

This is my 2016 list. Each of these books have deepened my understanding of God and how I can better serve Him. I hope if you decide to read them you'll find them as helpful as I have.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Favorite reads of 2016 6-10

It seems like I just posted my favorite books for 2015, but according to my calendar it's time to post the 2016 list. This year I read more fiction books than any year since I graduated from high school. Most of them were the J. R. Tolkien Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. I also read several military books. As a former Navy carrier sailor I was especially interested in some books that looked at the impact carriers have made in our wars. For this list I will just include my top ten favorite books for this year that would be of special interest to church leaders. Here are numbers 6 through 10.

10. The Four Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership: The Power of Leading from Your Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength by Jennie Catron. The author looks at the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." She explores how we can lead through each of these four aspects of our lives.

9.  Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups by Nelson Searcy. I have long been a fan of Searcy and have read most of his books. The church I currently serve as Transitional Pastor will begin small groups in January, and this book has been very helpful in recruiting leaders and marketing our small groups.

8. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller. This is the first of three Keller books on this list.  I've been preaching for 35 years and found this book to be a great resource especially as I've returned to pastoral ministry after serving as a judicatory minister for the past 14 years. This generation is much different than the ones I preached to 14 years ago. I'm glad I read this book!

7. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor. Conventional wisdom tells us that becoming successful makes us happy. Using research Achor shows that being happy leads to success, and then he gives seven principles to help us remain positive and happy. When I find a book that is helpful it will be marked up and notes written in the margin, and my copy of this book is filled with highlighted sections and notes in the margin.

6. Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard. This was one of the books I read in my devotional reading. Although it was not an easy read, it was an important read. Willard insists the greatest need of mankind is a renovation of the heart, and he goes on to teach us how to experience it. This is a book I purchased used and when it arrived I was surprised at how much the previous reader had marked it up. Fortunately, I use different marking systems so this book is really colorful!

Tomorrow we will list the final five books.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The greatest gift

"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given." These words from Isaiah 9: 6 have been on my mind a lot during this Advent season. Notice the difference. A child was born, and we celebrate His birth during this season. But, a Son was given. Jesus didn't come into existence at the time of His birth in Bethlehem. He has existed throughout all eternity as part of the eternal Godhead. But, on the night which we celebrate as Christmas He was born into this world to live as one of us and to eventually give His life that we might experience the grace of God through which our sins could be forgiven and we could live with Him through all eternity.

As one reads the Isaiah passage the mind is immediately drawn to John 3: 16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Again, we find God giving His Son so that we might have everlasting life.

During this time of the year we decorate trees, hang lights, prepare wonderful meals, and fret over purchasing just the right gift for each person on our list. Few people spend much time thinking about what this season is really about. If we did, we would realize that God has already given each of us the perfect gift of all, His own Son, and through His Son each of us can know what it means to live free from the guilt and pain of sin and know what it means to walk with God for now and forever.

So, what can we give Him in return this holiday season? There is really only one gift that God wants from us, and that's us. Our entire being. In Romans 12: 1 we read that God wants us to "present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God..." He wants us to love Him and receive Him as Lord and Savior of our lives. He wants to come into our lives in such a way that our lives are totally and completely transformed.

Some of us will make New Year's resolutions to change things we don't like about ourselves. Many of us struggle with so many things in our lives that weigh us down and keeps us from being the persons we want to be. We promise ourselves that we'll do better, but we find ourselves falling back into old patterns. Some may have even given up and have decided that they are condemned to live lives of defeat and pain and shame.

No one has to live that way. God gave His Son so that none of us have to live such lives. Invite Him into your life. Receive His gift this Christmas season and find true freedom in your life. If you will do that you will have a very Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The theological crisis in the church

A 2016 survey conducted by LifeWay and Ligonier Ministries revealed how confused Christians are regarding theology. For instance, although 62 percent of those responding agreed that Jesus Christ is truly God with a divine nature, 53 percent said that Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God. Sixty-four percent of Evangelicals reported that everybody will go to heaven and yet they also said that only persons who trust in Jesus Christ as Savior will be saved.

Other recent surveys found that some believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, and that over 50 percent of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.

Why is there such a lack of theological understanding among Christian people? For years we've heard complaints from church leaders about this problem, but it's obvious that little has changed. Why is that?

Any pastor who has been at his or her church for more than three years has no right to complain about the lack of theological knowledge within that congregation. As the authors of The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision writes, "The theological integrity of the church will never rise above its pastors." The authors go on to blame pastors for the lack of theological integrity that exists in many congregations.

In too many churches today the sermons sound more like they came out of a self-help book than from the Scriptures. People attending these churches are seldom challenged to think theologically nor are they taught how to do so.  Pastors have so many things that demand their time they don't have time to do the difficult, time-consuming work to develop theological sermons that contain rich, meaningful content. At least, many of them do not believe they have the time.

Pastors are the primary theological teachers in their congregations. If we do not fulfill that role we cannot expect our church members to hold to sound theological beliefs. We should also not be surprised if they begin to buy into questionable and even pagan beliefs that they hear from other sources. If pastors do not help them understand the theological truths found in Scripture they will be unable to identify false teaching when it appears.

Of course, not all the blame can be placed on pastors. Compare the numbers of people who attend the morning worship services with those who attend Bible studies. The numbers at the latter event is so low that many churches today have eliminated Bible studies. Some replace them with small groups, but these groups are often more for fellowship than for the study of the Scriptures. Many Christians never pick up their Bibles except to take them to church on Sunday. It's sad to hear people say they are leaving their church because they are "not being fed" when many of them do nothing to feed themselves.

Both pastors and lay people must take action to reverse the problem of widespread theological illiteracy among Christians. Pastors must take seriously their mandate to "Preach the Word," and lay people must become serious students of theology themselves. We cannot afford to continue in the direction we are going.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Communication is critical in times of change

As a Resource Minister in our Region I was occasionally called in to address church conflict. While there were many reasons for the various conflicts, one seemed to be found in almost all of them: a lack of communication. So many times people would tell me that there was little or no communication between church leaders and the congregation.

Most of the time this wasn't intentional. Often, the leaders felt they had communicated with the congregation. Obviously, they had not done so in a way that was received by the congregation. When people feel leaders are keeping things from them they quickly begin to distrust those leaders. They become suspicious of everything that goes on in the church fearful that somebody is trying to get away with something.

Even worse, when people do not have the facts they begin to create their own. Rumors begin to fly and the gossip mill begins to churn out information hourly. Often, these made-up facts are not even close to the real truth, but because the truth has not been communicated to the congregation this is all they have.

Where there has been a history of poor communication there is often a low-trust church. Such churches must begin immediately to improve their communication. In such cases it is almost impossible to over-communicate. This communication will, in time, begin to restore the trust needed for a church to enjoy an effective ministry.

Communication is critical in times of change. Many churches do not handle change very well. It creates a level of stress that these churches would prefer to not have. It is important that the WHY of the change is communicated. In fact, this should be communicated before discussing the WHAT of the change. John Kotter, author of
Leading Change, tells us that most change efforts fail because the leaders failed to create an urgency around the change. Talking about the why of the change does create this sense of urgency in the minds of the congregation.

It is also critical during times of pastoral transition. As I've often told pastor search teams, "Inquiring minds want to know." The church is very interested in the progress the search team is making. While it's important that the team keeps the congregation informed of where it is in the process, it must also maintain certain confidences such as the persons with whom they are speaking. Most people in the congregation will be satisfied with knowing that the team is making progress and won't push for more information that should not be shared.

One pastor was proposing something that the church had never done previously. Rather than make a big announcement at a business meeting that may have generated a lot of opposition, he presented it first to the church leadership. When they approved, it was taken to small groups within the church for feedback. Although there were some questions, there was no real opposition. More importantly, people felt that the pastor had not gone behind their backs and tried to do something new. Good communication had occurred, people had been heard, and it was possible to move forward with the suggestion.

This is the way good communication should work in a church. Make sure people are informed and any concerns they have are heard. Over-communicate if necessary. I have found that most people in the church can be trusted to do the right thing if they have the right information.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

When things don't go as planned

Last week our plans were to travel to the Philadelphia area where our son and his family lives. My wife and I left home at the time we had planned. As we were leaving a light snow was falling. A couple of hours later the snow was getting heavier. We saw a number of vehicles off the road including one semi that was laying on its side. It had caught fire. We were almost involved in two accidents ourselves. I kept slowing down due to the amount of traffic and the dangerous conditions. When we got to Wheeling, WV we decided to spend the night.

I called our son and told him of the weather. He advised me that he would have turned around and went back home and suggested we do the same. Later that night he sent me a text saying their weather was going to be just as bad or worse later in the week, and we would be driving back in that when we returned home. I started watching the weather reports and didn't like what I was hearing. The next morning we made the decision that for once we would be smart and head back home before more bad weather arrived.

 As we started back the next morning I wasn't feeling very well. By the time we got back home I was sick with a bad head cold. As I write this I'm still not feeling well, but I think I have improved. It was definitely not the week we had planned.

We were looking forward to spending time with family last week, but that didn't happen. To say we are disappointed would be a major understatement!

I sometimes wonder how often God is disappointed when I fail to live up to His plans for my life. Scripture is clear that even before we were born God knew the plans He had for us. However, He also created us with a free will that allows us to make choices, and sometimes those choices go counter to the plans He has for us.

He could have eliminated that by making us robots, but He didn't do that. He created us as free moral agents with the ability to choose for ourselves the paths we will travel. I have often chosen a path for myself that was not in line with His purpose for my life. I have made choices that have brought pain and problems in my life and the lives of others I care for. We all have.

The good news is that our God is a God of grace, and when we repent of those wrong choices He is willing to forgive us and help us get back on the right path. Very often that means that we can still fulfill the purposes for which we were created. Failure doesn't have to be final.

Although we didn't get to see our son and his family before Christmas, we will go back soon after Christmas and spend a few days with them. When we do, this failed trip will be all but forgotten and we'll enjoy the time we do spend with them. Of course, we'll check the weather a little closer before we start out again!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Put your hope in the right place

In an upcoming interview first lady Michelle Obama suggests that America has lost hope now that Donald Trump has been elected President. Her husband ran his campaign on hope and change, and now that he's leaving office his wife believes the hope America felt is gone as well.

She's not the only person to feel this way. People have been screaming the sky is falling ever since the election. College students, who should be approaching adulthood, need to see counselors to address the anxiety they feel with Trump taking office. Some former Facebook friends expressed their anxieties over a Trump presidency about every two hours after the election which is why they are former FB friends. (I just got tired of all the drama.)

The problem with Michelle Obama's claim that America is losing hope, and all the other Chicken Littles out there freaking out over the election, is that it reflects a secular worldview regarding hope. No person is going to fix your life or make you happy. If your hope is in an individual you are going to go through life very disappointed. Did President Obama do some good things in office? Yes, he did. He also did some things that were not so good. History will one day judge his overall effectiveness as President. Guess what? President Trump will also do some good things and some things not so good. If your hope goes up and down based on what the President does your life is going to be very unsettled.

In our Western society today we have the mistaken belief that everyone should be happy all the time. It is a symptom of our entitlement mentality. People want free healthcare. College students want free tuition. Here's a newsflash for some people: Life can be tough sometimes. There is no free lunch. Someone is going to pay for that free healthcare and free tuition. Grown up people understand that they have to provide for their own needs. If your hope is based on the belief that the government or some other entity is going to take care of you then your hope is based on the wrong thing.

Our hope must be focused on the one thing or person that can never change, and that is God. We celebrate Christmas because the birth of Jesus Christ ushered in the one hope that will never fail. Our expectations of God might fail us at times, but He will never fail.

For many elections now I have reminded congregations and others that God does not fly on Air Force One. He's not up for election every four years, and He doesn't make decisions based on the latest polls, how many in Congress He can get to agree with His policies or the make-up of the Supreme Court. He provides us with a solid foundation for our lives that we can rely on regardless of what occurs in our lives, and that is the foundation for a hope that will never fail us.

If you believe that the election of Donald Trump is going to usher in a new era of suffering in America, I just finished reading Timothy Keller's book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I mentioned it a few days ago and said that it would probably be my favorite book of 2016, and now that I've finished it I have not changed my mind. It is an excellent book that speaks to this whole issue of pain and suffering and the evil that exists in the world. As he points out, a Christian worldview does not deny the existence of evil and suffering, but it also points to the one true source of hope we have when such times come into our lives. If you've not read this book it should be on your 2017 reading list.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Transparency in ministry

One of the quickest ways to undermine your ministry is for people to begin thinking you are doing things behind their backs. I understand that some churches are very risk-adverse, but if the pastor begins to implement changes without the congregation's permission or even being aware that changes are coming he or she may find their ministry in that church to be very short-term.

Transparency is critical, especially in a smaller church or in one in which there has been a lack of transparency in the past. I have worked with enough churches in which there was little trust in the leadership to know how important it is that leaders be upfront with their congregations. Communication is key.

In one church the pastor wanted to do something that could have been controversial. After discussing it with the appropriate leadership group he presented it to other groups within the church. Even he was surprised how little controversy the proposal generated. While there were some questions, in general it was very well received, and the pastor was able to move forward with his idea.

Contrast that to another pastor who decided that it was easier to get forgiveness than permission so he went ahead and made a significant change without discussing it with anyone. What he learned was that getting forgiveness wasn't a given either, especially since he had done such things previously. The church had become tired of him going around the various leadership groups in the church and doing whatever he wanted to do. Although he would have probably eventually been given permission to do what he wanted, he didn't want to wait and proceeded without congregational approval. This final action damaged whatever trust that existed in this church for his leadership, and he soon had to leave the church. A friend of this pastor and one of his strong supporters in the church later told me that he could have served that church for many years if he had been willing to be patient and work with the leadership groups within the congregation.

Such transparency is important in all size churches, but it is critical in smaller churches. These churches often have a revolving-door pastorate as many ministers view these churches as stepping stones to a larger ministry. As a result, these churches have learned to depend primarily on their lay leadership. They can be very concerned if they believe that their pastors are bypassing these lay leaders. These churches often have a great deal of confidence in their lay leaders; they seldom have the same level of trust in their pastoral leadership because these individuals do not stay long enough to earn that level of trust.

The quickest way for a pastor of a smaller church to earn the trust of the church is to be extremely transparent, especially when introducing any type of change to the church. Over-communicate to ensure transparency. Make sure that no one is surprised when you begin something different or want to change something within the church.

Almost no one will become upset if you include them in your thinking process as you consider the ministry of the church you serve. In fact, most people will be honored that you thought enough of them that you sought their input. You will find that you will enjoy a much more productive ministry in the long run if you practice transparency in every aspect of your ministry.

Friday, December 9, 2016

You can't lead sitting on a fence

Studies have found that many pastors do not see themselves as leaders. In fact, many of them do not want to lead. That's a shame because pastors are called to be leaders in their churches. Maybe their reluctance to lead has to do with a misunderstanding of what a church leader is to be.

Church leaders are not dictators nor are they CEOs. They are servant-leaders who recognize they are there to serve their churches and the communities in which their churches are located. In Mt. 20:28 we find Jesus reminding his disciples "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve...." That is the model for pastors and other church leaders. We are not called to our places of ministry to be served but to be servant-leaders.

Another reason some pastors are reluctant to lead is that they've never been taught how to lead. As I've written before, many seminaries do not train pastors to be leaders. They train them to be managers. They are taught how to keep the machinery running and the church operating. They are taught how to prepare sermons and provide pastoral care. They are taught how to work within their denominational polity so as to not create waves. They are taught many good things, but they are not taught to be leaders.

A third reason I've found that keeps many pastors from leading their churches is that they have an intense desire to be liked. They don't want to upset anyone or cause any dissension in the church. If you have an insatiable desire to be liked by everyone you will find it impossible to lead. Inherent in leadership is the need to make tough decisions, and some of those decisions are not going to be popular with everyone.

I have found that many in church leadership are great at sitting on the fence. They remind me of the politician who was asked his opinion on a controversial issue. He responded that some of his friends favored one viewpoint and others supported the opposite viewpoint. When he was again asked his opinion he said he agreed with his friends.

 You can't lead sitting on a fence. There comes a time when a leader must make tough choices. Leaders have to sometimes say things that are hard for some to hear. Leaders have to take risks if they are to effectively lead their organizations. Some Christians will threaten to leave the church if they do not get their way. Leaders have to be willing to watch them walk away if they want to lead the church forward. Leaders refuse to be held hostage by church controllers. Leaders will take a stand and defend it.

Although everything I've just written is true, we must be careful. Timing is everything. Just because someone is the pastor of a church does not mean he or she is a leader in that church. In most churches it takes time before the pastor actually is able to lead a church. This is especially true in smaller churches. We also have to be careful that we don't try to force our ideas on congregations. Trying to force church members to do something they don't want to do is like trying to push a rope. We also have to determine which mountains are worth dying on. Sometimes the rewards of accomplishing something isn't actually worth the risks involved in doing so.

This is what servant-leadership is all about. We do not need to tiptoe around on eggshells, but we do need to work with the people in our churches to accomplish the tasks God has given us. We never want to come across as arrogant or mean-spirited or give the impression that we will get our way by whatever means possible. We are there to serve, not demand, but at the same time we are to lead.

 No one ever said leading a church is easy, but if this is what God has called you to do, then lead. Get off the fence and lead your church to accomplish the vision He has for it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Pray without ceasing

We know the Bible says that we are to pray without ceasing, but prayer is one of those things the church often talks about more than it actually does. The fact is, we're too busy to pray much. Life gets in the way. Sometimes we are so involved in church activities that prayer gets left by the wayside. This can especially be a problem for pastors and other church leaders. Besides, just how much time should we devote in prayer? How in the world could one pray without ceasing anyway? You can't spend all your time on your knees.

It's interesting to look at some of the spiritual giants from the past and their attitudes towards prayer.

Martin Luther once said, "I have so much to do today that I'm going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to get it all done."

We know from the book that bears his name that Daniel prayed three times a day. So did E. M. Bounds, who was an influential pastor around the time of the Civil War. Some of his books remain classics on prayer.

George Whitfield, an important evangelist in both England and the United States, prayed an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, and an hour each evening.

Maybe someone would argue that these individuals lived in a simpler time without all the demands of modern society which meant they had more time to pray than we do today. That would be true. They weren't distracted by televisions, games of the week, movies, and many of the other things that seem to pull people away from spending time with God. They were also not blessed (?) with all the time-saving devices of our modern society such as computers, smart phones, social media, etc.

Their distractions were more in the order of having to make their own bread, growing their own food, cutting their firewood to heat their homes plus serving their churches as pastors and evangelists. I think we need to be very careful to assume they had more time to pray than we do today. The safer assumption is that they took prayer more seriously than many of us do today and sought out times to pray.

I am in no way insinuating that each of us needs to pray three hours or more a day although that would not be a bad thing if you do. God does not love us more if we pray more. I can assure you that I do not spend anywhere close to three hours a day in prayer. In fact, there are times I struggle to pray as I should as much as anyone.

What I am saying that that most of us would do well to make prayer more of a priority in our lives than we do. We need to become more intentional about blocking out times to pray. We also need to realize that we will often accomplish more in our prayers than in anything else we do.

Pray without ceasing. Look for opportunities to pray. If you hear a siren going down the street, stop and pray for those first responders and for those they are going to serve. If you're stuck on the interstate behind a line of cars due to a wreck ahead, pray for those persons involved.  You may not know the situation or what they need, but God does. If you see someone struggling to cross the street, don't honk at them to hurry up. Pray for them. When someone asks you to pray for them, actually do so. We may not pray three hours a day, but each of us can be in an attitude of prayer where we are looking for opportunities to pray.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Toxic people at church

In yesterday's post I addressed the problem of toxic people in our personal lives. Such people, as I pointed out, will prevent us from becoming the person God wants us to be and from achieving the purposes for which He created us. Also, if we are not careful, they will pull us down to their level and cause us to become toxic ourselves. The best way to overcome toxic people is to just ignore them. Walk away. Find new friends and develop relationships with healthier people.

But, what if you are a pastor or church leader and those toxic people are in your church? It's not always easy to walk away, and in most cases we shouldn't, but what can we do to protect ourselves from their toxicity?

First, and foremost, we must set boundaries in all our relationships and especially with the ones we have with toxic people. Dr. Henry Cloud wrote an exceptional book on this issue called Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Since many of us struggle with setting appropriate boundaries for different relationships in our lives, I often recommend this book as one that everyone needs to read.

One of the first things to remember about boundaries is that we really cannot set boundaries or limits on other people. We can only set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly. Those boundaries are not going to immediately cause them to act differently. They will just change the way we respond to their actions. In time, we hope setting appropriate boundaries will cause them to consider their actions and change, but the initial boundary is to protect us from their current misbehavior.

As church leaders we know that our churches are going to attract people with problems. That is as it should be. The church was never intended to be a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners, and we are all sinners. However, some check in with more problems than others, and some are more toxic than others. We have to protect ourselves from that toxicity or we will find ourselves soon unable to help anyone. Setting proper boundaries help provide that protection.

Pastors often struggle with setting boundaries. Most of us go into ministry as a result of sensing God's call on our lives. We want to help others, and if we set boundaries we can begin to feel as if we are failing them. By the way, some will accuse us of ignoring them or not wanting to help them if they run up against some of the boundaries we've set. Be prepared for that!

However, we are not failing them. We are helping them by allowing them to assume more responsibility for their lives. We are also helping ensure our own well-being by not being drawn into every mess in their lives. Healthy boundaries are beneficial for everyone. In fact, refusing to set boundaries really isn't helping those we think we are helping.

There's not space in this post to go into great detail about setting boundaries. If this is a need you have I highly recommend reading this book. It is an incredible resource for anyone who needs to have better boundaries in their lives.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Dealing with toxic people

Our community has a minimum security women's prison. Many of these prisoners are allowed to work outside in the community cleaning the roadsides, mowing grass, working at the animal shelter, and doing other work. Of course, they have a guard with them to ensure they don't walk off, but it's worked well for our city and I would imagine the women enjoy being able to leave the prison to do outside work.

I often pass these work details and wonder how these women became incarcerated. Specially, I wonder how many of these women got into trouble because they began to run with the wrong crowd? On a couple of occasions I've heard some of these women share their testimony, and this seems to be a common theme. They developed a relationship, often with a guy, that became toxic and they ended up committing a crime that landed them in prison.

Fortunately, most toxic relationships do not end in prison sentences, but they do have a negative impact on our lives. Toxic people cannot stand for anyone to enjoy any measure of success in their lives. Toxic people are often very sad individuals, and they want others to share in their sadness. They are very negative people, often perpetual victims in their own minds, who blames others for all their problems. They use people for their own purposes and think nothing of throwing them away when those purposes are finished. They always look for ways to pull others down to their level. They are often very needy individuals who look to others to validate their existence or to care for them. Toxic people are very skilled at hooking others with guilt. In the end, they will suck the very life out of other people if allowed to do so.

We all encounter toxic people in our lives. Sometimes a relationship doesn't become toxic at first but develops into one later. I recently ended a Facebook friendship with a couple of people. For much of that friendship we shared common interests and ideas with one another. After the recent election, their posts became very negative as they continually whined about how their candidate lost. I could understand their frustration for a few days after the election, but their negativity continued day after day. People were responding to their posts and the discussions were becoming more heated. Finally, I decided to pull the plug and end the relationship.

Of course, that's much easier to do on social media than in real life. On social media you can end the relationship with a couple of mouse clicks. It's messier in real life, but if you are in a relationship with a toxic person it needs to be done. A person will never get ahead if there are people holding you back.

We need people who encourage us in our lives, and we need to be such people for others. We need people who will cheer us on and believe in us. We need people who will love us unconditionally, and yet be willing to point out areas where we come up short.

In the few passages we read about Barnabas we find him being a source of encouragement. When Paul was converted and wanted to join the disciples in Jerusalem those disciples were fearful of him. Barnabas stood up for Paul and convinced the disciples they could trust him. Without that early trust Paul's later ministry may have looked much different.

At the same time, when Paul refused to let John Mark go on a second missionary journey Barnabas supported John Mark. He and Paul got into a heated discussion over the issue and eventually took John Mark on a missionary journey while Paul took Silas and went another direction. What an encouragement that must have been to John Mark, and yet we do not sense a breakdown in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas. They simply went in different directions, and later, towards the end of his life, Paul sent for John Mark as "he is useful to me for ministry."

In our personal lives we must avoid letting toxic relationships infect us. If we find ourselves in such a relationship, and it does not appear that it will become healthy, it's best to walk away. Life is too short to allow a steady stream of negativity to impact our lives. While walking away from such relationships is often not pleasant, it must be done if we want to be able to enjoy our own lives to the fullest and accomplish the things God wants to do in and through our lives.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Religious liberty and the media

As I was trying to write an article on the current state of religious liberty and the media I came across this one. It was much better than what I had written so I thought I would share it instead of mine. Click on the link to read the article.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fake news, spam and sermons

There is a lot of useless information out there. Fake news sites have been blamed by some, including President Obama, for the defeat of Hillary Clinton in our recent election. These sites publish fake stories and place them on social media where many of them quickly go viral. Because they confirm what people on both political sides want to be true, they share them with others, and these stories take on a life of their own. Many of these fake stories are spread through Facebook which has promised to clamp down on them.

It's a shame that many of these fake stories are spread by Christian people. In the recent election my Facebook was filled with such stories being shared by Christians on both side of the political spectrum. While some of these stories sounded plausible, many of them were so far out there that one would think no discerning person would spread them without confirming whether or not they were true. I'm concerned that some of these stories are written just to see if gullible Christians will believe them.

And then there is spam. Every day my computer is filled with spam emails. I've been able to block many of these on my computer, but because Apple doesn't care about spam these emails still make it to my I-Phone and I-Pad. Every evening I have to spend several minutes deleting all the spam messages on these two devices. I see many complaints on the Internet about Apple's refusal to correct this issue. Since they've not addressed it I can only assume they don't care about the inconvenience. It's about time to get a new phone so this will be one of my considerations when I start looking.

This post isn't really a rant about fake news sites and spam. It is meant to be a caution to those of us who speak to our congregations each week. People are inundated everyday with false and misleading information. When they come to church they need to hear a message that is filled with truth and hope. After listening to bad news all week from the various news channels they want to hear something positive, something that will inspire them and fill them with hope in something eternal.

Yes, sometimes we have to speak on difficult subjects. Sometimes we are going to step on toes, but even these messages do not have to be negative or delivered in a mean-spirited manner.

Several years ago I realized that my sermons had become rather negative in recent months. As I reviewed my sermons during that time I was convicted about my negativity. The next Sunday I apologized to the congregation for this and promised that I would be diligent in making sure that did not happen again. Even when I need to speak on difficult subjects I can do so in a positive way and not come across as beating up the people.

We also need to ensure that we use reliable resources as we prepare our messages. It's very easy in this time of social media to grab information from one of these fake news sites to use in an illustration. If we do that it will eventually undermine our credibility, and people will begin to question everything we say.

If God has entrusted you to preach to His people He has given you a tremendous privilege and an even greater responsibility. Those who teach are under greater judgment. This is not a call that should be taken lightly. Speak the truth in love. Do so with authority and only after careful study and much prayer.