The Preacher-Eater Makes His Case

A recent phone call from an embattled pastor reminded me of an important point about these strong church laymen who enjoy running the show and running a bluff on pastors: Preacher-eaters can be nice people much of the time.

A layman who gave me the biggest headaches in one church I pastored owned a lovely vacation home in the mountains. On several occasions, my family enjoyed the use of that home. The owner and his wife were the definition of gracious.

It was only when it came to my being the pastor (meaning the sermons I preached, the leadership I tried to exert) that we had conflicts.

The young pastor who called told how the church boss had died not long ago. I said, “The Lord saved you from many a headache.” He agreed, but noted that after the man’s death they saw how many good things he had done for the church, also.

So, it’s not all black and white. This is a complicated issue, and if I made it seem otherwise in my earlier article, an apology is in order.

Case in point.

After a large online ministers’ service picked up that article and forwarded to 100,000 of their subscribers, my mailbox was filled with notes from pastors. Almost all thanked me. Some were in the midst of battles with what we called Sons of Diotrephes (from III John), while other told tales of their struggles with the SODs.

But one man who identified himself as a “pastor-eater” wrote. That letter stood out from all the others.

I’ve not asked for his permission to quote from the letter, so will paraphrase it and print my response. He answered my response, and I’ll tell you what he said. He makes some good points. We’ll call him Doug.

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Humility: Getting It and Keeping It

I know precious little about humility. However I know one big thing: God wants it in His people.

Scripture is filled with teachings, examples, violations, commands, and encouragements regarding humility. Nothing cinches it for believers like knowing that even Jesus Christ was humble and became our example. Try these passages for starters: Matthew 11:29; John 13:14-15; Philippians 2:5-8.

Scripture tells believers to put on humility (Colossians 3:12), be clothed with humility (I Peter 5:5), and to walk with humility (Ephesians 4:1-2).

The Lord wants His children to be humble so badly that He has given us seven aids to accomplish this and to keep us that way.

1. Common sense.

Look around at the billions of people. You’re just one of them. Look above at the jillions of stars. You’re sitting on one small planet circling one humble star. They’ve been around for eons, while you have only a few more years of life here. If that doesn’t humble you, you’re not paying attention.

2. The Holy Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, humility…. (Galatians 5:22-23).

3. Our family.

I heard the wife of a well-known preacher say on television once–and probably shocking some in her audience–”I tell my husband, ‘Don’t start that big shot thing with me. I saw you in your shorts this morning.’”

The old adage says, “No man is a hero to his valet.” Likewise, to the Obama children, Barack is simply “Daddy.” To Billy Graham’s offsprings, he is “Daddy.” None tiptoe into his presence and genuflect.

4. Our friends.

Those who are your closest friends are not in awe of you. They will tell you your breath smells bad, you need to use a hankie, or that you have a stain on your clothing that you had not noticed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6).

5. Affliction, hardship.

You shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you…. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

6. Failure.

Scripture cites so many instances of this, it’s hard to know where to start. God let Israel fail to conquer the tiny city of Ai to humble them because of sin in their camp. He let Samson fail because of his headstrong ways. Same with Nebuchadnezzar. Time and again, God allowed foreign nations to conquer Israel and dominate them until they humbled themselves and cried out to Him.

A friend in the ministry told me that after his wife left him, thus ending his pastoral ministry that had made him a household name in his part of the world, God truly humbled him. I said, “My guess is you are doing far better work for the Lord now than before.” He said, “I was working for myself before. Now I work for Jesus.”

7. Criticism.

Nothing drove Moses to stay close to the Almighty like the constant carping of the Israelite people. Many pastors have had to stand in the pulpit and deliver God’s message to people who were looking for flaws and eager to pounce on any mistake he made. It’s an awful way to live, but God can use this in his life to build character and deepen his commitment to Christ.

As I write this, something just happened. A few days ago, an online pastors’ service picked up an article from my website and forwarded it (with my approval of course) to over 100,000 on their mailing list. Ever since, my mailbox has been clogged with comments and responses, almost entirely favorable. However, this morning a negative note came. A layman let me know he was the type of church member I was addressing and that I was entirely wrong. I answered him and should have moved forward. But since, I’ve gone back and reread his note and even printed it out. His criticism will linger with me far longer than the endorsements.

Okay, so we have all these influences converging on little old us to keep us mindful that we are puny, dependent, limited, weak, ignorant, and sinners.

A gospel song expresses it like this–

I thought number one would surely be me;

I thought I could be what I wanted to be.

I thought of myself as a mighty big man.

But I can’t even walk without You holding my hand.

Question: Why do we have to keep learning these lessons? Why does pride become such a dominant, malignant factor in our lives?

Answer: Because we live under a constant barrage of forces that neutralize humility. Here are 7 of them, these forces that work against humility.

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Overpromising: When Your Mouth Writes an NSF Check

Apparently President Obama is not denying it. According to my source, back in January of 2009 he said, “If this economy hasn’t rebounded in three years, I’m a one-term deal.”

Count on his opponents in the next election to make him wish he’d never uttered those words.

This week TIME magazine’s cover article on the U.S. Constitution says every president wants the debt ceiling raised, including President Obama. However, before he ran for the White House, Senator Obama resisted President Bush’s call for the debt ceiling to be raised and called it a “failure in leadership.”

Be careful whom you step on, on the way up, the old saying goes, because you’ll be meeting them on the way down. We might create a variation on that, and say: Be careful what you say about the presidency when you aspire to the office, because one day you might be its occupant.

We’ve all heard the expression that his mouth wrote a check he couldn’t cash. (There are variations, some cruder than we’ve stated it here.)

It’s about over-promising.

The young man trying to persuade the lovely young thing to be his bride promises he will go to church, hold a steady job, and be everything she ever wanted in a husband. She buys that line, meets him at the altar, and soon sits in the pastor’s office seeking counsel on how to get her now-husband to church.

The fellow vying for a sales jobs promises the sales manager, “Set a high goal for my territory, then watch my smoke. I’ll be your number one salesman within two years.”

The would-be coach tells the athletic director, “If we don’t win the conference within three years, you can fire me.”

The pastoral candidate tells the search committee, “God has gifted me with the ability to resurrect dying churches. I should have no trouble with your church.”

The prospective staffer tells the pastor who is considering employing him: “I have great leadership skills. I’ll double your youth group (or choir or Sunday School) within a year.”

File these under “Famous Last Words.”

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Sooner or Later, Someone Has to Sell the Product

I remember it like it was last week.

My older brother came home from a meeting all psyched up. He had attended a sales promotional meeting in the days before Amway, Avon, Shaklee, and a host of others had developed that layered-sales-technique into the world class system it became.

Ron must have been 25 years old, and his enthusiasm was understandable. The marketers told of a food supplement that would soon make vegetables and fruits and meats irrelevant. This would take the country by storm. To make sure they were not missing out on nutrients, everyone in America would be buying this product.

But that was not the big attraction.

By signing on early as a partner (or associate or who-knows-what-they-called it back then), you could enlist others who would work under you. You would make a percentage off all their sales. But even more remarkably, every time they lined up people to work under them, you raked in a percentage from their sales, too.

You could get rich in a hurry. (As, no doubt a lot of Amway and Avon partners eventually did. But alas, not all. But that’s another story.)

I recall Ron saying that Hollywood superstar Robert Cummings was a partner in this great undertaking. It had to be all right!

All you had to do was present the sales plan to your friends and family and start signing them up. Everyone was going to be rich beyond their wildest dreams.

There was one little hitch to the plan, as far as this 20-year-old skeptic could see: Sooner or later, someone had to sell the product to the consumer. Success would depend on meeting an actual customer and convincing him or her to purchase the supplement. Without that, it mattered little how many hundreds of underlings one lined up from which to skim off a portion of their earnings.

That early marketing blitz which Ron was so enthusiastic about came to nothing. Within a few weeks, it disappeared from the scene.

I’m tempted to tease my wonderful brother (who reads this blog) with something like: But Ron found another way to get rich quick; he became a preacher. The joke would be funny only to the two of us, however. Ron and I have preached for nearly 100 years altogether, but we’re both a long way away from wealthy. Which is as it should be.

Frequently over these years in the Lord’s work, I’ve seen pastors frustrated because their congregations do not respond to their pulpit pleadings to get into the community with the gospel.

I have an opinion as to why they’re not responding.

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Criticizing the Leader: It’s a Family Tradition

“We’re being silly, aren’t we, Grandpa?”

Abby was about 6 years old and if not the joy of my life, definitely one of them. We were enjoying the swing in her front yard where I tried to spend time practically every day with Abby and her twin Erin and their brother Grant.

She and I had been doing what little girls and their grandpas do best–laughing, making up goofy songs, telling stories.

“Yes, we are,” I said to her. “Why do we like to be so silly?”

She said, “It’s a family tradition.”

I fell on the grass I was laughing so hard at that. Out of the mouths of babes!

No pastor or other minister of church leader enjoys being the butt of criticism. No one likes personal attacks, no one is blessed by the murmuring of the masses that undercuts faith, saps energies, and douses enthusiasm.

No leader in any realm–political, academic, religious, commercial–feels affirmed and encouraged by the constant bickering of those he/she is supposed to be leading.

However.

It’s what people do. It’s a human trait. And in the church, pastors, it’s a family tradition.

To bear this out, I suggest you take a quick gander at the constant carping and harassment to which Moses was subject.

Scriptures tells of at least nine incidents where the Israelis tried Moses’ soul with their bellyaching.

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The Essence of Congregational Unity

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

It’s not just that we don’t want dissent in the church when we call for unity. It’s not that we hate division, although we do that.

Unity is far more than the nay-sayers being gagged or rebellion put down. The old joke goes, “You can tie two cats’ tails together and throw them over the clothesline and you’ll have union. But you will not have unity.”

Unity is a positive quality.

When the oaring team refers to perfect moments in their boat, they do not mean the time they won a race. A perfect moment is when they feel all eight oars in the water together, working in perfect harmony.

At such moments, we’re told, the boat seems to lift right out of the water. Oarsmen call this the moment of swing.

In an old Readers Digest article, Olympic oarsman John Biglow says what he likes most about that perfect moment is it allows one to trust the other rowers. A boat does not have “swing,” he says, unless everyone is exerting equal effort, and only because of that was there the possibility of true trust among oarsmen.

We can put it in the form of a formula:

Equal Effort + Synchronization + Lift = Trust.

Now, if we apply this to the body of Christ–a local congregation is usually a lot more than eight people, but regardless of the number–we will see what lessons of harmony and unity it yields.

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How To Tell When You’re Growing in Christ–and When You’re Not

Early coal miners carried canaries into the deep pits with them as indicators of the presence of methane gas. Being more sensitive to these deadly fumes than humans, the bird would die long before the gas posed a problem for the miners. If the bird was dead, they ran for their lives.

We could all use a few canaries in our spiritual lives, to warn us when we were on dangerous ground as well as assure us when we were doing well.

Lately, I’ve been dwelling in Colossians 3:1-17. In fact, last Sunday, on Father’s Day, I urged the men in the Winnsboro, Louisiana, congregation to live in this passage for the next thirty days. Those who will read it often and think about it regularly will gradually learn a great deal about themselves and what it means to live for Christ. In time, they will begin seeing patterns in this text.

One evidence that Scripture is God-breathed and Spirit-powered is the multi-layers it possesses and the multi-dimensions on which it functions. A sixth-grader will read this passage and find that fits his life perfectly, while his grandfather will see something entirely different but incredibly beneficial.

What this grandfather sees in this passage today will be, I predict, different from what will stand out a month from now when I leave it. And yet, both will be true.

Here are four harbingers–four canaries, so to speak–(or measurements, signs, indicators) that alert the child of God who is growing in Christ that he actually is growing in the Lord. And when we finish, we’ll turn it around and see how the opposite of these likewise serve as warnings.

Four things begin to be prominent in your life as you grow in Christ.

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Curing a Church Conflict Before It Starts

“Whew! Glad that’s over with!”

I’d just come out of a situation that had threatened to undo all the good we’d accomplished in five years of pastoral ministry in that church. At no time had I feared for my job, and I had not seriously anticipated anyone leaving the church. But still, the existence of division within the membership was a matter of great concern. It boded ill for new ministries we planned to do in the near future.

Something about conflict sucks all the air out of the room. It stifles creativity, dampens the joy, weakens the enthusiasm of your best workers, and absorbs all the energies of leaders trying to deal with it. Like the Arizona forest fires, once these infernos build up their own momentum, nothing seems to quench them. So, once you see the smoke rising, you rush to the conflagration and try to put it out before it spreads.

Now it was out. The problem was resolved.

The storm clouds had dissolved, the sun was out, the birds were singing. And the preacher–me–would live to serve another day.

No healthy-minded spiritual leader loves conflict. However, no God-called pastor with an ounce of faith runs from one, either.

The best way to deal with conflict is to head it off before it starts. And the best way to do that is to fortify your people in peaceful times on how to recognize a conflict-in-the-making and neutralize it.

Train them right and you’ll prevent most battles before they get a chance to take root.

Here is my blueprint for preparing your people to stop conflict in its tracks.

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The One Qualification for a Leader No One Mentioned to You

I remember it like it was last week.

It was the mid-1970s and we were living in Columbus, Mississippi, where I’d gone to pastor First Baptist Church. A seminary professor who had taught some of us (“us” being myself and several area pastors) was in town for a few days, bringing a series of Bible studies in a local church. On Monday morning, we had gathered in my church and were sitting around drinking coffee and visiting.

The professor told us that Dr. Landrum Leavell had just been announced as the new president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was currently pastoring First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas. I knew him slightly, having met him a couple of times when in the company of his son Lan, whom I taught in Sunday School in Jackson, Mississippi, when Lan was in college.

It seemed like a good choice to me.

The professor had his reservations.

One comment he made about Dr. Leavell lingers to this day: “I was in seminary with Landrum. We go a long way back. With that great shock of white hair and that imposing presence of his, the rest of us have to put twice as much content into our preaching to get half the hearing he receives.”

Catty? Unkind? Maybe. But we’ll cut him a little slack and say it was an off-the-cuff remark the way most of us sometimes talk with friends and assume we will not be quoted.

So, why do I recall that comment to this day? Because it completely misses the mark.

What the professor failed to realize is that Landrum Leavell had one more quality that went a long way to account for his popularity as a preacher and his desirability as a seminary president: He was so cotton-picking likeable.

I can see him smiling down from Heaven at that.

Dr. Leavell met you and learned your name and remembered you. If he believed in you–and for reasons known only to the Heavenly Father, he seems to have believed in me–then you had an advocate of serious dimensions and influence.

He loved people and they adored him. He was a straight shooter who would tell you what he thought, and you still liked him, even if you disagreed. It’s a rare quality to be highly desired.

Elsewhere on this website, we have posted something like 71 articles on the subject of leadership. I’ve not checked it lately, and have not perused the shelves of books on leadership from the guru himself, John Maxwell, but I’m going to venture that this is the one quality no one mentions as making a whale of a difference for those who go forth to lead: “likeability.”

Jesus had it, in spades.

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“I’m Not a Potted Plant!” (The heart cry of the handicapped among us)

During the 1980s, a government scandal that took place during the Reagan administration went by the name of Iran-Contra. As a Senate investigation committee looked into matters, Colonel Oliver North was called to testify. He’d been what’s called a “White House operative” during that period.

North sat at a table in the hearing room accompanied by his attorney, Brendan Sullivan, member of a high-powered Washington legal firm. During the questioning period, a senator would ask North something, he would turn and confer with Sullivan, then turn back to the microphone and answer. Another question would be asked, North would confer with Sullivan, then answer.

Once in a while, Attorney Sullivan would respond to a senator’s question that it was vague or out of line or mistaken. Finally, in exasperation, the chairman of the committee, Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, erupted, “Sir! We would like to get a straight answer from Colonel North without your interruptions. Could I just ask a simple question and get an answer without you butting in?”

Brendan Sullivan said, “Well, sir…I’m not a potted plant. I’m here as the lawyer. That’s my job.”

I was watching that hearing from my living room couch and recall thinking, “Zing! You got him there, Mister Attorney. Great answer.”

That day, “I’m not a potted plant” entered the vernacular in American life. Google it or type it into a wikipedia search and it comes up on that Senate hearing.

When we say someone is a potted plant, we mean they are a non-entity, a nobody, a zero, a cipher, someone who does not count for anything, who can be safely ignored.

There is such a man in the 18th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. We call him Blind Bartimaeus. His community treated him like a potted plant. But he receives my nomination as the “smartest man in Jericho.”

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