What’s a pastor to do when church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times in my last pastorate, some years ago.

Consider that the church was still in recovery from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation handling an all-consuming debt.  Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during that fight, while others nursed hurts and anger from the same tragic event.  I’d not been around during that catastrophe, I’m happy to report, but the Father had sent me in to help the congregation pick up the pieces and return the congregation to health and usefulness.

It was hard.

I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd a divided congregation with toxic lay leadership.  So, I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflict and for everyone, myself included, to have time to heal.

Naïve, huh?  Probably so.

Daily I was being undermined by the angry, criticized by the hurting, ostracized by the pious, and scrutinized to the nth degree by leaders, self-appointed and otherwise.  When I tried to lead the church to take steps I considered normal and healthy, these also were thrown back in my face.

The journal records my efforts to bring in community leaders for a Sunday night forum during which the guest would speak and take questions.  Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.

I was stunned.  They don’t see the need? Aren’t they citizens who vote and who are affected by the actions of political leaders? Do they not care?  Where have these people been?

If it didn’t involve evangelism or preparation for the rapture, the leadership wanted no part of it.  Not that they were doing all that much about either.  These were merely points to check off in rating anyone invited to speak in their church.

Walt Handelsman was the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  I admired him greatly and was delighted when he gave me an autographed collection of his editorial cartoons.  When I asked if he would be available to visit our church some Sunday evening in the hour preceding worship, he quickly agreed.

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Someone is rocking the boat? Good.

The deacon made no attempt to hide his disgust with his preacher.  As far as he was concerned, preachers were the hired servants of the church. And, as a head deacon, that put him in charge.

“Preacher, I have some new rules for you.”

“You have rules for me?”

“From now on,” said the old man, “you will keep a written account of every copy you make on the copier.  And you will keep a notation on every phone call you make.”

And that was not all.

“Furthermore, you are not to make any personal calls from the church office.  If you have a personal call to make, you will go to your house and make it.”

Pastor: “What if I need to call my wife when she is at home?”

“Then, you will get in your car and go there and talk to her. But you will not call her from the church phone.”

This conversation actually happened, just this way.

The pastor said, “I’m sorry, sir. This is not going to happen.  I will use this church phone in any Christ-honoring way I see fit. And I will not be keeping a record of every call or every copy made on the copy machine.”

“Now,” said the pastor, “is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

There wasn’t.

The old fellow left, one unhappy camper.

The pastor survived and serves that church to this day (i.e., to the day I wrote this).  That deacon, however, after fuming for a year or more, was suddenly summoned home to meet the Lord of the Church (see Matthew 16:18) and give account of his stewardship.

There’s no record of how that visit went.

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Five facts about pastors many church members are unclear on

“Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

In my experience, most pastors hesitate to teach the biblical understanding of the role of pastors because doing so might sound self-serving, as though they were trying to carve out a bigger role for themselves.  This is a serious error for which we are now paying as many congregations are turning the minister into a hired hand, employing him as an errand boy, or treating him as an executive brought in to lead their “country club.”

Pastor, preach the whole Word of God.  Be bold in declaring its truth.  Then, having done this, go forth and set new standards for humbly serving the congregation.  Let them see you leading by serving and no one will ever mind calling you their pastor and following you.  However, lord it over them and dominate the decisions and no one who knows his Bible will want to follow you.

What follows is the truth on the role of pastors as taught in Scripture. It’s not everything the Bible says, for this is but one simple article.  However, it cuts to the heart of the issues….

1) Pastors are called by God; they do not volunteer.

…He will send forth laborers into His harvest (Matthew 9:38).

Rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things you have seen and the things which I will yet reveal to you (Acts 26:16).

The Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ (Acts 13:2).

Volunteers in the pastoral ministry do not usually last.  Those choosing this as a “nice career” or respectable vocation will either bail out for something more reasonable, more profitable, or more doable, or they will twist the pastoral ministry into something more suited to their taste.

The work is impossible.  The demands are incessant.  The expectations are unending.

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It’s the little things about pastoring that drive ministers to early graves.

…there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28).

Pastoring God’s people can be exhausting.

Even when you do your best to serve God by ministering to His people, some are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt on anything nor forgive you for not living up to their impossible expectations.

You didn’t do it their way, weren’t there when they called, didn’t jump at their bark. They don’t like the way you comb your hair, your wife did not speak to them in the grocery, your children are just too perfect.

Such members are the exceptions, true. I say that to those who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of healthy members and focus on the two percent who drive us batty.  It’s the two percent of drivers who are the crazies on the highways and ruin the experience for everyone else.  It’s the two percent of society who require us to maintain a standing police force to protect the citizenry.  Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent will kill you.

I confess it as unworthy of a child of God that I remember these difficult moments with God’s headstrong people more than the precious times with the saints.  Perhaps it’s because the strained connections and harsh words feed into my own insecurities.  Or maybe it’s because there are so many more of the blessed times.

Even so, here are two instances from my pastoring journal that stand out…

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10 lessons on leading God’s church, all learned the hard way

Anyone who begins to pastor a church should recognize two big things:  There are lessons to be learned if you are ever to do this well, and most of them are learned the hard way.  Your scars will attest to your education.

Most of this is counter-intuitive; that is, not what one might expect.

One. Bigness is overrated.

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

Most pastors, it would appear, want to lead big churches, want to grow their church to be huge, or wish to move to a large church.  Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and far less satisfying than one would ever think.

Small bodies can be healthy too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.

A friend says, “At judgement, a lot of pastors are going to wish they’d led smaller congregations.”

Two. The pastor’s lack of formal education is no excuse.

The pastor of the small church will often have less formal training and education than he would like. Not surprisingly, he sometimes feels inferior to his colleagues with their seminary degrees. I have two thoughts on that…

–It’s a mistake.  He can be as learned as they are and more if he applies himself.  Let the Lord’s preachers not be overly impressed by certificates on the wall or titles before their name.  Better the preacher who’s got it on the ball than one who’s got it on the wall!

–He can get more formal education if he decides it’s God’s will and if he is willing.  Seminaries and Bible colleges have online programs that make advanced education practical and affordable.

My dad, a coal miner and the oldest of a dozen children, had to leave school after the 7th grade and entered the mines at age 14. But he never quit learning.  He took correspondence courses and read constantly. When God took him to Heaven at almost 96 years of age, Mom had to cancel four or five magazine subscriptions he was still taking and reading.

Some of the finest preachers of God’s word had little formal theological education.

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When church committees begin to jump the track

“Then the chief priests and the Pharisees formed a council and said, ‘What do we do? For this man does many miracles. If we let him alone, all will believe on him” (John 11:47-48).

After watching the Lord Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, the religious leaders were faced with a choice. They could either do what the common folk were doing and worship Jesus, or not.  Pastor Josh Carter points out what they actually did: they formed a committee.

By creating a committee, we hand off the assignment–the decision on what to do and how to do it–to a group of “others.”

Sometimes that works out.  Often it doesn’t.

A friend texted to say that her nephew, an associate pastor of a church–a young man with seminary degrees and several years of experience–had just received a visit from the congregation’s personnel committee. According to them, the minutes of the business meeting in which he had been hired several years back identifies him as a youth director, not associate pastor. Thus they are cutting his pay and hours commensurate with that position.  My friend wrote, “He has plaques on the wall from the church identifying him as associate pastor.”

Veteran pastors know precisely what’s happening here.  What it “ain’t” is a committee trying to be true to the original vision of a staff minister.  What it “is” is some folks deciding to do an end run on the pastor and trim the sails of a staff member, with the end result being to run him off.

Make no mistake. That’s what the point of this is.

Rogue committees. Maverick committees.  They are all the rage these days, it seems.

At what point, we wonder, does a small group of nice church people start to “go bad?”  Can we spot the trouble-signs in order to be prepared for their jumping the tracks?

Are there identifying and tell-tale signs to watch out for?

Here are several we have identified. You’ll think of others.

–1. The chairman says, “I thought it would be best to discuss this without the pastor (and/or staff) present.”  Now, unless they are planning a surprise party for the preacher, nothing about it is good.

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20 things a pastor can do to get past a rough time

Some power clique in the church is on your case.  Some church member is leading a movement to oust you.  The church has a history of ousting pastors every so often and it’s time, and some members are getting restless.

Or, perhaps, as the pastor, you did something wrong and it blew up in your face.  People are calling for your head.

Or, you failed to act and some cancer has gained a foothold within the congregation and your job is in jeopardy.

What to do now?

It would be foolish to try to offer a panacea here, a cure-all for what ails the church.  And I don’t mean this to be that. But here are 20 steps which many pastors can take to right the ship and set it back on track (to mix metaphors)….

1)  Don’t hesitate to apologize if you need to.

“I blew it, folks. I’m sorry.”

Apologies should be as public as the act was public.  If you did one person wrong and it’s known only to that one, go to him/her and admit what you did and ask for forgiveness.  If your mistake was churchwide, stand in the pulpit and take your medicine.

2) Don’t hesitate to seek advice from the best Christians you know.

Ideally, you already have a mentor or two, older and wiser veterans whom you call on from time to time, and whom you can call for counsel now. The advantage to your having a continuing relationship with mentors is that they will know your situation and will not require a lengthy background when you call them.

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That room in your house no one else knows about

“I’ve got a secret!”  –Popular television game show of the 1950s and 1960s, with a few attempts to revive it in later years

A man I know wrote of the secrets his family was harboring as they struggled to deal with an addictive, out-of-control relative.

“You know how the family gets ready to host a guest and the house is clean and in order and nothing out of place?  The guest is impressed.  He wishes his house could be this neat and organized with nothing out of place.”

“But what he doesn’t know is that there is one room where you have stored all the junk and clutter.  If he were to open the door to that room, he would be amazed.”

That, he said, is how things are for a family that tries to keep up an image when they are about to come apart.

They push things back into that private room, whose door they dare not open.

It’s about family secrets.

“Everyone has them,” he said.

One of our deacon families was hosting a gathering of church members. Their home was so neat and orderly.  I was amazed at the lack of clutter.  They ought to see my house, I thought.  But they had no stack of newspapers, no unread magazines lying around, no stack of books to be donated to the library or returned there.

When I asked our hostess about this, she surprised me.

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What to do when your church changes

These days in my retirement ministry, most of the churches where I’m invited to preach have these things in common….

–Few men are wearing a necktie or suit.

–The platform is covered by all kinds of musical instruments.

–Huge screens are mounted on the front walls, where the words of songs and scripture are projected.

–Some in the congregation read Scripture from their phones.

–Worship leaders often wear jeans and sneakers.

–In the announcements, you hear of mission trips to foreign countries, regardless of the size of the church.

–Fewer and fewer hymns are being sung, and when the old ones are brought out, they’re given new treatments. Mostly, though, what’s being sung in worship was written in the past twenty years..

The times, they are a-changing, friend. 

And they are not through changing either. So you youngsters should not get too attached to the present innovations.

If you cannot adapt, you may find yourself dropping out of church altogether.

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The hazardous art of predicting the future

“And it happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a certain slave-girl having a spirit of divination met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortunetelling….” (Acts 16:16)

Some culture writers and half-serious columnists do it for fun, giving forecasts on life in the future.  Some, like meteorologists, work at it seriously to protect  lives. It helps to know the hurricane in the Caribbean may be headed our way or that the tornado season is upon us.

But then, once in a while we come upon those strange individuals who believe they are endowed with supernatural gifts of prophecy and fortune-telling.

If you are one who believes you have such a gift, I have a word for you….

Give it back.

Newsweek of January 1, 2000, reported on a prediction from 98 years earlier.  In the 1902 Atlantic Monthly, economist John Bates Clark wrote “Looking Back on the 20th Century” in which he projected himself into  the year 2000.  He concluded we would be seeing….

–strawberries the size of apples and oranges growing in Philadelphia.

–Moving sidewalks through pneumatic tubes in order to transport people

–No more slums

–War and poverty eliminated.

–A near “pot-hole free expressway of progress” for all of mankind

–Wealth evenly distributed

According to Mr. Clark, “Humanity has it made in the shade” by the start of the 21st century.

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