As I write, just a month after Katrina, ministers from metro New Orleans are trying to regather their flocks and assess their situations. Many are considering the offers of help arriving from every corner of the planet. A group of Korean pastors showed up in Kenner the other day to assist our local ministers. God’s people from all fifty states are sending help. A pastor search committee in Alaska asked me to recommend one of our newly displaced ministers as a possible shepherd for their congregation. Daily, I’m hearing from ministers who are not returning to New Orleans, and from those who have returned and wonder what to do next.
What is a pastor to do in these times? Here are my suggestions.
1. If you’ve never been, this is the time to become a person of prayer. Prayer is need-driven, we’re told, and now every spiritual leader discovers that anew. “It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” according to Jeremiah 10:23. I’m always glad to help when ministers turn to me, but there is so much I cannot do, and so little I can. However, there is One who is a fountain of unending blessing, a reservoir of limitless inspiration, an encyclopedia of infinite wisdom. Ask your Father.
2. Do not handle finances. This is so crucial, I almost said it first. In many cases, churches and religious organizations will be sending hundreds of thousands of dollars your way to assist in the rebuilding of your worship facility. I’m so glad to be able to tell overwhelmed pastors that you’re not alone in this time, that God has His people and His churches who are going to stand with you in this. But you need to be aware of the pitfalls early on.
If your church does not already have financial structures and guidelines in place for handling money–incoming and outgoing–and for keeping accurate records, stop now and get some. Call your leaders together and make a plan. Need help? There is plenty, ranging from the leaders of a larger church near you, to your associational office, to your state convention office. Your bank has people who will advise you. I cannot emphasize too strongly that no pastor should touch the money. Outside friends may mail you the checks, but you should immediately get them into the hands of responsible church leaders who will keep good records and administer them faithfully, then write thank you notes to the givers.
Your church needs more than one person overseeing the finances; you want to protect your bookkeeper or treasurer. Show him or her this paper. The dangers of financial temptation are everywhere and we are all susceptible. Even well-intentioned treasurers or bookkeepers may get into major trouble by keeping poor records.
Already, some $400,000 has been sent to our associational account which we set up with the Louisiana Baptist Foundation in Alexandria. When we request portions of this sum, it will be transferred to our account, and from there we will write checks (or do wire transfers) to our churches to assist with various needs. In some cases, we may give money directly to ministers who have lost their homes. Freddie Arnold and I will make the decisions together, our administrative assistant Meredith Johnson will cut the checks, I will sign them, and Meredith will mail them and keep the records. We will open all books to our finance committee and anyone who contributed to this fund will be able to get complete records on how the money was used. We are determined to be faithful!
3. Keep a daily journal. The day will come when you will look back on this as the most unusual, the most demanding, the most intense period of your career. Being human, you may forget things that were said, people who blessed you, lessons you learned. So write it down. In the stationary department of a bookstore, purchase two or three wordless books. Don’t use a spiral-bound notebook; you want something more substantial. Writing in longhand is better than typing at the computer. Leave a record of your Katrina Days for your grandchildren. Future generations will be talking about this event and studying these days as long as this nation stands. Write it all down: the funny stories, the frustrations, your tears and fears, whom you saw and what was said, your prayers, the Scriptures, your sermons. Put it all down. This is not a diary but a journal. It will be read in the future and quoted in your granddaughter’s sociology class. Write it for her. Your grandson will learn about your faith and will study it intently; write it for him.
4. Don’t exaggerate in your ministry. Nothing reveals the shallowness of a man of God, his desire for praise, his susceptibility to vanity, more than the tendency to inflate numbers. Be careful–always, but particularly now–in reporting the number of people in your services last Sunday, how many needy persons received meals from your church, the number of people your congregation helped in your neighborhood. We may take a lesson from Billy Graham. Standing at the podium in a stadium packed with a hundred thousand persons, he announces, “Hundreds are coming forward.” Not thousands and not ten thousands. Just hundreds. Watching on television or sitting in the stands, you can see the numbers are far beyond “hundreds.” But something inside you resonates positively. This preacher is not bragging. They will eventually have precise numbers of each one counseled and helped, but you will not hear it bandied about as though this establishes the validity of Mr. Graham’s ministry.
Our Lord instructed His followers to take the lowest seat and not seek our own honor (Luke 14). If your host decides to honor you, the event shines with a brighter luster than if you promoted yourself.
5. Get with other pastors in your neighborhood, encourage each other, pray together. Katrina has dramatically demonstrated how we interdependent we all are on each other. Your church is not in competition with anyone but the world, the flesh, and the devil, the unholy trinity. Lighthouses are never in competition. Practice asking other ministers: “Is there anything I can do for you?” “What can I pray for you?” and the old faithful, “Wanna get a cup of coffee?”
There was a time, perhaps, when you shied away from ministerial meetings. You were too busy, you said, to waste your time in socializing. And besides, the speakers were boring. No more. This is the time for our church leaders to assemble regularly, to share what God is doing, what He is saying, to get information on how to rebuild, to learn what resources are out there, to pray together. And let me just put it out here plainly: you need some friends. You need a buddy who is experiencing what you are, someone with the same fears and faith, the same tasks looming before him.
Our Lord sent the disciples out in groups, sometimes as seventy, sometimes twelve, but never less than two. If He knew I need a buddy, how dare I dispute it.
You may set this in concrete: some of the most productive time you will ever spend in the kingdom of God may be the half-hour over coffee at McDonald’s with the pastor down the street. Don’t deny yourself this blessing!
6. There’s one more pitfall to watch out for: fatigue will trip you up. You give and give and give some more, and soon there’s nothing left in the tank. You need to replenish your inner resources, and that means taking care of your body, your home, and your inner life. Get your rest, take an off day, go for a long walk each day, and shut your system down for a while. Spend quiet times with the Father; that inner voice telling you that you do not have time for this, that you can do it later, is lying.
Fatigue will make you critical of your co-workers and short-tempered with the people you value most. Fatigue will cause you to cut corners of accountability, to fail to follow your own rules. Fatigue will inflate your ego, accommodate your fears, exaggerate your failings, and underrate what God is doing. The work of God must always be done by humble people with servant hearts; fatigue destroys the humility and poisons the heart.
“Come ye apart and rest a while,” our Lord told the disciples. He knew what they needed and He knows what you need. Don’t argue.
7. Don’t be afraid. Be the leader God called you. When you are criticized, love your critic but do not come down to his level. Keep your eyes on the Father, listen to anyone who assails you in case the Father is sending help in this roundabout manner (see how David dealt with his critic in II Samuel 16:11-12), and stay the course.
This is the time for courage. Get with your co-workers, have staff meetings, project faith. They will catch your contagious spirit. (They will also pick up on your fears, too, so watch out.)
In your quiet time, read the last chapters of Deuteronomy and the first of Joshua, noticing all the times Moses and the Lord urged Joshua to “be strong and of good courage.” It’s always in order, but sometimes more than others.
This is a time for courage and faith, for bold action. The faint-hearted never returned from the evacuation, but took that well-established church in Normal-land and left the remnants of his scattered flock to pick up the pieces and go forward the best they could. But not you. You came back. You want to see God send a new day in this city. You cry out to God for a spiritual revival. You will get with God in the quietness of your study and prepare the sermon He gives you. You will stand in the pulpit and deliver it with strength and firmness. Then, you will walk out of the sanctuary and put on your old clothes and get dirty alongside teams mucking out homes and hauling off trash. You will get tired-er than you have ever been in your life. You will laugh and hug and cry. You will be tested and tried more than at any time in your life. And in the midst of it, you will feel sorry for those who didn’t come back, who are missing this. Because even in your worst moments, you realize you would not miss this for the world.
You are a man of God. Finally, you’re getting the opportunity to prove it to yourself.