Church Ministry

Sometimes, Less Is More

 

peaceful-scene-jordan-hillI attended a heated meeting of homeowners in my community a few nights ago. It seems that our community golf course is closing and a developer wants to build 304 new homes on it. There are all sorts of problems with this, as was made clear by a couple dozen angry homeowners who spoke at the microphone. I agreed with everything they said. But if I’d had the gumption to approach the mic and speak my mind, this is what I would have said to support my community:

Sometimes, less is more.

Less homebuilding means more green space. More undamaged beauty. More available land for a park and hiking trails. More wildlife. More safety. Better education for kids whose schools are already at capacity. All good things. Really good things.

After the meeting I started thinking that less is sometimes more for the Church, too.

Many church leaders think that more is better. To borrow from Daft Punk, they define success as “bigger, better, faster, stronger.” I know what I’m talking about because I used to think that way. I was a pastor for 33 years before retiring and taking a part-time job in a seminary. For many of those 33 years my goal was to grow my church numerically. Outgrow our facility and build a new sanctuary. Add more staff. Increase the budget. Reach more unchurched people. Those aren’t bad things, of course, but in my case they were means to an end: my validation as a pastor.

I know there are better men than me out there whose hearts aren’t as self-centered and insecure as mine. When they think of growing the church, they really do want to glorify God and help more people find Jesus. But I fear that a lot of pastors are like me, looking for self-validation. A growing church means we’re doing a good job, our sermons are hitting the mark, and God is favoring our ministry. Not necessarily. Churches grow for a lot of reasons, not all of them godly.

It’s a risky move, but what would it look like for a pastor to adopt the philosophy that less is sometimes more? I think it would mean the following:

  • He would spend more relaxed time with people. Getting to know them. Enjoying them. Listening deeply to their challenges, concerns, and questions. Getting to know his neighbors. Inviting people into his home and enjoying food and conversation.
  • He would simply be in less of a hurry. He would slow his step and linger with people instead of checking his watch and looking over their shoulders at others who want his time. He would be available and accessible.
  • He would operate out of a state of rest. He would take a real day off each week. He would not live in a continual state of panic about the next big thing, the next sermon, the next elders meeting, or the budget deficit.
  • He would take time to introduce change. He would give due honor to the practices and rhythms that were established before he showed up on the scene. He would listen to others’ opinions and earn trust and respect before implementing his own ideas.
  • He would be grateful that anyone at all wants to be in his church. He would repent of his restless appetite for more new people to walk through the doors on Sunday morning, as though the people already in the pews don’t matter as much.
  • He would support church planting and, if possible, plant a new church. This is because small, new churches make disciples better than big churches. In small churches people know each other, remember each other’s names, and get involved. In big churches people are more likely to be disconnected, anonymous, lonely, and invisible.
  • He would relish the privilege of knowing–really knowing–his sheep, and shepherding them through all the passages of life from the cradle to the grave.
  • He would not feel guilty or inferior or worthless when, at conferences and pastors’ meetings and on YouTube, pastors of big churches get all the attention and applause. Instead, because he is God’s beloved son he would (as Eric Liddell said about running) feel God’s pleasure just being who he is.
  • He would be a man of prayer. Not just talk about prayer and preach about prayer, but really pray.
  • And he would remember that his first and most important “congregation” is living inside the walls of his home.

The Church has taken too many sips of the Kool-Aid of the American Dream. America rewards the spectacular and despises the ordinary. Jesus, on the other hand, rewarded the cup of cold water offered to a child, the mustard seed of faith, the widow’s two copper coins, the five loaves and two fish. He hung out with marginalized people. Out of all his followers Jesus invested the bulk of his time in just twelve men. Of those twelve, three were his special focus. And just one of them was said to be the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Jesus lived by the philosophy that sometimes–maybe most of the time–less is more.

Here’s what I’ve learned: People need pastors. Curators of the soul who have the time, vulnerability, training, and experience to walk with them through life and show them the way. Pastors who aren’t in a hurry and aren’t preoccupied with bodies, bucks, and buildings.

What do you think: Can we reassess the metrics normally used to gauge success in the Church? Can we ministers of the gospel slow down, shepherd our people, and celebrate the “more” that we can have when we try to do less?

Sixteen Restorative Practices for Pastors

come-unto-me-and-i-will-give-you-restHere are sixteen practices that will restore your energy if done consistently. Even if you can start with a few of them, you will be taking better care of yourself. And if you want to be any good for those you lead, you need to be good to yourself. I’ve adapted some of these from J. R. Briggs’ book, entitled simply Fail. It’s a great read.

  1. Secure a mentor, coach or spiritual director. Someone with experience who listens well, cares about you, and can shoot straight with you.
  2. Attend a small group you do not lead.
  3. Visit with a trusted Christian counselor.
  4. Connect regularly with other pastors/Christian leaders who are safe.
  5. Develop friendships with people who see you as a person first and as a pastor/chaplain/missionary second.
  6. Develop a prayer team with whom you can vent and be truly honest.
  7. Stop reading how-to ministry books. Invest your time reading theology, church history, and biographies of faithful Christians. Be sure to read Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen.
  8. Journal—and be raw, blunt, and honest.
  9. Talk with your church leaders about what success and failure look like. Make sure you see success the same way.
  10. Avoid conferences that promote Christian celebrities and events that highlight ministry success but will only bring you under bondage and make you envious and anxious.
  11. Be the first to repent and admit weakness.
  12. Practice Sabbath. Disconnect and be refreshed. Learn to work from rest.
  13. Participate in life-giving activities. “It is more important for leaders to focus on energy management than time management.” Do things that replenish your energy.
  14. Get out of your ZIP Code on a regular basis.
  15. Exercise and eat well. “Clergy today have significantly worse health than the average American.”
  16. Listen to your spouse. He or she is the best source of wise counsel you have.

The Accidental Pastor

Harry S. TrumanI just finished an excellent biography of Harry S. Truman entitled The Accidental President, by A. J. Baime (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). I didn’t know that Truman was considered a highly unlikely candidate for Roosevelt’s Vice-President in 1944. Only two percent of Democratic voters favored him. People outside Missouri didn’t know much about Truman, and what they knew did not impress. He had run a haberdashery in Kansas City, but it went bankrupt. He hadn’t earned a college degree. He had applied for a license to practice law but changed his mind. Most of his business ventures had failed. Truman’s mother revealed that he didn’t even want the V-P job. “They pushed him into it,” she said. His partnership with the gambler Tom Pendergast put a cloud over Truman’s career in the U.S. Senate. His enemies long referred to him as “the senator from Pendergast.”

When FDR died suddenly in April, 1945, Truman was thrust into the highest office in the land, an office to which he had never aspired. “No man ever came to the Presidency of the United States under more difficult circumstances than does Harry S. Truman,” said a newspaper columnist at the time.

That’s why A. J. Baime calls Truman “the accidental president.” The whole nation was anxious about their new, unproven leader. Yet he successfully finished out Roosevelt’s term in office and went on to win a come-from-behind victory in the presidential election of 1948. Consider the accomplishments of the Truman presidency: the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and the modern Department of Defense, recognition of the state of Israel, the Berlin Airlift, the formation of the CIA and NATO, and many other things. And of course, Truman’s presidency is noted for the Allied victories that ended the war with Germany and Japan.

Sometimes we in ministry feel like Harry S. Truman. We feel like “accidental pastors.” Not that we haven’t been called and equipped by God to do what we do. Not that our congregations haven’t affirmed our gifts and responded to our leadership. But often we go through seasons when we wonder, “What was I thinking? God, what were You thinking?! I can’t turn this ship around. I’m not sure I belong here. I can’t take all these people to the Promised Land.”

It’s at times like these that we have to remember some of Paul’s words:

What is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:30)

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

So to myself I say: I am a servant, not a celebrity. I’m a jar of clay. Sure I’m weak, and half the time I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m no accident. I am who I am by God’s design. I am where I am by God’s appointment. So God, have your way in me and be glorified.

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?