The greatest failure is the failure to encourage

Encouraging one another and all the more, as you see the day approaching.”  .-Hebrews 10:25

“They have refreshed my spirit and yours.  Therefore, acknowledge such men” (I Corinthians 16:18).

My journal records a painful episode in the most difficult of my six pastorates.

Because of internal dissension that was directed at me and undermined all we were trying to do in that church, I had asked the deacon leadership to help me deal with the dissenters.  They met, talked it out, then tossed the ball back into my lap.

“We want you to visit in the homes of every deacon (all 24 of them!).  Find out what’s going on in their lives.  Ask them for their personal goals, their hopes and dreams.” Then, at some point I was to ask, “Have I ever failed you in any way?”  The idea was to give the disgruntled the opportunity to tell me to my face what they had against me.  Thereafter, the leadership felt, when anyone start stirring up trouble, it could be dealt with more easily.

So, even though it felt like I was being punished for the sins of the troublemakers, I made the visits, usually three a night.

Most of the deacons and their wives were nice people, even though they had stood by passively while a few did all in their power to destroy their church.  In the visits, not a one could think of any way I had let them down.  One deacon’s wife said she was in the hospital and I did not come to see her.  Another said I had not attended the senior recital of their daughter. I had no memory of either of these events, but asked for their forgiveness.

Not exactly major stuff.  Certainly nothing worth tearing up the church over.

During the eighth visit, however, my journal records a conversation with one of the deacons and his wife.  I told them that throughout all these visits, I was yet to hear the first word of encouragement.  Not one word of encouragement.  My journal says: “The deacon sat there staring, as though he had not heard a word I had said or was speaking some language unknown to him.”

The concept of encouraging a pastor was foreign to them. And please notice, not one person told how I had failed them in some serious way.  Not one.

Which makes you wonder why they were so dead-set on interfering with the ministry God brought me there to do.  And if that mattered to them.

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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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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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I grieve for the Lord’s church. Here’s why…

“Is Ephraim my dear son?  Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him.  Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will certainly have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).

“How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not.  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:37-38).

Almost daily, I hear of churches firing their preachers, engaged in lawsuits, and struggling with inner conflict.  I know churches that were strong a generation ago but are fighting to survive now.

These are difficult days for churches, which makes these challenging days for church leaders.

Believers who are not grieving for the Lord’s church these days must not be paying attention.

Let us care for what is happening, and pray for the Lord’s people….

–I grieve for the trendy church which is drawing people in from the smaller surrounding congregations and bursting at the seams, but leaving the smaller ones to shrivel and die.  The huge church may convince its members that they are doing big things for the kingdom since they deal with such large numbers. Churches can be so self-centered. Pray your church will be loving toward other congregations. 

–I grieve for the church which is having mind-staggering growth but becomes secretive about what it does with the millions of dollars it takes in, protective about the pay it gives its leaders, and dismissive about the questionable personal lives of its leadership.  Churches can be carnal. Pray your church will be led by men and women of integrity. 

–I grieve for the smaller church which turns an envious eye toward the growing congregations in its community and, desiring to be like the others, dismisses its faithful pastor and worship leaders because “we have to stay current with modern trends.”  Churches can be wrong-headed. Pray your church will look to Jesus for affirmation and not at their neighbors. 

–I grieve for the church which keeps pastors no more than three or four years, then manufactures crises to justify sending them packing so they can bring in another who is destined to become a victim himself in due time.  Churches can be cruel. Pray your church will be Christlike. 

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My candidate for hypocrite of the year

“Evil people and imposters will become worse (in the last days), deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

Can we talk about imposters?

Specifically church-dropouts who say they love the Lord.

Nothing of what follows is intended to be mean-spirited. I will labor to make certain it doesn’t come across that way.

I’m not angry, just perturbed. I don’t want to banish anyone from heaven, from church, from “the island,” or even from this room.

I just want to say to certain ones, “C’mon, people. Get real.  You don’t mean that, so why do you keep saying it?”

I was in a group which was having a lively discussion about church leadership and whether divorced people–specifically someone with a whole cluster of divorces!–should be considered as deacon.

Most in the room were sweet-spirited, godly, well-informed scripturally and solid doctrinally.  But some were angry for reasons I doubt if even they know.  They want to banish all divorced people from anything.  But they are not the hypocrites I had in mind. It’s another group.

People like you are the reason I no longer go to church.

That’s what they say.

And they are my candidate for “hypocrites of the year.”

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What’s a pastor to do when church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times in my last pastorate, some years ago.

Consider that the church was still in recovery from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation handling an all-consuming debt.  Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during that fight, while others nursed hurts and anger from the same tragic event.  I’d not been around during that catastrophe, I’m happy to report, but the Father had sent me in to help the congregation pick up the pieces and return the congregation to health and usefulness.

It was hard.

I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd a divided congregation with toxic lay leadership.  So, I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflict and for everyone, myself included, to have time to heal.

Naïve, huh?  Probably so.

Daily I was being undermined by the angry, criticized by the hurting, ostracized by the pious, and scrutinized to the nth degree by leaders, self-appointed and otherwise.  When I tried to lead the church to take steps I considered normal and healthy, these also were thrown back in my face.

The journal records my efforts to bring in community leaders for a Sunday night forum during which the guest would speak and take questions.  Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.

I was stunned.  They don’t see the need? Aren’t they citizens who vote and who are affected by the actions of political leaders? Do they not care?  Where have these people been?

If it didn’t involve evangelism or preparation for the rapture, the leadership wanted no part of it.  Not that they were doing all that much about either.  These were merely points to check off in rating anyone invited to speak in their church.

Walt Handelsman was the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  I admired him greatly and was delighted when he gave me an autographed collection of his editorial cartoons.  When I asked if he would be available to visit our church some Sunday evening in the hour preceding worship, he quickly agreed.

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The pastor gets his comeuppance

Here’s the story as my friend told it to me.

Dave was pastoring a small church in a deep southern town while living in a city some miles away. Weekdays, Dave worked for the health department.

One day, his church leadership requested that Dave get ordained. He passed this on to his home church pastor in the city.

The pastor said, “Dave, anyone in particular you want to preach your ordination?” Dave couldn’t think of anyone. “I’ll leave that to you,” he said.

The night of the big event, Dave entered the church sanctuary and spotted a colleague from the health department. As they exchanged greetings, the friend said, “Uh, Dave. Have you seen who’s preaching your service tonight?” He hadn’t.

As soon as he laid eyes on the featured preacher, Dave stood there in shock.

That preacher was a retired pastor who lived in the city. Only a few weeks before, Dave had served him with official papers demanding that he take care of some health issues on his property or face legal action. The preacher had defiantly cursed David out, creating quite a spectacle.

“He did take the remedial action we demanded, however,” Dave says.

But even so.

The preacher who cursed David out is now about to preach his ordination service.

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What to tell a new staff member joining your church team

Let’s say you’re the pastor of a growing church.  The church has just brought in a new minister to assist you in leading the congregation.  He/she might be a worship pastor, minister of music, student minister, or in charge of education or pastoral care. Or a hundred other areas. (They keep finding new titles and creative assignments for staffers!)

One of the best things a pastor can do with the incoming minister is to make them aware of your expectations.  You will want to think them through and write them out, then share them after you both have agreed that God is leading him/her to your church.  Give the person the printed copy and don’t lose your own.  This will be important if the time comes when you have to deal with a difficult or uncooperative staff member.

I suggest you share these graciously, not dictatorially as though you are going to be looking over their shoulder all the time.

You might even follow this by asking for their expectations concerning you.  I guarantee you they have them.  They will expect you to deal with them as ministers of the gospel, to give them room to do their job, to pay them well and protect them on their off days, and to support them when the criticism is unfair.  If the new staffer expects something which was neither spoken nor implied, you need to know that before you get too deeply into the employment process.

What follows are things I shared with our staff members in six churches over forty-two years.  Some of them evolved, while some of them were there from the first.  The list is not complete, but only things I recall at the moment…

You are a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I promise to always treat you that way, and not as a “hired hand.”  I will go out of my way to magnify your ministry from the pulpit.

–But you must conduct yourself as a God-called minister of the Lord Jesus.  You will have no private life in which you may do as you please without it being a reflection on the Lord or the church. (I once knew a church pianist who moonlighted in a bar.  She insisted her private time was of no concern to the church.)

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Someone is rocking the boat? Good.

The deacon made no attempt to hide his disgust with his preacher.  As far as he was concerned, preachers were the hired servants of the church. And, as a head deacon, that put him in charge.

“Preacher, I have some new rules for you.”

“You have rules for me?”

“From now on,” said the old man, “you will keep a written account of every copy you make on the copier.  And you will keep a notation on every phone call you make.”

And that was not all.

“Furthermore, you are not to make any personal calls from the church office.  If you have a personal call to make, you will go to your house and make it.”

Pastor: “What if I need to call my wife when she is at home?”

“Then, you will get in your car and go there and talk to her. But you will not call her from the church phone.”

This conversation actually happened, just this way.

The pastor said, “I’m sorry, sir. This is not going to happen.  I will use this church phone in any Christ-honoring way I see fit. And I will not be keeping a record of every call or every copy made on the copy machine.”

“Now,” said the pastor, “is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

There wasn’t.

The old fellow left, one unhappy camper.

The pastor survived and serves that church to this day (i.e., to the day I wrote this).  That deacon, however, after fuming for a year or more, was suddenly summoned home to meet the Lord of the Church (see Matthew 16:18) and give account of his stewardship.

There’s no record of how that visit went.

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Five facts about pastors many church members are unclear on

“Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

In my experience, most pastors hesitate to teach the biblical understanding of the role of pastors because doing so might sound self-serving, as though they were trying to carve out a bigger role for themselves.  This is a serious error for which we are now paying as many congregations are turning the minister into a hired hand, employing him as an errand boy, or treating him as an executive brought in to lead their “country club.”

Pastor, preach the whole Word of God.  Be bold in declaring its truth.  Then, having done this, go forth and set new standards for humbly serving the congregation.  Let them see you leading by serving and no one will ever mind calling you their pastor and following you.  However, lord it over them and dominate the decisions and no one who knows his Bible will want to follow you.

What follows is the truth on the role of pastors as taught in Scripture. It’s not everything the Bible says, for this is but one simple article.  However, it cuts to the heart of the issues….

1) Pastors are called by God; they do not volunteer.

…He will send forth laborers into His harvest (Matthew 9:38).

Rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things you have seen and the things which I will yet reveal to you (Acts 26:16).

The Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ (Acts 13:2).

Volunteers in the pastoral ministry do not usually last.  Those choosing this as a “nice career” or respectable vocation will either bail out for something more reasonable, more profitable, or more doable, or they will twist the pastoral ministry into something more suited to their taste.

The work is impossible.  The demands are incessant.  The expectations are unending.

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