The two times a pastor is most vulnerable

“Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14).

We’re all vulnerable.  Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:12).  The brother who gave us that reminder was himself constantly being knocked down, but getting back up.  If anyone knew the subject of vulnerability, Paul did (see 2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

After telling young Pastor Timothy of a coming time when people would not stand for sound doctrine and strong preaching, but would “turn away their ears from the truth and will prefer myths,” Paul said, “But as for you, be sober in all things (that is, clear-thinking), endure hardship (expect it, and plan to get through it), do the work of an evangelist (keep telling Heaven’s good news), and fulfill your ministry (do not let any critic pull you off course).”  (With my interjections, that’s 2 Timothy 4:5).

I find it amazing and truly heart-warming how such reminders to a minister twenty centuries ago fit us so perfectly today.  That’s one more reason, out of ten thousand, why you and I love and live in this Word. There is nothing like it anywhere.

Now, returning to our subject of the minister’s vulnerability….

The minister is most vulnerable at two times: in the few minutes before the morning service begins and in the half hour after it ends.

A wise minister will take steps to guard himself in order to give his best to the Lord and the people.  (Proverbs 4:23 “Guard your heart.”  Acts 20:28 “Be on guard for yourself and for all the flock….”)

A caring membership will protect the pastor at the same time for the same reasons.

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Questions from a bi-vocational pastor

“And because (Paul) was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working; for by trade they were tentmakers. And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:3-4).

Paul was a bi-vocational preacher. A self-supporting apostle.

He received occasional help from the churches he had begun, and he taught that the minister of the gospel has a right to be supported by those to whom he is ministering. (Those who insist otherwise would do well to read the Bible before pontificating on it.) However, it appears that mostly he paid his own way.

A bi-vocational pastor is one who holds down two full-time jobs, the one at church and the other one which pays most of the bills. The wife of a bi-vo minister told me, “Fred has two full-time jobs and two half-time salaries!”

Either his church is small and cannot afford to pay him a full salary, he has started the church himself and it has not grown to the point of self-sufficiency, or he feels called to the bi-vo kind of ministry.

Don’t miss that: “he holds down two full-time jobs.” That’s not a typo.  Ask any pastor trying to do this.  They know.

For six years after God called me into His service, I expected that mine would be this kind of two-headed ministry.  I planned to teach history in college, particularly to freshmen, while pastoring small churches on the side. My plan was to go on to a state university somewhere and get a doctorate in history after finishing seminary.

I was burdened about young people going off to college without adequate spiritual preparation with no people on campus to catch them when they floundered. I wanted to be one of the catchers.

My wife and I were in a hotel in San Antonio.  Margaret was asleep, and I was on my knees talking to the Lord. Suddenly, as clearly as His original call to the ministry six years earlier, the Lord told me I was to pastor His churches.

My plans for history teaching was a thing of the past.

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Joe’s 10 iron-clad rules for success in the ministry. .Some of which may work

You’re new in the ministry, right?  And you want to do well, of course. You have definitely come to the right place, friend.  Pull up a chair and get ready to take notes.

Some alternative titles for these ten little gold nuggets (aka, iron pyrite) might be “How not to rock the boat.” “How to last 50 years in the ministry without creating a ripple.”  “How to please everyone and secure a good retirement.”

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, seat-belt fastened, sense of whimsy intact…..

1) You’re going to need sincerity to make it in the ministry. If you can fake that, anything is possible.

2)In any church service, the crowd will be bigger if you don’t count them.  We learned this truth from fishing. Any fisherman knows, A fish not weighed is heavier than the one that is.

3) To feel better about your sermon, do not ask your wife on the way home, “Well, what did you think?”  She will tell you, and then where will you be?

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The most frightening thing about preaching

t’s actually several facets of the same thing:  I’m speaking for God.

Imagine such a thing.

Lives hang in the balance.

People are making decisions about God based on something I say.

People are making choices about their eternal destiny based on something I say.

Is this frightening or what?

What if I get it wrong?

What if I misrepresent God?

What if I leave out an important aspect, something that changes everything?

What if people draw nigh unto me and love me and think that’s the same as loving God?

What if I stupidly think because they love me that all is well with their soul and so ease up once I find they like me?

What if I manipulate those who trust in me into doing things for me, instead of for God?

What if I forget my place, that I’m only a messenger, and begin to believe this is all about me?

God help me.

God help all pastors.  Not all, we begrudgingly admit, are called of God or are spiritually mature or know their Bibles. Not all, we sadly confess, love the Lord nor His people nor His gospel.

Pray for your pastor.  When he does his work well, people live forever in the sunshine of God’s love and in the joy of His presence.  When he does it poorly, everyone suffers.

Your pastor knows something you may not realize: He is not adequate for the assignment God has called him to and for which your church has employed him.  Scripture says, “We are not adequate for these things; but our adequacy is of God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).

Unless he stays close to the Lord and the Heavenly Father safeguard him, instruct him from the Word, and guide him in the ministry of that word, his work will be carnal and infinitely flawed.

I have observed some ministers offering “infinitely flawed” service to the Lord, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Pray for your minister. Pray for the Lord to protect the pastor, give him wisdom and discernment, strengthen him to say ‘no’ to lesser things and ‘yes’ to righteousness, and to empower him in the study and in the pulpit.

After praying, do one thing more, a real biggie.  Leave the answer to your prayer with the Father. That is to say, do not look at what the pastor is doing to decide to what extent God is hearing and answering your requests.  Ask the Father, then leave it with Him.

Pray for the pastor, then trust the Lord.

Thousands will thank you in eternity.  I promise.

The best kind of learning is do-it-yourself

From time to time, as I’m sketching at a church or school, the question arises: “So, have you had training for this?” Or, maybe, “Are you self-taught?”

I don’t answer what I’m thinking.

What I say is usually a variation of, “I’ve had some formal training. But mostly, I’ve just worked at it. And I’m still trying to figure out how to draw better.”

But what I think is, “So, you think my stuff looks so amateurish I could not possibly have learned this from anyone?”

Can you imagine someone saying to Picasso, another artist of some renown (!), “Did you take training for this?” Or to Pavarotti or to Frank Lloyd Wright?

When my friend Mary Baronowski Smith was young, she made herself learn to sight-read a hymnal so she could play anything she wished on the piano. Even though she was taking lessons, this skill was self-taught.

She says, “My brother Lenny grew tired of my playing the same tunes over and over. To this day, he does not like the piano because he had to endure all those lessons my sister Myra and I were learning by playing them endlessly.”

“Anyway, one day Lenny came in and handed me a piece of sheet music. ‘Play this for me.’ I said, ‘How does it go? Hum it for me.’”

“He said this would never do, that I needed to learn how to sight read. So I got the Baptist hymnal down and decided I would teach myself.”

“I turned to page one–‘Holy, Holy, Holy’–and started in learning how to play it. It was hard. But gradually I got the hang of it. Then I went to the second one, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Eventually, I was able to play everything in the hymnal.”

She was 9 or 10 years old.

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12 changes a pastor should consider for his mental health

“…that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

Like everyone else on the planet, we preachers get in ruts.  That’s not all bad, because sometimes we need to put it on automatic and not to have to make critical decisions about mundane things.  The morning ritual of showering and dressing, the drive to the office, and such should not require our undivided attention.

But from time to time, we need some variety. Our outlook needs refreshing. Our output needs sharpening. Our spirits need an uplift.  Our days could use a new perspective.

Here are some quick fix-its for the pastor’s mental health….

1. The pastor should sometimes vary his schedule.

And yes, this may include the routine things: shower at night, take a different route to the office, eat something different for breakfast.

2. The pastor should cross denominational lines and meet ministers outside his usual circle.  This assumes the pastor is already well-acquainted with those in his own denominational group.

The church down the street or across town has just welcomed a new minister.  Call and see if you can take him to lunch, or at least just drop by to say hello. Try nothing heavy here; just make a friendly visit. See if the Lord has something for you and that minister in the relationship. Some of the finest friendships a pastor can ever have are with colleagues doing the same work for Christ but in different settings.

3. He should attend a conference where he knows none of the speakers.

The first time I did this, I drove 500 miles for the experience.  I had seen the conference advertised in a national Christian weekly.  That was decades ago, but it remains fresh in my memory for a hundred reasons.

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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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The absolute worst kind of Christian faith

I know what it is to bore myself with my own preaching.

It’s not putting words into His mouth to say that one thing the Living God utterly despises is limp, weak-as-tea ministry rendered by insipid, bored disciples who would rather be doing anything in the world than that.

I have been guilty of this. And if you have been in the ministry for any length of time, my guess is you know about this kind of failure also.

You possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My Name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:3-4)

The church at Ephesus was doing a hundred things right and one big thing wrong: they had lost the heart for God they had at first. They preached and taught, they ministered and served, they prayed and witnessed. But their heart was not in it any longer.

And to God, that negated the entire thing.

Remember how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5)

If you think that sounds like what the Lord said to another church down the road a few miles, you would be correct.

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Giving pastoring the personal touch

“I just called to say I love you…” –Stevie Wonder

My journal for the 1990s records something I never want to forget.

We were trying to line up 15 freezers of homemade ice cream for a church fellowship the following Sunday evening.  My assistant always had trouble getting enough freezers because he tried to do it from the pulpit.   A mass appeal like that makes it far too easy for people to ignore.

The best way to do this is by asking the people personally.

Profound, huh?

So, in order to make a point with my assistant, I made the phone calls.  In the process, I ended up making a huge discovery.  Or possibly a re-discovery.

Here is the Journal notation from a couple of days later, awkward syntax and all.

This week, as I’ve called church members to line up 15 ice cream freezers for the fellowship August 15, was struck by how many pastoring conversations resulted.  People told me of coming surgeries, coming marriages, even a divorce, etc.  I prayed with lots of people.  And came away from the phone with this odd exhilaration from having rendered pastoral ministry.  And so, today, Thursday, I’m making a few more calls and having the same experience, when I decided to take the church directory printout and just start calling church members, particularly those I’ve not talked to lately.

I’d say, “Hi Bob…this is Brother Joe…. As you know I’ve been gone so much this summer (the church had given me a six weeks sabbatical) and I’ve been so out of touch, I was just wondering how things are with you?”  And I let them talk.  I gave this maybe 90 minutes tonight and have struck the mother lode.  Such response. And such a strong inner feeling that this is it!

I recall my friend and mentor James Richardson saying to me once, “Isn’t the telephone wonderful?”  meaning it’s not necessary to always be running by to see someone.  Just call them.

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What if your cross happens to be the one you married?

And so it came to pass in the morning, that, behold, it was Leah.  (Genesis 29:25)

Jacob was neither the first nor the last to find that the person he married was far different from the one he had proposed to and thought he was getting!

I’ve known a few pastors over the years whose marriages were crosses they had to bear.  I thought of that while reading Heirs of the Founders by H. W. Brands, as he commented on the marriage of John and Floride Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun was a prominent political figure in America the first-half of the 19th Century.  A senator from South Carolina, he served as Vice-President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. His home, Fort Hill Plantation, is located in Clemson, SC, and is open for visitors.  Calhoun was a fascinating character about whom no one back then (or now!) was neutral. His son-in-law founded Clemson University.

To say the Calhouns had a difficult marriage would be an understatement.  And yet, it had a romantic beginning, as most probably do.

Calhoun was some years older than Floride. While she was growing up, he cultivated her mother, who had been widowed when her daughter was only ten.   Calhoun wrote long letters to the mother on topics ranging from family matters to politics. Gradually, as the daughter matured he inserted references to Floride.  In time, he directed his correspondence to the daughter who was only too happy to return his affection.  His letters were flowery and affectionate.  “…I shall behold the dearest object of my hopes and desires.”  “To be united in mutual virtuous love is the first and best bliss that God has permitted to our natures.”

In time, they were wed.  Now, we fast forward a few years.  Dr. Brands writes…

The marriage of John and Floride Calhoun had unfolded without surprises but not without difficulty.  She bore one child after another, to a sum of ten.  Three died early, leaving painful memories but still a full house at the upcountry plantation…

Calhoun was busy in the affairs of state and had little time for the little things that wives often appreciate.  He paid dearly for the omission.

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