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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Your marriage is similar to all the others, I betcha!

“They made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:35).

No marriage is perfect.

The union of two godly well-intentioned disciples of Jesus Christ does not guarantee a successful marriage.

And even the successful ones–however we define that!–in almost every case had their ups and downs.

So, if you’ve been feeling like a failure because a) your husband spends more time at the church than at home, b) your wife isn’t nearly the cook or housekeeper your mom was, c) you and your spouse argue, d) you have each lost your temper and said/done some things you regretted later, or e) all of the above, then….

Welcome to the human race.

Let me refer you to William J. Petersen’s book 25 Surprising Marriages: Faith-building Stories from the Lives of Famous Christians. It’s worth the price, friend.

Petersen has chapters on the marriages of Martin and Katie Luther, of C. S. and Joy Lewis, and of Billy and Nell Sunday.  He writes about Charles and Susie Spurgeon, Dwight and Emma Moody, John and Molly Wesley, and Billy and Ruth Graham.  He has chapters titled “Grace Livingston Hill and her two husbands,” and “John Bunyan and his two wives.”

Personally, I wish he had included a chapter on Elisabeth Elliot and her three husbands.  But he didn’t.

I wish we had discovered this wonderful volume (written in 1997) when Margaret and I were in the thick of pastoring and she was chafing under the demands of the ministry, the expectations of the church members, and the absenteeism and/or distraction of her husband. (We married in 1962 and God called her to Heaven in 2015.)

These days, I tell young pastors’ wives that they have so much in common with one another, even across denominational lines.  The wife of the Church of God pastor, the wife of the Holiness pastor, the wife of the Presbyterian pastor, the wife of the Christian Church pastor, and the wife of the Southern Baptist pastor–to name a few–all fight the same battles.

What battles?

I’m glad you asked.  See if any of this sounds familiar….

Continue reading

10 bad things that happen when pastors commit adultery and 2 good ones.

A minister falls into adultery and it becomes public knowledge. This becomes a sad, sad day for everyone who knows him.

And yes, I am aware it takes two people to commit this sin.  However, this blog is directed toward pastors and other church leaders, so the minister is the focus of our comments here.

“I think we all should consider this a wakeup call,” said a colleague of a friend who had fallen into sin and lost his ministry.  The other ministers nodded in agreement.

It can happen to any of us. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Will anyone tell you “otherwise”? Oh yes.  He is called by various names such as Satan, the devil, Lucifer, that old serpent, and the slanderer.  Remember, friend–he’s not called the “accuser of the brethren” for nothing (Revelation 12:10).

Jesus called him a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).

“Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10:12).  Beware of feeling this sin or any other sin could not happen to you, friend.

“If Thou O Lord should mark iniquities, who would stand?” (Psalm 130:3)
You know that you are just as bad a sinner as the adulterer, don’t you?  If you do not, if you believe that your sins are of a nicer variety and deserve less severe treatment from God, you have more problems than we can deal with here.

If anyone should be above the law and able to come and go sexually as he pleases, it ought to be the king, right?

One king of Israel seems to have bought into that myth.

Continue reading

When God calls you into His service, He wants you, not your imitation of someone else!

Pastor, you have not been called by the Lord to be Abraham or Moses, David or Jeremiah. Not Joseph, Samuel, and not Elijah.

Nor did He call you to be David Jeremiah.

Not Charles Stanley, or Warren Wiersbe.  Not Mark Driscoll, Stephen Furtick, Andy Stanley, or Louie Giglio–and not their clone.

Speaking of Louie, he says, “You are not a reprint or a lithograph. You’re a one-of-a-kind, original creation of God.”

What a marvelous creative inventive (someone get Roget’s Thesaurus down and finish this list!) God we have.  Billions and billions of human beings, no two alike, each one an original! Each one known by Him, and each loved, with a unique place in His divine plan.

Mull on that a while.

God has called you to be you.

God has a place for you, a plan for you, and hope for you.  In order to fill that role and fulfil that purpose in the universe, you must be the “you” He created you to be.  And if you are not, something in the universe is never quite right.

Be yourself. That’s His plan.

It sounds so simple. But that, I submit, is what drives you to distraction.

Continue reading