Church Ministry

Wise words from Dallas Willard

9780310275961r1Pastor John Ortberg in his book, Soul Keeping, recalls a conversation he had with the late Dallas Willard. He asked Dallas what he (John) should do to help his church grow. That’s every pastor’s question, right? “What must I do to succeed, to be an agent of spiritual transformation in my congregation?”

Dallas’ reply is worth writing down and putting in a place where you’ll see it every day. He said to John Ortberg,

The main thing you will give your congregation…is the person you become. If your soul is unhealthy, you can’t help anybody. You don’t send a doctor with pneumonia to care for patients with immune disorders. You, and nobody else, are responsible for the well-being of your own soul. You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.

What a strange reply! Imagine that… More than any other human factor, the spiritual health of our churches depends on our own spiritual well-being.

This is at once a comforting and a deeply humbling truth. Comforting because it releases us from the idolatry of success. But humbling because it means we must do the hard business of soul care and daily repentance if we hope to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

May we do so.

Read my interview about “Surviving Ministry”

(Recently my publisher interviewed me about my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. Here’s what I had to say.)

What motivated you to write Surviving Ministry?

After being a pastor for twelve relatively tranquil years, I accepted a call that turned out to be extremely challenging. I was not a good fit for the culture of either the church or the community. Moreover, I was unprepared for the trials I would face. The church had been badly hurt by its two previous pastors. During my time there we went through crisis after crisis. Some of them were my fault; others were not. After five years I was done. I thought my days as a pastor might be over. But by God’s grace, I found a position in another church and recovered my zest for ministry. This book is a record of lessons I learned during and since those five “hurricane” years.

So you compare church conflict to a hurricane. How did you happen to land on the hurricane metaphor?

I live in Florida where hurricanes are always on people’s minds, at least from June through November. But I have personal reasons for being fascinated with Hurricane Katrina. My father grew up in New Orleans and one of my daughters lives on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Her husband is a pastor. They accepted a call to a church in Gulfport shortly after Katrina blew through in 2005. The church had been practically destroyed, literally and figuratively, by the hurricane. When turmoil strikes a church it often comes with devastating and unexpected power, leaving piles of hurt and animosity that may or may not ever be resolved. That sounds like a hurricane to me.

What would you say are the top three lessons your hurricane experience taught you?

It’s hard to pick just three, but I would say to a pastor: (1) know yourself really
well and be comfortable in your own skin; (2) spend most of your time in the early years of ministry in a church earning the trust of your congregation; and (3) base your identity on who you are as a beloved child of God, not on your popularity or success. If I may borrow from Proverbs 31:30, success is deceptive and popularity is fleeting. Several chapters in Surviving Ministry elaborate on these principles.

In your experience, how do pastors themselves often create or contribute to ministry storms?

I can speak from both experience and observation. Pastors often act like Lone Rangers. We think we can do it all. So we wear ourselves out and alienate a number of people whose support we need when things go south. We forget that our job is not to do the ministry ourselves but to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Another way we contribute to our own burnout is failing to invest in friendship. Pastors are some of the loneliest people in America. I devote full chapters to these two topics: teamwork and friends. Another thing we pastors are prone to do is talk, lecture, or scold when we should be listening. When I look back on my five-year hurricane experience, if I’d been a better listener I’m sure some of my difficulties would have been averted.

In your book you share openly about your own church leadership crises. Do you include stories from other pastors?

Yes. While doing my research I interviewed a number of pastors in the U.S. and Canada who either were in a period of severe ministry trial or had recently emerged from one. In seven of the sixteen chapters of Surviving Ministry you will read their stories. I felt it was important to write about real pastors and real problems. To protect their identities I changed their names and the names of their locales.

Was there a common thread that ran through all their stories?

Their situations were quite different. But if there was a common thread, it was the simple fact that church ministry is difficult. I think many of us pastors believe leading a church should not be hard. We think, if we just love people, preach biblical sermons, and pray, our churches will grow and people will love us. But this is a seriously deficient view of both the pastorate and human sin. In chapters one and two of Surviving Ministry I address the problem of pastoral idealism. The fact is, we are broken people working with broken people. Pastors need to expect hurricanes. Then perhaps we wouldn’t be so devastated by them.

Who are you hoping will read your book?

Ministers of the gospel are obviously my target audience, especially those who are suffering, considering jumping ship, feeling like a failure, and needing some practical guidance. But I suggest that every pastor read this book. We are most exposed to a ministry hurricane when we think we are invincible. Many churches are just one bad decision away from turmoil. Plus, you never know when a “well-intentioned dragon” will cause trouble in your congregation. I also think this book should be required reading for seminary students. Elders, deacons, and other church leaders would be doing their pastors a favor by reading this book and encouraging them to heed its advice.

What’s your last word to a pastor out there whose church is being blown apart by conflict?

Don’t give up hope. God is proud of you. Believe the gospel. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5, ESV).

Read an excerpt of “Surviving Ministry”

My book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, was recently publishePrintd and is available in both paperback and Kindle. Get it directly from the publisher for 20% off the retail price, or from Amazon, CBD, etc.

To get a feel for the book, click on this link:
Surviving Ministry Excerpt

Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

“Surviving Ministry” now a book

PrintMy book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, is now available. Published by Wipf & Stock, my book will help pastors, missionaries, church officers, and other leaders get through seasons of conflict with hope. Seminary students and others considering church leadership will also find it an honest, practical, and biblically-based guide to preparing for difficulty and emerging from it as a better leader.

You can order direct from the publisher at 20% off the retail price. It’s also available from Amazon in paperback or as a Kindle book.

 

The best advice I was ever given

Years ago, while I was still in seminary, a man who mentored me gave me the best advice I’ve ever received.

He said you minister out of who you are.

At the time, I’m not sure I understood what he meant. Or at least I didn’t grasp the importance of it. But through the years in pastoral ministry, I have come to see the wisdom and value of his words.

On the one hand it’s a statement of fact. You can only fake it so long. You cannot give what you don’t have. So my mentor’s advice means that to be effective in ministry, I must prioritize my own spiritual health. I must, in the words of Proverbs 4:23, keep my heart with all vigilance, “for from it flow the springs of life.”

But on the other hand, my friend’s advice was a word of comfort as well as charge. In ministry, I do not have to be other than who I am. I do not have to be Tim Keller or Rick Warren or Francis Chan or any other pastor. God designed me the way He did for a reason. It’s not that I don’t need further sanctification–God knows I do. And it’s not that sometimes I don’t have to push myself out of my comfort zone and try things that are difficult for me–I do every day! But when all is said or done, I am who I am. I am an ISFJ. I am insecure. I am not good at telling jokes. I need notes in the pulpit. I’m a plodder, not a sprinter. I’m better with people than plans. I get nervous before elder meetings. I have a hard time seeing beyond the next couple of months. I’m a shepherd, not a fundraiser-motivator-debater-theologian-cheerleader-visionary.

And that’s OK. No, it’s very good.

Because I am needed in the battle, just the way I am.

It’s when I try to be someone I’m not, that all the life and energy go right out of me. I get pressured and stressed and worried and angry. And that’s not what God wants for me or His church.

You minister out of who you are. Take that to the bank. You’re a beloved child of God. Sure, you need to grow. There are areas of your life that are in serious need of improvement. Me, too. But in the meantime, the Lord your God is with you. He rejoices over you with gladness, quiets you by His love, and exults over you with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).

Be who you are, and you’ll be a better pastor. Not only that, you’ll enjoy being a pastor a whole lot more.

 

Pastor, do you need a place to heal?

I did.

And when I was at my lowest place in pastoral ministry, my church did a very good thing. They sent my wife and me to Marble Retreat.

Marble Retreat is an eight-day intensive program for hurting church leaders located 8,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains of western Colorado. My wife and I went there in December, 2000. The program takes just four ministry couples at a time. Each couple gets a room in this amazing, beautiful lodge. Each day’s schedule includes free time, group therapy, and individual therapy led by professional Christian counselors. My wife and I were blessed to be there when Dr. and Mrs. Louis McBurney led the therapy sessions. Louis and Melissa founded Marble Retreat in 1974. Dr. McBurney is now at home with the Lord.

imagesThe three goals of Marble Retreat are:

  • To allow each participant to safely unburden the hurts and pressures of life and ministry.
  • To assist each person to understand him/herself more completely as their life patterns have developed.
  • To encourage and enable development of new levels of self-acceptance as well as more effective relational skills.

I went to Marble wondering how in the world I would survive in ministry. I was confused, angry, and humiliated. I felt like a failure. But Marble Retreat gave me renewed hope that my life of ministry was not over. I returned to my church with a much better grip on my identity in Christ, my giftedness for ministry, and my next steps. It was due to my experience at Marble Retreat that I took a new direction as a pastor. Here I am fourteen years later, still reaping the benefits of the decisions my wife and I made at Marble. Oh, and our marriage was restored as well.

Another benefit of Marble Retreat is the friendships you make. I still keep in touch with two of the three couples we met at Marble. One couple had just lost their son in a tragic car accident. One of the other pastors had just been booted out of his church because of pornography addiction. The other couple was in a similar crisis. As for me, I was just ready to quit.

All eight of us were broken when we arrived. We were still broken at the end of the program, but the pieces were beginning to be put back together again.

Please. If you’re a hurting church leader, check out Marble Retreat. Scholarship aid is available. Go.

 

 

A new way of seeing your ministry

It was timeimages to go to the optometrist again. My glasses were scratched and I wanted some new frames. So I made an appointment, took my seat in the exam room, and looked into that periscope gizmo. Uh oh. “You need a new prescription,” the doctor said. My “far” vision was still pretty good, but my “near” vision was worse than ever.

Which reminds me: Things can look really blurry when they’re up close.

That’s why church leaders often need to get away from the day-to-day grind of church ministry. We need to step back, relax, get a new way of seeing, and listen to God. Jesus did it. Who are we to think we don’t need to “withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16)?

Wayne Cordeiro wrote a helpful book called Leading on Empty. The subtitle is “Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion.” Cordeiro is the pastor of a big church in Hawaii. The book tells about his experience with burnout and recovery. It’s also a clarion call to make sure we finish well. In order to do that, we need a new way of seeing ministry.

Here’s a good sound bite from the book: “Do the things only you can do.”

Cordeiro says that 85% of what we do, anyone can do. With a little training, most people could do another 10% of what we do. But unfortunately, because we are insecure or refuse to delegate or are just undisciplined, many of us give our time and attention to that 95%, and neglect the 5% that only we can do. It’s that “crucial 5%” that God will one day hold us accountable for.

Think about your ministry and ponder these questions:

  • What is it that only you can do?
  • What is your unique contribution to the spiritual growth of others?
  • What do you love to do?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What brings you joy in ministry?
  • If you weren’t around, what would people miss out on?
  • What are you best at?
  • What do people say they appreciate the most about you?

Questions like these can help you identify the things that only you can do. Devote yourself to those things.

The apostle Paul knew his unique calling. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” he said (1 Cor. 9:16). Paul told Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God” that was in him (2 Tim. 1:6). “Do not neglect the gift you have,” he said (1 Tim. 4:14). In other words, do the things only you can do, young Timothy.

How would you complete this sentence? “Woe to me if I do not ________!”

Obviously, we all have to do things that lie outside our job description from time to time. But Wayne Cordeiro is right. Most of us church leaders and pastors need a new way of seeing. We can’t–we shouldn’t–do it all. If we try to do it all, we’ll wind up leading on empty.

What has helped you focus your time and energy on things only you can do?

I’m writing a book, and you can help

So what’s my book about?

Here’s the way I’ve pitched it to an agent: Being a pastor is sort of like living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi or Louisiana. There’s always the danger of a ministry-killing catastrophe. Churches are often unsafe places for ministers. Churches are filled with sinners, and I’m one of them. Many pastors walk into a church with a naïveté about the danger of what they do every day. They are vulnerable to difficult people, unresolved conflict, incompatible visions, hidden agendas, and sin–their own and that of others.

I endured five years of conflict and crisis in a church (see My Story). I went into that church unprepared. I should have asked harder questions. I should have taken more time to build trust. I should have been more careful and compassionate about introducing change. Fellow leaders should have been more cooperative and forgiving. It was a perfect storm, a Category 5 hurricane in the making. When the storm came, I should have been more prayerful, less accommodating to the wishes of others, more loving, patient, and honest. The conflict eventually exploded in a “splant” (that’s a cross between a split and a church plant) that hurt my family and me and many other people. It threatened to end my career as a pastor and seriously damage my marriage.

But through that catastrophe, I learned valuable lessons. I moved on, recovered a love for the church, and eventually returned to the role of lead pastor elsewhere. In my book I will reflect on my experience and share the lessons learned. I hope to redeem the experience by helping other pastors recognize, negotiate, and redeem their own ministry hurricanes. I will also share anecdotes I collect from other pastors. Unfortunately, there are many stories out there to share.

In fact, that’s where you come in. You may have experienced or witnessed a ministry hurricane yourself. If so, may I interview you? Or can you put your story in writing and send it to me? I plan to keep all stories anonymous and will change the names of people and places.

Obviously, my book will be aimed at pastors, but people in a variety of ministry settings will be able to relate to it. My goal is to help people in ministry recognize the signs of an impending catastrophe, limit its damage, learn its lessons, and live with gospel optimism for the future.

The ordinary

We used to have a little dog named Dabo. We named him after Dabo Swinney, the head coach of the Clemson Tigers football team. Dabo (the dog) was a Bichon Frise. Not a yapper, thankfully, and lots of fun. He never met a stranger, and he especially adored kids. We ended up “adopting” him out to our daughter’s family in Mississippi. They’re fans of Florida State so, as you may guess, they renamed our dog Jimbo (after Jimbo Fisher). Yes, Jimbo’s the head coach of the FSU football team. At least our dog is still in the ACC.

Dabo regularly taught me lessons. One was not to be in a hurry. Whenever I took him outside to go to the bathroom, he would just kind of wander aimlessly around the yard, taking his fool time, smelling everything, chasing lizards, looking around, and sniffing the air. Finally he would get down to business.

From Dabo I learned enjoyment of the ordinary. On sunny afternoons I would go outside with Dabo and he would find a spot in the backyard and just…sit. I’d say, “Let’s go over here, Dabo.” And he’d glance at me, turn away, and…lie down in the grass. It’s like he was saying, “Umm, I don’t think so. Why are you in a hurry? Don’t you want to just stay here a few minutes and feel the sunshine?” I couldn’t resist. So I’d walk over, plop myself down next to Dabo, stroke his back, and enjoy the ordinary.

I hate to confess this, but I apparently needed a dog to teach me this lesson. Otherwise I don’t know if I’d ever stop and feel the sunshine on my face.

I’m reading Zack Eswine’s book for pastors, titled Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being. It’s a wonderful but convicting book about enjoying the ordinary. He says we ministers are, generally speaking, driven people. We are always hankering after some “significant” work, chasing some “God-sized” dream, trying to change the world, thinking that we have to move on to some exotic place where we can “make a difference.” Problem is, we are not God, though we secretly fancy ourselves to be. We are not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. We are actually pretty much…a mess. And anyway, God usually chooses to work through ordinary people in ordinary places.

He who called you to where you are declares that you needn’t repent of being in one place at one time. You needn’t repent of doing only a long, small work in an extraordinary but unknown place. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.

I wish I’d read Eswine’s book years ago when, as a young pastor, I felt “called” away from my small, rural church to a city I knew nothing about but where, I thought, I would really make a difference for the kingdom. I don’t know, maybe I was called there. But looking back from Dabo’s perspective, maybe I was in too much of a hurry.

The prophet Jeremiah told his friend and secretary Baruch, “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5).

That’s what I heard Dabo saying to me in the backyard on sunny afternoons. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.

 

What did Jesus look like?

One of the things I do at my church is give a children’s message in the Sunday morning worship service. In all the churches I’ve pastored, I have given children’s sermons. I do it because I believe children ought to love worshiping God with their church family. If Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” then we ought to make the worship service meaningful to kids. A short five-minute message geared to kids not only communicates that we value them as Jesus did, but it turns out to be a great way to get the gospel into the hearts of adults as well.

If you look online you’ll find lots of children’s sermon resources (here’s one that I’ve found helpful). But many of them are no different from what you might read in Berenstain Bears books–moralistic lessons about being obedient, polite, environmentally sensitive, forgiving, healthy, and safe. What would the apostle Paul call that kind of preaching to kids? “Another gospel, which is really no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7). A children’s sermon should do the same thing a regular sermon should do, namely, point people to Christ. So if you’re giving a children’s sermon, be sure to talk about things that help children see Jesus and their need of him. Ground it in a short text of Scripture. Bring along an object in a sack (I call mine my “Bag of Wonders”). Call the children up to the front of the church. Get on their level and look them in the eye. Talk in a normal adult voice. From time to time, give them something to take back to their seats: a piece of candy, a cheap gift, etc. Whatever it is, they’ll love it.

After the service yesterday a friend suggested that I record my children’s sermons in my blog. I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that years ago?” I’ve been blogging for a long time, but lately I’ve let it slide. So I took her suggestion as a kick in the butt to start a new blog dedicated to “what I’ve learned and what I want to be sure I’ve said.” Besides children’s sermons I’ll include thoughts on church and pastoral ministry, theological reflections, lessons learned, and the like. Hopefully they’ll help someone somewhere.

So here’s a description of this week’s children’s message:

Title: “What Did Jesus Look Like?”

Main point: Jesus suffered. So when we suffer we know our Savior understands and gives us strength to endure.

Preparation: In your “Bag of Wonders” hide a picture frame containing not a photo but the words of Isaiah 53:2b-3a.

Opening question: “What do you think Jesus looked like?” (interact with the children’s answers)

Message: Well, I know what Jesus looked like, and I have his picture in my Bag of Wonders. (Pull out picture frame and show the verse to the kids.) No one really knows what Jesus looked like. Probably he looked like all the other Jewish men his age. But in Isaiah 53, God gives us a really good “picture” of Jesus. It says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” How about that! Jesus did not really look all that great. He was not handsome. He didn’t look like all those paintings you’ve seen of a long-haired, blue-eyed, tanned Jesus. He looked very…ordinary. In fact, he was despised. What does that mean? (let children define “despised”) He was “rejected.” What does that mean? (let children define “rejected”) Lots of people didn’t want Jesus around. Jesus suffered–that’s what “acquainted with grief” means. How did Jesus suffer? (Jesus suffered throughout his life, but especially on the cross) So you know what that means, boys and girls? When you’re going through a hard time, Jesus knows all about it. You’ve suffered too, haven’t you? You’ve fallen down, you’ve broken a bone or skinned a knee. Maybe your family has been through a hard time. Maybe your mom or dad didn’t have a job. Maybe you feel like nobody likes you. That’s suffering. And Jesus understands. He loves you very much. So next time you’re lonely, or scared, or hurt, remember this: Jesus is with you. You can cry out to him and he will help you get through it.