Monday, January 30, 2017

Be careful about what you are willing to lose

You may have noticed I didn't post any articles this past week. The reason was that I was fighting a low-grade fever and a cough that kept me weak and uninterested in doing anything. The good news is that the fever broke Saturday evening, and I'm feeling much better. After talking to folks who've had the same symptoms I can expect about 1-2 weeks more coughing. If nothing else, it's good exercise. My stomach muscles feel like I've done 1,000 crunches this week.

In between naps this past week I have been able to do some extra reading, and one of the books I'm working on is Taking Pascal's Wager: Faith, Evidence and the Abundant Life by Michael Rota.  Pascal's wager is essentially this: If a person believes that Christianity might be true then it is rational for a person to become a Christian because there is very much to gain by doing so and very little to lose. Rota spends much of the book pointing out the many arguments that point towards the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.

Not only does the author present his arguments, but he is very honest about the arguments that are in opposition to his view. He addressed each of those counter-evidences with great skill and honesty. This book is a rigorous read, but it is far more readable than many books of this nature. By this I mean that there is much here for the academic, but for those of us who are not (like myself) it is highly informative and helpful.

Scripture tells us to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that exists in us, and this book can help Christians do that. Rota presents his arguments clearly and in a way that will help any of us be better able to defend our faith. As regular readers of this blog know, I have been very interested in apologetics for a couple of years now, and this has been one of my favorite reads in that genre.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Does success bring happiness in ministry?

If success brought happiness then every time someone achieves a goal he or she should be happy. However, we know in the real world that is not always true. We may be happy about the momentary success, but it doesn't last. As soon as we come down from the temporary high our work and problems are staring us in the face. And, as Shawn Achor points out in his book, The Happiness Advantage, "With each victory, our goalposts of success keep getting pushed further and further out, so that happiness gets pushed over the horizon."

Achor has done extensive research on happiness and its impact on one's life and achievements. This research has shown that the common belief that success brings happiness is not true. In fact, the reverse is true. Happiness gives us the edge we need to achieve greater results in our endeavors. As Achor demonstrates, our brains are hardwired to perform best when they are filled with positive emotions such as happiness.

Not only do our emotions affect our own success, they also have an impact on those around us. Emotions leak. If we spend time around negative, unhappy people we are apt to find our own thinking to become negative and toxic. If we are the negative ones we are impacting those around us, co-workers, family, friends, with that same toxicity. Soon, our entire family or work force may begin to reflect our negativity in what they do spreading it even further.

Achor's studies have much to say to those of us in ministerial leadership. I've sat in on many pastor gatherings that were filled with frustration and anger with much of that negativity directed towards the congregations they were leading. I've visited worship services where the pastor lashed out at the congregation and then wondered why the church was declining and the ones who remained were not more involved in ministry. Speaking with one of the most committed Christians I've known after one such service, she told me this was a weekly occurrence, and after attending that church for years they were actively seeking another place to worship.

After 35 years in ministry I know how frustrating it can be. But, if we can't be excited about being called by God to serve a congregation I'm not sure what can excite us. If we can't feel hope for our congregation and see an exciting future for it, then there is no way anyone else will. Quite frankly, some pastors need to leave the ministry if they are unable to recapture the earlier excitement they felt when they began.

If you're miserable in the ministry I encourage you to read Achor's book. If he doesn't convince you that leaders must maintain a positive attitude if they want to influence those they are serving, then maybe it is time for you leave your church. They don't need their pastor spreading his or her toxicity around the congregation. But, if you read this book and become determined to recapture that earlier joy and excitement you once felt in the ministry you can enjoy a very rewarding ministry. Pray and ask God to help you once again find the happiness you once knew in ministry. That's a prayer He'll be glad to answer, and you'll be glad He did.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The church and mental illness

One topic that is often not addressed in many churches is mental illness. This past Sunday I preached on overcoming depression and shared my own battle with clinical depression in the 1980s. Following the service a number of people told me they had never heard a sermon on the subject before. Many thanked me for being so transparent as they shared their own stories with me.

Too many people in the church continue to treat depression as a lack of faith or believe it's a sin for a Christian to become depressed. It's neither a sign of weak faith nor a sin; it is an illness that can have a number of causes. Others criticize Christians for taking anti-depressants or other medicines for their mental or emotional struggles. I cannot understand why people who take medicine for high blood pressure would criticize someone for taking an anti-depressant. Nor can I understand someone who would go to a doctor if they had pneumonia but will criticize a person who sees a doctor to be treated for depression. Again, depression is an illness that is often effectively treated with the proper medicine and/or therapy.

In my message I shared that 2/3 of the people who battle depression never seek medical assistance. I'm sure that of that number who are Christians the reason might be the stigma some in the church still attach to depression. I can only say to those folks that they should not allow the ignorance of those who find fault in you seeking healing to keep you from that healing.

Because of my battle with depression I tend to be sensitive to the signs of depression in others. More than once I've encouraged a pastor to see his or her doctor to determine if they might be struggling with depression. One pastor in particular seemed to me to be deeply depressed. When I shared it with him and his wife, she had tears running down her cheeks. She was well aware he was struggling emotionally. He promised me he would see his doctor, but the last I heard he had still not done so.

My experience taught me a number of things. One, if you do not take care of yourself, you will find yourself unable to care for others. While I could function during my depression, I really wasn't the husband my wife deserved, the father my children needed, and the pastor my church needed. I also learned that self-care is not selfishness; it is stewardship of a valuable resource God has given you: You. He has given each of life and has a purpose for each of us. If we do not take proper care of ourselves we will be unable to live into that purpose.

Someone once said that if you preach as to hurting people you will never lack an audience. I'm convinced if you preach on depression and other mental illnesses you will find a hungry audience who needs to hear a word of hope for their situation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Looking into the future

As you know, I am currently serving as the Transitional Pastor of a church seeking new pastoral leadership. Yesterday, the Church Council had its annual retreat. In a beautiful setting we looked at the previous year's ministry of the church and began to look forward into the future. We looked at some of the challenges the church must address in the coming year and the many opportunities we will have as well. We identified some weak spots where we can do better and some ministries in our church that are exciting and making an impact in the lives of people. It was a very productive day.

This, coupled with the vision discernment process the church is working on, is preparing this church for an exciting future. It's always exciting when a church determines to live into God's vision for its future instead of sitting back and waiting to see what happens.

Hoping something good happens seldom produces the results we want. Intentionally working to make good things happen often does produce those results. This church is intentionally working to identify and live into God's plans for its future. I believe their new pastor, when they call one, will be walking into a wonderful place of ministry.

No one can predict the future. The only thing anyone can say with certainty is that it will continue to change rapidly. This does not mean that we cannot seek to discern God's vision for our ministry in that future and become very intentional about living into that vision. As a church begins to understand the values and bedrock beliefs that shape it and the gifts and passions of the people who make up the congregation, it is prepared to minister despite the changes that occur around us.

Many churches seeking a new pastor do not want to do this discernment. They want to wait until the have a new pastor who can "give them their vision for ministry." That is a huge mistake. There is too much danger of the pastor's vision being a poor match for the make-up of the church, and this can do nothing but lead to conflict. It's far better for the church to do the discernment work prior to calling a pastor, and then matching the person to the vision. I am so pleased this church is taking this second approach.

If your church is content to live in the "glory days" of the past, it is on the wrong side of its life cycle. We are called to minister in the present and to prepare for the future. We can't do that if we spend all our time looking in the rear view mirror. Invite God to begin to reveal His purpose for your church and develop plans to live out that purpose. Only by doing this will you have the impact on your community God desires.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Core Values

Last night the church I serve began a vision discernment process by looking at its core values. The church is seeking new pastoral leadership, and this is an important time for a church to revisit its vision. Any time I lead a church through this process I begin with core values because any vision the church discerns must be congruent with its core values.

In my book Intentional Ministry in a Not-So-Mega Church: Becoming a Missional Community I write, "The core values of a church determine its decisions. The behavior, the attitudes, and the decisions made by individuals and groups are always determined by their core values." If you've ever wondered why a church made a decision it made it is because it was operating out of its core values. Those things we value most are seen in our decisions.

The challenging thing in the exercise is that people want to write down what they think their core values should be or what they believe the community thinks about them. Every time I lead this I have to ask, "Is this truly a core value the church has today or is this something you believe the church should aspire to become?" Sometimes people admit that their response was a goal the church should have. It's critical that the church understands its current core values because God's vision is going to align with that core value.

While speaking with a pastor recently he complained that he was unable to get other churches to assist their church in a food ministry to the community. His small church was very active in ministering to people with needs in their inner city. He was trying to get suburban churches in his denomination to assist them and was constantly refused. I explained to him that his church and those churches were all operating out of their core values. One of the core values of his church was to assist people who need help. That was not a core value of the churches he was contacting. I suggested he contact other inner city churches in his community regardless of denomination because he might find out they share the same core value his church has.

As businesses, as families, as organizations, and as churches we will consistently operate out of the core values we own. Some of those core values will be negative and will lead to results we may not prefer. If we identify negative core values we can begin to correct them, but if we never examine our core values we won't likely know what they are. We will just keep functioning the way we've always done getting the same results we've always got.

Last night, as every time I lead this exercise in a church, our time generated a lot of discussion. This is not a topic a church normally talks about or even thinks about which makes these discussions very helpful and important. In some cases I've seen some of these discussions become rather heated as people disagreed on certain core values others identified. Fortunately, that did not happen last night! But, even when it does happen, it's still a good thing because it often identifies something the church has tried to sweep under the rug, and it has limited their ability to do ministry in a healthy way.

What are the core values of your church? Once you identify them you will better understand who your church is, what it stands for, the ministries you value most in your congregation, and where you are going. That's good information to have.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Exhaustion in the life of the minister

When a person writes a book he or she always believes that it is something that readers will find helpful, interesting, or entertaining. Otherwise, why write it?

I certainly believed that The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry would be one that many pastors would find helpful. As a pastor for 20 years and serving as a judicatory minister when I wrote the book I had known many pastors who struggled with the stresses often associated with ministry. I knew some who had allowed the pressures of ministry to cause them to become depressed or have physical illnesses often associated with stress. Some had dropped out of ministry because of the toll it was taking on them and/or their families.

Surprisingly, the book really hasn't sold very well. I would have loved to have had that book when I was in pastoral ministry. It might have helped me avoid a twelve-month battle with clinical depression. It certainly would have helped me better balance my life and ministry. But, for whatever reason, it hasn't found an audience.

Ministers have a difficult task. Most of us are expected to prepare and present one to three messages each week. In smaller churches we often have the primary responsibility to handle the administrative tasks of the church. Most of us are expected to attend the various leadership meetings that occur in our churches and provide input to each of them. In many churches the pastor is the primary person to visit members when they are in the hospital and guests when they visit the church. Funerals, weddings, and other events in people's lives will often include the pastor.

It's little wonder that our lives can get out of balance with the expectations placed upon ministers. Most ministers, including bivocational ministers, find that they are putting in a lot of hours trying to meet the various demands placed upon us. We often do not get proper rest, eat healthy, and spend enough time with family and on our own self-care.

We are called to serve a congregation that is made up of people who have a variety of needs in their lives that many expect the minister to help them solve. In addition, there are the new people who may begin to attend worship services and those who come to the church each month seeking financial assistance. Much of our time is spent around people with needs, some of them serious, and they expect us to be able to help them. Some get very angry if we are unable to do so, and we usually don't feel very good about it when we can't help as we would like.

Some of the people we serve can become very demanding and consume too much of our time if we allow it. I'm currently reading
The Power of the Other: The startling effect other people have on you, from the boardroom to the bedroom and beyond-and what to do about it by Dr. Henry Cloud. In the chapter on The Fuel for High Performance he cautions readers about properly managing their workload but goes on to remind us that "it's just as important to manage the energy sources around you. This is intensely interpersonal. People give energy, and they take it away. Know the difference and plan accordingly."

A workload that is out of balance will lead to exhaustion but so will spending too much time with "energy suckers." These are the people who do not respect boundaries and will try to monopolize your time. They are often people will serious needs who wants someone else to be responsible for addressing them. While we cannot ignore these folks nor their needs, we must also not allow them to control our lives. To be healthy we must spend time with others who are healthy who can energize and encourage us as we do the same for them.

The ministry pressures I discuss in my book are common to many of us in ministry. Each of them I have experienced in my own life or I've seen them at work in the lives of others. While these pressures often cannot be eliminated, they can be controlled and lessened so that your life and ministry is much more enjoyable and effective. Amazon has discounted this book from its original price so it might be a good time to buy a copy. I truly believe you will find it to be helpful to you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Bivocational churches in Mongolia

This past week I was working at my computer when I received a message from a pastor in Mongolia. He explained he was working on a DMin and his focus was on bivocational ministry. He told me that before 1991 there were no churches in Mongolia; there are now over 500 churches, 40% of which are led by bivocational ministers. He is a bivocational minister of one of those churches and is working on this degree to be better able to help his fellow bivocational pastors in Mongolia. He wanted to connect with me and ask if he could contact me in the future with any questions he might have as he works on this degree. Of course, I encouraged him to do so.

As I've shared before in this blog, about once or twice a year I am contacted by individuals working on a DMin project with a bivocational theme. A couple of those contacts have come from overseas, but never one like this most recent one. My first reaction was amazement that God can use an old farm boy from southeast Indiana to help a fellow pastor in Mongolia. My second reaction was to note how bivocational ministry is spreading throughout the world.

Tentmakers around the world are serving congregations as the Kingdom of God is spreading. Many of these men and women have little to no formal theological education or training. They are simply being obedient to God's call on their lives, and God is blessing their work. Others are sensing God's call to come alongside these servants of God to support and train them. Both tribes are increasing, and this is exciting!

I share this story to remind you of two things. One is that you are not alone in serving as a bivocational minister. I know how easy it is to feel isolated and wonder if God has really called you to this ministry. Like Elijah we can feel that we are all alone, but the reality is that God is raising up bivocational ministers all around the world to serve His churches.

The second thing I want to do is to encourage you to pray for our fellow bivocational ministers and the churches they serve. The individual who contacted me said the bivocational ministers in Mongolia need a lot of help. He did not go into any detail, and I do not know their situation, but we all need to be praying for one another. The Gospel is being preached, the Kingdom of God is advancing around the world. Let's join together and pray for one another that we might all be fruitful to the task to which God has called us.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Avoid divisions if you want to accomplish anything significant

In John 17 Jesus prayed for himself, for his disciples, and for all believers. One of the things he prayed for all believers was that "they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one." Jesus understood that if the church was to accomplish its mission it had to be united.

Divisions within the church will always cause the church to be ineffective. A divided church cannot enjoy any kind of meaningful ministry to its community because it is too focused on itself. Warring parties in a divided church are working hard to protect their turf and their private interests. They have little to no interest in anyone outside their little group.

A church without a unifying vision that the congregation owns will be a divided church. A church without such a vision will go nowhere and accomplish nothing. Even if they wanted to move forward, they wouldn't know where to go without a common vision. Some would want to go in one direction; others would want to go in a different direction, and there is where the division begins. Too often, both sides believe they are following the will of God so they are unwilling to compromise so the division leads to conflict.

BTW - the same is true of any organization. A family that cannot agree on finances will find itself in debt with no savings and in constant turmoil due to finances. A business that isn't certain what business it is in will struggle to find a loyal customer base. Soon they are trying to be all things to all people and end up seeing their competitors taking all their customers.

This week Congress returned to work and the childish behavior has already begun. The Republicans want one thing; the Democrats want something else, and both sides spin and lie trying to convince the American public they are fighting for them. It's no wonder that the approval rating for Congress remains in the low teens and that people are sick of both the Republican and Democrat parties. We have a divided, dysfunctional political system that cares only for its lobbyists and large donors, and as a result our nation is going down the tubes. I wrote before the election that few incumbents in Congress should be returned to office. Most were, and this first week back has proven that I was right. Maybe one day, if there is anything left of this country, voters will decide to vote for people who truly love this country and want the best for it more than they want to protect a political party that long ago became irrelevant.

Of course, this is true as well in the church. Until the church becomes more committed to the mission God gave it than it is to its controllers and unites around a common vision it will remain irrelevant to the Kingdom of God and to the community it has been called to serve.

Most of the things that divide the church today are minor compared to the task God has given us. It's time we determine what's really important and focus on those things and let the other things slide. Once we do, we'll find God's blessings again and begin to experience His blessings on our ministries.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

What gets measured and applauded is done again

Every organization has a culture, including churches. In healthy cultures people understand their roles, assume responsibility for fulfilling those roles, and are held accountable. These things do not happen in unhealthy cultures which is one of the reasons why they are unhealthy.

We've all been told that what we measure gets done, and this is true. An important aspect of setting goals is that the goals must be measurable. Otherwise, we won't know if we've accomplished the goal or not. It's also important to not wait until the end of the year to do the measuring. Regular times should be set aside to measure how much progress is being made on an individual goal. Failing to do that means that we reach the end of the year, find out we can't accomplish our goal, and there's no time to do anything about it.

While measurement is essential to achieving our roles, so is recognition. Too many leaders spend time looking for things that are wrong in their organizations. They want to fix problems to make their organization more effective. That's needed, but we must also spend time looking for the things people are doing right and recognizing that.

I've never met a person who did not like to be recognized for his or her accomplishments. Even the most humble of people want to know they are contributing to the success of the organization. While we should criticize in private, we need to recognize good things publicly.

Such recognition should be done in a timely manner as well. I know an individual who received an "Employee of the Month" award from her company. Unfortunately, she received the award five months after the date listed on the award. It might have meant a lot more to her if she had received it when she earned it.

Such public recognition is perhaps even more important in a church setting than in a business because we are working primarily with volunteers. They are giving their time to something which they believe is important, and they want to know their effort makes a difference.

When we measure what people are doing we are holding them accountable. We are also telling them that what they are doing matters. If it didn't matter we wouldn't measure it. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar used to challenged his audiences to become "Good Finders," people who went around looking for the positive and good in what people were doing. This is what we need to be doing in our churches and in all organizations. When we applaud people for the good things they are doing, they are likely to repeat that behavior, and that will make every organization stronger.

The ethics of leaving

One of the challenges for ministers when we leave a church is to actually leave. Too many of us want to return to conduct weddings and funerals. It's even more difficult when the minister resides in the same community as the church he or she is located. I've known church members go to the former pastor in such situations to discuss things with which they disagree in the church. Unfortunately, I've also known pastors who would then interfere in the affairs of their former church. Of course, they did so with only the most noble of reasons!

The denomination in which I serve asks our ministers to sign an Ethics Statement. No minister is required to sign this statement, but many of us do. One of the items on the statement addresses the issue of how a pastor should relate to a church he or she has left. Unless the new pastor requests that we participate in an event we should stay away. I realize it's not easy, especially when it involves people with whom we had a strong relationship, but it's the only way the new pastor actually will be able to become the pastor.

I was thinking about this recently when our current president stated that he would actively work to protect his legacy. The vast majority of former presidents have stepped out of the picture when the president-elect was sworn in to give him space to form his presidency. 43 remained virtually invisible after leaving office even when his legacy was under constant attack by President Obama and his advisers. He was merely following the example of those who had preceded him.

Some pastors give the same reason for remaining involved in the church they've left. They feel that their legacy is so impressive or so important that they have to protect it even if it means interfering with their successor. Frankly, in my opinion, a true legacy should not need protecting. It should be so important to the organization that it will stand on its own until it is no longer relevant.

I agree that it can be hard to watch things we've built begin to fall apart when we leave. I had to watch that happen in a church in which I served for 20 years, and it's not easy to not step in and try to protect the work you've done for all those years. However, this is the ethical thing to do regardless of whether the person is a pastor or the president.

To be called to another church and try to interfere with the previous church is a sign of either arrogance, immaturity, or both. It's also a sign that we can not trust God to do what is best and therefore we have to help Him out.

When you leave a church, leave. It's OK to remain friends with people in your former church as long as you set strict boundaries that ensures you will not interfere in the life of that church. It's OK to return to help in a wedding or a funeral IF the new pastor personally calls and asks you to participate. It's certainly fine to keep your former churches in your prayers, and it's very important to praise your successor whenever you have the opportunity.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The irrelevant church

Last Friday I mentioned I was re-reading The Intentional Church: Moving From Church Success to Community Transformation by Randy Pope. He shared an example of what happens when a church becomes irrelevant to its culture. He writes

"Imagine with me that the most progressively and contemporary church you know was miraculously and entirely transplanted to Mongolia. Assume the people were supernaturally given the language of the Mongolian people, yet the music, programs, dress, and customs of the congregation remained unchanged. What would we expect to find fifty years later? We would probably find a tiny remnant group waiting to die off. We see the same condition in many churches in America today - churches that are out of touch with their culture and totally ineffective as a mission. Even their role as healthy, nurturing spiritual homes has been gradually replaced by a nostalgic repetition of old formulas that no longer affect the daily lives of the few who do attend." (Page 153)

I don't think it can be stated any better than that. We do not need to wonder why younger generations are ignoring the church today as so many do. We should not be surprised that many of our churches are growing older and smaller and that a significant number of them close their doors every week. Rip van Winkle could have walked out of many of our churches, fallen asleep, and woke up 20 years later to return to the church and find everything was the same as before.

In 1981 I began a 20 year pastorate in a small church in the community in which I live. From 2001 until 2015 I served in a judicatory role from which I retired. About three months ago I began serving as the Transitional Pastor of another church in the same community as my previous pastorate. Although it is the same community, the ministry needs are much different now than when I left the pastorate 15 years ago.

Churches are not called to minister in ways with which they are familiar or in ways they may prefer. The church is challenged to understand the culture of the community it is serving and develop ministries that address the needs of that culture. To do less is to become irrelevant to that culture. Too many churches are trying to answer questions no one is asking today and ignoring the real needs that exist around them.

It's time we stopped being satisfied with being a church and begin to see ourselves as mission stations placed in a culture that I sometimes refer to as a "rapidly emerging pagan culture." Most people today, even many within the church, do not share the same Christian values many of us were raised to believe. To assume they do is to, again, become irrelevant.

The Gospel is as relevant today as it was in the first century. The church is as needed today as it has ever been, but only if it is going to minister to people in a way that addresses real needs. The Great Commission remains binding upon the church, but it cannot fulfill that task if it is not speaking to people where they live.

Just as it is important to properly exegete the Scriptures, it is important to properly exegete our society if we wish to minister to it. Let's make 2017 the year we do that.