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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10 things about church conflict, most of them good

“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Somewhere in the Psalms.

In a newspaper interview, Jeffrey Katzenberg spoke about movie-making lessons he learned from Walt Disney.

Walt believed that an animated movie was only as good as its villain. I never forgot that.

Villains make the story. Villains turn ordinary people into heroes.  Villains rivet our attention on the plot. Villains keep us fixated on the story until justice is served.

The greatest drama of the Twentieth Century was the Second World War. Think about its villains–Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, and yes, Joseph Stalin, too. Without that war and those villains, we would never have heard of heroes such as Generals Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, and Montgomery. That war made Winston Churchill arguably into England’s Man of the Century.

As a pastor, you have encountered your own set of villains. You’ve noticed that they fall into two camps. One is the devil himself and all his cohorts. The other are people who are supposed to be on your side but instead of helping the program, they seem to spend their days and nights scheming and searching for ways to bring it down.

Paul cautioned the elders of Ephesus to expect the same two groups of villains. After my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  And, from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).

No matter who the opposition is or where they originate, you will get on with your assignment and let the Lord sort out who among your membership are the wheat and who are the tares (cf., the parable of Matthew 13).  Whichever they are, as the leader (pastor, staffer, elected leader) of the church you want to deal with them from a position of faith and strength.

Here are ten statements concerning conflict (and villains) in the church about which you might need reminding….

1) Conflict is normal.

2) Conflict is mostly good.  When you want to build a muscle, you put stress on it.

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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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What I prayed in the night of my soul

Nothing jerks our prayers out of their “blessed generality” stage like a crisis. The most effective kind of crisis for that is for a close loved one to get in serious trouble–car wreck, cancer, emergency surgery.

But a close second is a personal crisis, the kind where someone is making life miserable for you and even getting out of bed in the morning and walking into one more day is taking all the strength you can muster. You either quit praying altogether, the worst possible choice, or your prayers lose their vain repetitions and meaningless phrases and get down to business.

A crisis can kick your prayer life into overdrive.

What follows is such a prayer of mine, written in the thick of church conflict. It was voiced sometime in the 1990’s, during the last of my six pastorates.  This was a troubled congregation in recovery from a devastating split that took place a year before I arrived.  The church was constantly beset with internal strife.

The prayer is about as specific as one would want a prayer to be. No more “bless him” and “help her.” It does not call names, however, and I’m glad to report is not as harsh as some of the Psalms where David is praying for the children of his enemies to not survive that day.

Here is the prayer, along with a few comments. I send it forth in the hope that some servant of the Lord in the fight of his life may find encouragement to hang tough and be faithful.

Father, what I’m praying for is that….

1) Everything I preach may come from thee. Lead me please regarding subjects, texts, stories, applications, and especially in the delivery.”

When people fight a pastor, invariably they attack his sermons. That happened to me at various times over a long ministry. In a sense, the critics are hitting us where we are most vulnerable, because few of us feel that our preaching is all it should be. They will find fault with the subjects you are preaching, the scriptures you use, the stories you tell, the way you say it, everything. And, if you are doing all these things well, they will criticize your neck-tie–or the lack of one.

The remedy is to turn their opposition into motivation to pray harder, study more diligently, and do everything you know in order to deliver the sharpest, most powerful sermons you’re capable of preaching.

2) “Father, may every position I take, every pronouncement I make, be from Thee. May I be silent until the right moment. May it be obvious to those who love you that my words are Thy words.”

The first request concerns sermons. The second concerns those off-the-cuff remarks made in casual conversations or during deacons’ meetings.  It was in those deacon sessions where those who opposed me fed off each other and gained encouragement to attack. At the same time, the “good guys” tended to be silent there. I have no explanation for that, other than outright cowardice. (Hey, let’s call it what it is. They were intimidated by the bullies.)

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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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Watch out for the bad guys. And also for the good ones.

“And one will say to him, ‘What are these wounds in thine hands?’ Then he will say, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends’” (Zechariah 13:6).

I was guest speaker at a men’s meeting held 70 miles away from the host church at a retreat center owned and run by the Baptists of that part of the state.  My drive there required 115 miles–up the interstate, onto the U.S. highway, followed by a state road, county road, and finally something resembling a squirrel trail.

That night, as we left the large room where we had held our evening session, I asked a leader, “Will someone lock up?”  Our materials still lay on the tables.

He said, “This place is so remote that thieves would never find it if they were trying.”  We laughed.

He was right, except for one thing.

Sometimes, the thieves are among us.  We bring them in with us.

Administrators of religious retreats say their biggest threat is not from thieves or burglars who come onto their property and break in.  Their guests give them all the trouble they can handle.

Even church people can be thieves.

Judas was a disciple and a thief.

A young mother told me she had started teaching her four-year-old son to protect himself from molesters.  She talked to him about inappropriate touching and prepped him on how to report such behavior to mommy and daddy.

The child said, “Mom, if a bad guy tries to do something bad to me, I will tell him about Jesus.”

I said to her, “It is true he has to watch out for bad guys. But in my experience, the biggest threat to your son will come from people he knows and trusts. Uncles, cousins, best friends, ministers, teachers. Even dads and grandpas.”

I know fathers who are in prison at this moment for molesting their own children.

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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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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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