Getting ready for the final exam

“Pastor, my aunt Bernice would like you to visit her this week. There’s something she wants to talk with you about.”

I knew this young deacon’s Aunt Bernice. She was up in years and sickly, and while not a member of our church, she was related to quite a number. I figured with her years and health, she wanted to talk with the minister about getting read to see the Lord.

She did, but not in the way I had expected.

The next afternoon, as we sat in the living room of her small shotgun house, she said, “Pastor, I know I’m saved. I have no doubt about that. I remember being saved. But there’s something else bothering me.”

“Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”

She continued, “As a young adult, I got away from the church and quit going. I raised my son without the church and really came to regret it. And now I’m old and can’t even go. But if you’d let me, I’d like to put my membership in and become a member. I’ll pray for you all and send an offering from my monthly check.”

I assured her we would be honored to receive her, and took care of that the next Sunday.

I never forgot her statement—“I haven’t done right by the church”—and have had occasion over the years since to tell her story, then ask my hearers, “Have you done right by the Lord’s church?”

A man in our congregation was dying. On one occasion as I visited in his home, he asked to speak to me privately. I felt it coming: he wanted to confess something that was bothering him before he went to meet the Savior.

I was right.

“Pastor,” he said, “when I was a much younger man, I did some experimentation in my personal life that I’m ashamed of.”

He told the story, then said, “I’ve asked the Lord to forgive me, but it still troubles me. I don’t want to go into eternity with that on the record. Can you help me?”

Have you ever had one of those times when you felt the nearness of the Lord so heavily you could almost reach out and touch Him? That moment was just so.

I said, “My dear brother, the Lord has forgiven you for that sin and all the others. Jesus Christ paid for your sins with His blood.”

He looked at me and said nothing. So I added something I had never said in my entire life to that point.

“I want you to know, I forgive you for your sin.

At that moment, I knew what it means to be a priest. I was standing in the stead of the Lord Himself for a brief shining instant.

The peace of the Lord washed over him and a few days later, he went to heaven.

I need to make a confession here.

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How to grow a small church

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

Depending on a number of factors, growing a small church may be one of the more do-able things pastors can achieve.

Those variable factors include…

–the health of the church.  You don’t want a sick church to grow; you want it to get well first!  I once told my congregation, “There’s a good reason no one is joining this church.  I wouldn’t join it either!” Believe it or not, those words were inspired and they received them well, and repented. Soon, the church began to grow.

the attitude of the congregation.  If people are satisfied with the status quo, they would not welcome newcomers.  I’ve known Sunday School classes composed of a small cluster of best friends who felt imposed on by visitors and new members.  No one wants to go where they’re not wanted.

and the location of the facility.  A church situated five miles down an isolated road, at the end of the dead end trail, can almost certainly forget about growing.

The great thing about pastoring a healthy, small church is you can make a big difference in a hurry.

My seminary pastorate had run 40 in attendance for many years. The day the little congregation voted to call me as pastor, I overheard a man saying to another, “This little church is doing all it’s ever going to do.”  I was determined to prove him wrong.

Within one month, we hit 65 in attendance.

What had happened is this…

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5 things the lazy pastor does not know (but is about to find out)

What is the number one complaint I hear from church members about their pastors?

Brother Joe, what do you suggest be done about a lazy preacher? Our pastor preaches two times a week, and is trying to turn the Sunday night sermon over to someone else. He’s quit doing Wednesday night church, and he refuses to hold staff meetings. We ask him to make a visit to someone and he may or may not do it. No one seems to know what he does with his time.

My suggestion in every case is the same: Each pastor needs an accountability group. Without one, you are asking for trouble. An “accountability group” is two or three or more laymen who meet with him from time to time–not weekly, and maybe not even monthly, but definitely more than annually; perhaps quarterly–as his sounding board, to hear his needs and concerns, and to let him know if there are problems.

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The abrasive Christian

“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance, leading to the knowledge of the truth…” (Second Timothy 2:24-25)

In Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, I found this interesting depiction of Harold Ickes, a member of FDR’s cabinet during the Second World War:

“According to T. H. Watkins, Ickes’ biographer, ‘a world without something in it to make him angry would have been incomprehensible to him.’ A disgruntled Republican senator who had been the target of one of Ickes’ verbal assaults called him ‘a common scold puffed up by high office.’ To one cabinet colleague, Ickes was ‘Washington’s tough guy.’ To another, he was the ‘president’s attack dog.’”

Olsen tells how an assistant secretary of state once refused to shake hands with Mr. Ickes and described him in his diary as “fundamentally, a louse.”

Having such an irritating person in high government office is one thing; having them in church leadership is quite another.

She had a reputation for being a strong witness for the Lord, even to the point of teaching classes on faith-sharing.

One day I called her office following up on something her boss had told me.

I was amazed by her reaction.

“He did not tell you that!” she said.

When I insisted gently that this is precisely what her employer had said, she grew stubborn and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was badly mistaken.

The conversation ended quickly.

I never told her boss about that, but the memory lingers with me to this day.

The incident has remained as a reminder that sometimes the Lord’s children who have a reputation as strong and effective witnesses for Christ are driven less by His love than by an abrasive and domineering personality.

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The top 12 things for the pastor to do before he gets up to preach

This is the moment the preacher has had on his mind and heart all week. We will assume he has done this for years, and by now he’s got it down to a science and can lead worship, read scripture, offer prayers, preach the Word, inspire the congregation in his sleep.

But not so. This is a huge thing he is attempting.

This man is attempting to speak for God. Not from egomania. Not from an inflated sense of self. Not even because he wants to.

He was chosen. Hand-picked. Called.

Chosen and called and sent.

Sometimes the preacher tries to bolster his confidence as he enters the sanctuary by remembering the caution God gave Jeremiah at his call: Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them (Jer. 1:17).

God will have no weakling speaking for Him. No coward afraid to be bold, no milquetoast fearing to be strong, no sycophant who cowers before the rich and powerful among the congregation.

Again and again, the Lord told Joshua, Be strong and courageous. That admonition is found in Deuteronomy 31:6-8,23 and Joshua 1:6,9,18. Evidently, Joshua was a lot like us in that some things he had to be told again and again.

All right. Pastor, you’re about to walk into the sanctuary and do what God has told you in the quiet of your study (as well as in the car as you drove, in the neighborhood as you walked, and in bed as you tried but were unable to sleep).

This is the most important hour of your week.

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The five most frustrating things pastors do

I’m pro-pastor, but I’m not blind.

These men (in our denomination, pastors are men) are called of God and assigned some of the most difficult work in the universe, and for the most part they labor well and long and you never hear a complaint out of them. They are my heroes.

Most of them.

The typical pastor in our denomination serves a church running 100 or fewer in attendance, which tells you the offerings are insufficient to provide much of a living for him. In some cases he holds down a second job or his wife works. Or both. Or, most amazing of all, he manages to live on what they pay him.

I believe in these guys. They are my brothers and my admiration of them knows no bounds.

Most of them.

But there are times when some of these ministers do the most self-defeating things. Not all of them, thankfully. But enough to warrant our addressing the issue as a caution to the rest of the Lord’s stable of shepherds.

Here is my personal list of the 5 most frustrating things pastors do.

FIRST: It’s frustrating to see preachers cut corners on sermon preparation.

What is bizarre about this is that the Sunday sermon is 50 percent of their job, as far as most of the congregation is concerned.

I grant you that in the more liturgical churches that isn’t so, with the ministers’ homilies often appearing as 5 minute reflections thrown together just before he entered the sanctuary.

But in the world I live in, the only time 90 percent of the congregation sees the pastor is on Sunday morning. If he does poorly there, he has just about sealed his fate with the membership as a whole.

And yet.

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To succeed in ministry, make a mistake

In his book, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg makes a confession. You get the impression that it was not easy in coming. (The story is dated because the book was printed ten or more years back.  It’s still a great story.)

The church where I work videotapes most of the services, so I have hundreds of messages on tape. Only one of them gets shown repeatedly.

This video is a clip from the beginning of one of our services. A high school worship dance team had just brought the house down to get things started, and I was supposed to transition us into some high-energy worship by reading Psalm 150.

This was a last-second decision, so I had to read it cold, but with great passion: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!” The psalm consists of one command after another to praise, working its way through each instrument of the orchestra.

My voice is building in a steady crescendo; by the end of the psalm I practically shout the final line, only mispronouncing one word slightly:

“Let everything that has breasts, praise the Lord.”

Ortberg tells what happened next.

A moment of silence. The same thought passes through four thousand brains: Did he just say what I think he did? In church? Is this some exciting new translation I can get at the bookstore?

Then, everybody in the place just lost it. They laughed so hard for so long, I couldn’t say a thing. It was zygomatic. I finally just walked off the stage, and we went on with the next part of the service.

I have been teaching at that church for eight years. Of all the passages I have exegeted and all the messages I have preached, that is the one moment that gets replayed before conferences and workshops. Over and over.

That moment forever endeared Pastor John Ortberg to the congregation of Willow Creek Church.

In fact, in my humble opinion, the power of that moment was so strong, it would have been worthwhile for him to have planned the flub.

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Pastor, don’t lie to us

“Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Colossians 3:9).

“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22).

Lying is unattractive in anyone, but almost unforgiveable in a pastor.  If anyone should set the standard for truth and righteousness, it’s the pastor.  And yet, some seem to have not gotten the word on that.

1. Do not lie to us about your resume.

If you say you went to school there or pastored that church, we want to believe you.  If you earned a degree, say what it was. If the degree was honorary, but not earned, say that also. What you must not do is give the impression you attended a school which you did not or served a church which you did not serve or possess a degree you don’t.

Why would anyone lie about their resume? Obviously, to enhance their prospects for a job. But any position acquired as a result of a falsehood is worthless in the long run.

Regularly, we hear of high-profile executives, educators, and coaches being caught for padding their resumes, for claiming degrees they did not have, for professing honors they did not earn.  Perhaps the most shameful is the man who claims to have been a war hero, who wears the uniform and sports the medals, but who, it turns out, is a consummate liar.

Tell us the truth, pastor.

2. Do not lie to us about your testimony.

I heard a certain pastor’s testimony on more than one occasion. It was so moving that when he went to Heaven, I paid tribute to him on these pages by telling his story.  Sometime later, his brother found the eulogy by googling his name, and called me. “You know there’s not a word of truth to it, don’t you?”

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Why they hate the pastor

But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.  (John 15:21)

They seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them.  The king was enraged and sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.  (Matthew 22:6-7).

Whenever I find a church member who loves and honors their pastor, I feel so good one might think I was their shepherd. But no, I’m just rejoicing that they get it right.  But on the other hand…

There is among us a large contingent of members who are forever unhappy with their ministers and are constantly warring against them.  A number of these I have personally pastored.  Or tried to.  There is no shepherding of people who are not “of the Lord’s flock” (see Psalm 100:3).

They sit in the congregation on Sundays staring a hole through the pastor.  Before and after the service they meet with others to complain and often to plot how to rid their church of such a problem.  Some will slander him, abuse him, and oppose everything he proposes.

Everything is about them.  They want a certain kind of sermon, want programs of a particular nature, want the preacher to shape his ministry in the way they are comfortable with.  And because he doesn’t, they are making sure he knows it.

A pastor told me why he resigned the church he has pastored the last half-dozen years.  The stress of the opposition was killing him.  “I refused bribes and endured threats.  My wife and children were photographed, stalked, and harassed.  They left messages of profanity in my home mailbox, and tried to vote me out several times.  We lost a few members and others boycotted my sermons.”

Why did they do this, I asked.  “What would those people say were the reasons for their behavior?”

His answer was a familiar story.  I cannot tell how many times I have heard this.

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If I were starting ministry again…

If I were a young man just beginning to minister for the Lord, I would want to make sure I did these things…

One. I would honor the church.  This means being loyal to it, involved in it, faithfully preaching that the church is the only institution the Lord formed, and I would work through the local church.

Two.  I would want to get as much formal education as possible, and do it as fully and completely as possible.  This means, I would move my family to the campus just as we did the first time, and get to know the professors and students personally.  The bonds formed in class and in between class periods last a lifetime.  Thereafter, I would continue getting as much education as I could, and if some of that was online, that would be fine.  But the basic seminary education, I would do on campus.

Three.  I would try to master all the electronic instrumentality available to help do the work of ministry.  I would not go for gimmicks but would want anything that could enhance my work.

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