Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Favorite books for the first half of 2020

With the shelter-in-place that's been in effect during much of 2020 I've spent a lot of time reading. This year I've done something I haven't done in the past. I've been reading a lot of fiction. More specifically, I've been reading books from the Star Wars story. Yes, I enjoy Star Wars so I decided to read  some of the books rather than just watching the movies over and over again. What I didn't realize is that there are over 350 of them including young adult, ebooks, etc., and the list keeps growing. I doubt I'll get them all read!

However, I've also been reading non-fiction and thought since we are beginning the second half of the year I would share some of my favorite reads so far this year.

By far, my favorite read (based on the amount of highlighting and margin notes) is Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach by Kenneth Keathley, a theology professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. As the subtitle indicates, this book looks at theology from a Molinist perspective. I found it very interesting as the author looks at the differences between Calvinists, Arminians, and Molinists regarding salvation. He replaces the TULIP approach of Calvinism with a ROSES approach.

I also enjoyed reading Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger Olson, a professor of theology at George W. Truett Seminary. This was probably the most helpful book for understanding Arminian theology that I have found. Olson is very kind to Calvinism but clearly addresses the myths many Calvinists believe about Arminianism.

No year goes by without me reading at least one book by John Maxwell. This year it was The Leader's Greatest Return: Attracting, Developing, and Multiplying Leaders. This book discusses the importance for leaders to develop other leaders. This is a book that is greatly needed in much of the church world today as we in ministry do not always do a great job of developing leaders in our churches. Of course, it is equally important that all organizations invest in leadership development. This was a good read.

Sometimes in our efforts to help others we actually do them harm. This is the thesis in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. They emphasize that good intentions are not enough. Churches have to find ways to provide assistance to those needing it without making them dependent upon that assistance. Every church with a ministry to the poor should read this book.

The final book I'll mention is It's Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies by Mary Eberstadt. Most Christian leaders understand that we are facing religious freedom challenges today that we've not seen before in America. The author points out how recent laws and court decisions as well as the attacks on many university campuses towards Christian viewpoints are serious threats to religious freedom. I found this book very enlightening.

I would recommend each of these books to any church leader.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Bivocational pastors must practice good self-care

People who know my story know that I was a bivocational pastor of a small, rural church for 20 years. They also know that a few years into that ministry I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Prior to that diagnosis I had spent four years attending a Bible college, working full-time in a factory, driving 100 miles each way to attend school, pastoring the church and being a husband and father. It's a wonder the depression didn't kick in sooner than it did!

Although the church allowed me two weeks vacation each year I never took but one. I never took a Sunday off and was very poor at delegating any ministry responsibilities to anyone else. I had always said I would rather burn out than rust out, but it wasn't until the depression hit that I realized how stupid that was. Either way you are out!

I was on medication and in counseling for a year before recovering from the depression. It was a difficult year, but it was also a learning opportunity. I learned that if I didn't take care of myself there would come a time when I couldn't care for anyone else. I learned that self-care wasn't selfishness. It was stewardship of a valuable resource...me. I learned how important it was to take time for myself and my family.

After the depression ended I requested three weeks vacation and a few years after that I asked for a fourth. The church never hesitated, and I took every one of them. I found some hobbies I enjoyed doing and began to set aside time for them. I no longer felt I had to attend every church meeting. If I began to feel stressed I sought to find the stressor and address it before it created problems.

Pastors are often better at caring for others than they are in caring for themselves. This is true of both bivocational and fully-funded pastors. Most of us enter the ministry to serve people, and we often do that without considering our own well-being. Many of us have no one to talk to about our issues, our struggles, our pain. Too often we don't even talk about it to our spouses because we don't want to burden them down with our problems.

What can pastors do to practice good self-care? I addressed this in my book The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. Let me share just a few things from that book.

Everyone needs someone to talk to. This includes pastors. Some pastors have fellow clergy with whom they can discuss some of their challenges. Others have regular appointments with therapists or pastoral counselors. I was contacted earlier this week by an individual asking if assigning chaplains to churches would be helpful. I assured him it would but suggested that in many cases it might be better to assign a chaplain to an association or a group of associations to ensure that pastors of smaller churches would have access to a chaplain. Whoever you use must be able to maintain confidentiality, they must believe in you, and they need to be able to offer spiritual direction when needed.

Secondly, pastors need to take time away from ministry. As a Resource Minister I encouraged every church I served to provide their pastor with four weeks vacation each year. That will cost them very little in actual financial cost, but it will greatly benefit their pastor and his or her family. Furthermore, I also advocated for every church to grant their pastor a three-month sabbatical every seven years. That was an even tougher sell than the four weeks vacation. As I explained to many church leaders, their pastor is on call 24/7/365. No one else in the church has that kind of expectation placed on them. Pastors need time away to stay fresh and healthy.

Of course, it does no good for the church to offer that time away from the church if the pastor doesn't take it. That was one of my problems, and I paid dearly for it. If you think the church won't survive if you're gone then you have a very poor opinion of God. When pastors told me they couldn't be away from the church too much I reminded them that cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Chances are your church existed for years before you came, and unless the Lord returns, it will continue to exist long after you're gone. Do yourself, your family and your church a favor and take time away.

Third, develop an interest outside of ministry. After recovering from my depression I bought a bass boat. My wife and I fished in bass tournaments and spent many enjoyable hours fishing in a nearby river and area lakes. After I sold my boat I bought a motorcycle, and we spent hours riding and enjoying the outdoors. One vacation we took an eight day ride to South Dakota and toured the Badlands and saw Mt. Rushmore and Sturgis. What a great vacation! Find something you will enjoy doing to get your mind off the pressures of ministry for a time.

Pastors, you are too important to the Kingdom of God to not take care of yourself. I don't ever want to go through depression again, and I can assure you that you don't either. When God called us into the ministry He also called us to be wise enough to realize that the ministry is not a sprint but a marathon. We need to be in it for the long haul, and that will only happen if we practice good self-care.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Older pastors

My Area Minister used to tell us pastors that we should be where we want to serve by the time we are 55 because it will be hard to move to another church when we get older. When I replaced him in that role I continued to tell pastors that because it is often true. Despite the problems many churches have in finding new pastors, many of them will not even consider calling an older minister to serve in that role.

While in Wal-Mart a few months ago a couple I know from one of the churches I served as Area Minister asked why I had not gone back into pastoral ministry after retiring as an AM. I jokingly responded that no one wants old ministers. The wife became very upset with my answer. She asked why churches do not tap into the experience older pastors can bring them. I couldn't answer her question and told them the 55 rule mentioned above.

In my judicatory role I worked with dozens of churches searching for pastoral leadership. They were all looking for someone young who could provide them with new ideas for ministry and who would be with them for years to come. I always tried to explain a couple of things to them. One, young pastors often enter the ministry knowing only what they were taught in seminary by professors who probably haven't changed their syllabus in years. Young pastors don't have the experience older pastors can bring to a church, and with that experience comes (usually!) wisdom. There is a lot older pastors can bring to a church that younger pastors cannot.

Please do not think I am anti-young pastors. I've met many younger pastors who are sharp and serving their churches well. I love talking to these individuals because they often have a passion for the ministry and are doing great things. I was just trying to help churches understand they should not discount a possible candidate just because of his or her birth year.

The second myth I addressed with these churches is their hope that a young pastor would be with them for many years. Depending on whose data you use, the average pastor tenure is less than four years. Actually, older pastors may stay longer just because they know their options for finding another church to serve is limited.

Is it possible that an older pastor may stay too long and become ineffective? Yes, there can come a time when an older pastor may not be able to offer needed ministry to a church. If that happens then a conversation may be necessary, but I've seen many pastors serving their churches well into their 70s who provide great ministry to those churches.

Many churches today, especially smaller and even mid-size churches, struggle to find good pastoral leadership. These churches might be wise to not automatically throw away the resumes of those older pastors who still want to serve. It might just be that God has been preparing that person his or her entire lifetime to serve your church now. It would be a shame to let that experience go to waste.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

What does your church plan to do the last half of 2020?

If 2020 was a computer I think most of us would want to do a reboot. What a mess, and it's not likely to get much better since it's an election year. My question in the title isn't an easy one to answer because no one knows what the rest of the year will hold, but it's still a question church leaders need to be asking. Let me answer it the way I think I would answer it if I was still the pastor of a church.

I would begin with the mindset that a lot of people are frightened. Between the pandemic, the rioting in the streets, the escalating violence, the businesses being closed forcing people out of work, the continued gridlock in the political world due to our electing children to office, and the news media breathlessly telling us each night how the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, people are frightened.

With this in mind I would want to bring the people messages of encouragement and hope. I would want to remind them that God is still God, and nothing going on in this world is going to change that. The church is in a very unique position right now because it is the only entity that can deliver a message of hope to the people. The media certainly isn't interested in bringing messages of hope. Neither is the political world. In fact, they have no hope to offer. The church does. I have preached many sermons from 1 Peter 1:3 which reads, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." This is not a dead hope, but a living hope that is ours because Jesus Christ rose from the dead!

In that same sermon I also remind them of the words found in Romans 15: 13, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Right now you probably know a lot of people who not only want hope in their lives but also joy and peace. Well...here it is. You should note that we are to overflow with this hope. Why do we need to overflow? So we can splash some of it on those we meet who do not share our hope. People need hope, and the church is the one place that can offer it to them through the person of Jesus Christ.

The second thing I would do is to share the gospel with as many people as possible. Yes, I'm talking about evangelism, something we talk about more than we actually do. When people are in crisis they are more open to hearing the gospel, and many people are in crisis right now. This window of opportunity may not be open very long. Our nation, our world, needs God, and the church is called to bring people to Him. Let's be about the work our Lord gave us.

The third thing I would do is call the church to prayer. Like evangelism, prayer is something many of us talk about more than we do. If there was ever a time the church needs to take 2 Chronicles 7: 14 seriously, it is now. We need prayer warriors who will seek  the face of God asking Him to heal our land.

The fourth thing I would do is to help our church understand the challenges the church is going to face in the coming decade and how to effectively minister to those challenges. I've actually written a book about that very topic that I'm trying to get published, but so far I've not found a publisher or an agent interested in it. I firmly believe that ministry in the next ten years will look much different than past ministry has been, and if we try to just keep doing what we've done in the past we will fail to impact our world.

Focusing on those four things would probably be enough for the next six months!

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Are we seeing the book of Revelation being fulfilled?

There are a lot of posts on social media claiming that the problems we are having in 2020 are God's warning that the book of Revelation is about to be fulfilled. I won't debate those making that claim because I can't say they are right or that they are wrong. Certainly, the world-wide pandemic, the chaos in the streets, the rejection of Christianity and God by so many, the wars and threats of wars are all spoken of in the Bible as events that will occur prior to God's judgement coming upon the world. However, we can also point to many other times in world history when such events were occurring, so I'm not prepared to say Armageddon is just around the corner or that the Rapture is about to occur. Too many have made such predictions in the past only to find that they, and their followers, were mistaken. I'm content to accept the words of Jesus when He said that this will occur at a time when we least expect it.

What I am prepared to say is that we are seeing the results of a world that has rejected God, His teachings and His Son, Jesus Christ. Our culture has denied the existence of God, the existence of absolute truth and morals, and the need for forgiveness and salvation. It has deemed the church to be irrelevant, made mockery of the moral teachings of Scripture and denied the sanctity of life. We have sown into the wind and reaped the whirlwind. As a result, our news media brings us nightly reports of violence, hatred, crimes and chaos masquerading as demands for freedom.

Freedom without morality is not freedom. It is not freedom if I can do as I please without considering the freedom of others. It is not freedom that permits one person to burn down the home or business of another. It is not freedom that allows those in authority to harm or even take the life of another without just cause nor is it freedom if one race or religion is permitted to mistreat those of another race or religion. Those who have created CHOP in Seattle built a fence and patrol it with guns, the very things these same people criticized the president for wanting to do with the border, but at the same time they denied those who have lived and worked in that area of the city their freedoms.

When we abandon the morality found in the Bible we sacrifice our freedom and our humanity. No African-American should fear the police, but neither should the police fear the public. Once again, there was violence in the larger cities in the nation this past weekend with numerous shootings and killings. No respect for life. No respect for our fellow human beings. Exactly the kind of conditions the Scripture tells us will exist in the latter days.

What can the church do in such times? We must be faithful to proclaim the Word of God inviting people to repent of their sins and to invite Christ into their lives. Furthermore, we must be faithful to hold fast to the teachings of Scripture. We cannot deny those teachings in order to appease the PC crowd or those who would stand against biblical truth and morality. We must be able to defend our faith to those who do not understand it or openly question it. We must be filled with the Holy Spirit and cover ourselves in prayer if we want to see the church come through this times of crisis. We must be willing to stand with those who are truly oppressed, and, at the same time, refuse to join with those who would seek to use this unsettled time for their own personal advantage.

In the midst of all the chaos that exists at this time it's important to remember that God is still on the throne. While the media breathlessly tells us of one crisis after another we must not forget that ultimately God's will shall be done.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Do you really want to see your church grow?

Several years ago I was working with a church on a vision discernment process. During that time I tried to explain how working towards a God-given vision could greatly benefit the church, but at the same time they need to think carefully about how that vision might impact the church. I gave them an example.

I asked this church of around 100 people if a worthy vision for the church was that they grow by 1% of their area population over the next 5 years. I was not suggesting this should be their goal but using this as an example. Because of where they were located they could easily draw from three surrounding counties. Based on the latest census report at the time that 1% would be about 450 people. I could see the smiles light up throughout the congregation.

I explained to the church that if I had suggested they should attempt to grow their church by an additional 450 people over the next five years that would probably sound impossible. However, by wording it as I did, 1% of their population over that time period, it didn't seem quite as daunting.

There were fewer smiles when I then explained some things they would need to consider if they attempted such a growth plan.

  • How would this growth impact their parking and building space? Would there be enough room for all those people or would additional seating and/or services have to be added?
  • Where would the teachers come from for the additional classes that would be needed? Many churches struggle to find enough teachers for their existing classes much less find more teachers for the new classes. One might say that new teachers would come from the new people, but that is only true if these are mature Christians coming from other churches, and the vision I was sharing was reaching out to unchurched individuals.
  • The same question would need to be asked about lay leaders and pastoral staff. Does the church have a lay leadership pipeline in place to be constantly training new leaders? When will you add pastoral staff? You can't wait until you have 450 new people in your church before you decide you might need more leadership and pastors, but when do you bring them in?
  • How will this impact the church's finances? Again, hypothetically, these are not mature tithing Christians coming into your church but persons who have not been taught biblical stewardship and who may be struggling financially anyway.
  • What impact with this new growth have on your children's and youth ministries? Surely, with this large of an increase there will be more youth and children in your church. Would you be prepared for that?
  • How will the church handle a shift in the balance in power between the long-time members and the new people? That may not come at first, but at some point there is going to be some tension between people wanting to see new ministries and those whose favorite response to change is "We've never done it that way before." I was in a church meeting one night when that power shift occurred, and it was not pretty.
These are enough questions. With a little effort you can come up with more for your specific church. As you can see, church growth entails more than just trying to bring more people into your church. The time to be asking these questions, and seeking solutions, is before that growth occurs. Otherwise, you may be seeing people going out the back door just as fast as they come in the front door. You need to be ready for them.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Healthy small churches

Yesterday I shared a comment from one of my books that has not sold as well as I expected. Today I want to highlight the book that has sold the most copies of any of them I've published. That book is The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues. Not only has the book sold well, it has allowed me to be invited to lead conferences and seminars for numerous denominational groups across the US and Canada.

Judicatory leaders have bought this book for every pastor in their region. A Lutheran church contacted me requesting 90 copies to give one to each family in their church, and then invited me to preach in their church one Sunday and conduct a workshop that afternoon. A Church of the Nazarene in Michigan bought copies for each family and used it as a mid-week study working through each of the 16 chapters. I later had the opportunity to preach in their church. I've had several pastors tell me their church has used the book to study the health of their congregation. I've been richly blessed knowing how this book has impacted so many churches.

Larry Mason, a former boss, once noted that the principles shared in that book were applicable to any size church, not just small churches. He's right, but I intentionally used smaller churches as examples simply because there has not been a lot of resources written especially for them. That is beginning to change as more people are recognizing the importance of smaller churches.

There is no exact definition of a smaller church. A church of 150 people in one denomination might qualify as a small church while in a different denomination that might be a fairly large church.

What I did in that book was to list several qualities I thought were critical to the health of a church. Some of those qualities included having sound theology, a fresh vision from God for the church, transformational worship, how acceptable the church is to change and its ability to handle conflict, the importance of spiritual leadership from their pastoral and lay leaders, a sense of community, financial health, being mission minded, and involved in outreach. Each of these areas, and others, had a separate chapter that explored what health looked like for that area. The final chapter offered review questions in each of the areas for a church to use to evaluate its health

Just as a person should have a physical each year to evaluate his or her health, I encourage churches to conduct an annual evaluation of its own health using these questions as diagnostic tools. You may find that your church is pretty healthy in some areas but not as healthy in others. You then know what you need to address so your church can be as healthy as possible.

We need every church to be healthy if we are to impact our world for the Kingdom of God. I encourage you to evaluate your church to determine how healthy it is and then determine to do whatever it takes to improve in those areas that might not be as healthy as they could be.