Help, I’m a pastor!

“In a multitude of counselors there is victory.” (Proverbs 11:14 and 24:6)

I said to Pastor Marion, “I’m glad to exchange notes with you like this. But you need a couple of mentors–older guys with long histories in the ministry–whom you can sit across the table from and talk about these things.”

He named two such, a seminary professor and a retired pastor.

Pastors often find themselves in tough situations.  At the moment, Pastor Marion is leading his church in a massive building campaign, while working night and day to minister to his growing flock.  In the five years he has been there, his church has doubled or more in attendance. And then, this happens….

A deacon who is used to getting his way in the church called a meeting of the key leadership. He was upset about some of what Marion has been preaching, he says. Furthermore–it will not surprise you if you have ever been the target of this kind of abuse–-“many others in the church feel the same way.”

He threatened that steps may be taken to remove the pastor from the pulpit.

What is a pastor to do?

I mentioned a few possibilities, but with the caveat that “these are just some thoughts.” No way do I want to take responsibility for whatever he decides.

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21 battle-tested truths I’ve learned about the Church

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (I Timothy 3:15). 

Church was always a part of our family’s life, starting with the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, continuing with the little Methodist Church in a mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia, four years later back to Nauvoo, then college chapel at Berry College near Rome, Georgia.  Then, at West End Baptist Church in Birmingham God did a dozen great things in my life forever changing my earthly and heavenly fate.  When I left West End, it was to pastor God’s churches.

The Southern Baptist Churches I was privileged to serve have been so faithful, so foolhardy, so daring, so wonderful–

–Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama. (1962-63) They were the first, bless ’em.

–Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama (first six months of 1964, then off to seminary in New Orleans)

–Paradis Baptist Church, Paradis, LA (1965-67 My seminary pastorate. We lived in the back of the building.)

–Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greenville, MS (1967-70)

–FBC Jackson, MS (minister of evangelism) (1971-73)

–FBC Columbus, MS (1974-86)

–FBC Charlotte, NC (1986-89)

–FBC Kenner, LA (1990-2004)

–And finally, as a member (once again) of the great FBC of Jackson, MS, where Bertha and I are members in retirement.

Here is what I have learned–my TWENTY-ONE battle-tested, tried-in-the-fire-and-found-to-be-authentic, strongly held convictions about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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When to walk out on a sermon

On the morning of Sunday 19 May, 1940, Clementine Churchill returned early from a church service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in central London, having walked out when the preacher delivered a pacifist sermon.  Winston told her, ‘You ought to have cried, ‘Shame!’, desecrating the House of God with lies!’”   (Darkest Hour, by Anthony McCarten, p. 154)

Easter Sunday, 1968. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, all of us–white and black alike–were hurting and confused, disturbed and concerned.  That Sunday I preached a sermon addressing racism in America. I was 28 years old and in the first year of pastoring Emmanuel Baptist Church of Greenville, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta, a section of our state with a long and sordid history of race relations.  I’ve long since forgotten the sermon but will never forget a phone call I received that afternoon.

Mrs. Glenn Powell called. (Yes, her first name was Glenn.) She owned a beauty shop which I had quickly learned was gossip central for our town.  Mrs. Powell had made no secret of her unhappiness with my sermons or with me personally.

“Brother McKeever, what will you be preaching tonight?”

I told her.

“The reason I asked,” she said, “is I guess you noticed I walked out on your sermon this morning.”  I had to admit that I had not noticed.  Margaret used to say you could dynamite the back of the building while I was preaching and I would not notice.

She went on. “We get enough of the bad news all week.  When we come to church, we expect some peace and quiet.”

I have no memory of how I responded to that strange statement.  But she stayed in the church and life went forward.

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If you would serve the Lord, expect obstacles

“A great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (I Corinthians 16:9). 

“We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance…” (Romans 5:3). 

This is a quiz.  Name the enemies George Washington faced in the Revolutionary War.

If you answered, “The British,” you’d be only partly right.

Washington did fight the British, as the thirteen colonies asserted their independence from the Mother Nation.  But Generals Howe, Cornwallis, and Clinton and their armies were only the most visible of the forces Washington had to contend with.

He had to fight the weather.  Think of Valley Forge and even without knowing the full story, your mind immediately conjures up images of a harsh winter with all the snow, ice, sleet, and freezing temperatures that includes.

Washington had to deal with starvation and deprivation.  No one knows how many thousands of his soldiers perished from the cold and starvation at Valley Forge and how many deserted in order to save their lives.  Many surrendered to the British at Philadelphia in the vain hope that the conquerors would feed and clothe them.

Washington had to deal with a Congress that was either ignorant, misinformed, or outright hostile to his situation. He wrote letter after letter detailing the misery of his army and pleading for help.  Finally, a delegation came from the national capital, temporarily at York, PA, to see for themselves, after which congress began to act.

Washington fought disorganization, a country that made impossible demands but gave minimal support, and criticism on every side.

Still with me?

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Blindsided by opposition: Welcome to the ministry, young pastor.

(In our experience, most of the Lord’s people are wonderful and most of His churches are filled with sincere and godly workers. But once in a while, pastors come upon sick churches led by difficult people who seem to delight in controlling their ministers. When they find themselves unable to do this, they attack. Pity the poor unsuspecting preacher and his family. What follows is written just for them.)

“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues….” (Matthew 10:17)

You and your wife–please adjust gender references herein as your situation demands–went into the ministry with heads high, hearts aglow, and eyes wide open, idealism firmly tucked under your arm, vision clear and focus solid.

As newly minted ambassadors for Christ, the two of you were ready to do battle with the world, eager to serve the saints, and glad to impart the joyful news of the gospel.

Ministry was going to be great and noble and even blessed.

That’s what you thought.

You expected the work to be hard, the hours long, and the needs great.

What you did not expect was to be blindsided by members of your own church leadership–to be slandered by people you counted on as friends when you took a courageous position, criticized for something you did well, even lied about.

You knew there would be vicious people “in the world,” outsiders who do not believe in God, who cannot discern spiritual things, and who refuse to subject themselves to moral absolutes.

You were ready for that.

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When resolving conflicts, try not to start new ones

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

There is no problem-solving section of the Bible.

Sorry if that disappoints you.

What we do find across the New Testament are large servings of healthy food of the spiritual kind, instructions on how to serve God and live well and relate to one another in the close confines of the forever family. Imbedded throughout are insights on resolving collisions between the Lord’s children.

Hold on.

Do you mean to say that from the beginning Jesus expected clashes and collisions within His family? That His disciples would be torn apart by jealousies and competitions and divisions?

Not only did He anticipate such conflicts, He observed them firsthand among the twelve. Here are a couple of instances…

–A disciple said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). How modern is that? Our denomination is best; the rest of you are failing God.

Jesus was tolerant of a lot of things, but not this kind of spiritual elitism.

–“And hearing (that the sons of Zebedee had tried to gain the advantage over the other apostles by asking for the best places in the Kingdom), the ten began to feel indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41). The genes of competitiveness have been among us from the beginning.  “We shall now give our ranking of the top ten churches in our denomination.” “My church is better than your church.” “We may not be the biggest church in town, but we’re the best.”

Sometimes people want to drop out of church altogether because every church they’ve found seems to have trouble of one kind or the other.  They cry out, “Where are the New Testament churches?”

Answer: They’re all around us, doing exactly what the churches of the First Century did–evangelize, preach, give, love, bicker, fight, and divide.

Welcome to the real world.

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Broken pastor, broken church

(This is our account of a difficult three years in our lives–‘ours’ referring to my wife Margaret and me–when we pastored a divided church in North Carolina. The article ran in the Winter 2001 issue of “Leadership Journal,” a publication of Christianity Today.  The explanatory notes at the end may be of interest to some.)

How could I lead a congregation that was as hurt as I was?

My calendar for the summer and beyond was blank. I usually planned my preaching schedule for a full year, but beyond the second Sunday in June–nothing. I had no ideas. I sensed no leading from the Spirit. But it was only January, so I decided to try again in a couple of months. Again, nothing. By then, I suspected the Lord was up to something.

A member of my church had told me the year before, “Don’t die in this town.” I knew what she meant. She didn’t envision Columbus as the peak of my ministry. Columbus was a county-seat town with three universities nearby, and, for Mississippi, cosmopolitan. I felt Columbus, First Baptist, and I were a good match. The church grew. We were comfortable together. My family was settled. Our sons and daughter had completed most of their schooling, and after twelve years, they called Columbus home. My wife, Margaret, and I had weathered a few squalls, but life was good–a little quiet, perhaps even stagnant, but good.

And suddenly I could hear the clock ticking. Did God have something more for me?

First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, called in March. I ended my ministry at Columbus the second Sunday of June and began in Charlotte one month later.

After I’d been in Charlotte about a month, the man who chaired their search committee phoned. “I have some people I want you to talk with,” he told me. He picked me up and drove me to the impressive home of one of our members. In the living room were a dozen men, all leaders in the church and in the city. Another man appeared in charge.

“We want to offer you some guidance in pastoring the church,” he said. “There are several issues we feel are important, and we want you to know where we stand.” He outlined their position on the battle between conservatives and moderates for control of our denomination and on the role of women in the church. He wanted women elected as deacons, one item in a full slate of changes he wanted made at the church.

Charlotte’s web

I was beginning to see what I had been told: a handful of very strong lay people had called the shots for more than two decades, and this was part of their plan.

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The day the church begins to die

My preacher friend lives in a brand-spanking new home provided by the ministry he heads. “They had to tear down the old one,” he told me. “Mildew was everywhere and after years of trying to cure it, they gave up.”

His predecessor and his family were constantly sick for no reason anyone could find. Workers repainted the interior of the house every year.

Here is what he told me…

When they tore the house down, they found the culprit. There was a pipe underneath the house–not in any of the architect’s original drawings–that was constantly leaking water into the foundation.

At one point, in an attempt to cure the problem, the ministry head had storm windows installed throughout the house. He was sealing the house, but it had the opposite effect of what he intended.

An architect told me, ‘That day the house began to die. With the windows sealed, it could no longer breathe.’

The day the house began to die.

An intriguing line.

Churches also begin to die when they can no longer breathe.

I’ve seen churches die, and I’ve seen them in the process of dying. The culprit–the killer, the perpetrator, the murderer–is frequently suffocation. An inability to breathe.

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The pastor resigned because someone criticized him.

“Christ also suffered for us…when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him who judges righteously….” (I Peter 2:21-25).

Someone criticized me.  Whatever am I to do?

Well, for starters, you might grow up.

Quotes on enduring criticism can be found in the hundreds online.  Here are a few we found in a few minutes….

–The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.(Elbert Hubbard)    -You can’t let praise or criticism get to you.  It’s a sign of weakness to get caught up in either one. (John Wooden)   –A critic is a legless man who teaches running. (Channing Pollock)    –You are a glorious shining sword and criticism is the whetstone.  Do not run from the whetstone or you will become dull and useless. Stay sharp.  (Duane Alan Hahn)

No one enjoys being criticized, but we often benefit from it immensely.

I say to pastors and other church leaders, you do not want to live and work where there is an absence of criticism.

You think you do. But you don’t.  Only in the harshest of dictatorships is there no criticism.  But in a free society–like ours–criticism abounds.  If the society is indeed free, much of the criticism is fair, just, and well deserved.  Likewise, much of it will be unfair, unjust and unmerited. A leader who survives has to develop discernment in order to know what to ignore and what to treasure and learn from.

A friend texted:  “Joe, write something about criticism!  Some good pastors are resigning because not everyone in the church likes them!”

He and I both find that incredulous.  As though someone could do a great work for Jesus Christ in a hostile society without stirring up resentment and incurring the wrath of  some people.

Advice columnist Dear Abby used to say, “You throw a rock in among a bunch of dogs. The one that hollers is the one that got hit.”

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How to change the culture of a church

“I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).

It’s His church and He will build it.

Keep saying that to yourself.

I received a note from a young pastor in another state, along with his resume’. He said, “I’d be interested in coming to your city to pastor. However, I do not want to waste my time on a congregation of self-focused, carnal and complacent church members. I feel led to pastor a church poised for growth, where the people want to reach the lost for Jesus.”

I wrote back, “If we ever have such a church, you’ll have to get in line, friend.  Every pastor in the country will be clamoring to go there.”

It would be nice to serve no one but spiritually mature and responsive believers.  It would be heavenly not to have to lead troublesome business meetings where the deacons want to go one direction, the personnel committee another, and the congregation wanting nothing to do with either.

Most churches I know are not “poised for growth,” but are dealing with issues of one kind or other.

That’s why God has to “call”  (and “send”) pastors to these churches. No one would voluntarily go to many of them.

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