church ministry

James’ story

frustratedPastor James (not his real name) had been at Christ Church for over twenty-four years. You’d think by then his church would be immune to controversy. But when James started introducing changes to boost the church’s outreach, an unseen fault line under Christ Church burst wide open. “We tried to change the culture of the church and it couldn’t be done,” James told me. “It created inherent tension in the body.” Overnight, it seemed, Christ Church took on the air of an intense presidential debate, and James was the political football. The rift unfortunately coincided with the resignations of all five of James’s elders. One elder was having marital problems. Another felt he was too old to continue serving. Another resigned to take care of her ailing husband. A fourth elder was diagnosed with bipolar disease and needed hospitalization. The fifth could not abide the changes James was making. So when things were at their most desperate, James had only one person on the governing board besides himself: his assistant pastor.

An influential family in the church agreed with James that the church needed to turn its focus outward. For too long, they said, Christ Church had ignored the needs of the community. But when they saw a church fight looming, they wanted no part of it; they’d been through that before in another church. So they told James they were leaving. Problem was, that family contributed nearly a third of Christ Church’s offerings. So now, James had not only a congregation in turmoil, but little money. The budget had to be slashed; the assistant pastor had to go.

The tension took its toll on James, emotionally and physically. He caught a cold that he could not shake. His teenage daughter said, “Dad, you’re under stress!” James knew it but didn’t know what to do about it. He managed to recruit three new elders from the congregation. They agreed with James theologically but not philosophically. Every board meeting pitted James on one side against the three elders on the other.

“You’re taking Christ Church in the wrong direction,” they told him.

“You’re not listening to the gospel,” he replied. It was a stalemate.

Finally James told his elders what he’d been thinking for months. “We’re not a team. It’s not good for any of us, and it’s not good for the church. Either you need to step down or I need to. If we stay together things are only going to get worse.” The elders took offense, as though James was accusing them of fomenting division.

“We’re not going anywhere,” they told him. So the following Sunday, James announced his resignation.

Three months later, despite their promise to stay, the three elders also left. Absent leadership and with declining membership, Christ Church fell apart and was dissolved by its denomination.

The words of the wise are like goads

The most valuable words ever spoken to me by a mentor: You minister out of who you are.

That’s what an older pastor said to me over 30 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I have tried to live out his words by reminding myself often that I don’t have to covet other people’s gifts or calling. I am who I am by God’s design and for this time and place. I have a unique past, a unique voice, unique abilities and limitations–all of which equip me for influence with people whom God has sovereignly placed in my sphere.

The Teacher once said, “The words of the wise are like goads” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). What wise words have meant the most to you as a pastor?

When Confronting a Dragon…

A book that has helped me survive in ministry is Well-Intentioned Dragons: Ministering to Problem People in the Church, by Marshall Shelley. It was written over 20 years ago, but it’s a timeless read–especially if you’re in the early stages of your ministry.

fire-spitting-dragon-1920x1080-e1421151913451Well-intentioned dragons are often “pillars of the community—talented, strong personalities, deservingly respected—but for some reason, they undermine the ministry of the church.”⁠1 All the dragons have one thing in common: power—power to destroy enthusiasm, shift responsibility away from themselves, and make you (the pastor) crazy. Some wield their power subtly, through flattery, gifts, promises, and sob stories. Other dragons are more openly hostile, critical, and divisive. Regardless, you must confront them.⁠ This is part of your job “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). You cannot ignore the situation and just hope things will get better. You must let God use you to help these people change. Not to do so may spare you a painful conversation but will hurt your congregation and make life more difficult for you in the long run.

Here are seven steps I recommend you take before you confront someone who is causing problems:

1. Pray both for yourself and the person who needs confronting. Ask God to give you a love for that individual and a genuine desire for his or her welfare.

2. Repent of your own sin. Take the log out of your own eye before you try to remove the speck of sawdust out of the other person’s eye.⁠ Identify ways you are like that person. Confess your uncharitable thoughts of him or her.

3. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person?” Even your worst critic is telling you something that is true. How might he or she, with a little help, actually benefit you and the church?

4. Write out what you should say. Begin by asking for permission to speak honestly and openly. Consider opening with “May I speak from the heart about something that’s been bothering me?” or “Do you agree that one of my roles as a pastor is to bring things to people’s attention—sometimes hard things?” Also think of how you can begin on a positive note instead of immediately telling the person where he or she is wrong.

5. Identify and write out the specific changes you expect the person to make. What will repentance look like?

6. Plan out next steps. What will happen if the person refuses to repent? What consequences should he or she expect? What will you do next to assist the person in his or her growth?

7. Call the person and set up a meeting. The sooner the better. Do not put it off or make excuses. The Holy Spirit is prompting you; he will help you. Don’t keep him waiting.

What other tips for confronting dragons have you picked up over the years?

1 Marshall Shelley, “Identifying a Dragon,” in Leading Your Church through Conflict and Reconciliation. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997, p. 60.

Ask for Help

Our church recently started a coed cycling club. Every Saturday morning a dozen or so of us meet in the church parking lot, hop on our road bikes, and go for a ride of twenty-five or thirty miles. It’s turning out to be a good o46b2cb4b1ed8cf35_draftingutreach, as several non-churchgoers have joined our little band. I’m learning how important it is to stay in a line and cycle as close as possible to the bike in front of me. This is called drafting. Each cyclist creates a vortex, or a low pressure area, that pulls the cyclist behind him or her forward. It is far easier to be behind someone and get in his or her draft, than to be alone or out in front. “Cyclists who are part of the group can save up to forty percent in energy expenditures over a cyclist who is not drafting with the group,” says⁠ scientist Paul Doherty.

In like fashion, your ministry will be easier, and a lot more fun, when you ask for and receive the help of other people.

In many ministers of the gospel (and in my own heart) there is a prideful resistance to receiving help from others. We want to be superheroes who rescue our poor parishioners in distress—and, incidentally, receive their adulation. It’s our way of building a record and earning righteousness apart from Christ. Depending on other people indicates weakness. And weakness, say⁠1 Michigan psychologists Dane Ver Merris and Bert van Hoek, is what many pastors are loath to reveal:

Ministers are understandably reluctant to admit shortcomings on the psychological tests we use. Instead, pastors view themselves as highly principled, moral, and virtuous. Test instruments are quite good at detecting this defensiveness, and the pastors we have counseled often have been reluctant to admit even minor flaws or emotional discomfort—even to the point of threatening the validity of the test results. Rather than be surprised (or unduly troubled) by pastors’ strong tendency to be defensive, those who are in a position to help must simply acknowledge the strong pressure pastors feel to make a polished presentation of themselves in spite of their obvious and genuine struggles.

Ver Merris and van Hoek’s observations come from years of working with burned out pastors. They go on to say that emotionally healthy pastors “accept criticism with grace, have a realistic notion of their own worth, [and] value positive interpersonal relationships….” In other words, resisting the Lone Ranger mentality is key to effective pastoral ministry.

1 https://paulvanderklay.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/how-pastors-struggle/

Ben’s Story

The struggles of missionaries on the foreign field are less recognized and understood than those of church pastors, but they are just as real. Most of us put missionaries on a pedestal and view them as super-Christians. But they are not spared the difficulties that plague pastors in the States. Here is the story of one missionary couple I’ll call Ben and Marlene (not their real names). 

Ben Sloan, his wife Marlene, and their three children were finally in Mali, West Africa. Approved as missionaries by their denomination’s mission board, their path here had not been an easy one. Months of training in the States had been interrupted when their daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder known as selective mutism. She had to have several months of Couplecounseling in another city. Then, just when they thought everything was taken care of, their supervisors in Mali were sent back to the US to recover from burnout. Ben and Marlene had to live in Senegal for two months, where they didn’t speak the language and felt all alone.

Now in Mali, Ben and Marlene immersed themselves in French and Bambara language training. Their kids went to a school for missionary children. For a while, the Sloans loved being in Mali. Not only could they share Christ with the Malians; they met friendly missionaries whose homes were always open to each other. “We would throw mattresses on the floor and have sleepovers for each other’s kids,” Ben says. “You didn’t even think about it.”

But as time went on, Ben realized that relationships with other missionaries went only so deep. There was a kind of competitiveness among the missionaries. Instead of someone asking, “How are you doing?” the questions were always, “How many villages have you visited? How many people have you shared Christ with?” Mission work seemed to be all about results. Ben and Marlene missed their church back home, where pastors and friends formed a support system. Here in Mali that support system was missing. There was support for the physical difficulties of living in Mali, where (for example) the power would often go off for an entire day. But Ben and Marlene felt alone spiritually. They had no one to help address the spiritual impact of living in a third-world country without church community. Sundays offered no respite; that was the day all the missionaries scattered to the villages for Bible storytelling. Ben says he and Marlene learned to suffer in silence. He coped with the lack of community by simply persevering. “That’s what I felt I had to do: give, give, give, and never receive. I wasn’t happy, but I had to keep going for Jesus.” In time Ben concluded that the more miserable and lonely he was, the more he must be doing the work of the Lord.

When war broke out in Mali in 2012, the Sloan family had to relocate to Berkina Faso. Ben became an emotional mess. He would cry easily, get angry and depressed, and fight with Marlene. They two argued a lot. Marlene didn’t understand what was happening to Ben; he didn’t understand it himself. All he knew is that he felt very alone.

A death in Marlene’s family sent the Sloans back to the US. They ended up staying for almost a year. They thought things would improve between them, but they didn’t. They could have reached out and asked for help; they could have gone to counseling. But they were too embarrassed.

Continuing turmoil in Mali led the mission board to send the Sloans to Botswana instead. “As soon as we stepped off the plane, we knew we didn’t belong there,” Ben says. “We hated it from day one.” Fights between Ben and Marlene escalated. Ben continued to feel depressed, lonely, and angry. They stuck it out for two years in Botswana. But at last they notified their mission board that things were bad. “We need help,” Ben said. They went to South Africa for an intensive month of counseling and then returned to the States for good.

While still fragile, things are now going well for the Sloan family. Ben and Marlene are in counseling. Ben is discovering how much identity issues were behind his anger and depression. Marlene has found a full-time job and Ben is considering a youth pastor position. Ben looks back on their years in Africa with gratitude: “I never would have learned these lessons any other way. It was painful but I’m glad I went through it. I’m learning a new way to live, a new way to view myself. I am someone God is redeeming, not just using. I’m a work in progress.”

He’s also learned the value of genuine community. “The church needs to be a place where you don’t have to put on a happy face and act like everything’s fine when it’s not. Things are going to happen in ministry. You need a place to go where you can suffer out loud.”

Brent’s Story

It seemed like such a great idea.

FailureBrent and Mario (not their real names), both in their late twenties, had been friends for the past fifteen years. They both loved the Lord and desired to see the gospel spread in their part of the city. They had talked and prayed about the idea with their wives for a long time. So what if they didn’t have the funding or oversight of a denomination. So what if they had no church planting experience! They were best of friends. They had teaching and preaching gifts. They could plant a church together, no sweat.

So the two found space for rent in a well-traveled part of the city. They contacted other friends who promised to help get the church off the ground. They spread the word and started up a worship service. People came. It looked like this thing would take off. Mario and Brent split up the preaching. Mario, ever the entrepreneur, set his sights on strong, steady growth. Brent, the artistic one, valued strong relationships in the church. It seemed like a complementary team.

But soon, in Brent’s words, “things got strange” between him and Mario. Brent sensed a rift growing between him and his friend. Then one day about six months in, Mario announced, “This is how it’s going to be, Brent. I’m going to be the lead pastor. I’ve been to seminary and you haven’t. I know how to raise funds. You really need more training. So I’m going to get paid by the church and you’re not. I need your help as a volunteer but you’ll need to keep your day job.”

Brent was astonished. Mario had figured all this out without ever talking to Brent. He’d even put together an advisory team that agreed with Mario’s plan. Brent didn’t like it, but he didn’t want to fight his friend. Maybe Mario was right. Maybe Brent did need more training. So he took Mario’s advice and enrolled in a nearby seminary. He continued serving the church in a variety of ways.

Months went by, and Mario hired an associate pastor. Again, Brent had no idea this was happening. The two friends stopped talking altogether. Brent says, “It was painful. Something was way off.”

One day “Terry,” the associate pastor, gave Brent a call. “We need to talk,” he said. “Mario has been plagiarizing other people’s sermons. And it’s been going on for a long time.”

“No way!” Brent said. But Terry got together with Brent and showed him example after example of Mario’s plagiarism. Brent and Terry knew they needed to confront Mario. “It was the worst meeting I’ve ever experienced,” Brent says. Mario was hostile, angry, unwilling to admit his sin. Instead of repenting, he said he would just resign his post and leave the church. Brent and Terry met with the elders and told them what Mario had been doing and how he’d reacted. Hoping for damage control, the elders explained to the congregation that Mario was going to resign for “philosophical differences.” But people knew better. Something more serious had come between two good friends.

The little church was now two years old and without a lead pastor. Because Brent had been there from the beginning, he was asked to step up and lead the church. But one after another, disillusioned people left the church. Even the core group, Brent’s closest friends, decided it was time to go. Brent did his best for the next three years, but attendance and giving went steadily downhill. Outreach efforts went nowhere. The church was down to forty people. It felt like a house church meeting in a big building. Brent grew more and more exhausted. He was working, going to seminary, and trying to lift up a sinking ship all at the same time. Some days he came home so discouraged he wished he were dead. Fortunately his marriage and family were healthy, but his church was a goner.

Brent prayed, “Lord, I feel like a total failure. Is this really what you intend for this church? Do you want it to die—and crush me in the process? I thought this is what I was created to do. Was I wrong?”

How to encourage your pastor

Much is written about how vulnerable pastors are to criticism by church members. But apart from an annual reminder of Pastor Appreciation Month (what’s that, you say?), little is said about the incredible power church members have to encourage and sustain their pastors.

That’s why I want to share an email that a member of my church sent to me and my colleagues this morning. The subject line read “Praying for You,” and the message was,

Good Morning, Gentlemen.
As I was reading this morning, the last lines of 2 Thessalonians 1 immediately made me think of you…and so I prayed for each of you: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by His power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 
May you continue to see God being glorified before you so that you are more and more amazed at His love, power, goodness, grace and fall more in love with Him.
I am truly thankful for the ways you’ve impacted my life.
Thank you for following Him.
I have a “Keepers” folder in my email program. That email went into that folder so I can look at it again and again to fend off discouragement. It made my day…no, my week!
Church member, if you’re reading this, know that a brief email or text of appreciation and prayer can put spring back in the step of your pastor. Don’t underestimate the power of your encouraging words.

Easter is hard on pastors

Thom Rainer posted eleven reasons pastors struggle when Easter Sunday comes around.

  1. The day is often overwhelmingly busy.
  2. The pressure to “do stresswell” is increased.
  3. Finding a unique approach to the Easter story is not easy.
  4. Pastors see members they haven’t seen since last Easter.
  5. Pastors see “lostness” come in the door . . . and leave unchanged.
  6. Pastors get a glimpse of what the church could be . . . but typically isn’t.
  7. Pastors often judge their own sermons more critically on Easter.
  8. Pastors brag about Easter attendance.
  9. Attendance expectations may not be met.
  10. Monday morning letdown can follow Easter.
  11. Some pastors have no resurrection joy themselves.

I especially resonate with Reason #2–the pressure to “do well” on Easter Sunday is intense. More people are sitting in our pews on Resurrection Sunday. We think to ourselves, “If I do well, they’ll come back.” We feel compared to other pastors and worry that our performance won’t match up. Even our own faithful members are hoping for an extra-good display of our gifts, especially if they brought friends and family along.

It’s tempting to find our identity in the comments people give us after the service: “Great sermon, pastor! God really spoke through you today, pastor!” Our innate sense of self-importance, our vanity, the expectations of fellow fallen people, and the devil himself conspire to make Easter Sunday anything but a day of gladness and celebration for pastors.

Here are words from God that may help you get through the Easter weekend with joy: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, i will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3a, ESV).

If you’re reading this and you’re not a pastor, pray for your pastoral team this weekend. You may be unaware of the burdens they are carrying.

Darren’s Story

Darren (not his real name) is a steady, humble, compassionate man. A great pastor. A faithful teacher of God’s Word.

in-depression-630x315But one day, he crashed.

Fresh out of seminary nearly thirty years ago, Darren accepted a call to a small church in an Appalachian community. He was the first full-time pastor the church had ever had. The average age of its two-dozen members was sixty-five. But Darren still carries warm memories of his time among them. He and his wife were married while he served in this little town. Their first child was born there too. But it was clear Darren’s gifts could be used in a wider sphere.

Darren moved his young family to a church in Alabama where he was the solo pastor for nearly ten years. They had a second child. The church held steady in membership. It was a happy experience. But a new opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2000. Darren accepted a call to a bigger church in another Southern suburb.

This church, Darren says, was “dysfunctional.” Darren’s predecessor had been asked to leave. He had replaced a man who was highly regarded—not as a great preacher or administrative leader but as a warm, loving pastor. Unfortunately, Darren’s predecessor was the very opposite. He just didn’t fit. So when Darren arrived, he knew he would need to take his time, build trust, and give the church some much-needed stability. And he did just that.

Things went well for several years. Darren led a reorganization of the elder board and faithfully taught the Bible. But Darren found it a tough church to pastor. People were all over the map theologically. Some voiced their opposition to Darren’s Bible teaching. Some of the people had bad attitudes toward church leaders. Members of the worship team wanted control. Previous elders had refused to confront sin in the church. Now, when the elders tried to put policies in place, some members didn’t like it. Disgruntled, a contingent left the church for greener grass. Several of Darren’s key supporters and friends also left because of job changes. Worse yet, Darren’s assistant pastor, who was a close friend, accepted a call to another church. These losses were hard on Darren and his wife.

Two other events pushed Darren over the edge. He had to put his beloved dog to sleep. But much more devastating, his mother was slowly declining into Alzheimer’s disease. Darren knew she could no longer care for herself, so he moved her out of her house many miles away into an assisted living facility near him. She hated her new home. It was far away from everything familiar. She grew increasingly adversarial, begging Darren over and over to take her back home. But there was no way.

Darren’s mom eventually passed in December, 2013. But her mental and emotional decline, on the heels of all the other losses Darren had experienced, took a terrible toll on him. He shut down emotionally and became almost non-functional. The day of the “crash,” Darren’s wife called the elders and said Darren would not be able to preach that weekend…and maybe not for a long while. He couldn’t get out of bed. He could hardly even speak. For weeks, doing anything at all required enormous energy. Night after night he couldn’t sleep. He says he was never suicidal, but he felt overcome with stress, sadness, and fear.

A caring, older couple invited Darren and his wife to move into their home for as long as they needed. Darren took the next two months off. He got counseling and got on an antidepressant. Slowly the darkness began to lift. He eventually felt like doing a bit of church work. The congregation was very understanding, he says. He was honest with them. He told them about his stress, his sadness, his tendency to isolate himself and not depend on the help of others. Being vulnerable and open actually drew him closer to his people. He grew more understanding of people’s pain. He says he learned the value of sighing.

But in the months following his return, Darren realized something had changed inside him. He no longer felt that he “fit” as a senior or solo pastor.

So earlier this year, Darren resigned.

Darren is now asking the questions he says he should have asked a long time ago: “What’s my gift mix? Where does God want me? What was I made for?” Darren is considering teaching, writing, and mentoring younger pastors.

I asked Darren what, if anything, might have prevented him from crashing in ministry. He says, “If I had grasped that God is for me, that would have helped.” Darren also says he’s realized that as a pastor he always felt isolated, like he was living on an island.

“I’m ready for something different now,” he says.

How do you handle failure?

I’ve come across a new book that looks like a great read. It’s called Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure, by J. R. Briggs. According to Scot McKnight the book deals with “four basic areas downloadof failure for pastors:

1. Mighty fall: sexual, moral failures

2. Tragic event: cancer, shocking terminations, betrayals

3. Slow leak: wearing down of the soul. Constant drips of discouragement

4. Burned out: crisis to crisis wears a pastor down. The system overheats and it burns out.”

Add to these things the other pressures faced by ministers of the gospel (expectations of success and church growth, the allure of celebrity, the constant need to produce rich Bible messages, staff demands,
etc.), and you have a real recipe for debilitating guilt and shame.

Looks like a must read.