Helpful preacher friends can be such a burden!

My journal tells of a revival in our church in 1992.  After the final service, my wife and I took the guest evangelist and singer to lunch.  And there they proceeded to unload.

My journal…

At lunch for one solid hour, they filled me with their suggestions for improving our work here.  Finally Margaret intervened and said, “You guys are overdoing it.” I was about to overdose on their helpfulness!

I don’t recall asking for their input.  And true, they presumed upon our relationship.  I’m confident they felt they were serving the Lord well by suggesting ways we could get this big church off the ground and into the air.  And because they have been in full-time itinerant ministry for decades and have seen it all, they have definite opinions and convictions on what works and what doesn’t.  And they are friends, although not with a lengthy history. Anyway…

My well-meaning friends had no clue the forces I was contending with inside the membership of the church.  But, they wanted to help me, so I listened.  And praise the Lord for a good wife.  She spoke up and told them that was enough already. Smiley-face goes here.

She was right.  There is such a thing as overdoing a good thing.

In retirement, I’m often in a different church every Sunday.  I preach in big ones and little ones, taking them as the invitations arrive.  And frequently after we’re finished, I do have thoughts on what the pastor can do here.

But unless I’m asked, I keep it to myself.

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Church staff rules to live by

I once asked some minister friends their advice and lessons learned concerning church staff relationships. What follows are some of the best of the responses. In no particular order.

1. Jim says, “Be very careful whom you trust completely.”

In over three decades of ministry, Jim says he has been brutally betrayed at least 3 times. It has made him wary about trusting anyone with anything confidential.

I’m recalling a time when the personnel committee and I were dealing with a sensitive issue, long since forgotten. I said, “Can I say something in here and it not go any further?” The chairman said, “Pastor, I wouldn’t say anything in here you do not want to get out.”

That was a courageous thing for him to do. As subtly as he knew how, the chairman was cautioning me about trusting some of the people in that room. In time, I learned he knew whereof he was speaking.

2. Andy says, “First, pastor the staff. Be their shepherd.”

Something inside us wants to protest, that, well, the staff are all ministers and they don’t need pastoring. They do. In fact, preacher, so do you.

I have heard that the typical ministerial staff wants the pastor to be their friend and the congregation’s pastor; the congregation, however, wants him to be their friend and the staff’s pastor.

My answer is: be both. I’m capable of pastoring friends.

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Pastor, leave the false humility behind

There is a genuine, much-needed humility. And there is the fake kind.

We’ve all seen it and some of us have done it.

The pastor strides to the pulpit, opens the Bible, reads his text, announces his subject, then begins with an apology. “I have no right to speak to you on this subject.” “Many of you know more about this subject than I do.” “I’m not sure why the Lord laid this on my heart, but I’m going to give it a try.”

The well-meaning pastor intends it as demonstrating transparency, leveling with his people, admitting what they already know–that he’s human and fallible. A fellow struggler. One of them.  However….

Many in the congregation are thinking, “Well, if you don’t know, preacher, we sure don’t. Get it over with and let’s go home.”

I rise today, pastors, to say to you that this kind of false humility has no place in the Kingdom of God. It most certainly has no place in the pulpit where God expects His servant to be bold and His people expect their pastor to be faithful.

Such self-deprecation cuts the ground out from under everything the minister is about to share. It diminishes the authority with which God intends him to proclaim His Word. He ties his own hands and weakens his effectiveness before he even begins.

Now, there is another side to this, of course, when the pastor acts as though he were the Lord God Himself and gives the impression that his word is the only one  that counts.

This is pride; the first is fear.

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The preaching we like; the preacher we prefer

Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Go, you seer, flee away to the land of Judah.  And there eat bread and there do your prophesying!  But no longer prophesy at Bethel, for it is a sanctuary of the king and a royal residence.” (Amos 7:12-13).

My journal from a number of years back has this:

Got a letter today from a sweet, humble (really), godly lady who criticized the preaching of our Thanksgiving guest preacher.  She said, ‘Notice what he did last Tuesday night.  He told of the 9 thankless lepers and suggested reasons why they did not give thanks. Many people left our church when he was here because of this kind of preaching.”

Our speaker had been the interim pastor before I arrived. For some 18 months he had ministered to our troubled congregation as they tried to recover from a devastating split.  He had been the essence of faithfulness.

She continued, “Our people want line upon line, precept upon precept.”

I wrote in the journal: “Why does this anger me? Because of the narrowness of what ‘our people’ want.  because it’s a mark of an immature congregation that they have to have sermons one way or not at all. Because it’s a subtle manipulation to make me into the kind of preacher they think they had before.”

There’s no indication in the journal what I replied to her.  I was in my first year in that pastorate and my guess is I said something sweet to her.  Something like, “Thank you for telling me that.  Please pray I will bring sermons that feed our people.”

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A text the legalist cannot handle

“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). 

Do everything you can to make sure your church does not put legalists in charge of anything. Doing so is a death sentence for all they touch.

The letter of the law killeth; the Spirit giveth life (2 Corinthians 3:6).

The legalist reduces our duties to God to a list of rules. Legalists delight in the Ten Commandments, of course, but since the New Testament does not codify all the tasks we must do in order to please God, they do it for Him.

How kind of them to help God out.  Someone said of a legalist, he knows God didn’t require this rule in the Bible, but He would have if He’d thought of it.

The legalist has God figured out.

To the legalist, everything God does has to do with our grades, our performances.  And for us to insist, “He has not dealt with me according to my sins nor rewarded me according to my iniquities” just does not compute.  Such a teaching does not work in his system.

This is the text–and grace is the doctrine–which the legalist cannot abide.

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Moderately important Christianity

Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.  –C. S. Lewis

How important is the Christian faith? Listen to the Lord Jesus in just two of hundreds of similar statements from Him:

–“I tell you, no. But unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5)

–“Unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).

The faith of the Lord Jesus Christ is a life or death proposition.

Of the 100,000 excellent things C. S. Lewis said in his writings, and of the hundreds of memorable quotations we pass along from this brilliant British brother, perhaps nothing is of more lasting significance or greater benefit than the way he sharpened the line between faith and unbelief, between weak allegiance to Jesus and the real thing.

“(People say) ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Mr. Lewis would be amazed and more than a little disgusted by the lukewarmness of modern Christianity.

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For you who would love to live in the “happy days” of the 1950s

In an article about change in worship we noted that some people in our churches seem to want to return to the 1950s.  One person responded to say she found absolutely nothing to like in the piece and said, “I’d love to live in the 1950s.”

Happy Days. Chevrolet convertibles with the huge fins.  Malt shops and sock hops.  Mayberry was America and America was Mayberry.  Ike was in the White House.  Elvis was in his ascendancy.  And Andy Griffith was sheriff.

What’s not to like, right?

I smile at that.

No one loves the 1950s more than those who never lived them.

My wife said, “In the 1950s, every time a plane went overhead I thought it might be carrying an atomic bomb to drop on us.”

Such was the attitude of fear pervading this land.

In the early 1950s, I recall walking home from church with my grandmother after one of those meetings in which the preacher scared the living whatever out of us, and hearing the planes overhead–hey, Birmingham had lots of planes!–and I was thinking the same thing as my  wife: “We’re goners.”

You want to return to that?

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What I have learned about how God works

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8).

“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

On the farm, after we killed the hog, someone had to make cracklings, known otherwise as “cooking the lard.”

A fire was built under a black iron pot into which cut-up portions of the less-desirable fatty hog meat was thrown.  As a worker stood by stirring, the contents boiled and bubbled and gradually released the lard, leaving behind a crisp rind (called the cracklin’), sometimes carrying a streak of lean.  The lard went into gallon containers for household cooking throughout the year. Cracklins became snack-foods for relaxing times, and can be bought commercially today.  They’re usually called “pork skins.”

Similarly, the messages I have preached over a half-century have been boiled down to their essence. (No greasy rinds left, however!)  Mostly, the result–that is, the gist of my preaching these days–ends up looking something like this….

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One more reason to pray for your pastor: Those frustrating times with members

Any pastor can tell you that even when you do your best to minister to His people, some church members are not going to let you.  If you didn’t do things their way, were not there when they called, did not jump at their bark, you are a failure and they will never forgive you.

Such people are the exceptions, I hasten to say to those who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of members to focus on the 2 percent who drive us batty.  Our answer–

–It’s the 2 percent of drivers who are the crazies on the highways and ruin the experience for everyone else.

–It’s the 2 percent of society who require us to maintain a standing police force to enforce laws.

–Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent is deadly.

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A great illustration of the importance of a good church

Robert Caro had a problem.

He was researching and writing an in-depth biography of Robert Moses, the highly acclaimed “master builder” of New York City, who lived 1888 to 1981.  Originally, Caro thought the book might take a year.

He was wrong. Bad wrong.

After a couple of years working on the book, his income ran out and he had to find a way to support his family.   They sold the house.

After a couple of years, that money ran out.

He kept working.

In time, he was embarrassed when friends would say, “What are you working on?” and he would tell them he was still on the same book.  “How long have you been working on that book?”  He would mutter, “Five years.”

Five years.  Caro felt like a failure.

The original publisher, the one that had advanced him $2,500 with the warning that no one would want to read a book on Robert Moses, finally cut him loose.  He signed on with another agent, a good one, and in time ended up with a 1300 page book that won the Pulitzer.

A 1300 page book.  It won the Pulitzer.  Don’t miss that.

But long before that, while Caro was in the throes of writing and researching and feeling alone…

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