How to frighten a pastor

Pastor, some of our members are concerned.

Speak those words and you now have the pastor’s undivided attention, believe me.

Say all you want about how the minister is God-called and God-protected and that sort of thing, but he would not be human if he did not want those he’s serving to be supportive and responsive. After all, since he’s sent to help them, he will appreciate any evidence he’s accomplishing his purpose.  Otherwise, he may feel he has either failed them or disappointed God. Or both.

Every pastor is vulnerable as a result.

What makes him more vulnerable to negative influences from others is that he has a family to feed and look after the same way you do if you work at the post office, drive a delivery truck, teach school, or extract teeth. The fact that he needs this job means he opens himself up to pressure from his constituents.

As a result, he reacts–at least emotionally–when he hears some of these lines that have been used on preachers since the beginning of the church.

Pastor, I know we ought to be reaching all these people and it’s good they’re being saved and baptized, but I miss our church the way it used to be.

The church I visited had 140 in two services. When the pastor arrived three or four years earlier, they had 40. In the previous three Sundays, he hasdbaptized 11 people. Before the benediction, the pastor called on me to step to the mic and share anything on my heart. I said, “My friends, I am thrilled at the growth your church is having. These are wonderful days in this church. But I need to caution you about something. The devil will not take this lying down. He will raise up people to criticize and oppose, and I would not be surprised if he does it from within the congregation.”

I said, “Sooner or later, you will hear someone say, ‘I wish our church was the way it used to be.’ When that happens, do not wait for the pastor to address it. That’s your job. You are to turn to them and say, ‘Are you out of your mind?!’”

They laughed, but I hope they got the point.

“I’m not being spiritually fed by your sermons.”

This is a common ruse that accomplishes two things: it puts the preacher down while leaving the impression the critic is super spiritual with a taste for the red meat of the Word. And may I say, such criticism is almost always off base.

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The disciplined life: So rare, so valuable

I’m confident you have heard the name Jimmy Doolittle.

Jimmy Doolittle flew those bi-planes in World War I for the United States, and then barn-stormed throughout the 1920’s, taking risks you would not believe. He led our country’s retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in early 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor. He played a major role in the Allied victory over the Axis, eventually becoming a General. His autobiography is titled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

Doolittle and his wife Joe (that’s how they spelled her name) had two sons, Jim and John, both of whom served in the Second World War.

The general wrote about his younger son:

John was in his plebe year at West Point and the upperclassmen were harassing him no end…. While the value of demeaning first-year cadets is debatable, I was sure “Peanut” could survive whatever they dreamed up. (p. 284)

Later, General Doolittle analyzes his own strengths and weaknesses and makes a fascinating observation:

(I) have finally come to realize what a good thing the plebe year at West Point is. The principle is that a man must learn to accept discipline before he can dish it out. I have never been properly disciplined. Would have gotten along better with my superiors if I had. (p. 339)

“I have never been properly disciplined.” What an admission. It takes a mature person to say that.

To put it another way, he had never learned to say no to himself. That is the essence of self-discipline.

He was not exaggerating. Doolittle was a man with a thousand strengths, but his few weaknesses kept creeping up and blindsiding him. Numerous times, even after he became a national hero, the officers in charge of his current assignment would ground him because of crazy stunts like buzzing airfields upside down and flying under bridges and endangering his passengers.

Prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), the actual place and time were the biggest secrets on the planet. Everyone was sworn to silence. Doolittle tells of a general who shot his mouth off in a bar, talking freely about the invasion, speculating on when and where, even though he personally had not been briefed.

General Eisenhower had no patience with such foolishness.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery

I’ve never done any funerals where the “honored guest” got up and walked out, or where the wrong person was discovered to be in the casket, or such foolishness as that. And for good reason.

Funerals are highly structured affairs, regulated by state law and overseen by a whole battery of employees and family members.

When we gather at the funeral home, the family has already been in conference with the mortician on how they want things done. The funeral directors stand nearby to make sure all goes according to plan. As a result, there is usually very little wiggle room there, space for the unexpected to occur.

And that’s not all bad.

I did this one funeral…

Where the man and his grandfather were buried together. The man was 34 and the grandfather was 64.  If the numbers don’t work for you, consider that the grandpa had died a full decade earlier but the family had not held a funeral. When the grandson was found in his freezer with an axe in his head–put there by his wife’s lesbian lover–the family wanted a joint funeral for both. The two women are serving life terms in the state penitentiary.

And the first time I held a funeral in one of New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries….

The day before the funeral, the daughter-in-law said, “Now, pastor, tomorrow when we bury Roy’s mother…”  Yes?  “My mother will also be in the casket with her.” I said, “Excuse me?”  She said, “We cremated my mother some ten years ago and we haven’t known what to do with the ashes. We found out that it’s legal, so just before the casket is sealed, we’re going to slip the urn inside it and put both their names on the marble slab.”

She got a little gleam in her eye and said, “Just think–my mother and my mother-in-law in the same casket.” I said, “Did they get along together in life?”  She said, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”

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10 things about church conflict, most of them good

“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Somewhere in the Psalms.

In a newspaper interview, Jeffrey Katzenberg spoke about movie-making lessons he learned from Walt Disney.

Walt believed that an animated movie was only as good as its villain. I never forgot that.

Villains make the story. Villains turn ordinary people into heroes.  Villains rivet our attention on the plot. Villains keep us fixated on the story until justice is served.

The greatest drama of the Twentieth Century was the Second World War. Think about its villains–Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, and yes, Joseph Stalin, too. Without that war and those villains, we would never have heard of heroes such as Generals Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, and Montgomery. That war made Winston Churchill arguably into England’s Man of the Century.

As a pastor, you have encountered your own set of villains. You’ve noticed that they fall into two camps. One is the devil himself and all his cohorts. The other are people who are supposed to be on your side but instead of helping the program, they seem to spend their days and nights scheming and searching for ways to bring it down.

Paul cautioned the elders of Ephesus to expect the same two groups of villains. After my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  And, from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).

No matter who the opposition is or where they originate, you will get on with your assignment and let the Lord sort out who among your membership are the wheat and who are the tares (cf., the parable of Matthew 13).  Whichever they are, as the leader (pastor, staffer, elected leader) of the church you want to deal with them from a position of faith and strength.

Here are ten statements concerning conflict (and villains) in the church about which you might need reminding….

1) Conflict is normal.

2) Conflict is mostly good.  When you want to build a muscle, you put stress on it.

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Have a conversation; change the world

Recently, my wife and I drove to Birmingham for lunch with my sisters and brother and their spouses.  Arriving a little early, we took a minor detour so I could show Bertha where I had lived in college.  The neighborhood is going downhill fast, and in fact, my college announced earlier this year they will cease to operate after graduation in a few days.

The boarding house where I lived for perhaps six months 1959-60, in the 1100 block of Graymont Avenue West, lies empty now, but I took a snapshot of the front porch.

I have a story about that front porch.

Three blocks down the street we shot a picture of the small apartment house where I lived the next three years. The neighborhood is in trouble now and you would not want to be stranded out here at night.  But back in the day, it was a safe place and I could walk up the hill to college and a mile to my girl-friend’s house without a thought about safety. I logged a lot of miles walking back and forth.

Back to the front porch.  Here’s what happened.

One Wednesday night I was sitting on the front stoop waiting for my ride to church.  Bill Dempsey was my Sunday School teacher and his wife Marguerite worked in the church office.  Great folks, and forever friends.

The six men who roomed with Mrs. Pope had had dinner and two or three were lounging on the front porch.  Joel Davis sat on the swing reading the newspaper.  Following his recent discharge from the Navy, Joel had moved to Birmingham for a job with Roadway Express. One of our residents had invited Joel to room with us.

From the swing, suddenly Joel looked up from his newspaper.  He said, “I just realized something. It’s Wednesday night . If I were back home in LaGrange, I’d be in prayer meeting!”

I said, “Come go with me. I’m waiting on my ride right now.”

He did.

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Five church members who are practicing atheists

We have said on this website that the problem with “preacher-eaters and trouble-makers” in the church is that they do not believe in God. I stand by that statement, although it requires a little clarification.

Theoretically, they do.

Those members who are determined to have their way regardless of the cost to the fellowship of the church, the unity of the congregation, the continuance of the pastor’s ministry, or the sacrifice of programs of the church are not without religious convictions.

They have even had religious experiences.

The problem is they are now living godless existences. Their work in the church is being conducted in the flesh and for their own purposes.

The shame of it is they are almost always unaware of these conditions. They have fallen into a shameless pattern of seeing nothing but what is in their own field of vision, of wanting only what they see as important, and advocating nothing but their own program. They are not knowingly mean-spirited people. They are self-deluded.

They are atheists in the strictest sense.

Whatever belief in God they possess is theoretical. God was in Christ, yes. He was in the past. And He will be in the future, they believe, when He takes them and others like them to Heaven.

As for the present, alas, they are on their own.

What, you ask, would lead me to say such outrageous things about some people who are members of good Christian churches and who frequently get elected to high positions of leadership in those churches?

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10 ways we know people are lost

The Son of Man has come to seek and save those who were lost (Luke 19:10).

Someone asked Daniel Boone if in all his wilderness travels he had ever been lost. “No,” he drawled, “but once I was bewildered for three whole days.”

Bewildered in a wilderness. Sounds like the place to do that.

The great difficulty in rescuing the lost–the assignment God’s children have been handed by the Lord Jesus–is compounded when the subjects do not realize their dire situation.

How would one go about convincing a lost person he was lost? And why do that in the first place?

Clearly, if one is on-board the damaged Titanic and while scurrying to get off the doomed vessel with as many survivors as possible, he runs into partying passengers without the slightest awareness of their situation, he needs to tell them. He will want to alarm them even, and convince them to take action to save themselves. Whether they will listen is another story.

If we know the hurricane is coming and this neighborhood is about to be destroyed, we will do all in our power to alert the residents.

The days of our lives are finite and this world is doomed. Someone needs to tell the passengers.

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How preachers can stay out of Boringland

“Then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25)

Holly, a 7-year-old in a church I pastored, turned to her mother in the middle of my sermon and said, “Mother, why does Doctor Joe think we need this information?”

Every preacher should have such a child listening to every sermon and giving such feedback.

What boring preaching does–without exception–is answer questions which no one is asking.

It may do more things than this–dead oratory violates a thousand sound principles–but put it down in huge letters, pastor: the sermon which is sedating your congregation is seen as completely irrelevant to them.

Whether it is or not is another matter.

My job as the pastor may mean making my audience see that this subject is one they should be dealing with and asking questions about.

On an airline flight, passengers ignore the instructions of the attendant as she talks about the use of the seat cushion as flotation device or how to inflate the life vests. If however, at 30,000 feet the pilot announces the loss of an engine and the attendant begins to give instructions, she will have the clear and undivided attention of her audience.

One reason for the pastor previewing the sermon with his spouse and/or children is that invariably one among them can be counted on to ask, “What is your point?”  “What is this about?”  Or, as Holly put it, “Why do we need to know this?”

In Scripture, we get the impression that Jesus’ best preaching was done on the spur of the moment as a result of questions.

–“Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) From this, we have the unforgettable story of the good Samaritan.

–“Why do you receive sinners and eat with them?” (Luke 15:1ff) This charge gave the Lord an audience for His parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost boy (Prodigal Son).

–“Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel? What will be the sign of your coming and of the end?” (Matthew 24:1ff.) As a result of these questions, we have lengthy explanations as to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Lord’s return.

–“Why do your disciples not fast?” (Matthew 9:14) This gave us the teachings of new-patches-on-old-garments and new-wine-in-old-wineskins.

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What I prayed in the night of my soul

Nothing jerks our prayers out of their “blessed generality” stage like a crisis. The most effective kind of crisis for that is for a close loved one to get in serious trouble–car wreck, cancer, emergency surgery.

But a close second is a personal crisis, the kind where someone is making life miserable for you and even getting out of bed in the morning and walking into one more day is taking all the strength you can muster. You either quit praying altogether, the worst possible choice, or your prayers lose their vain repetitions and meaningless phrases and get down to business.

A crisis can kick your prayer life into overdrive.

What follows is such a prayer of mine, written in the thick of church conflict. It was voiced sometime in the 1990’s, during the last of my six pastorates.  This was a troubled congregation in recovery from a devastating split that took place a year before I arrived.  The church was constantly beset with internal strife.

The prayer is about as specific as one would want a prayer to be. No more “bless him” and “help her.” It does not call names, however, and I’m glad to report is not as harsh as some of the Psalms where David is praying for the children of his enemies to not survive that day.

Here is the prayer, along with a few comments. I send it forth in the hope that some servant of the Lord in the fight of his life may find encouragement to hang tough and be faithful.

Father, what I’m praying for is that….

1) Everything I preach may come from thee. Lead me please regarding subjects, texts, stories, applications, and especially in the delivery.”

When people fight a pastor, invariably they attack his sermons. That happened to me at various times over a long ministry. In a sense, the critics are hitting us where we are most vulnerable, because few of us feel that our preaching is all it should be. They will find fault with the subjects you are preaching, the scriptures you use, the stories you tell, the way you say it, everything. And, if you are doing all these things well, they will criticize your neck-tie–or the lack of one.

The remedy is to turn their opposition into motivation to pray harder, study more diligently, and do everything you know in order to deliver the sharpest, most powerful sermons you’re capable of preaching.

2) “Father, may every position I take, every pronouncement I make, be from Thee. May I be silent until the right moment. May it be obvious to those who love you that my words are Thy words.”

The first request concerns sermons. The second concerns those off-the-cuff remarks made in casual conversations or during deacons’ meetings.  It was in those deacon sessions where those who opposed me fed off each other and gained encouragement to attack. At the same time, the “good guys” tended to be silent there. I have no explanation for that, other than outright cowardice. (Hey, let’s call it what it is. They were intimidated by the bullies.)

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Childlike humility in the pulpit: Such a rarity

“Except you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

What’s lacking in the great majority of religious experts–of all tribes, all beliefs, all everything!–is a childlike humility.

I’ve sat across from the salespeople hawking Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrine door to door and been amazed at the sheer gall and arrogance of these know-it-alls.

I’ve sat in the auditoriums and classrooms when prophecy teachers were spreading out their charts and telling far more than they could ever know, pronouncing their anathema upon anyone daring to believe otherwise and taking no prisoners in the process.

I’ve sat in massive conferences among thousands of my peers and heard ignorance spouted as truth but camouflaged with alliteration and pious phrases and encouraged and affirmed by thundering echoes of “amens” and “hallelujahs”.

–In every case, I longed to hear someone say, “We see through a glass darkly….”  (I Corinthians 13:12).

–To hear someone say, “I have not arrived. I press toward the mark….” (Philippians 3:12-13).

–To hear someone say, “We do not know how to pray as we should….” (Romans 8:26)

–To hear someone say, “That which I am doing, I do not understand.  I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Where is the childlike spirit we hear so much of in the Word?

1) I can hear someone say, “Well, we enter the kingdom by that spirit, but thereafter, as we learn and grow, we become teachers and instructors and gain confidence and are allowed to become more bombastic.”


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