Strategy for pastoral success: Make a mistake, a big one

In his book, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg makes a confession. You get the impression that it was not easy in coming.

The church where I work videotapes most of the services, so I have hundreds of messages on tape. Only one of them gets shown repeatedly.

This video is a clip from the beginning of one of our services. A high school worship dance team had just brought the house down to get things started, and I was supposed to transition us into some high-energy worship by reading Psalm 150.

This was a last-second decision, so I had to read it cold, but with great passion: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!” The psalm consists of one command after another to praise, working its way through each instrument of the orchestra.

My voice is building in a steady crescendo; by the end of the psalm I practically shout the final line, only mispronouncing one word slightly:

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10 things the young or inexperienced speaker does not know–but needs to learn fast!

Let no man despise thy youth (or thy inexperience–Joe).   (I Timothy 4:12)

As one who has a great deal of respect for godly laymen and laywomen, I’m always glad when one rises in church to deliver a sermon or a testimony or a report. As a retiree and guest preacher, I get to see a good bit of this. And sometimes….

Sometimes I want to applaud them. “Good job. Well done.” (In fact, I often say it to them following the service.)

But at other times, I want to shake them. “Pay attention to what you are doing! You can do better than this!”

I say this fully aware that we all had to start out somewhere, sometime, someway, and no beginner came to the speaking craft full-grown. We crawl before we walk and walk before we run.

However, sometimes the lay speaker or preacher is mature in years and should know better and still will act like a novice.

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What a seminary education will not do. And what it might.

Consider this a love note to a few unemployed preachers.

I have all this education and training.  Why won’t churches call me as pastor?”

He was angry at God, at all churches, and at the system.  He sported a college degree and two diplomas from seminary, the last entitling him to call himself “Doctor.”

And yet he was unemployed.

His resume’ shows two years each at several churches.  Not a good record.

“The old churches are blackballing me,” he said. “I’m thinking of suing them.”

At one point he said, “I’m giving up on the organized church.”

Now, a casual observer may think I’m betraying a confidence here.  I might be, except for one overriding thing:  I’ve heard this same complaint, in one form or other, at least a half-dozen times over the years.

There’s a lot of this going around.

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The biggest failure of most pastors

The four-year-old who says, “I can do it by myself” has a lot in common with the typical pastor.

Pastors are notorious for their lone ranger approach to ministry. It’s what I call the number one failure of 90 percent of pastors. They prefer to go it alone.

Even Jesus needed a buddy. “He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with me for one hour?’” (Matthew 26:40)

Sometimes it helps to have someone nearby, praying, loving, caring, even hurting with you.

The word paracletos from John 16:7 is translated “Comforter” and “Helper” in most Bible versions. The literal meaning is “one called alongside,” the usual idea being that the Holy Spirit is our Comforting Companion, a true Friend in need. And each time that word is found in the New Testament–John 14:16,20; 15:26; 16:7; and I John 2:1–it always refers to the Lord.

However, here’s something important.

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Signs the pastor is not interested in reaching people

(This is most unusual for me.  When I visit a church, I come to worship, not to sit in judgement, not to pick the sermon apart, not to criticize.  But this experience left me so cold, I came home and wrote the following.  Btw, this was not recent, in case I’ve been in your church in recent days.  Smiley-face here pls.)

I sat in your church and heard you preach. You did not know I was in the congregation because we never had the opportunity to meet.

Now, I was visiting in your part of the state, and the next day moved on to the next city where I’m ministering. So, had we met you would not have greeted a prospective member and probably would not have remembered it the next day. That’s fine and I understand.

What concerns me is that I was with some friends who have moved to your city and was hoping they would make some kind of connection with your church. That did not happen.

Watching what you did and failed to do concerns me. One reason it has persisted in my thoughts is that I’m certain at various times in my six pastorates, I made the same mistakes as you.  I could wish someone had loved me enough to call my hand on it.

Now, since we do not know each other, I’m assuming you will not read this. So this is not for you exactly. Rather, we post it on this website in the hope that other pastors will look at their own Sunday ministries in view of the newcomer sitting in the pews.

Here is what you did.

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Church leader, you should be the kid brother

He who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves” (Luke 22:26).

Raise your hand if you’re the kid brother in a large family.

If so, you have been given an insight into this teaching of the Lord that most people miss altogether.

Now, in our family Mom and Dad had four sons and two daughters. I was the number three son, born between sisters Patricia and Carolyn. Ron was (still is) the eldest and Charlie was the youngest. (Charlie died in 2006 and Glenn in 2014.)

Growing up, since he was the eldest in our large household, Ron took the role of the assistant father. Whether Dad established that rule or not and whether the rest of us liked it or not, when Dad was not around, Ron called the shots. Once when we were small, some relative came to our house and gave each of us a nickel. By nightfall, Ron had all the nickels. He’d traded or cajoled or something to corner the market on McKeever nickels.

As the baby of the family, little Charlie caught the brunt of everything. He wore the hand-me-downs and had little say in family decisions.

I still smile at this exchange between Ron and Charlie when they were something like 15 and 6, respectively. Ron called out, “Charlie! Come here.” The little kid reluctantly came near.

“Charlie? You my buddy?” The child, wise to the ways of his big brother, said, “What you want me to do?” I recall laughing out loud at that. (I would have been 10 at the time and already appreciated a snappy comeback.)

Jesus said, “If you want to be greatest in the kingdom, be as the little brother.”

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To communicate well, give some forethought.

“Your words have helped the tottering to stand; you have strengthened feeble knees”  (Job 4:4). 

Speak clearly.  Enunciate. Use simple, active language.  Avoid wordiness. Never try to impress the audience with large, unfamiliar words.

Encourage people with your speech.  “She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26).

“Take with you words,” said the prophet to God’s people, “and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:2).

Words.  They matter so much.  You’re reading a compilation of them right now.  Ideally, I have so arranged them as to make sense and convey a message.

And yet….

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When a leader should submit. And when to insist.

We were sitting in the second pew to the far left.  I leaned over to my teenage grandson and whispered, “I remember when Brother Ken brought the drum set into the church. Some almost died. Now look.”

On the platform was the usual dozen or so musicians–pianist, keyboard, several guitars, two or three drummers, one violin, a couple of horns, and this time, for a special emphasis, a mandolin and banjo.  The music was amazing.

I found myself wondering,  “What if we had given in to the critics? What if Dr. Ken Gabrielse and I had feared the criticism and buckled?”

There are times when church leaders need to pay attention to the criticism, and times to ignore it.

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How the pastor can learn (and remember) people’s names

“The (shepherd) calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out” (John 10:3).

The evangelist had held a revival in my church one year earlier, just before I arrived as the new pastor, and it had gone well. Since we had known each other in seminary and the congregation had appreciated his ministry, I invited him to return a year later for a repeat engagement.

He walked in and began calling my people by their first names.

I was floored.

I said, “James, how many meetings have you been in since you were here last year?”  The answer was something like 36, as I recall.

I said, “How in the world can you remember the names of our members?”

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Lack of integrity in a pastor is a deal-breaker

I was the student minister in a fine church many years ago.  We had a wonderful ministry. The single negative about the entire experience was the pastor. You never knew what he would do next.

Case in point. One night in a church business meeting, the pastor announced that the property the church owned, including the former pastorium, was being offered for sale. At the time, my wife and I were living in that house! And now we learn they’re selling it. This was the first we had heard of it.

That night, my wife was angry because she thought I had known about it and not told her. But that was the way this pastor worked.

Staff members were nothing to him. Just pawns to be manipulated.

I sat there listening to longtime friend Will tell of that experience from some years back and thought once again that the number one trait a staff member is looking for in his/her new pastor–employer, supervisor, and hopefully  mentor–is integrity.

Without integrity, nothing matters.

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