The Irreducibles: My ten strongest sermons.

Whether you are retired or still actively pastoring, try reducing your sermons to ten that mean the most to you.  Ten sermons that basically say everything God has laid on your heart. Quite a challenge!

Dr. Perry Hancock is the longtime executive of the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home in Monroe.  This week, on campus to sketch the children and talk to them, I had several visits with this great friend.  I was his and Tanya’s pastor in New Orleans, so we go back a ways.

At one point, Perry said, “I’m down to ten sermons which I preach all over.”  In a different church every Sunday, many for the first time, he does not need to reinvent the wheel each week in the way of a pastor of a congregation, God bless ’em!

He added, “I do have to keep up with where I’ve preached them so I won’t repeat myself when they invite me back!”

We laughed.  I know that feeling, being retired.

How many sermons do I have, I wondered.  Of course, as with every pastor, I have a Bible full of messages preached over some 55 years of ministry.  I’ve preached through the 28 chapters of Acts at least twice and could do it again.  (The first time, when still in my 20’s, toward the end of that long year, a deacon said, “Preacher, you’re about to Acts us to death!”  I said, “The famous ACTS-murders!”).  I have informed my new wife, “Honey, I cannot repair a car or build you a back porch, but I can give you a Bible study on Ephesians right now!”  We laughed. She’d been married to a good preacher for over half a century, so she knew how that is.

Anyway, here are my “ten best sermons,” so to speak.  Or, a better way of stating it is: These messages form the heart of what God has called me to preach to His people.

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What is a pastor to do when a church kicks him out?

The headline from an online preacher magazines says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll not be reading that article, thank you.  But a lot of people will.  Looks to me like he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher walks away bitter, that does concern me.

No one deserves to pastor the Lord’s church.

Your bitterness feels like you no longer trust the Lord.  Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes.  But the one thing He requires to pull that off is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever He has chosen.

Repeat:  Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes five years!

Sure it’s hard.  It’s very hard.

In fact, most people won’t be able to pull it off.  They will grasp their hurt to themselves like a prized possession and refuse to give it up.  Only those who truly trust the Savior can keep their eyes on Him, keep abiding in Him, and keep on trusting and loving and giving.

“The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor….”

What other things can the ousted pastor do, now that his status with the church is no longer in doubt?

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What I told the embattled pastor

Some friend reading this may think I’m revealing a confidence.  But the fact is I have much of the same conversation almost weekly.  Pastors call or visit to tell of the stresses they are facing, the opposition threatening their ministry, and various crises their church is dealing with, each one more than they can bear.  One said, “The strain is killing me.”    That is the background to this piece….

You’re the pastor of the church.  Things have gone well for the first couple of years (or longer) in this ministry.  You have loved a hundred things about serving here.  But lately, things have slowed down and you’re now hearing a rumbling in the congregation.  It’s like footsteps in the night.

They’re after you.

A few people have lurked around the edges of the fellowship since you arrived as pastor.  They seemed to be searching for something to use against you.  They spoke pleasant words but the sinister reports you heard made you guard yourself around them. And then, something occurred in the church to ignite the opposition against you.  The “something” could have been trouble with a staff member, a moral problem with a leader, a heavy contributor dying or moving away causing financial hardships, anything.  It doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite a fuel dump.

Members who had been on the fence about your leadership now jump onto the bandwagon opposing you.  Finally, they found something they could use against you.  The nay-sayers come out of the woodwork.  Some withhold their offerings and then they say, “The church finances are hurting, proving the pastor is failing.”

Nothing about this is fun.

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The noise of wolves in the night…and a few church members

You’re getting scared.  Your enemies are making fierce noises.  There are so many of them. You  are shaking in your boots, your time may be up, the end may be near, and as pastor, you have nowhere to go.  Whatever will you do? This is so awful.

Or, maybe not.

In the mid-1840s, Ulysses S. Grant was a Second Lieutenant in the war between the U.S. and Mexico, with the prize being Texas.  Grant’s “Memoirs” make fascinating reading.  We’re told that Grant was the first former president to write his memoirs, and these are generally conceded to be the best of the lot.  (Before reading the Memoirs, I read “Grant’s Final Victory,” an account of the last year of his life when he penned his story to earn enough money to provide for his wife after his impending death.  Great story.  He was a far better man than he is often given credit for. )

At one point, Grant and some troopers were in west Texas, which was sparsely settled except by the Indians and plenty of varmints. One night, they heard “the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front.”  The tall grass hid the wolves but they were definitely close by.  “To my ear, it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all at a single meal.”

The part of Ohio where Grant had been brought up had no wolves, but his friend Lt. Calvin Benjamin came from rural Indiana where they were still in abundance.  “He understood the nature of the animal and the capacity of a few to make believe there was an unlimited number of them.”

Benjamin began moving straight toward the wolves, seemingly unafraid.  “I followed in his trail, lacking moral courage to turn back….”

After a bit, Benjamin spoke. “Grant, how many wolves do you think are in that pack?’

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Four things I wanted to know that most pastors do not

I’m confident most church members never analyze why they feel the way they do about their pastors, either positively or negatively. But I always wanted to know what was going on with them.

For forty-two years I pastored six churches, as well as serving on the staff of another church for three years.  During those times, four areas used to concern me, to bug me actually, about our people.  Whenever I would mention them to my ministry colleagues, most shrugged and said, “Not me.  I don’t want to know that.”

One.  Why are you leaving?

No matter how large or successful your ministry, people will leave from time to time and join a church down the highway.  I wondered why.

Pastor Ross Rhoads led one of the largest churches in Charlotte, NC at the time, easily twice the size of First Baptist Church where I was serving. But we had a lot in common–age, experience, demanding schedules (preaching four services each Sunday!), and such–and enjoyed a friendship.  That particular day, for some reason we began talking about people who leave our church to join another in the area.

I said, “I know we can’t pick up the phone and call them and say, ‘Why did you join that other church?  Did we let you down in some way?’  But I’d like to know. We could learn a lot by knowing why people leave.”

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Paying the preacher: Doesn’t he do these things out of love?

A recent article for this website dealt with what to pay the preacher for weddings, funerals, and such.  Among the responses came one from a friend who belongs to a church I served years ago and whom I know as a generous and faithful sister in the Lord.

“Silly me,” she said.  “I thought preachers did the funerals out of love.”

I replied, “We do indeed do these things out of love.  But if someone gives the preacher a little money, does that negate the love?”

No preacher I’ve ever heard of charges for weddings and funerals and such.  Every preacher I’ve ever known has bills to pay and appreciates a little help with that.

And yes, there are a few of the big guys pulling down huge salaries from their churches–two or three of them, obscene amounts from what I hear–but I don’t know any of them personally.  (If I belonged to one of their churches, I’d not have to worry about what to pay the preacher for a wedding or funeral, however, because they don’t do them.  Their underlings take those tasks.  And I’m betting these guys are paid normal salaries and thus can use the financial encouragement of a hundred bucks after a funeral.  Just saying.)

Now, back to the subject….

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What to pay the preacher for a wedding, funeral, etc.

“The laborer is worthy of his hire.”  (That’s in the Old and New Testaments.) 

People often ask whether we’ve written anything on this website concerning honoraria–what would be appropriate to pay the preacher for a wedding,  a funeral, a banquet, or for guest preaching in their church.

I haven’t…until now.

I suppose the reason is that this is so subjective, so hard to nail down.  Different regions of the country and different denominations will have their own customs and expectations.  But, for what it’s worth, I will give it a try.   I know full well that we will leave some questions unanswered, some subjects unaddressed.  But, here goes.

The last wedding I did, they paid me $550.

That generous, surprising amount was completely their decision.  Two months earlier, when the bride-to-be asked “How much do you charge?” I replied that “I don’t have a fee. Whatever you do will be fine.”  I may have suggested she ask her minister (they lived several states away and were coming to Mississippi for a family gathering and wanted to marry while everyone was together) what he thought was appropriate.

So, I might owe him a thank-you note.  (As a matter of fact, I do owe him one.  He did the pre-marital sessions, and even sent a note to that effect.)

Every pastor has his stories.  For one other wedding, I was paid $500.  But that was far and above the usual.  Back when I began marrying people, it was more like $10 or $20.  But that was when you could live on a hundred dollars a week.  (Yes, Ginger, there really was such a time in America.)  In recent years, the typical gift for a wedding was $100 or $200.

I remember a couple of times when I have had pity on the couple getting married in dire circumstances and assured them we would charge nothing, not for the church (with its huge a/c and electricity  bill, and janitorial costs) and not for me.  When they pulled up to the church in a limousine toasting each other with champagne, I felt like someone had just run a scam on me.

I’ve done funerals where the honorarium was not enough to pay my mileage.  And done a weeklong revival where that was also the case.  If the people were poor or the church was small, that was no problem.  But it rarely has been the case.  Thoughtless is more likely the culprit.

But every minister has done this.  It’s par for the course.  You don’t enter this work to get rich.

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When enough is enough: The pastor throws down the gauntlet.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  –a line from “Me and Bobby McGee,” an iconic song of the 1960s written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster

There comes a time in a pastor’s ministry….

The Lord’s servant has taken all he’s going to take.  He has reached the point where getting fired from this church would be a relief.  And yet, he knows the Lord who called him into the ministry assigned him to this particular congregation, and he has no intention of walking away.  However, the time has come to speak out and tell God’s people what is going on.

A small but determined group of members is waging warfare against the preacher. They want him subservient to them, they want him different from who he is, they want him “out.” Snipers work in the darkness to undercut him.  A little group conspires to oust him.  Others simply detest him and are constantly voicing their displeasure with him.

Their work is crippling the ministry of the church and destroying the effectiveness of this minister.

And these are all leaders.

The trusting congregation loves the pastor and believes all is well.  They don’t have a clue.

God help your church!

(NOTE:  Whenever I post an article on the mistreatment of God’s servant, invariably someone will message me about some hot-shot preacher who mistreated a church, stole its money, and ran off with a deacon’s wife.  Please spare us.  We are well aware there are hypocrites in the pulpit as everywhere else in life.  But no one has a license to dishonor God by shaming the ministers He sends to lead His church.)

“The Holy Spirit makes the pastors the overseers of the church.”  That’s in Acts 20:28.  So, let’s establish this up front.

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Pastors never know who’s in the audience

When a pastor stands to preach, he never knows who is listening to him. And if his sermon is recorded or broadcast, he has no clue who will be hearing his words. He will do well to make sure he knows what he’s talking about.

Case in point.

Last Sunday evening, I spent three hours with the deacons of a church near here.  At the conclusion of the two teaching sessions, I shared a favorite story.

Ted Traylor, pastor of Pensacola’s Olive Baptist Church, told this story to Leadership Journal back in 2001. For over a year, the pastor had tried to get a veteran staff member to make some needed changes in his ministry. But he refused all offers of help and all attempts to supervise him.  The staffer owned this particular phase of the church and no one was going to tell him what to do. So, finally and reluctantly, Pastor Ted terminated him.

The day he fired that staff member, the church held its regular business meeting that night.  A lot of people on that fellow’s team were incensed. “How dare the pastor do such a cruel thing!”  The anger was palpable.  The pastor’s name was mud. For weeks afterward, the bad spirit persisted. People would call the pastor’s home in the middle of the night, then hang up the phone.  Women said harsh things to his wife in the store.  Pastor Ted says, “Had a search committee from Toadsuck, Arkansas come, I would have gone with them.”

One night, as the pastor and his son were returning home, three men from the church were standing at the edge of the yard, waiting to talk.  Traylor sent his son into the house and walked back to where they were standing.

Even though these were among his greatest supporters in the church, Pastor Traylor figured they had come to ask him to leave.

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What the pastor prays for himself

“Pray for me–that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth….” (Ephesians 6:19). (Also Colossians 4:3 and I Thessalonians 5:25)

Everyone prays, we’re told.  And, doubtless, every follower of Jesus Christ prays for other people.  But we must be faithful in praying for ourselves.

Here are three prayers of mine from key times in my life…

The first:  I prayed for balance in my ministry and personal life.

This prayer is from an old journal of mine.  It’s undated, so I have no idea what was going on, what prompted it, and when it occurred.  It seems timeless, and knowing my own heart, this has been something I have longed for since the beginning…

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