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 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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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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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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One more reason to pray for your pastor: Those frustrating times with members

Any pastor can tell you that even when you do your best to minister to His people, some church members are not going to let you.  If you didn’t do things their way, were not there when they called, did not jump at their bark, you are a failure and they will never forgive you.

Such people are the exceptions, I hasten to say to those who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of members to focus on the 2 percent who drive us batty.  Our answer–

–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 police force to enforce laws.

–Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent is deadly.

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A great illustration of the importance of a good church

Robert Caro had a problem.

He was researching and writing an in-depth biography of Robert Moses, the highly acclaimed “master builder” of New York City, who lived 1888 to 1981.  Originally, Caro thought the book might take a year.

He was wrong. Bad wrong.

After a couple of years working on the book, his income ran out and he had to find a way to support his family.   They sold the house.

After a couple of years, that money ran out.

He kept working.

In time, he was embarrassed when friends would say, “What are you working on?” and he would tell them he was still on the same book.  “How long have you been working on that book?”  He would mutter, “Five years.”

Five years.  Caro felt like a failure.

The original publisher, the one that had advanced him $2,500 with the warning that no one would want to read a book on Robert Moses, finally cut him loose.  He signed on with another agent, a good one, and in time ended up with a 1300 page book that won the Pulitzer.

A 1300 page book.  It won the Pulitzer.  Don’t miss that.

But long before that, while Caro was in the throes of writing and researching and feeling alone…

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100 things I tell young pastors (the final 20)

81. Just as no one knows you better than your spouse, your co-workers on the church staff will see you as no one else does. Make sure they respect you as a person of integrity and compassion who keeps his word, has a sincere heart for God, and treasures each of them.

82. Watch for certain scriptures–a verse here, a verse there–that impress themselves upon you in a special way. This is a work of the Holy  Spirit, a personal gift even. He is inviting you to study this area more, to seek His insights and receive His teaching.

83. Humility. Do not hesitate to apologize. If you made a mistake and everyone knows it, to stonewall and refuse to admit it will end up enraging a few and disappointing everyone else. By humbling yourself and asking for forgiveness, you endear yourself to everyone who matters.  (I’ve known of pastors who gained so much love by publicly apologizing, they started looking for some other dumb mistake to make just so they could apologize.)

84. When you require the approval of a committee, if the chairperson tells you, “Oh, just go ahead and do that, pastor,” don’t do it.  Instead, you should respond, “Thank you, my friend. But I’d really like the entire committee’s input on this.” Never allow the chair to act as if he/she is the committee. (Just so subtly are church tyrants created.)

85. Always err on the side of conservativism in finances and of grace in relationships.

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100 things I tell young pastors (61-80)

61. Resiliency. There is no shame in being fired by a church or run off by a group within the church. Some of God’s greatest champions have that on their record. The shame comes when you let that discourage you from future ministry.  Read Second Corinthians 4:8-10 again and again until you “own” it. If this happens to you, own it, give it to the Lord, then get up and get back in the game. Your team needs you.

62. If you are terminated–or “encouraged to leave” a church in a way that leaves you angry and bitter–read Luke 6:27-35 repeatedly until you make it your own.  The way to rid yourself of the anger and bear a faithful witness to your detractors is to practice what the Lord commanded: do the four actions the Lord commands in this passage.  Do good to them, bless them, pray for them, and give to them.

63. Encourage pastors who have been terminated or for any reasons, find themselves “between churches.”   A pastor friend ousted from his church had trouble re-entering the ministry.  One day he asked, “Why don’t other pastors help me?” I said, “Tom, how many unemployed preachers did you help when you were pastoring?” He said, “I didn’t know it was the problem it is.” I said, “They don’t either.”

64. Problems. Teach your lay leadership (preferably in small group settings) how to deal with problems that arise in church, how to confront a troublemaking member, and what to do about a pastor or staff minister who has gone rogue. When nothing of that sort is happening in your church is the perfect time to teach this.

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100 things I tell young pastors (41-60)

41. Preparation. Remember that preaching is not a written art, but an oral thing. So, once you have finished your plan for the message, go for a walk and preach it aloud.  This will alert you to detours to avoid, rabbit trails to shun, potholes to steer around, and will make you aware of areas where you need to do more work..

42. Never deliver a sermon you have not preached to yourself at least three times. Likewise, when you plan to read a Scripture in the worship service, prepare by reading it aloud numerous times to prepare your tongue for forming these particular sounds, to find phrases you need to emphasize, and so you can do the reading justice.

43. When you are invited to guest preach in other churches, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. This is no time to hammer out a new sermon, but an opportunity to use something you have previously preached. You’re being given a rare opportunity to return to something you have preached and improve on it.  In time, this may become a favorite message you preach in many places.

44. While your sermon-machine is always on (and you will always have a notepad nearby when reading anything), make it a point to read Scripture devotionally–asking the Father to feed your soul–every day.  Read for no other purpose than to listen to God.

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