The greatest failure is the failure to encourage

Encouraging one another and all the more, as you see the day approaching.”  .-Hebrews 10:25

“They have refreshed my spirit and yours.  Therefore, acknowledge such men” (I Corinthians 16:18).

My journal records a painful episode in the most difficult of my six pastorates.

Because of internal dissension that was directed at me and undermined all we were trying to do in that church, I had asked the deacon leadership to help me deal with the dissenters.  They met, talked it out, then tossed the ball back into my lap.

“We want you to visit in the homes of every deacon (all 24 of them!).  Find out what’s going on in their lives.  Ask them for their personal goals, their hopes and dreams.” Then, at some point I was to ask, “Have I ever failed you in any way?”  The idea was to give the disgruntled the opportunity to tell me to my face what they had against me.  Thereafter, the leadership felt, when anyone start stirring up trouble, it could be dealt with more easily.

So, even though it felt like I was being punished for the sins of the troublemakers, I made the visits, usually three a night.

Most of the deacons and their wives were nice people, even though they had stood by passively while a few did all in their power to destroy their church.  In the visits, not a one could think of any way I had let them down.  One deacon’s wife said she was in the hospital and I did not come to see her.  Another said I had not attended the senior recital of their daughter. I had no memory of either of these events, but asked for their forgiveness.

Not exactly major stuff.  Certainly nothing worth tearing up the church over.

During the eighth visit, however, my journal records a conversation with one of the deacons and his wife.  I told them that throughout all these visits, I was yet to hear the first word of encouragement.  Not one word of encouragement.  My journal says: “The deacon sat there staring, as though he had not heard a word I had said or was speaking some language unknown to him.”

The concept of encouraging a pastor was foreign to them. And please notice, not one person told how I had failed them in some serious way.  Not one.

Which makes you wonder why they were so dead-set on interfering with the ministry God brought me there to do.  And if that mattered to them.

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A lesson about worship from Arnold the pig and Tom Lester

This is from a conversation with a friend back in the year 2007.

Tom Lester played “Eb” on the wonderful old Green Acres television series. At the time of our conversation, Tom was semi-retired and living on his family farm in Laurel, Mississippi. He and I were sharing the program for First Baptist Church of Covington, Louisiana’s annual senior adult fling.  Over lunch he told me this story about another star of Green Acres, Arnold the pig.

“Pigs are smart,” Tom said, “but not like dogs. A dog can learn all sorts of tricks because they want to please you. But a pig is like a cat. It’s selfish. It thinks only of itself. So, people who work with pigs in movies and television have figured out that the way to get them to obey you is with food. First, they let them get hungry, and only then can they get them to obey.”

“But,” he continued, “as soon as the pig gets his belly full, he’s not good for anything the rest of the day. So, they bring in another pig that looks like the first one and use him.”

At any given time, Arnold was a half-dozen pigs.

We laughed about that, thinking how like humans pigs are. We see it in church a lot. People go to this church or that one because, “I get fed there.” Not: “I can serve the Lord there” or “God led me there.”

And how many times have we heard people remark after church that “I didn’t get fed.”

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

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The one question I’d love to ask our Lord Jesus

Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him…. And he questioned Him with many words…. (Luke 23:8-9).

Someone asked Larry King, the legendary television interviewer, if he could sit across the table and interview one person in all of history, who would it be.  “Jesus Christ,” said this man who is Jewish.

“And what would you ask him?”

“I would like to ask Him  if He was indeed virgin-born.  The answer to that question would define history for me.”

To be sure. That answer could change everything.  As it  has for many a person.

So with the resurrection.  Answer that in the affirmative and everything else falls into place.

Many people asked….

Throughout the Gospels, we find people asking one question of the Lord Jesus, then going their way.  We have to wonder if through the years, as they reflected on their single moment with Destiny, this one touch with the Divine, they didn’t regret the shallowness or superficiality of their request.  Here are some…

–The disciples of John asked why they had to fast, but Jesus’ disciples were not required to.  Matthew 9:14.

–The tricksters asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” that they might accuse Him.  (Matthew 12:10)  It’s not a bad question, although they didn’t care for the Lord’s answer.

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Where joy goes to die

“Joy is the business of Heaven.”  –C. S. Lewis 

What started me thinking of this was a line from former FBI director James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty.

“Although I have had a different idea of ‘fun’ than most, there were some parts of the Justice Department that had become black holes, where joy went to die.” 

Sound familiar, pastor?

“Where joy goes to die.”  A fit description for a place–a business, a family, a team, a congregation–characterized by low morale, battle fatigue and discouragement.

I’ve worked in places like that. I’ve pastored a church or two like that.  And I’ve known several such congregations.

God help your church.

Comey says,“The more stressful the job, the more intentional I’ve always been about helping my team members find joy in our work.  Laughter is the outward manifestation of joy, so I believe if I’m doing it right and helping people connect to the meaning and joy in their work, there will be laughter in the workplace.”

This blog is about churches and church leaders, not governmental offices or bureaucracies.  So, let’s think of those churches where joy goes to die…

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The delicate art of giving to the Lord

When we give to the Lord, so many things can go wrong.  The world looks askance at it, even friends wonder about all the money we’re giving, and so many questions arise.

I call it a delicate art, this business of giving to the Lord.  Here are some reasons for that.

One. It doesn’t look like what it is.

It may appear you are giving to poor people, to the needy, to the gospel worker, or to the church itself.  Someone may even say you’re “paying the preacher.”  One of my uncles was known to say, “I don’t owe the preacher anything; I’ve not been to hear him preach in ages.”

In giving to my Savior, I am laying up treasure in Heaven (Matthew 6:20), I am ministering to the saints (2 Corinthians 9:1), I am honoring my Lord by my faithfulness (see Mark 12:41-44), and I am honoring His name (see Hebrews 6:10).

Two.  Outsiders will accuse you of wasting your money.

Judas said, “What a waste!”(see Mark 14:4).  He was a thief, say the gospel writers, and cared little for the honor of the Lord.

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How to frighten a pastor

Pastor, some of our members are concerned.

Speak those words and you now have the pastor’s undivided attention, believe me.

Say all you want about how the minister is God-called and God-protected and that sort of thing, but he would not be human if he did not want those he’s serving to be supportive and responsive. After all, since he’s sent to help them, he will appreciate any evidence he’s accomplishing his purpose.  Otherwise, he may feel he has either failed them or disappointed God. Or both.

Every pastor is vulnerable as a result.

What makes him more vulnerable to negative influences from others is that he has a family to feed and look after the same way you do if you work at the post office, drive a delivery truck, teach school, or extract teeth. The fact that he needs this job means he opens himself up to pressure from his constituents.

As a result, he reacts–at least emotionally–when he hears some of these lines that have been used on preachers since the beginning of the church.

Pastor, I know we ought to be reaching all these people and it’s good they’re being saved and baptized, but I miss our church the way it used to be.

The church I visited had 140 in two services. When the pastor arrived three or four years earlier, they had 40. In the previous three Sundays, he had baptized 11 people. Before the benediction, the pastor called on me to step to the mic and share anything on my heart. I said, “My friends, I am thrilled at the growth your church is having. These are wonderful days in this church. But I need to caution you about something. The devil will not take this lying down. He will raise up people to criticize and oppose, and I would not be surprised if he does it from within the congregation.”

I said, “Sooner or later, you will hear someone say, ‘I wish our church was the way it used to be.’ When that happens, do not wait for the pastor to address it. That’s your job. You are to turn to them and say, ‘Are you out of your mind?!’”

They laughed, but I hope they got the point.

“I’m not being spiritually fed by your sermons.”

This is a common ruse that accomplishes two things: it puts the preacher down while leaving the impression the critic is super spiritual with a taste for the red meat of the Word. And may I say, such criticism is almost always off base.

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The disciplined life: So rare, so valuable

I’m confident you have heard the name Jimmy Doolittle.

Jimmy Doolittle flew those bi-planes in World War I for the United States, and then barn-stormed throughout the 1920’s, taking risks you would not believe. He led our country’s retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in early 1942, a few months after 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 his 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.

To put it another way, he had never learned to say no to himself. That is the essence of self-discipline.

He was not exaggerating. Doolittle was a man with a thousand strengths, but his few weaknesses kept creeping up and blindsiding him. Numerous times, even after he became a national hero, the officers in charge of his current assignment would ground him because of crazy stunts like buzzing airfields upside down and flying under bridges and endangering his passengers.

Prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), the actual place and time were the biggest secrets on the planet. Everyone was sworn to silence. Doolittle tells of a general who shot his mouth off in a bar, talking freely about the invasion, speculating on when and where, even though he personally had not been briefed.

General Eisenhower had no patience with such foolishness.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery

I’ve never done any funerals where the “honored guest” got up and walked out, or where the wrong person was discovered to be in the casket, or such foolishness as that. And for good reason.

Funerals are highly structured affairs, regulated by state law and overseen by a whole battery of employees and family members.

When we gather at the funeral home, the family has already been in conference with the mortician on how they want things done. The funeral directors stand nearby to make sure all goes according to plan. As a result, there is usually very little wiggle room there, space for the unexpected to occur.

And that’s not all bad.

I did this one funeral…

Where the man and his grandfather were buried together. The man was 34 and the grandfather was 64.  If the numbers don’t work for you, consider that the grandpa had died a full decade earlier but the family had not held a funeral. When the grandson was found in his freezer with an axe in his head–put there by his wife’s lesbian lover–the family wanted a joint funeral for both. The two women are serving life terms in the state penitentiary.

And the first time I held a funeral in one of New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries….

The day before the funeral, the daughter-in-law said, “Now, pastor, tomorrow when we bury Roy’s mother…”  Yes?  “My mother will also be in the casket with her.” I said, “Excuse me?”  She said, “We cremated my mother some ten years ago and we haven’t known what to do with the ashes. We found out that it’s legal, so just before the casket is sealed, we’re going to slip the urn inside it and put both their names on the marble slab.”

She got a little gleam in her eye and said, “Just think–my mother and my mother-in-law in the same casket.” I said, “Did they get along together in life?”  She said, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”

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10 things about church conflict, most of them good

“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Somewhere in the Psalms.

In a newspaper interview, Jeffrey Katzenberg spoke about movie-making lessons he learned from Walt Disney.

Walt believed that an animated movie was only as good as its villain. I never forgot that.

Villains make the story. Villains turn ordinary people into heroes.  Villains rivet our attention on the plot. Villains keep us fixated on the story until justice is served.

The greatest drama of the Twentieth Century was the Second World War. Think about its villains–Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, and yes, Joseph Stalin, too. Without that war and those villains, we would never have heard of heroes such as Generals Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, and Montgomery. That war made Winston Churchill arguably into England’s Man of the Century.

As a pastor, you have encountered your own set of villains. You’ve noticed that they fall into two camps. One is the devil himself and all his cohorts. The other are people who are supposed to be on your side but instead of helping the program, they seem to spend their days and nights scheming and searching for ways to bring it down.

Paul cautioned the elders of Ephesus to expect the same two groups of villains. After my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  And, from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).

No matter who the opposition is or where they originate, you will get on with your assignment and let the Lord sort out who among your membership are the wheat and who are the tares (cf., the parable of Matthew 13).  Whichever they are, as the leader (pastor, staffer, elected leader) of the church you want to deal with them from a position of faith and strength.

Here are ten statements concerning conflict (and villains) in the church about which you might need reminding….

1) Conflict is normal.

2) Conflict is mostly good.  When you want to build a muscle, you put stress on it.

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Have a conversation; change the world

Recently, my wife and I drove to Birmingham for lunch with my sisters and brother and their spouses.  Arriving a little early, we took a minor detour so I could show Bertha where I had lived in college.  The neighborhood is going downhill fast, and in fact, my college announced earlier this year they will cease to operate after graduation in a few days.

The boarding house where I lived for perhaps six months 1959-60, in the 1100 block of Graymont Avenue West, lies empty now, but I took a snapshot of the front porch.

I have a story about that front porch.

Three blocks down the street we shot a picture of the small apartment house where I lived the next three years. The neighborhood is in trouble now and you would not want to be stranded out here at night.  But back in the day, it was a safe place and I could walk up the hill to college and a mile to my girl-friend’s house without a thought about safety. I logged a lot of miles walking back and forth.

Back to the front porch.  Here’s what happened.

One Wednesday night I was sitting on the front stoop waiting for my ride to church.  Bill Dempsey was my Sunday School teacher and his wife Marguerite worked in the church office.  Great folks, and forever friends.

The six men who roomed with Mrs. Pope had had dinner and two or three were lounging on the front porch.  Joel Davis sat on the swing reading the newspaper.  Following his recent discharge from the Navy, Joel had moved to Birmingham for a job with Roadway Express. One of our residents had invited Joel to room with us.

From the swing, suddenly Joel looked up from his newspaper.  He said, “I just realized something. It’s Wednesday night . If I were back home in LaGrange, I’d be in prayer meeting!”

I said, “Come go with me. I’m waiting on my ride right now.”

He did.

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