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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Your sermon offended? Good. It was supposed to.

“Lord, do you know the Pharisees were offended by your sermon?” –Matthew 15:12

Let me say up front that no church can long endure a steady diet of negative preaching.  No Christian, no matter how faithful, can withstand an unending barrage of sermons directed toward straightening them out. On a regular basis, we need messages reminding us we are loved, God is faithful, Heaven awaits, and there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

But sometimes the minister enters the pulpit with a burdensome task: to attempt a diagnosis, surgery, and amputation all in a 25 minute message.  At those times, the sermon must cut deeply.

Sometimes, the message hurts. It necessarily hurts.

How the Lord’s people ever came to expect their pastors to declare the riches of His Word without offending wrong-doers is beyond me.

It cannot be done.

“Offenders will take offense.” Remember that. As columnist Dear Abby once said, “You throw a rock in among a bunch of dogs. The one that hollers got hit.”

Delivering the commands of Scripture on how to live and think, how to re-prioritize our lives and change our behavior, and bring every detail of our existence under the Lordship of Jesus Christ without treading on anyone’s toes is expecting a little much of the preacher.

George Whitefield, the great British preacher of the 18th century, gave us an unforgettable line on this….

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How to keep your church youthful and growing

“They will be full of sap and very green” (Psalm 92:14).

An article in “The Progressive Farmer” asked whether to “Keep or Cull?”  Subtitle of the article: “High prices have changed the rules about when to cut one loose from the herd.”  

Here’s a quote–

Farmers who want to keep their herds young and viable know the importance of culling certain animals that get too old, consume too much resources, are no longer producing, or are a detriment in other ways.

Pastors cannot cull.

More’s the pity, we say with a wink.

There is a reason certain businesses are dying before our eyes.  K-Mart and Shoney’s come to mind.  The discount store and the restaurant were once all the rage.  We think of names like Montgomery-Ward, Spiegel, Western Auto, and Rexall– in most cases only dim memories now.  National Shirt Shop. Woolworth. Maison Blanche.

To stay healthy and maintain its mission, any entity must be constantly reinventing itself, tweaking its systems, sloughing off the old and dead, birthing the new.

In most cases, the dying businesses did not get the memo.  Some stores and hotels look like they’ve not had a paint job in years. The hand-dryer in the bathroom does not work, and the personnel all wish they were working somewhere else.

As a customer, you take your business elsewhere.

This train got the disappearing railroad blues.  (A line from “City of New Orleans”)

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10 lessons on leading God’s church, all learned the hard way

Anyone who begins to pastor a church should recognize two big things:  There are lessons to be learned if you are ever to do this well, and most of them are learned the hard way.  Your scars will attest to your education.

Most of this is counter-intuitive; that is, not what one might expect.

One. Bigness is overrated.

“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or the many” (I Samuel 14:6).

Most pastors, it would appear, want to lead big churches, want to grow their church to be huge, or wish to move to a large church.  Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and far less satisfying than one would ever think.

Small bodies can be healthy too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.

A friend says, “At judgement, a lot of pastors are going to wish they’d led smaller congregations.”

Two. The pastor’s lack of formal education is no excuse.

The pastor of the small church will often have less formal training and education than he would like. Not surprisingly, he sometimes feels inferior to his colleagues with their seminary degrees. I have two thoughts on that…

–It’s a mistake.  He can be as learned as they are and more if he applies himself.  Let the Lord’s preachers not be overly impressed by certificates on the wall or titles before their name.  Better the preacher who’s got it on the ball than one who’s got it on the wall!

–He can get more formal education if he decides it’s God’s will and if he is willing.  Seminaries and Bible colleges have online programs that make advanced education practical and affordable.

My dad, a coal miner and the oldest of a dozen children, had to leave school after the 7th grade and entered the mines at age 14. But he never quit learning.  He took correspondence courses and read constantly. When God took him to Heaven at almost 96 years of age, Mom had to cancel four or five magazine subscriptions he was still taking and reading.

Some of the finest preachers of God’s word had little formal theological education.

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That room in your house no one else knows about

“I’ve got a secret!”  –Popular television game show of the 1950s and 1960s, with a few attempts to revive it in later years

A man I know wrote of the secrets his family was harboring as they struggled to deal with an addictive, out-of-control relative.

“You know how the family gets ready to host a guest and the house is clean and in order and nothing out of place?  The guest is impressed.  He wishes his house could be this neat and organized with nothing out of place.”

“But what he doesn’t know is that there is one room where you have stored all the junk and clutter.  If he were to open the door to that room, he would be amazed.”

That, he said, is how things are for a family that tries to keep up an image when they are about to come apart.

They push things back into that private room, whose door they dare not open.

It’s about family secrets.

“Everyone has them,” he said.

One of our deacon families was hosting a gathering of church members. Their home was so neat and orderly.  I was amazed at the lack of clutter.  They ought to see my house, I thought.  But they had no stack of newspapers, no unread magazines lying around, no stack of books to be donated to the library or returned there.

When I asked our hostess about this, she surprised me.

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What to do when your church changes

These days in my retirement ministry, most of the churches where I’m invited to preach have these things in common….

–Few men are wearing a necktie or suit.

–The platform is covered by all kinds of musical instruments.

–Huge screens are mounted on the front walls, where the words of songs and scripture are projected.

–Some in the congregation read Scripture from their phones.

–Worship leaders often wear jeans and sneakers.

–In the announcements, you hear of mission trips to foreign countries, regardless of the size of the church.

–Fewer and fewer hymns are being sung, and when the old ones are brought out, they’re given new treatments. Mostly, though, what’s being sung in worship was written in the past twenty years..

The times, they are a-changing, friend. 

And they are not through changing either. So you youngsters should not get too attached to the present innovations.

If you cannot adapt, you may find yourself dropping out of church altogether.

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A word to shy church members

Two words, actually.  See below.

Someone says, “Pastor, I’m sorry, but I can’t just walk up to strangers at church and introduce myself and welcome them the way you’re asking us to. That’s just not my nature. I’m sorry.”

We all know the feeling. You walk into your church on Sunday morning, thinking about your Sunday School lesson or a hundred unrelated things. You greet a couple of friends on the way in, see some elderly member who needs a hug, get stopped by someone with a question about tonight’s fellowship, and you rush along. You did happen to notice that unfamiliar family looking lost in the entranceway, but you were in a hurry. Hopefully, someone will step up and assist them.

You hope someone will. You hope.

Now to be honest here, not every visitor to church looks as though they would welcome a greeting. Some wear frowns that signal their distaste for any social contact. Some may as well hang signs around their necks shouting, “Stand back!”

And, being respectful people, we don’t want to intrude. If they don’t want to be greeted, we can accommodate them. So, we look away and walk on.

Not all unfriendly churches are made up of cold people. Most are composed of salt-of-the-earth church members who want to do the right thing, but are a little shy and do not want to come across as pushy. They don’t want to intrude.

I have a word — two, actually — to shy Christians.

First: Get over it.

As a church member, you are the host every bit as much as if they had just walked into your home. It is your responsibility, your privilege, you great opportunity even, to walk up to the newcomer, look him/her straight in the eye, give them your best smile, and say, “Good morning! My name is Joe. We’re delighted to have you here today!” (I like to remind new members of the church that they too are hosts. Today’s newcomers have no clue that you just joined the church last Sunday. Walk up and greet them.)

That’s how it’s done. Now, practice doing that.

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My love affair with the church

As much as anyone you’ve ever met, I’m a product of the Church.

For some reason, the churches in my life revolve around the number three. I served six churches as pastor–three smaller ones and three larger ones–and in between, I logged three years as a staff member of a great church.

And, to carry out the theme, the churches that nurtured me from childhood through adolescence were three in number. Oddly, they were of different denominations, which may be one reason I’m more of a generic Christian than a denominational one.

The New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church of Nauvoo, Alabama has been our family’s church since the late 1800s. My grandparents joined that church in 1903, and my mother, in her 96th year now, is its senior member. Although “Oak Grove,” as we call it, sits 15 miles from any sizeable town, it will run a couple of hundred in attendance on Sundays and the buildings are all new and lovely. Mickey Crane has been its pastor for over 30 years. My mother thinks he’s one of her sons.

Remember how Paul remarked to Timothy that he had been nurtured in the faith by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (II Timothy 1:5)? My mother is Lois and my first Sunday School teacher was Eunice.

I have good underpinnings.

That church loved its children. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

As her mother before her had done with a houseful of children, Lois got her six young ones ready on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday, we walked across the field and through the woods, a mile to the church. Among the blessings from that investment, God gave this good woman two sons for the ministry. Ron and I have logged nearly a hundred years of preaching between us.

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