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 hasdbaptized 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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How preachers can stay out of Boringland

“Then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25)

Holly, a 7-year-old in a church I pastored, turned to her mother in the middle of my sermon and said, “Mother, why does Doctor Joe think we need this information?”

Every preacher should have such a child listening to every sermon and giving such feedback.

What boring preaching does–without exception–is answer questions which no one is asking.

It may do more things than this–dead oratory violates a thousand sound principles–but put it down in huge letters, pastor: the sermon which is sedating your congregation is seen as completely irrelevant to them.

Whether it is or not is another matter.

My job as the pastor may mean making my audience see that this subject is one they should be dealing with and asking questions about.

On an airline flight, passengers ignore the instructions of the attendant as she talks about the use of the seat cushion as flotation device or how to inflate the life vests. If however, at 30,000 feet the pilot announces the loss of an engine and the attendant begins to give instructions, she will have the clear and undivided attention of her audience.

One reason for the pastor previewing the sermon with his spouse and/or children is that invariably one among them can be counted on to ask, “What is your point?”  “What is this about?”  Or, as Holly put it, “Why do we need to know this?”

In Scripture, we get the impression that Jesus’ best preaching was done on the spur of the moment as a result of questions.

–“Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) From this, we have the unforgettable story of the good Samaritan.

–“Why do you receive sinners and eat with them?” (Luke 15:1ff) This charge gave the Lord an audience for His parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost boy (Prodigal Son).

–“Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel? What will be the sign of your coming and of the end?” (Matthew 24:1ff.) As a result of these questions, we have lengthy explanations as to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Lord’s return.

–“Why do your disciples not fast?” (Matthew 9:14) This gave us the teachings of new-patches-on-old-garments and new-wine-in-old-wineskins.

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What I prayed in the night of my soul

Nothing jerks our prayers out of their “blessed generality” stage like a crisis. The most effective kind of crisis for that is for a close loved one to get in serious trouble–car wreck, cancer, emergency surgery.

But a close second is a personal crisis, the kind where someone is making life miserable for you and even getting out of bed in the morning and walking into one more day is taking all the strength you can muster. You either quit praying altogether, the worst possible choice, or your prayers lose their vain repetitions and meaningless phrases and get down to business.

A crisis can kick your prayer life into overdrive.

What follows is such a prayer of mine, written in the thick of church conflict. It was voiced sometime in the 1990’s, during the last of my six pastorates.  This was a troubled congregation in recovery from a devastating split that took place a year before I arrived.  The church was constantly beset with internal strife.

The prayer is about as specific as one would want a prayer to be. No more “bless him” and “help her.” It does not call names, however, and I’m glad to report is not as harsh as some of the Psalms where David is praying for the children of his enemies to not survive that day.

Here is the prayer, along with a few comments. I send it forth in the hope that some servant of the Lord in the fight of his life may find encouragement to hang tough and be faithful.

Father, what I’m praying for is that….

1) Everything I preach may come from thee. Lead me please regarding subjects, texts, stories, applications, and especially in the delivery.”

When people fight a pastor, invariably they attack his sermons. That happened to me at various times over a long ministry. In a sense, the critics are hitting us where we are most vulnerable, because few of us feel that our preaching is all it should be. They will find fault with the subjects you are preaching, the scriptures you use, the stories you tell, the way you say it, everything. And, if you are doing all these things well, they will criticize your neck-tie–or the lack of one.

The remedy is to turn their opposition into motivation to pray harder, study more diligently, and do everything you know in order to deliver the sharpest, most powerful sermons you’re capable of preaching.

2) “Father, may every position I take, every pronouncement I make, be from Thee. May I be silent until the right moment. May it be obvious to those who love you that my words are Thy words.”

The first request concerns sermons. The second concerns those off-the-cuff remarks made in casual conversations or during deacons’ meetings.  It was in those deacon sessions where those who opposed me fed off each other and gained encouragement to attack. At the same time, the “good guys” tended to be silent there. I have no explanation for that, other than outright cowardice. (Hey, let’s call it what it is. They were intimidated by the bullies.)

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Childlike humility in the pulpit: Such a rarity

“Except you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

What’s lacking in the great majority of religious experts–of all tribes, all beliefs, all everything!–is a childlike humility.

I’ve sat across from the salespeople hawking Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrine door to door and been amazed at the sheer gall and arrogance of these know-it-alls.

I’ve sat in the auditoriums and classrooms when prophecy teachers were spreading out their charts and telling far more than they could ever know, pronouncing their anathema upon anyone daring to believe otherwise and taking no prisoners in the process.

I’ve sat in massive conferences among thousands of my peers and heard ignorance spouted as truth but camouflaged with alliteration and pious phrases and encouraged and affirmed by thundering echoes of “amens” and “hallelujahs”.

–In every case, I longed to hear someone say, “We see through a glass darkly….”  (I Corinthians 13:12).

–To hear someone say, “I have not arrived. I press toward the mark….” (Philippians 3:12-13).

–To hear someone say, “We do not know how to pray as we should….” (Romans 8:26)

–To hear someone say, “That which I am doing, I do not understand.  I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Where is the childlike spirit we hear so much of in the Word?

1) I can hear someone say, “Well, we enter the kingdom by that spirit, but thereafter, as we learn and grow, we become teachers and instructors and gain confidence and are allowed to become more bombastic.”

Rubbish.

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I grieve for the Lord’s church. Here’s why…

“Is Ephraim my dear son?  Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him.  Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will certainly have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).

“How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not.  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:37-38).

Almost daily, I hear of churches firing their preachers, engaged in lawsuits, and struggling with inner conflict.  I know churches that were strong a generation ago but are fighting to survive now.

These are difficult days for churches, which makes these challenging days for church leaders.

Believers who are not grieving for the Lord’s church these days must not be paying attention.

Let us care for what is happening, and pray for the Lord’s people….

–I grieve for the trendy church which is drawing people in from the smaller surrounding congregations and bursting at the seams, but leaving the smaller ones to shrivel and die.  The huge church may convince its members that they are doing big things for the kingdom since they deal with such large numbers. Churches can be so self-centered. Pray your church will be loving toward other congregations. 

–I grieve for the church which is having mind-staggering growth but becomes secretive about what it does with the millions of dollars it takes in, protective about the pay it gives its leaders, and dismissive about the questionable personal lives of its leadership.  Churches can be carnal. Pray your church will be led by men and women of integrity. 

–I grieve for the smaller church which turns an envious eye toward the growing congregations in its community and, desiring to be like the others, dismisses its faithful pastor and worship leaders because “we have to stay current with modern trends.”  Churches can be wrong-headed. Pray your church will look to Jesus for affirmation and not at their neighbors. 

–I grieve for the church which keeps pastors no more than three or four years, then manufactures crises to justify sending them packing so they can bring in another who is destined to become a victim himself in due time.  Churches can be cruel. Pray your church will be Christlike. 

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10 biblical truths God’s people probably do not believe

From the beginning, the Lord’s people talk a better game than we live.

So many biblical truths look good on paper and sound great when we’re spouting them.  And yet, judging by the way we live, the Lord’s people probably do not believe the following…

One.  God sends the pastor to the church. 

Churches survey their congregation to find the kind of pastor everyone wants in the next guy.  People lobby for a candidate they like and rally against one they don’t.  And they vote on the recommendation of their committee.  And after he arrives, when some turn against him, they send him on his way.

Do we really believe God sends pastors to churches?  They are God’s undershepherds (see I Peter 5:1-4) and appointed by the Holy Spirit as overseers of the church (Acts 20:28).

Two.  God hears our prayers, cares for our needs, and answers our prayers.

In the typical congregation, what percentage of the people are serious about their prayer life?

If we believed that God hears, cares, and answers, we would be praying over every detail of our lives.  “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) would define our very existence.

Three. It is more blessed to give than to receive.

God wants His people to be givers, generous in every area of life.  As a member of the church, He wants us to be sacrificial givers.  (See I Corinthians 8:1ff).

Think how hard it is to get God’s people to turn loose of the almighty dollar.  I know pastors who no longer preach on giving because they cannot take the criticism.  (Acts 20:35, Luke 6:38, and Matthew 6:19-20)

Four.  We will stand before the Lord and give account of all we have done.

If we believed that, imagine how differently we would live.  A lot of church leaders would deal with their pastors a lot more carefully than they do now.  The tyrants who rule their churches clearly do not know, believe, or care that they will be brought into judgement for their actions.  (See Matthew 12:36, Romans 14:12 and I Peter 4:5.)

Five.  God’s people are to obey their leaders.

The very idea, I can hear some saying.  Even if they know Hebrews 13:17, they conveniently ignore it.  They do so to their own detriment.

The fact is our members obey their leaders so long as they agree with them.  But let the leader ask of them something they don’t want to do, and they bail out.

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The power of a good story. You’re going to love this!

Without a story He did not speak to them  (Mark 4:34).

(Don’t miss my note at the end.)

You hear it, see it, read it, or experience it. All your senses come alive. “This is one I’ll remember a long time,” you think, and sure enough you do. For a long time afterward, your mind reels with the possibilities. What can I do with this great story? What sermon will it fit? How can I work it in?

I’ve sometimes facetiously said that a great story will fit my sermon next Sunday. The sermon may have to be reworked, but if it’s a great story, it will fit.

Like the time my wife and I were dining in Baby Doe’s restaurant on the mountainside in Birmingham, Alabama. I noticed our waitress’ name was Auburn.

That’s when I decided to get cute.

“Your name is Auburn,” I said. “I’ll bet you have a sister named Alabama.”

She said, “I have two sisters, Tulane and Cornell.”

I said, “Yeah, right.”

She said, “I have four brothers — Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Duquesne.”

I said, “Lady, I don’t believe a word of this.”

She said, “My father’s name is Stanford and my mother is Loyola. They were engaged before it occurred to them they both had colleges as names, and decided to do this to their children.”

I was speechless. But she wasn’t through.

“When we were little, we were on the cover of Parade magazine, in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and on Art Linkletter’s Houseparty (a delightful daytime television show from years past some will remember).”

She was married and had two children, she said. I said, “Let me guess. You’re married to Gardner-Webb. Or Truett-McConnell.”

She said, “My husband’s name is Ron Harris, a good old American name. But my children are Slippery Rock and Agnes Scott.” She smiled and said, “I’m teasing about that.”

Auburn formerly worked as a flight attendant on Southern Airways, the airline that serviced our home airport back in Mississippi. A few months later, flying back from Dallas, I asked the flight attendant, “Did you ever know a stewardess named Auburn?” She laughed. “Auburn Bardwell — had all those weird-named brothers and sisters!”

Auburn’s story made my sermon the following Sunday. I forget what I had been planning to preach, but the message ended up dealing with the significance of names in our culture, in the Bible, to God, and in Heaven (where we will receive a new name; see Revelation 2:17 and 3:12).

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The two times a pastor is most vulnerable

“Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14).

We’re all vulnerable.  Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:12).  The brother who gave us that reminder was himself constantly being knocked down, but getting back up.  If anyone knew the subject of vulnerability, Paul did (see 2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

After telling young Pastor Timothy of a coming time when people would not stand for sound doctrine and strong preaching, but would “turn away their ears from the truth and will prefer myths,” Paul said, “But as for you, be sober in all things (that is, clear-thinking), endure hardship (expect it, and plan to get through it), do the work of an evangelist (keep telling Heaven’s good news), and fulfill your ministry (do not let any critic pull you off course).”  (With my interjections, that’s 2 Timothy 4:5).

I find it amazing and truly heart-warming how such reminders to a minister twenty centuries ago fit us so perfectly today.  That’s one more reason, out of ten thousand, why you and I love and live in this Word. There is nothing like it anywhere.

Now, returning to our subject of the minister’s vulnerability….

The minister is most vulnerable at two times: in the few minutes before the morning service begins and in the half hour after it ends.

A wise minister will take steps to guard himself in order to give his best to the Lord and the people.  (Proverbs 4:23 “Guard your heart.”  Acts 20:28 “Be on guard for yourself and for all the flock….”)

A caring membership will protect the pastor at the same time for the same reasons.

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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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The pastor gets his comeuppance

Here’s the story as my friend told it to me.

Dave was pastoring a small church in a deep southern town while living in a city some miles away. Weekdays, Dave worked for the health department.

One day, his church leadership requested that Dave get ordained. He passed this on to his home church pastor in the city.

The pastor said, “Dave, anyone in particular you want to preach your ordination?” Dave couldn’t think of anyone. “I’ll leave that to you,” he said.

The night of the big event, Dave entered the church sanctuary and spotted a colleague from the health department. As they exchanged greetings, the friend said, “Uh, Dave. Have you seen who’s preaching your service tonight?” He hadn’t.

As soon as he laid eyes on the featured preacher, Dave stood there in shock.

That preacher was a retired pastor who lived in the city. Only a few weeks before, Dave had served him with official papers demanding that he take care of some health issues on his property or face legal action. The preacher had defiantly cursed David out, creating quite a spectacle.

“He did take the remedial action we demanded, however,” Dave says.

But even so.

The preacher who cursed David out is now about to preach his ordination service.

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