Pastor, if you could go back to your earlier churches…

If you’re a pastor, here’s an interesting game to play. And that’s all it can be, unfortunately–a game.

If you could go back to the churches you have served, what would you do differently?

Some people say, “If I could live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” I hear that and think, “What? You never made a mistake? Never really blew it? Never did anything stupid?”

We all did, let’s face it. And surely, if we went back and knew what we know now, we would do many, many things differently.

Here’s my take on this subject.

The first church I served was a tiny congregation 25 miles north of Birmingham, Alabama. It was my first attempt at preaching and pastoring and I did poorly, I’m afraid. The good folks at Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama, were patient with me for the 14 months I served them. At the end of that time, I resigned and for 6 months served as part-time associate pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tarrant, Alabama. We were living in Tarrant and I worked down the street from the church at the cast iron pipe plant as secretary to the production manager.

If I could do the 14 months over at Unity, the one thing I would do is seek out a mentor.

I would call up a pastor or two in Tarrant or Gardendale and ask if they would let me buy them a cup of coffee. As we sat across the table from each other, I would say, “I’m lost. I have to prepare three messages a week and don’t have a clue how to get started. Give me some advice.”

And, if the advice was something that worked for me, I would have asked if we could meet regularly for a while until I got this figured out.

The folks at Unity would have appreciated the effort and the congregations of subsequent churches would have benefited. As it was, by going alone, I took the far more arduous way to find out to make sermons and lead a congregation.

What would I do differently at Central Baptist of Tarrant City, Alabama, during my six months there? Very little, probably. My duties were to call on people who had visited our services and help Pastor Morris Freeman with anything he asked. For this, no money changed hands, but we received free use of the old parsonage, thus saving us rent.

The one thing I wish I had done was to take a layman with me visiting. It would have done me good, blessed the layman, and made a statement to the people we were calling on.

Both of those churches came in my pre-seminary years, 1962-64.

From 1965-67, while in seminary, I pastored 25 miles west of New Orleans. Paradis Baptist of Paradis, Louisiana was situated on Alligator Bayou. I took what I had managed to learn from Unity and Central and what I was trying to learn in seminary, and did some things right. The church almost tripled in the less-than-three-years we were there. (Note: That church relocated and is now West St. Charles Baptist in Boutte, LA.)

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Why I’m angry at some preachers

You’ve heard them, I’m sure. Some well-intentioned but thoughtless man of God will stand before a gathering of the Lord’s people and in urging us to evangelize our communities will overstate the case.

“Jesus told us to become fishers of men! He did not tell us to be keepers of the aquarium!”

And, almost invariably, the statement will be met with a chorus of ‘amen’s.’

The only problem with that is it is not so.

In fact, it’s totally wrong.

Jesus did not send His disciples just to reach lost sheep–He certainly did that–but commanded that we are to “feed my sheep.” In John 20, He gave that command to Simon Peter three times.

In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the pastors of Ephesus that they are to “shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.”

And here’s another one, the one that set me off this morning.

In trying to motivate church members to get into the community with the gospel, the WIBT preacher* will say, “The Bible in no places commands the people of the world to come to church. It does, however, command us to go into all the world with the gospel.” (*Well-intentioned but thoughtless)

That’s so true, it’s almost totally true. But it’s missing something critical.

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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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How to keep your church youthful and growing

“They will be full of sap and very green” (Psalm 92:14).

An article in “The Progressive Farmer” asked whether to “Keep or Cull?”  Subtitle of the article: “High prices have changed the rules about when to cut one loose from the herd.”  

Here’s a quote–

Farmers who want to keep their herds young and viable know the importance of culling certain animals that get too old, consume too much resources, are no longer producing, or are a detriment in other ways.

Pastors cannot cull.

More’s the pity, we say with a wink.

There is a reason certain businesses are dying before our eyes.  K-Mart and Shoney’s come to mind.  The discount store and the restaurant were once all the rage.  We think of names like Montgomery-Ward, Spiegel, Western Auto, and Rexall– in most cases only dim memories now.  National Shirt Shop. Woolworth. Maison Blanche.

To stay healthy and maintain its mission, any entity must be constantly reinventing itself, tweaking its systems, sloughing off the old and dead, birthing the new.

In most cases, the dying businesses did not get the memo.  Some stores and hotels look like they’ve not had a paint job in years. The hand-dryer in the bathroom does not work, and the personnel all wish they were working somewhere else.

As a customer, you take your business elsewhere.

This train got the disappearing railroad blues.  (A line from “City of New Orleans”)

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What immaturity does and what to do about it

“For the things which  are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Sketching this kid, I asked how old he was.

“I’m 9,” he said.

Then, making conversation to keep him focused, I said, “Do you like being 9, or do you wish you were 12 or 13?”

I thought I knew the answer. Children always seem to want to be older than they are.

“I like being 9,” he said. “I’m still a kid and can still get by with a lot of stuff.”

Now, there’s a 9-year-old worthy of the name!

We all start out in life as immature. The trick is not to grow attached to what should be a temporary status, to camp out there and resist growing up.

I heard about a two-year-old who rebelled when her parents announced plans for her third birthday party. “I’m two and I don’t want to be three!”

Eventually, after she had stubbornly made that point over several days, they canceled the celebration and went right on saying she was two years old.

Some people love being babies.

The immature–those claiming squatters’ rights on juvenility–are all around us. They will go into debt for expensive toys while skipping payments on the mortgage. They will pour hundreds of dollars into shiny wheels for their pickup when the children need dental work or the family lives in a shack.  They live for their own pleasure and grow pouty when asked to consider others.

Pity the person married to the immature. Pity the employee whose boss has never grown up. Pity the pastor sent to shepherd a congregation of two-year-olds.

Pity the congregation saddled with an immature pastor!

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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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Those who have trod this ground before and made it sacred

Who has walked this ground before me?

As a teen, I wondered that while working on our Alabama farm.  Walking behind our mule, I would find the occasional arrowhead and once in the same day my brother and I found two tomahawks. I have these rocks today in a cabinet in my living room, the earliest part of my treasured rock collection.

The Creek Indians, we are told, lived in those hills and hollows in North Alabama before President Andrew Jackson ordered the tribes east of the Mississippi River to be removed to Oklahoma. This “trail of tears” constitutes a sad saga in American history.  The teenage boy which I was, was fascinated with thoughts of the native Americans who lived here long before we arrived. (May I recommend a book? A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South by Peter Cozzens.)

Once while giving some Atlanta friends a tour of New Orleans, I asked, “Did you know Abraham Lincoln came to our city?”  They didn’t.

Few people do.

The teacher in me kicked into overdrive.

“Lincoln came to New Orleans twice, once in 1828 when he was 19 and again in 1831, at the age of 22,” I told them.

In those days, people would build flatboats and float down the Mississippi bringing crafts or produce to sell.  On arrival, they would peddle their cargo, then tear up the boat and sell it for firewood.  They would walk around for a couple of days and “see the elephant,” as they called it, then book passage north on a paddle-wheeler.

The first time, Lincoln came as a helper for his boss’ son, and the second time he was in charge.

Professor Richard Campanella of Tulane University wrote Lincoln in New Orleans, published in 2010 by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.  It’s the best and most complete thing ever written on the subject, I feel confident in saying.  Subtitle: The 1828-1831 flatboat voyages and their place in history.

Now, the book is so dense, with interesting insights and details on every page, that reading it is a slow process.  Campanella even tells us where the flatboat probably docked, where Lincoln and his friend may have stayed, and which slave auction they may have watched.

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Mediocrity: Be anything other than this!

“…you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold…” (Revelation 3:16)

Mediocrity is a warm blanket.

Mediocrity is a C+.

Mediocrity is “pretty good, but not great.”

Mediocrity is remaining with the bunch that finishes neither early or late, that turns in work much like everyone else’s, that is satisfied with “okay.”

Mediocrity is the head in the sand when the storm is raging around us. Just close your eyes and it will all blow over.

Mediocrity is being overly cautious when life-or-death decisions are being made.  “Well, let’s give this some more thought.”  “Let’s not be too hasty here.”  “We don’t want people to think we’re extremists.”

There’s safety in mediocrity.  We’re like everyone around us.  We don’t stand out.  No one criticizes us. They don’t even see us.  We blend into the landscape.

Our English word mediocre comes from two Latin words, medi meaning “halfway,” and ocris meaning “mountain.”  Somewhere there is a list of everyone who has scaled to the crest of Mount Everest.  No one ever bothered to note those who got halfway up and turned around for home.

A constant temptation 

As a pastor, I’m tempted to criticize those who choose mediocrity rather than daring, who play safe and avoid risks.  Yet I am very familiar with that way too.  As a pastor, I have been known to choose the conservative, safe way.  The outcome I feared was not so much failure as criticism.  I have refrained from taking a stand on a controversial issue for fear of becoming the focus of criticism.  Or, I have wondered, is this caution actually maturity warning me not to squander hard-earned trust on some cause not worth the price?  We’ve all seen foolhardy people who rush in where angels fear to tread, when they should have been quiet and stayed at home. Hard to know.

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Tasks that are finished and ships that have sailed

“It is finished” (John 19:30).

In a panel discussion regarding the movie Saving Mr. Banks, actor Tom Hanks, who plays Walt Disney in the film, tells of the final conversation between Disney and the creator of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers.

“Just after the premiere of the movie, Mrs. Travers said, ‘Oh, we have much work to do on this movie, Mr. Disney. Much work indeed.’

Disney said to her, ‘Pam, that ship has sailed,’ and walked away.”

Hanks says, “It was the last time they ever spoke.”

That ship has sailed.

It’s a wonderful expression to indicate tasks that are complete and should now be set aside, events that are now history and cannot be changed, projects that are finished and cannot be tampered with.

When a movie is “in the can,” as they say, it’s done.

Here are a few other over-and-done things that come to mind, ships that have sailed….

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When God’s people shoot one another

On last night’s news, the Israeli army admits that in the war with Hamas, many of their deaths are self-inflicted, resulting from “friendly fire” as they say.

I know the feeling.

Two hundred years or more ago, the British Navy arrived in the Canadian waters near what is now Quebec. They were instructed to wait for reinforcements before attacking the city, then held by the French.

When the commanding officer saw his men growing bored with the waiting, he decided it would be worthwhile for them to get in a little target practice. In the distance, he could see numerous statues of saints atop the cathedral. “Let’s see you hit those,” he ordered.

By the time reinforcements arrived, the British had used up most of their ammunition, and they were found to have insufficient military resources to defeat the French.

Two hundred years later, Quebec is still a French city, because the British decided to fire on the saints instead of the enemy.

In military parlance, “friendly fire” is when soldiers fire on their own buddies by mistake.

It happens in churches far too often.

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