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)

It was Easter 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 that addressed 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.  I’ve long since forgotten the sermon, but will never forget a phone call I received that afternoon.

Mrs. Glenn Powell called. She owned a beauty shop in town which I had quickly learned was gossip central.  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.

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Perhaps the hardest thing a pastor will ever do

Speak to the current moral dilemma facing the country (or dividing your community) without making matters worse.

That has to be one of the most difficult minefields a pastor ever has to tread.

One misstep and he’s a goner.

Twenty years ago, it was President Clinton’s infidelity that was dividing the country.  In the same decade it was the O. J. Simpson trial.  These days, the issue is sexual harassment (or any of its various manifestations: sexual molestation, intimidation, assault, etc.) by men in positions of power.

A man–always a man–runs for prominent public office and someone stands up and says, “He attacked me.”  Or, molested me.  Touched me inappropriately.  Took advantage of me.  Raped me.

The media flocks to the accuser and stories are written. Sleuths check out her story and some corroborate it while others trot out family members who say she is a chronic liar or family members of the accused to say they’ve never known him to do anything like that.

Then, next step.  Other women step up and say, “He treated me the same way.”

Quickly, the matter becomes page one across the country.  Leading the nightly news.  Fueling talk shows. Dividing everyone on Facebook.  Splitting families.

Defenders are enraged.  Supporters of the accusers are offended by the way their friends have accommodated themselves to the culture and forgotten Jesus’ call to defend the helpless and bless the children.

So, the poor pastor decides this matter must be addressed in next Sunday’s sermon.  What is he to do?

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When the church bully happens to be the pastor

Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will of God;  not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;  nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” (I Peter 5:2-3).

We have written extensively on this website about church members who take the reins of the church and call the shots, who bully parishioners and pastors alike.  But a friend wrote, “What are we to do when the bully is the pastor?”

“What does your pastor do?” I asked him.

His bullying pastor demands his way in everything, tolerates no dissent, and ousts anyone not obeying him.  He intimidates church members and dominates the other ministers.  His opinion is the only one that counts.

We could wish it were a rare phenomenon.  It isn’t.

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What to do when your pastor stirs the pot

“….according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal….”  (2 Timothy 2:9)

Pot-stirring: To take a stand on a controversial issue.  Known colloquially as “opening a can of worms.”  Rocking the boat. Rubbing the old cat’s fur the wrong way.  Upsetting apple carts.

Expect it.

It’s a poor pastor who doesn’t stir the pot from time to time.

They didn’t crucify Jesus for sweet-talking the 23rd Psalm, for explaining the symbolic meaning of items in the Tabernacle, or for spending six months on the Greek verbs.  He took a stand on what matters most, and when people didn’t like it, He held His ground and paid the ultimate price.

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You’re the pastor of a church. Speak out or not on these cultural hot potatoes?

Man, who made me your judge?  Take heed and beware of covetousness.  A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.”  –Our Lord, when asked to settle an issue dividing a family  (Luke 12)

The issue dividing our families today is the “take the knee during the National Anthem.”   The NFL is ground zero for this firestorm.  No one seems neutral, and some on each end of the spectrum are going ballistic.

Listen to the pros and cons.  Does kneeling during the National Anthem dishonor the flag and insult everyone who fought for this country? Don’t those millionaire football players know they’re driving away the people who are paying their exorbitant salaries?

Stuff like that.  It’s burdensome,wearisome, and then some.

Symbols are everything to some people.

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People who need to tremble

“The devils believe and tremble.”  –James 2:19

The devils shudder, my NASB says.

I know some people who need to be shuddering and shaking in their boots.  They are going to stand before the Lord and give account–as we all are–for the deeds and words they have used as weapons. They’re going to be called to account for the disrupted churches and destroyed lives in their wake.  Harvey and Irma have nothing on these people.

The prospect of that ought to leave them trembling and shivering in their boots.

I think I know why they don’t.

“By God’s Word at last my sin I learned; Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned, Till my guilty soul imploring turned, to Calvary.” (Hymn by William Newell, 1895)

Asked for the greatest thought he’d ever had, Andrew Murray is said to have answered, “My accountability to God.”

That’s what is missing in the minds and hearts and lives of some of the fiercest of troublemakers who wreak havoc in the Lord’s churches.

They do not believe in God.

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Those frustrating times with church members

Any pastor can tell you about that.  Even when you do your best to serve God by ministering to His people, some church members are not going to forgive you.  You didn’t do it their way, weren’t there when they called, didn’t jump at their bark.

Those are the exceptions, I hasten to say to friends who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of members to focus on the 2 percent who drive us batty.  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 army to enforce laws.  Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent will kill you.

I say to my own embarrassment and confess it as unworthy of a child of God that I remember these difficult moments with God’s people more than the precious times.  Perhaps it’s because the strained connections and hard words feed into my own insecurities.  Or maybe it’s because there are so many more of the blessed times.  It’s human nature, I know. Help us, Lord.

Even so, here are two instances from my journal that stand out….

First, the church member who is mad at you needlessly

On returning from an out-of-town engagement, a staff member told me I needed to call Selma, that she was angry about something.  Selma was married to a deacon, a  good guy, and they were not high maintenance but generally supportive.  I could not imagine her being angry with anyone. I called her immediately.

“My sister is in the hospital and none of you have come by to visit.”  That was her complaint.

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When church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times some 20 or more years ago.

Consider that the church was still recovering from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation but an all-consuming debt.  Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during the 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 to health and usefulness.

It was hard.

I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd another congregation that was divided.  So, without doubt I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflicts with church leadership and carping from church membership.

Naïve, huh?  Probably so.  People are going to look and act like who they are.

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 do a few things 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 forum during which the guest would speak and be questioned.  Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.

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Why do church people hang on to their jobs too long?

“Diotrephes who loves the preeminence…”  (3 John 9)

In one church I served, the assistant pastor had been there for over 25 years and was long past retirement age.  After I learned he was working against my leadership, when our people started talking about his retiring, I jumped on that bandwagon.  We set a date, with his complete involvement, and the congregation gave a generous love offering.  Then, just before the big day, the personnel committee informed me that they were asking him to remain in place.  He would not be retiring.

Yes, they “informed” me. They didn’t ask.

He gladly stayed on, seeing himself as the savior of the church against this young whippersnapper of a pastor.  (I was 46, not exactly a kid.)

And no, he did not return the love gift.

Why would he want to hold onto the job?  It seemed to give him a sense of prestige being a prominent leader in the city’s most storied church.  That and a dollar would have bought him a cup of coffee.

If you conclude I had more problems in that church than just the assistant pastor, you would be correct.  I ended up leaving after only three years on less than ideal terms.

What’s funny about that–sad funny, not ha-ha funny–is that two years later, I heard the new pastor was trying to get him to retire and having a time of it.  I had to smile.

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What is a pastor to do when a church kicks him out?

The headline from an online preacher magazines says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll not be reading that article, thank you.  But a lot of people will.  Looks to me like he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher walks away bitter, that does concern me.

No one deserves to pastor the Lord’s church.

Your bitterness feels like you no longer trust the Lord.  Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes.  But the one thing He requires to pull that off is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever He has chosen.

Repeat:  Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes five years!

Sure it’s hard.  It’s very hard.

In fact, most people won’t be able to pull it off.  They will grasp their hurt to themselves like a prized possession and refuse to give it up.  Only those who truly trust the Savior can keep their eyes on Him, keep abiding in Him, and keep on trusting and loving and giving.

“The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor….”

What other things can the ousted pastor do, now that his status with the church is no longer in doubt?

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