Pastors and discipline: Maybe we need a ‘plebe’ year.

You may know the name Jimmy Doolittle.

Doolittle flew those boxy bi-planes in World War I for the United States, and then barn-stormed throughout the 1920’s, giving thrills by taking risks you would not believe. He led the retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in early 1942, a few months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He played a major role in the Allied victory over the Axis, eventually becoming a General. His autobiography is titled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

Doolittle and his wife Joe (that’s how they spelled her name) had two sons, Jim and John, both of whom served in the Second World War.

The general wrote about the younger son:

John was in his plebe year at West Point and the upperclassmen were harassing him no end…. While the value of demeaning first-year cadets is debatable, I was sure “Peanut” could survive whatever they dreamed up. (p. 284)

Later, General Doolittle analyzes his own strengths and weaknesses and makes a fascinating observation:

(I) have finally come to realize what a good thing the plebe year at West Point is. The principle is that a man must learn to accept discipline before he can dish it out. I have never been properly disciplined. Would have gotten along better with my superiors if I had. (p. 339)

“I have never been properly disciplined.” What an admission. It takes a mature person to say that.

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Creativity in ministry: Try to find some!

I see by my notes that TIME for May 20, 2013, devoted an entire page to “assessing the creative spark,” a rarity in newsmagazines.

Now, I’m no authority on creativity or anything else, but have long been fascinated by the subject and attuned to writings dealing with it.

Creativity is that ineffable match-strike, that flash in the dark that comes to you from, well, it’s hard to say where. You can’t summon it on demand, though inclining your mind to a task does help. –TIME. (Jeffrey Kluger, writer)

I know a little about this right-brain activity, being a preacher, a writer, a cartoonist, and a story-teller.

Here are a few things of what I have learned about creativity:

 

1) The creative act can be nurtured.

Some people seem to be born with that spark, while others have to start from scratch. Either way, everyone can be creative. It’s just harder for some than others.

I used to have a staff member who was so creative that, after he left and moved to another state, sometimes I would phone him with a situation and ask for anything and everything that came to his mind. On the other hand, most of my colleagues on the church staff seemed clueless when the same question was tossed their way.

2) Creativity can be energized by outside input.

 

You’ve racked your brain and come up empty. You’ve lain awake at night worrying about the issue and nothing comes. It’s time to call in outside help.

Let’s say you are a minister looking for a theme for your next year’s church program. You know what your church will be doing, so all you are looking for is a combination of words that will express it, will be catchy, and perhaps even memorable.  You can call in a few friends, you can go online and research it there, or you can drive down to the public library. The last is my choice.

At the library, you pull out a chair in the periodicals section. For the next hour, you peruse a dozen magazines you’ve never heard of before, or at least rarely ever read. You scan ads and articles in publications dealing with rock music, fashions, politics, and electronics. You jot down phrases that jump out at you, expressions that intrigue you, and statements you find puzzling.  As you leave, you carry with you a dozen or twenty pithy slogans and phrases, any one of which may be exactly what you are looking for.

Or not. (Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s still a favorite method of mine.)

3) To be creative takes time.

You’re driving to a meeting where you need a new idea in a hurry.  Your mind is abuzz with panic. “I need it now!”  Too bad. Unless you are the one person in a million who can do the impossible, you can forget about finding a great idea when panic has grabbed you by the throat and won’t let go.

A better way is to clear off a day on your calendar for quiet walks, relaxation, something light and refreshing to eat and drink, and some inspirational reading.  Do something fun, get some exercise, then sit at the table with pen in hand (or laptop) with the question du jour in mind. Jot down ideas that occur.  A half hour later, get up and do other things. Go for a walk, read something funny, take a nap, and then come back.

4) Creativity requires quiet.

“Creativity must be nurtured by a circumference of silence.”

When we are rushed, creativity is the first casualty. Only when the body is rested and our spirit is quiet will the mind venture into those uncharted regions where new ideas lie waiting to be discovered.

5) Creativity loves indirection.

You’re looking for the answer to B when the solution to A pops up.  You are trying to find a great outreach program that will work in your church and in the midst of your search, you come across something a church in Iowa is doing that suggests the ideal way of handling benevolence.

Sometimes the subconscious works on a problem long after the conscious has moved on.

6) Creativity is usually tied to the volume of output.

If your goal is to write the great American novel, you will want to write a dozen books in the hope that one may qualify.  With the remarkable exceptions of Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell (To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind), authors do not write one book and achieve instant legendary status and never write another.

The website for Baptist Press carries thousands of my cartoons. My hunch is that a hundred of them might be really good. The others had to be thought up and drawn in order to produce the hundred. (The frustrating thing is that no one will agree on which 100 are good.) Likewise, this blog contains thousands of my articles, of which the same thing can be said.

The obvious question–perhaps the one we should have raised at the beginning–is: Why does a minister need to be creative?

I hope the answer to this is obvious. But, stating the obvious is a spiritual gift of mine, so here goes:

–You would like to find new ways to present wonderful old truths to your congregation.

–You want to find new and fascinating ways to say the same things to your people.  (Each year you have a stewardship, evangelism, or other kind of campaign. Your sermons may be basically the same each year, but the dressing and forms are different. That “difference” is where the creativity comes in.)

–You will be faced with insoluble problems. There seems to be no way out of this situation. And then someone gets creative. Love it.

–You will be planning a revival, a banquet, a senior emphasis, or a party.  Put on your creative hat now, friend, because you need this big time.

–Your wife wants to know why you forgot the date you and she made for today.  You need a quick answer and it had better be good.  Creative spark, I need you! 🙂

That’s the idea, at any rate. Well, other than the last. I just stuck that in for those who have stayed with us to the end. You get a star by your name.

 

 

 

 

When a pastor is called to an ignorant church

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

“By this time you ought to be teachers, but you need someone to teach you again the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

The pastor had been called from his rural church to another part of the country. He was excited about the new challenge, as he well should have been. In a parting comment to a friend, he assessed the state of spirituality of the church members he was leaving behind:

“There is enough ignorance in this county to ignorantize the whole country.”

What happens when a pastor gets called to a church like that? A church where the members and leaders alike do not know the Word of God and have no idea of how things should be done (what Paul called “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God”–I Timothy 3:15), or why it all matters.

A church that exists to condemn sin and sinners, that knows only slivers of Scripture, that sees ministers as slaves of the whims of the congregation, and that is ready to reject as a liberal any minister who wants the church to feed the hungry in the community, take a stand for justice, or invite in the minority neighbors–the ignorance takes all kinds of forms.

We wish we could say such congregations are few and rare, but they aren’t.  Veteran preachers have stories of those churches, tales of run-ins with those leaders, and scars from the battles they have waged to set matters right.

–One pastor told the group of ministers meeting in his fellowship hall, “This building is actually owned by a member of the KKK. We rent it from him.”  The rest of us were naive and thought the Ku Klux Klan had died out ages ago. Here they were living among us in our own southern town.

–One lady visible in church leadership told her pastor, “I don’t know what the Bible says but I know what I believe.”

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The number one failure of 90 percent of pastors

The four-year-old who says, “I can do it by myself” has a lot in common with many a pastor.

Pastors are notorious for their lone ranger approach to ministry. I call that the number one failure of 90 percent of pastors. They prefer to go it alone.

Even Jesus needed a buddy. “He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with me for one hour?’” (Matthew 26:40)

Sometimes it helps to have someone nearby, praying, loving, caring, even hurting with you.

The word paracletos from John 16:7 is translated “Comforter” and “Helper” in most Bible versions. The literal meaning is “one called alongside,” the usual idea being that the Holy Spirit is our Comforting Companion, a true Friend in need. And each time that word is found in the New Testament–John 14:16,20; 15:26; 16:7; and I John 2:1–it always refers to the Lord.

However, here’s something important.

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How to awaken a sleeping church. 20 suggestions.

“Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14).

A pastor I know has a problem.  It’s not unlike that experienced by a large group of his peers, I imagine.

He has deacons who are undisciplined, church members who do not take care of the hurting in their midst, and in general, a congregation of unmotivated people.  When he preaches evangelism or discipleship or ministry in their community, the way they sit and stare makes him wonder if the language he’s using might be a foreign tongue to them.

Sound like your church?  Sounds like some I’ve pastored and a whole lot I’ve known.

The pastor of that unresponsive bunch asked for my advice.  Had I written anything on how to revive a comatose church?  Does our website have any help for him?

I asked him to give me a day or two to reflect on the subject and seek the Lord’s guidance.  (More and more, I keep thinking: This is an uphill task, wakening a sleeping church.  If it were easy, every pastor would do it and no church would be stagnant or declining. )

Here are my suggestions on how to transform a collection of comatose do-nothing members into a thriving, caring, loving church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, since every church is both similar and different, we will use a lot of generalities and broad-sweeping statements.  Pastors should take anything that fits their situation and skip the rest.

One.  The bad news: You will encounter this same problem to one degree or another in every church you serve.  No church is without the sleeping, the dormant, the complacent.  It’s the human thing. In high school physics we learned that a body at rest prefers to remain at rest, while one on the move wants to keep traveling.  So, the question is how to arouse the church that seems cemented to the floor, how to get it up and going.

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Encouragement for the young struggling pastor

It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth (Lamentations 3:27).

Dear Young Pastor:

I hear you’re having a tough time of it.

Good. Glad to hear it.

As I got it, a group in the church doesn’t care for your leadership. They find fault with your sermons. They probably don’t like the color of your tie (or worse, the fact that you don’t wear one).

What makes their opposition dire is that they are the leaders of the church. Not a good thing.

Unity is always better than division.

You came close to resigning, I’m told. You probably felt, “If I don’t have the support of these elected leaders of the church, then I’ll not be able to do anything here.”

You actually wrote out a resignation, perhaps to see what it would feel like.

It felt wrong. You knew you were displeasing the One who sent you there in the first place.

So, you chose to hang in there and try to give leadership to a church that is not sure it wants any.

Welcome to the ministry.

When Holy Scripture says, It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth, that’s Bible talk for something like, “You may as well learn from the git-go what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

I saw this sign in front of a church: “Hang out with Jesus; He hung out for you.”

You have chosen to “hang in there with Jesus.”

In some respects–not in major, literal ways, but somewhat–it feels like a cross where you are suspended.

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The pastor who teaches the congregation to pray

Now, it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray as John also taught the disciples.’  (Luke 11:1)

The Lord’s people want to pray.

Most of the Lord’s people want to learn to pray.

You are the one to teach them effective praying, pastor.

You do know how, don’t you?

Granted, none of us do it very well. Even the great Apostle Paul said, “We do not know how to pray as we should” (Romans 8:26).  So, we are not saying any of us do it as well as we should, only that we know enough to be able to help others.

Here are some thoughts on the subject….

One. Model good praying for your congregation, pastor. “Being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:3).

Two. Pray faithfully in the privacy of your home/office/car without ever telling anyone.  Let this be between you and the Lord.  Anything less turns us into hypocrites.  Telling people to do what we are not doing is never good.

Three. But in worship services, understand that people will be learning from you how to pray. They’re listening, and they are learning.

Four. Therefore, give advance thought to your public prayers.  Work on praying better and more effectively.

Five.  Always be aware that people are not only praying with you, but listening to how you pray so they will know how to do it better.  Even if they are not aware of it, they will be copying some of the things you do.

Six. . Teach them these things about public prayer:

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10 signs your church is unhealthy

Recently, when an online magazine sent me an article on “5 signs you’re part of an unhealthy church,” I opened it eagerly. This subject is dear to my heart.

I am passionate about strong, healthy churches.

The writer’s five signs were good, as far as they went. No argument. I did not leave a comment one way or the other in response.

What I felt, however, is that my experience seems to be of another nature from the writer’s.

First, from that article here are “5 signs you are part of an unhealthy church”–

1) Leadership has no clear vision.

2) Leadership can never be challenged.

3) You are comfortable but never challenged.

4) Members are content with being pew warmers.

5) Outreach is never planned or preached.

All of these are true. But there is so much more.

Here, then, is my version of “10 signs (evidences, indications) that the church to which you belong is unhealthy”–

1. Prayer, if offered at all, is a formality, an afterthought, a burden.

While spending a long weekend at a pastors/wives retreat in Italy, I was struck by something. By the time I rose to speak, the service–by then a half-hour long–had experienced at least five prayers. The worship leader had followed a couple of songs with prayer, the presiding leader had prayed, and at least two more people with roles in the service had prayed. Each prayer had been spontaneous, heartfelt, and a joy. I knew then we were in for a rich time of Christian fellowship.

On the other hand, it pains me to remember the Sunday morning worship services where I was the guest preacher and noticed that by the time I stood to preach, not a single prayer–not one!–had been offered.

There is no more accurate indicator of a Christian’s spirituality or a church’s health than the vitality of our prayers.

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What I hate most about my preaching

No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe called “doing an autopsy on oneself.”

It’s possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or an early grave by over-analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind each word we speak.

No one is suggesting that.

And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.

That’s what this is all about.

It’s best done in solitary. (One of the worst things we preachers do is to ask our wives, “How did I do?” Poor woman. She’s in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)

A recording of our preaching helps. (But we have to promise to stay awake during the playback.)

That said, I’ll get to the point.

What I hate most about my preaching is when I intrude too much into the message.

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What’s the worst part of pastoring?

“What’s the worst thing about being a pastor?” she asked. “What is your worst nightmare?”

She and I were Facebooking back and forth about the ministry when she threw this one in my direction.

She gave me her own ideas. “People writing nasty letters complaining? giving you advice? criticizing what you wear?”

I laughed and thought, “Oh, if it were that simple. No one enjoys getting anonymous mail trying to undermine your confidence in whatever you’re doing, but sooner or later most of us find ways of dealing with that.”

“It’s worse than that,” I typed. Then I paused to reflect.

Hers was such a simple question, one would think I had a stock answer which had been delivered again and again. But I don’t remember ever being asked it before.

Now, I have been asked plenty of times variations of “What’s the best thing about pastoring?” My answer to that is not far different from the response most other pastors would give: the sense of serving God, the joy of making a difference in people’s lives for Jesus’ sake, that sort of thing.

You knock yourself out during the week counseling the troubled, ministering in hospitals, visiting in their homes, conducting funerals and weddings, all while you are working on the sermons for Sunday, meeting with staff members planning upcoming events, and handling a thousand administrative details. Then, you stand at the pulpit twice on the Lord’s Day and give your best. And you see doubters begin believing, the fearful becoming courageous, the lost getting up and coming home to the Father, people saying God has led them to join with your flock, and broken homes restored –it doesn’t get any better than that.

You are in your glory.

Worst nightmare? Thankfully, I don’t have those. But I suppose my friend was asking for the scariest scenarios, the most frightening circumstance for a pastor. I have an opinion on that.

Here’s my response.

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