Why pastors bang their heads against the wall and counselors resign

Michelle Singletary writes a financial advice column for the Washington Post.

Some years ago, a fellow wrote Ms. Singletary for advice. He was planning to marry his fiancee of 18 months as soon as they dealt with her spending habits which were clearly out of control. Her closet contained 400 pairs of shoes, many still new, and was overflowing with clothing. She justified her spendthrift ways by saying she works two jobs and looks for bargains.

The man asked Michelle Singletary, “What can I do to help her curb her spending habits without making her feel bad or as though I am putting her down?”

Ms. Singletary urged him to postpone this marriage. They were not close to being ready until this was solved. She suggested pulling credit reports, seeing what that revealed and then finding a credit counselor.

That was ten or more years ago.

The other day, Michelle Singletary received an email from that guy telling her what happened.  The news is not good.

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God’s faithfulness during difficult times

Just once I want to read where someone says, “I lost my job. God is good.”  Or, “The doctor said it’s cancer.  God is good.”  Or, “My loved one died. God is good.”  

His faithfulness is everlasting.  He is good no matter what.

A pastor friend sent me a note reporting on his church. He had baptized several that year and had twice that number to join in other ways. I replied that God is using him to turn around that old church and, “Good for you, friend!”

He came back: “The curmudgeons are still there, though, still lurking.”

I answered, “They always will be. But let me tell you what I’ve finally learned about that. These detractors are doing you a favor. They motivate you to greater faithfulness, to do your best work, to keep the focus on the Lord.”

He said, “I call them ‘Holy Sandpaper.’”

The Lord uses them to get the rough edges off His servant.

Interesting how the notes I get from pastors–some are questions regarding ministry–turn out to be the very thing the Lord was talking with me about earlier.

Case in point. I was going through some old correspondence files, trying to decide what could be discarded. I ran across the most critical (i.e., life-changing) exchange of letters I ever had with a church member in a long lifetime of ministry.

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The single most encouraging thing you can do for your pastor

First a disclaimer: I’m a retired pastor, I have no deacons (and no church members), I love deacons, and I’m loving the continuing ministry God gives me as a retiree. However, there was a time when life was tough, demands seemed never-ending, encouragement was rare, and each day brought a crisis of one kind or the other.

That’s what this is about.

I was having trouble with a few deacons. From the day I became their pastor, these men and their families had dedicated themselves to not liking me and being non-supportive in anything I suggested. In the church fellowship, they were toxic.

Eight years later, we did something.

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Three gifts for the new pastor

When our church was about to welcome a new pastor, I contacted him to ask what we could do for him.  “Tell me the top three things you want from this church.”  He had an immediate answer, as though he’d been expecting the call.

“I would love to come to a unified, loving, praying church,” he said.   As a retired pastor of six churches, I knew exactly how he felt.  So, let’s look at those three gifts the new pastor would love to receive.

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How’s your joy?

This week I’ve been watching the Women’s College World Series, which is all about softball games.  Oklahoma and Florida State played a best-of-three, which the Sooners took 2-1.  Game two on Wednesday was unforgettable, not so much for the hits and fielding but for the all-out joy and enthusiasm of fans and players alike. Perhaps because their championship calibre team had dropped the first game, but the fans seemed unusually pumped and volatile.

Since Oklahoma City hosts this annual series and since the University of Oklahoma’s team was in the playoff, this was like a home game to them, which means the stands will teeming with Sooners. Not an empty seat in the house, perhaps 15 thousand strong, and they were over-the-top excited.  Every victory from their team, no matter how small–a strikeout, a single, anything–and the fans went crazy.  Furthermore, the team itself was constantly cheering one another, even coming out of the dugout onto the field for some kind of cheer/dance.  It was fun to watch.

Contrast that with the men’s game, which is scheduled for two weekends away.  I’m a big fan and will watch all I can.  Hey, I’m retired and housebound for a while due to a medical thing.  The players will be excited and hollering, but nothing like the women.  In fact, in men’s college football, referees will penalize them for “excessive celebration.”  How crazy is that.  The women are out-of-sight enthusiastic in their celebrating, and the men get penalized.

I’m thinking the men’s rules were set by some Scrooge somewhere, someone who hates the very idea of joy and excitement.

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Things we must get right in church otherwise it’s all over

In the Lord’s work as in anything else in life, there are essentials and non-essentials. There are the loadbearing features and cosmetic for-appearance-only aspects.

If we don’t know which is which, we’re in big trouble.

In the late 16th century, the City of Windsor engaged architect Sir Christopher Wren to design and oversee the building of a town hall. When it was completed, the mayor refused to pay the bill, insisting that it needed more than the few columns Wren had designed. No matter that the columns were holding up the building just fine. He wanted more columns and would not pay until they were installed.

Christopher Wren had four more columns added to the building, each identical to the first but with one exception: they lacked one inch reaching the ceiling.  They were not holding up anything!

We say that some of those columns were load-bearing and the others cosmetic.  (The building stands today. It’s called Guild Hall, I read somewhere.)

It’s a wise church leader who knows which structures in the Lord’s work are loadbearing and which are cosmetic and not structural.

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The church 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.” 

He explained about his days at the Justice Department: “Places where morale had gotten so low and the battle scars from bureaucratic wrangling with other departments and the White House so deep, I worried that we were on the verge of losing some of our best, most capable lawyers.”

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.

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The two-faced church. Both sides are accurate.

“…a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).

Anyone can criticize the church. It’s the most vulnerable institution in the world, the most victimized, and the most vilified.

Criticizing the church is like clubbing baby seals.  It has no way of fighting back, but just lays there and takes what you dish out. The difference is that, after the beating, the church stands to her feet and goes on about her business, while you the critic walk away beaming as though you have done something heroic.

You haven’t. You have picked on the easiest target in the world.

In this morning’s newspaper, some (ahem) rocket scientist wrote a letter to the editor taking on the church for the Spanish  Inquisition of the Middle Ages and before that the Crusades.  I assume he just discovered these.

No institution on earth has been so targeted for villainy as has the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

–Satan and his legions persecute it and when that doesn’t work, they imitate it in order to make people think the wickedness they’re perpetrating is actually done by the people of God.

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What churches can learn from good restaurants

My wife Margaret and I had been discussing various restaurants. We enjoyed the food in each place and found the staff sufficiently friendly. But several aspects loomed large in our conversation, provoking me–ever the preacher–to reflect on the way churches could benefit from studying what these eating establishments are doing and are not doing.

1. I wish churches put as much emphasis on friendly greeters at the front door as great restaurants do.

Often they are teenagers, perhaps college students. The kids are fresh-faced, sweet-spirited, well-dressed, and friendly. The graciousness appears genuine.

However…

Have you ever walked up to an unfamiliar church and saw no one at the doors, no greeters or welcoming team anywhere on the premises? It happens to me frequently (and I’m the guest preacher!).

Are restaurants more interested in welcoming paying customers than churches are interested in showing hospitality to people arriving to worship the living Christ?

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Rescuing the sick church: Five Principles

Sometimes we have to enroll the entire school in the first grade and start all over.

Once when I had trouble in one of my ears, the E-N-T doctor prescribed, among other things, a bottle of pills with unusual directions: “Take 6 a day for the first 4 days, 5 on the 5th day, 4 on the 6th day, 3 on the 7th day, 2 on the 8th day, and 1 on the 9th day.”

Apparently, some meds must not be curtailed abruptly.

While some illnesses respond to simple, one-step treatments, others require weeks, months, even years of medications and applications. In those, regular repetition over extended periods is needed for healing.

Now, take the sick church…

The ailing church did not get that way overnight. Often, anemic, struggling churches result from the unhealthy teachings of warped leaders. In many cases, teachers have gone to seed on a pet doctrine and omitted altogether the basic principles of solid Christian living as unworthy of them.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the ABCs of the Christian faith…. (Hebrews 5:12 paraphrase).

The elementary principles. Basic Christianity. The kind of stuff we should have been taught in a new members’ class.

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