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leanFor many years, I preached almost every Sunday.

Much of my ministry was served in Florence, Alabama; Kansas City, Missouri; and Waco, Texas.  I was engaged in congregational ministry. Now I am at Harding School of Theology.

Working with a church is front line ministry.  There are numerous opportunities to serve, teach, and bless others. Some might imagine a life where once basically preaches on Sunday, spends hours in the church building, and attempts to always be “nice.”

My own experience during these decades was much difference thank this.  In many ways, it was an adventure in which I had to learn to depend on God.

What I experienced included:

1.  Preaching many funerals.  Believers.   Non-believers.  Older people.  Teens.  Babies.  Cancer.  Car crashes.  Suicide.  Long illness.  Sudden death.  Murder.

2.  Conversations with with many people.  Often these conversations were about how to apply the gospel.  At times, they were individuals who wanted to talk about problems with anger, adultery, depression, resentment, financial loss, marital issues, and children who had brought their parents heartbreak.  Some conversations were tender as some talked about very delicate concerns.

3.  Preaching/teaching.  Small groups.  Large groups.  Informal.  Formal.  Sunday mornings/Wednesday evenings.  In a church auditorium.  In a jail and prison.  All of this took much study, reading, thinking, praying.

4.  Spending time with people.  Coffee.  Fishing.  Golf.  Coffee.  Lunches.  Ball games.  So often these moments turned out to be much more than what it might have appeared at first.  So often in the boat, in the golf cart, at coffee or on the way home from a ball game, the person I was with would begin talking about what really mattered.  So often, I had the opportunity to in some way connect this person’s concern to Jesus.

5.  Learning to live the transformed life.  Congregational ministry is much more than doing the kind of work that calls for one to spend a lot of time in church buildings.  Rather, the transformed life is about a person taking seriously Jesus’s call to follow him and to imitate him. Men and women long to see someone who is taking seriously Jesus call upon their lives.

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Life-from-the-Inside-png-300x300Every Thursday, I write this post particularly for church leaders. As church leaders, we strive to lead holy and transparent lives. Yet, some of us do not address certain issues or problems in our lives that may be so apparent to those who know us best.

Remember the first couple, Adam and Eve.

Perhaps you also remember that God once asked them a question. In fact, this is the first time on record of God asking a human being a question.

Where are you?

After all, they were hiding. They were frightened. They did not want him to find them. They had eaten from the forbidden tree. Now God is in the garden and they are hiding. Eventually, they will have a conversation with him and begin blaming others for what they did.

Where are you?

This is still a very important question.

Some of us may hide. We are doing fine. Everything is wonderful.

Some of us may blame. I know this isn’t right, but after what he did . . .

Some of us may become fearful. What will people think if they see that I am inadequate and that I become anxious at times?

Some of us may deny that anything is wrong. I don’t really have a struggle with temptation or sin. I’m no worse than some of the other church leaders I know.

As church leaders, we need to receive this question and let it penetrate our hearts. The evil one has helped to slowly destroy many church leaders who did not take this question seriously. Nothing may be more important than to be honest and humble before the Lord.

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DiscouragedWorkerAre you in the office today feeling down or discouraged?

Maybe you keep thinking about what you did.

  • You said something really stupid in last night’s elders meeting. You wish you could take it back.
  • You told a story in a class you were teaching and it fell flat.
  • You began a sermon series by preaching a sermon that had enough material for three sermons! You feel silly and embarrassed that after preaching for all these years, you would still be making this mistake.
  • You hurt your spouse’s feelings this morning with a remark that you thought would be funny.  It wasn’t.
  • You blew up at one of your kids in your frustration over hurting your wife’s feelings.

Now you are trying to get ready for Sunday morning. Maybe you are preparing a sermon. Perhaps you are in another role at your church.  You are trying to carry out some of the tasks necessary to get ready for Sunday.

Possibly you are having difficulty concentrating on your task. Your mind wanders. You keep thinking about last night’s meeting or this morning’s conversation with your spouse.

You feel discouraged.

This has been my experience, again and again.

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blah-blah-blahHe talked on and on.  People gathered around.  He clearly was the center of attention.  As people begin to gather around this church leader, he became more animated and loud.  Onlookers were laughing as he told the story. Finally, everyone disbursed.

Later, this same church leader walked into a meeting where another was talking to a group and seemed to be the center of the conversation. The church leader who earlier was energetic and intense when he was telling the story, now seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease.

As the conversation in the room prolonged, the church leader silently began scrolling through his iPad.  He made eye contact with no one and seemed disconnected.

Finally, the conversation in the room ended.  At that point, this church leader began telling a story to the group, once again becoming loud and animated, while everyone laughed.   He seemed to come alive again.

His behavior did not go unnoticed.

Some people seem to function most confidently when they are the center of attention.  However, these same people may be very uncomfortable when another receives the attention of a group.

Why mention this?

A church leader perceived to be an obnoxious bore who constantly demands the attention in the room can drain the energy out of a group. The default of the rest of the group is often silence while they defer to the one who will gladly talk on and on. One minister was described as “loving to hear himself talk.”  Not good.

It is true that some church leaders run into difficulties because of theological differences. Others, however, hurt their influence within a congregation by making relational mistakes. After awhile, a church can become weary of too many thoughtless, unnecessary relational blunders.  These blunders have a way of costing a church leader needed goodwill.

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See-the-world-inside-a-toilet-paper-roll_2.jpgBrenè Brown, author, public speaker and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has observed that some people believe the following mantra:

Being busy is being important.

In other words, if a person is very busy, out of breath, and talking about how many hours he or she puts in at the office, that person must be very important. At least, that is what some of us apparently think.

I think some ministers believe this. They will talk about how busy they are — almost as if it is a badge of honor.  My late father-in-law once told an audience that he had discovered the new status symbol for preachers. He went on to explain.

The new status symbol is the harried preacher rushing through an airport with his plane ticket in his front coat pocket while holding on to his briefcase. “Sorry! I wish I could visit but just flew in from preaching in Atlanta. Got to get to my gate to catch the plane to Houston. Preaching there tonight!” Then, he hurries through the airport, on his way to his next flight.

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broken-clockSome ministers abuse time.

I admire those who serve in a full-time ministry role with a church.  I did so for many years.  In fact, I deeply respect these people.

Yet this ministry is a role that can be dangerous to one’s soul and integrity.  The danger that I have in mind relates to time.

Most ministers I know work hard – very hard.  They understand that their work is a calling, not a career. Consequently, they do the work of ministry without watching the clock or thinking about overtime.

Years ago, I interviewed with a fine church.  Apparently this church had questioned the work ethic of one of its ministers.  I asked the search committee what the minister said when confronted with this problem.  They said that no one, including the elders, had ever talked with him about his behavior.

Instead they made rules to somehow control this and the other ministers’ behavior.

  • Ministers must work at least a 40-hour week.
  • Ministers may not go to the store between the hours of 8AM and 5PM.
  • Ministers may not leave the church building between the same hours unless it is for tasks related to their job descriptions.

I then asked, “Why doesn’t someone just talk with the problem minister?”

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600px-six-svg11(The following post is adapted from a chapel talk given at Harding School of Theology last week.)

Six Suggestions for Getting More Out of Your Life and Ministry

It doesn’t matter what you plan to do.  It doesn’t matter how you plan to serve.  The following are six suggestions for making the most of your life and ministry.

1. Pay attention to your spiritual formation.  Recently, in chapel at Harding School of Theology, I quoted my friend Barry, a longtime minister in Waco, Texas.  Barry once heard a seminary president say to students, “Some students begin seminary with an empty head and a full heart.  Some leave seminary with a full head and empty heart.”  I believe it is possible to leave with a full heart and full head.  However, you must be intentional in this pursuit.  Unless you are intentional, you are likely to ignore your heart.

This means paying attention to the way Christ is being formed in your life.  Start with what you are putting on and what you are putting off. (Col 3:1ff)

*Your practices.  (prayer/scripture/journaling/service)
*Your rest/restoration.  Care for the body and emotions is a godly move, not a sign of weakness.
*Your work.  Are you being shaped and formed into a Christ-like person even while you work?

2. Pay attention to your habits. What is a habit in your life that really needs to be addressed?  This is the time to give attention to habits that need to be addressed.  These habits may include the expression of your temper, the use of porn, your language and materialism.  Be willing to seek help.  Some believe that one day they will have to change this habit but not yet.
  
3. Pay attention to your relationships.  The temptation while in school is to focus your complete attention on your studies and put your marriage on hold.  However, it is important not to neglect your spouse.

Howard Hendricks said, “Your marriage can make or mar your ministry.”

Years ago, when I was in seminary, I felt behind and inadequate.  Consequently, I was relentless about studying, day and night.  Unfortunately, I also neglected my marriage as I felt compelled to spend most of my time studying.  Finally, Charlotte told me, “I know this is difficult and that you have a lot to do. However, it would help so much if I just had something to look forward to.”  I realized at that point that I had misplaced my priorities.

There are numerous examples of couples who impacted a lot of people because of their marriage. On the other hand there are plenty of preachers/elders who lost their influence because of their marriage.  Beware of neglecting your marriage while you serve in a role with your church.

4.  Pay attention to your own emotional functioning.  Charles Blair in The Man Who Could Do No Wrong tells the story of growing up in the Great Depression and having to ride his bike to the firehouse to get government issued milk.  He said it was humiliating to carry this pail and he felt as if everyone was watching him.  Apparently, some kids saw him and laughed.  He decided that one day, no one was going to laugh at him again.  His image became more important than anything else.  Perhaps you can relate.  What people think of you can become more important than who you really are.

5. Pay attention to how you handle stress and loneliness.  Stress and loneliness are natural at various times of life but can be very difficult to manage.  What do you do with stress and loneliness?  Some people eat, spend money, go out with someone they shouldn’t be with or participate in any number of unwise behaviors.   When you feel stressed and lonely, you can make some very foolish decisions.

6. Know that God loves you regardless of what you do in your ministry.  What God thinks of you is not dependent on whether or not you had a good day.  The same is true regarding your life, and your ministry.  God loves and adores you– period.  His love is unconditional.

(You can read notes from my first chapel talk, “Ministry is a Calling”, here.)

 

Ministry Inside.138

HST1The following are the notes from the chapel presentation I gave on Tuesday morning, January 21, at Harding School of Theology (Memphis, Tennessee).  Perhaps you will find this encouraging and a good reminder. 

This is the first chapel of 2014 at Harding School of Theology.  This is the first day of classes.

No doubt as you meet with your class, there will be a syllabus.  There will be books to read.  There will be papers to write.  There will be lectures.

There is also a call.

We have a purpose and mission that is larger than ourselves.

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(Each Thursday, I write particularly for church leaders.  If you are a church leader, hopefully this post will connect with you.  However, the post may be relevant regardless of ministry role.)

I knew a man who was a good preacher and overall minister.  He was well-read and had a good seminary education. He continued to grow in his ministry skills and in his knowledge.  Various congregations perceived him to be a valuable resource in their region.

There was one problem.

He didn’t always tell the truth.

I don’t think he perceived himself as one who lied or was untruthful.  Yet, I remember the evening, years ago, when he and his wife had dinner with us.  We ate and had an enjoyable meal together.  After dinner, we went to an ice cream place for dessert.

He told a story about a sermon that he had preached one Sunday.  As a part of the message, he used an illustration that seemed fitting.  After sharing that illustration with us, he said, “Of course this is one of those stories that you tell as if it really happened to you.”

I was a young minister and shocked by what he admitted to practicing.  Surely he did not say what I think he just said. Did he really say that he told the story as if it happened to him but it didn’t?  Yes, I had heard him correctly.

This was sad.

It was also unethical and even unnecessary.  Not only was this wrong but he could have easily used the story ethically by saying:

“I heard the story about a couple who one day . . .”

“I have a friend who tells the story about a couple who one day. . .”

“William Willimon tells the story of a couple who one day . . .”

Truth telling includes paying attention to the little things.  Accuracy and speaking truth really do matter.

 

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ImageAfter 20 years of ministry in one congregation, I am about to leave.  (My last Sunday here is November 24.)  Charlotte and I will move to Memphis, Tennessee, to begin working with Harding School of Theology.

Twenty years is a long time.  That is 20 years of sermons, conversations, and cups of coffee. That is 20 years of waiting in emergency rooms with families and well as celebrating with families.

Leaving and transition bring grief.  Charlotte and I certainly feel it.  I know many in our congregation feel this as well.  It is simply a part of transition.

I have been thinking about these 20 years.

I am so thankful …

… for the trust of this church.

Preaching to the same group of people week after week requires trust.  They must recognize that you are attempting to live out the Gospel in your daily life.  Trust either emerges or it remains a questionable issue in a congregation.

As I look back upon these years, I think of the many conversations with people — deeply personal conversations — about life, sin, failure, and grace.  I don’t take this for granted.  After all, a person believes their minister will handle this conversation with maturity and respect.  I am moved as I think about conversations in my office, in living rooms, and over cups of coffee about life.

… for the love of this church.

The people in our congregation have communicated to me how much they love Charlotte, me, and our two daughters, Christine and Jamie.  I am so grateful for this.

At the same time, I love our congregation.  Recently, our children’s ministry reserved the local skating rink for our church.  I was there for about 45 minutes and enjoyed watching the children of our congregation (and some of their parents) have so much fun.  I want to see them do well and grow up loving Jesus.  Because I love our congregation, it is very important how I leave.  When a minister abruptly leaves a church and gives the church little or no time to process what is happening, damage can be done that can have ramifications for the future.  It is very important to me to leave well.

… for the faithfulness of God.

Life as a congregation is something we do together.  That means that we experience not only joy but also pain.  Yes, pain takes place in every congregation.  Most of the time, ministry involves some sort of pain.  Divorce.  Death.  Sickness.  Unfaithfulness.  Sin.  These all take place in the life of a congregation.  Yet, as I look back, I see how the faithfulness of God gave us, as a congregation, the power to persevere even in difficult times.

More later.