What if your cross happens to be the one you married?

And so it came to pass in the morning, that, behold, it was Leah.  (Genesis 29:25)

Jacob was neither the first nor the last to find that the person he married was far different from the one he had proposed to and thought he was getting!

I’ve known a few pastors over the years whose marriages were crosses they had to bear.  I thought of that while reading Heirs of the Founders by H. W. Brands, as he commented on the marriage of John and Floride Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun was a prominent political figure in America the first-half of the 19th Century.  A senator from South Carolina, he served as Vice-President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. His home, Fort Hill Plantation, is located in Clemson, SC, and is open for visitors.  Calhoun was a fascinating character about whom no one back then (or now!) was neutral. His son-in-law founded Clemson University.

To say the Calhouns had a difficult marriage would be an understatement.  And yet, it had a romantic beginning, as most probably do.

Calhoun was some years older than Floride. While she was growing up, he cultivated her mother, who had been widowed when her daughter was only ten.   Calhoun wrote long letters to the mother on topics ranging from family matters to politics. Gradually, as the daughter matured he inserted references to Floride.  In time, he directed his correspondence to the daughter who was only too happy to return his affection.  His letters were flowery and affectionate.  “…I shall behold the dearest object of my hopes and desires.”  “To be united in mutual virtuous love is the first and best bliss that God has permitted to our natures.”

In time, they were wed.  Now, we fast forward a few years.  Dr. Brands writes…

The marriage of John and Floride Calhoun had unfolded without surprises but not without difficulty.  She bore one child after another, to a sum of ten.  Three died early, leaving painful memories but still a full house at the upcountry plantation…

Calhoun was busy in the affairs of state and had little time for the little things that wives often appreciate.  He paid dearly for the omission.

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Your marriage is similar to all the others, I betcha!

“They made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:35).

No marriage is perfect.

The union of two godly well-intentioned disciples of Jesus Christ does not guarantee a successful marriage.

And even the successful ones–however we define that!–in almost every case had their ups and downs.

So, if you’ve been feeling like a failure because a) your husband spends more time at the church than at home, b) your wife isn’t nearly the cook or housekeeper your mom was, c) you and your spouse argue, d) you have each lost your temper and said/done some things you regretted later, or e) all of the above, then….

Welcome to the human race.

Let me refer you to William J. Petersen’s book 25 Surprising Marriages: Faith-building Stories from the Lives of Famous Christians. It’s worth the price, friend.

Petersen has chapters on the marriages of Martin and Katie Luther, of C. S. and Joy Lewis, and of Billy and Nell Sunday.  He writes about Charles and Susie Spurgeon, Dwight and Emma Moody, John and Molly Wesley, and Billy and Ruth Graham.  He has chapters titled “Grace Livingston Hill and her two husbands,” and “John Bunyan and his two wives.”

Personally, I wish he had included a chapter on Elisabeth Elliot and her three husbands.  But he didn’t.

I wish we had discovered this wonderful volume (written in 1997) when Margaret and I were in the thick of pastoring and she was chafing under the demands of the ministry, the expectations of the church members, and the absenteeism and/or distraction of her husband. (We married in 1962 and God called her to Heaven in 2015.)

These days, I tell young pastors’ wives that they have so much in common with one another, even across denominational lines.  The wife of the Church of God pastor, the wife of the Holiness pastor, the wife of the Presbyterian pastor, the wife of the Christian Church pastor, and the wife of the Southern Baptist pastor–to name a few–all fight the same battles.

What battles?

I’m glad you asked.  See if any of this sounds familiar….

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10 bad things that happen when pastors commit adultery and 2 good ones.

A minister falls into adultery and it becomes public knowledge. This becomes a sad, sad day for everyone who knows him.

And yes, I am aware it takes two people to commit this sin.  However, this blog is directed toward pastors and other church leaders, so the minister is the focus of our comments here.

“I think we all should consider this a wakeup call,” said a colleague of a friend who had fallen into sin and lost his ministry.  The other ministers nodded in agreement.

It can happen to any of us. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Will anyone tell you “otherwise”? Oh yes.  He is called by various names such as Satan, the devil, Lucifer, that old serpent, and the slanderer.  Remember, friend–he’s not called the “accuser of the brethren” for nothing (Revelation 12:10).

Jesus called him a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).

“Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10:12).  Beware of feeling this sin or any other sin could not happen to you, friend.

“If Thou O Lord should mark iniquities, who would stand?” (Psalm 130:3)
You know that you are just as bad a sinner as the adulterer, don’t you?  If you do not, if you believe that your sins are of a nicer variety and deserve less severe treatment from God, you have more problems than we can deal with here.

If anyone should be above the law and able to come and go sexually as he pleases, it ought to be the king, right?

One king of Israel seems to have bought into that myth.

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When God calls you into His service, He wants you, not your imitation of someone else!

Pastor, you have not been called by the Lord to be Abraham or Moses, David or Jeremiah. Not Joseph, Samuel, and not Elijah.

Nor did He call you to be David Jeremiah.

Not Charles Stanley, or Warren Wiersbe.  Not Mark Driscoll, Stephen Furtick, Andy Stanley, or Louie Giglio–and not their clone.

Speaking of Louie, he says, “You are not a reprint or a lithograph. You’re a one-of-a-kind, original creation of God.”

What a marvelous creative inventive (someone get Roget’s Thesaurus down and finish this list!) God we have.  Billions and billions of human beings, no two alike, each one an original! Each one known by Him, and each loved, with a unique place in His divine plan.

Mull on that a while.

God has called you to be you.

God has a place for you, a plan for you, and hope for you.  In order to fill that role and fulfil that purpose in the universe, you must be the “you” He created you to be.  And if you are not, something in the universe is never quite right.

Be yourself. That’s His plan.

It sounds so simple. But that, I submit, is what drives you to distraction.

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The best thing you’ll ever do for yourself

I’m remembering the time I bumped into Jeff Ingram in the hotel breakfast area. The previous evening, I had spoken at a local church while Jeff had led a conference for Sunday School directors in a neighboring community.

Jeff said, “I had 14 directors in my conference. It was great.”

I have never worked for Jeff’s employer–the Louisiana Baptist Convention with headquarters in Alexandria, Louisiana–but I knew what he is experiencing.

Without asking him, I can tell you the high point of his day.

Jeff is sitting in his office and the phone rings. A pastor or church staffer or lay leader from somewhere across this state is on the line.

“I need help,” he says. Jeff’s heart races. “Great,” he thinks to himself. “Someone needs me.”

What he says is, “Well, I’ll be happy to do anything I can for you.”

If the caller has a problem of untrained leaders or an anemic organization that needs a shot in the arm or his Sunday School is in disarray and he is desperate for assistance, all the juices start flowing in Jeff Ingram’s veins.

This is great.

This is what a denominational worker lives for. (He may even quote the Esther verse to himself : “I’ve come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”)

This is why he’s there.

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The 5 most frustrating things pastors do

I believe in pastors. That does not however mean I endorse everything every pastor does.

They’re human.

They tell us the typical pastor in our denomination serves a church with 100 or fewer in attendance, which probably means the offerings are inadequate to provide much of a living for him. In some cases he holds down a second job or his wife works. Or both. Or, most amazing of all, he manages to live on what they pay him.

I believe in these guys. They are my brothers and my admiration of them knows no bounds.

Most of them.

But at times ministers will do the most self-defeating things. Not all of them, thankfully. But enough to warrant our addressing the issue as a caution to the rest of the Lord’s shepherds.

Here is my personal list of the 5 most frustrating things pastors do.

FIRST: It’s frustrating to see preachers cut corners on sermon preparation.

The bizarre thing is that to the congregation the Sunday sermon is 50 percent of his job.

In the more liturgical churches that may not be so, with the ministers’ homilies often appearing as 5 minute reflections thrown together just prior to entering the sanctuary.

But in the world I live in, the only time 90 percent of the congregation sees the pastor is on Sunday morning. If he does poorly there, he has just about sealed his fate with the membership as a whole.

And yet.

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The pastor is journaling; he finds it tough to stay with it.

A friend texted to ask if I would talk about how a minister with a full-time congregation can discipline himself to do a daily journal.  I’m not sure I’m the one to ask, for a good reason.

When I began keeping a journal, back in early 1990, I was between churches.  Long story told elsewhere, but with a 12-month paid leave of absence I had time on my hands.  Knowing that at the end of August 1990 my income would end and finding that pastor search committees were afraid of me–“If he’s so good, why is he available?”–I made a decision to journal.  I figured someday I would look back and wonder what I was thinking during this time.  So, I bought a hard-bound book and started writing each evening. Where to find those books? Barnes and Noble.  Hobby Lobby.  Even Wal-Mart.

Now, since I was unemployed, I had time for this and did not need the discipline my friend seems to need.  In September 1990 when I began pastoring in metro New Orleans, I found it relatively easy to stay with the program since I had formed the habit.

So, what follows will only partially answer my friend’s question.  But this is what I’ve come up with on the subject of “pastoral journaling.”  Hope it helps.

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The pastor’s pain known only to God

“I have nourished and brought up children and they have rebelled against me….” (Isaiah 1:2)

The pastor loves that family and longs for them to do well. Their children are so fine and exhibit incredible potential. He knows their names.  He prays for them, encourages them, and goes out of his way to support them.  And they seem to respond. They flourish spiritually and seem to love the Lord, love their church, and love him. And then…

One day, they up and leave.

The pastor is told, “They’ve joined that new startup church down the highway.  The one where the pastor is so critical of us and our denomination.”

He never hears a word. They just disappear from his radar and he never sees them again.

It’s not that they stabbed him in the back. They did not pull a Judas and betray him.  They just walked away with nary a word.

No one but another pastor knows how that hurts.

My son and his family moved to Mobile from the New Orleans area home where they lived for the previous 22 years.  They loved their church and their Sunday School class.  Neil had coached the men’s softball team for nearly a quarter century.  So, a few weeks after getting into their new home, their Sunday School class drove over to visit one Saturday afternoon.  Bear in mind that it’s 150 miles each way and the entire class made the trip.  Then, a few weekends after, Neil and Julie returned the favor and attended a backyard cookout with their old Sunday School class.  On Sunday morning, they sat in their class and attended worship before returning home.

I told them, “One of many things I admire in you is how you keep your friends.”

A pastor cannot do what they did–visiting friends back and forth.  We stay at a church for years, and in the natural course of events have wonderful friends and close buddies. And when God sends us to another church, we move on.  If friends come to visit us, that’s one thing.  But we cannot keep running back to see them.

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What’s a pastor to do when ousted from his church?

An online preacher magazine says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll skip that article, thank you.  On the surface, I’d say he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher exudes bitterness, that does concern me.

No one has a right to pastor the Lord’s church.

The bitterness feels like he no longer trusts the Lord.  Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes. It’s sort of a divine alchemy.  But the one thing required for that to happen is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (Acts 16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, that you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or that you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

Here’s what you will do: You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever pleases Him most. Period.

Repeat:  Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes years!

Sure, it’s hard.  No one is saying otherwise.

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The pastor says he intends to write a book. Here’s why he probably won’t.

The pastor said to me, “When I retire, I’m going to write a book.  I have all these great stories and experiences I’m itching to tell.  That’s what I’m going to do.”

I said, “No, you won’t.”

He was taken aback.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’ve heard it too many times.  Preachers who have not written anything more than copy for the church sign think that when they hang it up, they’re suddenly going to transform themselves into authors. And it’s not going to happen.  It never happens.”

“Why do you think that is?” he asked.

“No one can go a lifetime without writing and suddenly flip a switch and write an entire book. Especially one worth reading.”

He agreed to give that some thought.

Let me say up front that I’m no authority on this subject.  I’ve written hundreds of articles but only a few books (seven actually).

For thirty years, I’ve written for Christian magazines.  A few of my articles have made it into seminary textbooks.  And I’ve published books of my cartoons, one series of which sold over 300,000 copies.  But only late in life have I written what Dad once called “an actual book,” meaning a volume of only words and no cartoons.

All my life, I have written. As a seminarian in my mid-20s, while pastoring a small church on Alligator Bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans, I wrote a devotional column for our weekly newspaper.  That was exactly 50 years ago, and I’m still typing away. I write for this blog, have a page in each issue of Lifeway’s Deacon Magazine (“My Favorite Deacon”), and am always working on the next book.

To all the pastors who want to write that all-important book of memoirs when they retire, I have a few words of counsel:

1) Read constantly. The point is, this is how you learn what good writing looks like.  And just as importantly, you learn to recognize terrible writing.

The would-be writer who does not read much will turn out material amateurish to an embarrassing degree. Teachers of music and poetry speak of amateurs with no knowledge of the basics showing them compositions which “God gave me.”

A few years back, when someone sent me several cassette tapes of songs they had written direct from the throne of God, I passed them along to my favorite music professor (who happened also to be our minister of music).  Later, I asked, “What did you think of my friend’s music?”  He was quiet a moment, then said, “Joe, it’s junk.  Trash.  It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Yikes.  My problem then was going back to my friend and giving him the bad news as tactfully as possible.

There is no substitute for learning the basics of writing. And nothing accomplishes this more than reading a great deal of excellent writing.

2) Write a great deal.

“I don’t have time now,” the pastor says. “But after I retire, I’ll have lots of time.”

“I beg to differ,” I say.  “You have plenty of time now.”

Pause. No response.

“You have the same amount of time everyone else does–168 hours a week.  It’s a matter of priorities, of deciding what to do with your time.”

I once asked Pastor Larry Kennedy how he found the time to write books. We were neighboring pastors, he at Amory and I in Columbus, Mississippi.  He said, “I get up early and write an hour every morning.”

That’s how it’s done. You find slivers of time wherever you can, and you write. And if you cannot “find” them, you create them.

If nothing else, Pastor, open your Word program and write for that, things you never intend anyone else to see. You’re practicing, trying to learn the craft, to “find your voice,” as they say.

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