Host Pastor, do not tell me about your church

After decades of ministry, I’m abandoning a longtime practice.

In the past, when a pastor invited me to guest preach for some occasion, I would say, “Now, tell me about your church.What’s going on. Anything and everything you think I ought to know.”  If they had a weekly mailout, I wanted to receive it.

The theory was that the more I knew of his situation, the better I could address the various needs.

Whether I did or not is arguable.

I’m changing for two reasons. One, knowing about the church does not seem to have made that much difference. Honestly, I cannot recall a time when a pastor said, “Those messages were exactly what we needed.”

Two, the times when I knew nothing about the church, it appears the Holy Spirit addressed the needs of that congregation far better than I could have planned or expected.

Continue reading

How to deliver bad news when you must

“O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem….” (Matthew 23:37)

I was 13 years old and riding the schoolbus home. During the nearly hour-long drive, I kept noticing a thin trail of white smoke in the distance. At one point, someone stopped the bus and asked for my older brothers to go with them. Since older brothers seem always to have their own agenda, there was nothing unusual about that, I thought.

Finally, the bus reached our little county highway. The last stop before our place was the home of a cousin. As he stepped off the bus, his mother came out of the house and called, “Joe, y’all’s house burned down.”

That’s how my two sisters and younger brother and I found it out. They started crying. The bus let us off at our stop, but we still had a quarter-mile walk down the unpaved road, up the hill, and around the curve. As we entered the clearing, no one and nothing could have prepared us for the sight. Where our house had stood that morning was now a blackened cemetery, the ebony gravestones poking up, the white trail of smoke still rising. Family members stood around the perimeter, no one doing much of anything, just crying, hugging, and talking in low tones for some reason.

It felt like a wake.

Even though in the aftermath of that fire, our family reaped a hundred wonderful blessings, the day still looms in our collective memory as the death of a loved one.

How to give someone bad news is what this is about.

Continue reading

Why is it so hard for some pastors to turn loose?

Pastor, God called you into this work, did He? Then, do yourself a favor by keeping your eyes on Him. If you begin to fixate on the congregation for your identity and your purpose in life–if pastoring that church is your life–nothing good is going to come of it.

Sooner or later, you are going to have to walk away from the church you are presently serving. You may retire, be called to another church, get fired, or transition into another kind of ministry (denominational service, etc.).  In any case, you will be required to relinquish every aspect of that ministry: to move out of the office and take your name off the door, as well as give up every phase of leadership, every perk and benefit, and anything else that comes with your pastoral position.

It would be nice if you could go quietly.

Later today, some of us are meeting with a pastor–for the second time–to help his church find a resolution to a frustrating situation with a disarmingly simple remedy.  All the turmoil inside the congregation would disappear in a heartbeat if the pastor would recognize that, now that he is in his mid-seventies, he needs to retire.  The congregation wants him to–even those who love him–and he needs to do so.

Turning loose and walking away. Giving the church back to Jesus.

Continue reading

What we need are a few more bowl games

We only had 35 post-season college bowl games last year. That was far too few, don’t you think?

In the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, Jay Martel (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) identifies some additional bowl games which we should be supporting in the post-season season. (Let’s hear it for redundant redundancy!)

Jay wants us to know about The Zykonex Painkiller Orange Bowl pitting the Nebraska State Destroyers against the Massachusetts Polytechnic Blue Jays. The Destroyers exploit their 100-pound per player advantage with the kind of hard hitting which has resulted in a record-setting 3,047 yards of penalties last year. The Blue Jays have all signed organ donor cards.

Then, there is the Away-Pain Anesthetic Swabs Sugar Bowl game. This matches the Western Ohio Debilitators against the Biloxi University Human Traffickers. The game is made all the more special by the backstory of the Debilitators’ star linebacker Nick Jordanson. With his volunteer work, Nick is a wonderful role model to his colleagues and fans, particularly when you consider that only last year he was convicted of genocide and other war crimes at The Hague. Now, having turned his life around, he’s the most feared tackler on the team.

Continue reading

The young pastor’s dilemma: Should I perform this wedding?

This is a good place for a text that speaks to the issue.

There isn’t one.

I’m sorry. (Sorrier than I can tell you. Every preacher would love to have it spelled out in scriptural black and white that the minister can marry certain couples and should decline invitations to join in holy matrimony certain others.)

One of the first eye-openers to hit most beginning pastors is discovering that the Bible does not authorize the minister to marry anyone, much less whom and under what conditions.

I recall my surprise on finding that the Bible contains no wedding ceremonies. None, nada. It is not silent about marriage, but completely mute on weddings (well, other than the fact that Jesus catered the wine for one in Cana of Galilee, but as a card-totin’ Southern Baptist, I am not going there!).

Continue reading

My least favorite things in church

Let’s consider what follows as simply an honest admission, a confession-is-good-for-the-soul, that sort of thing.  Having highlighted our preferred events at church, it makes sense to give the dark side and say what we don’t like. So, for better or for worse, here goes…

I dislike church fights and arguments.

“Who does?” you say. Apparently, there are people who thrive on them. I’m not a member of that fraternity.

The church fights I have experienced are some of the most painful memories of my half-century of ministry. How do I hate thee, O church fights? Let me count the ways….

–That church business meeting on whether to cancel the Sunday night radio broadcast to save a few dollars, I was merely a spectator, but it was painful to see. The pastor and one group wanted to keep the program as it was drawing people to church; the finance committee and their group insisted the church could not afford it.

–One fight focused on “opening the doors of the church” to members of minority races.  I still grieve at the ugliness some good people demonstrated.

Continue reading

My favorite things in church

My favorite place in church is the altar area. Sometimes, when I was pastoring, in the middle of a weekday, I would slip in and kneel there and spend time with the Lord. These days, whether I’m guest-preaching or in our home church in Kenner, I love to kneel at the altar and pray, and I often encourage others to do so.

The question arises as to “Why? What makes that place special?” After all, even though we call it the “altar,” it isn’t, not in the Old Testament sense or even the New Testament sense. Calvary is the ultimate altar for believers. The only answer I can find is: “I don’t know. I just know I need it and love it.”

What I do not understand is believers who never come to the altar and pray. It seems that only the most spiritually sensitive do, and I sure want to be among that number.

I love, love, love those times in church when for reasons unknown the congregational singing comes together like never before and everyone is singing at the top of their voices, the hymns are circulating around the room, bouncing off the ceiling and coming back to fill us, and our souls are lifted. It feels like we have touched the hem of the garment of our Lord, and makes us long for Heaven all that much more.

Continue reading

A few of my least favorite people.

Someone stop me. I can’t seem to help myself. (Each article in this little “favorite/least favorite” series I think will be the last. Then, another suggests itself to me and I’m gone.)

I don’t like bullies. Don’t like them on the playground, in the office, or particularly in the church. I’ve encountered them on the streets and highways, pushing their oversize pickup trucks up to my bumper intending to intimidate me into pulling over and giving them their natural right, the entire highway.

One such person breezed through a four-way-stop intersection on a bike in front of me. When I pulled alongside him a minute later, I called, “Sir, I almost hit you. Don’t you know bikers are supposed to obey traffic laws?” For that, I received a cursing out.

A bully in church throws his weight around, thinks his point of view should carry the day, and expects the pastor and staff to consult him before making any important decision. Such a person has a personality defect and is probably lost spiritually since a characteristic of the born-again has always been a childlike humility and teachableness.

Continue reading