Called or Just Employed?

We were a small church meeting in what was formerly a convenience store. Smoking-cigar.jpg

Less than 36 months earlier, I was single, driving a UPS truck and a recent graduate of the University of North Texas. Now I was married, living in North Alabama and driving two hours each Sunday to preach at this church in middle Tennessee.

On this particular Sunday, I had just walked out of the double glass doors onto the gravel parking lot. Parked near these doors was his white Cadillac convertible. Inside was our wealthiest member. He was in his 50s, divorced, and gave the largest dollar amount each Sunday morning. He was already in his car, lighting his cigar. He motioned for me to come over to his car. The electric window on the driver’s side began to slowly come down.

He glared at me, looking very angry. He told me not to mention African-American people in the sermon anymore. (“African-American” wasn’t exactly the term that he used.) That morning, I had mentioned racism in my sermon and he wasn’t happy.

I stood there for a few seconds and didn’t say anything. I was stunned. While I had faced this attitude before, I had never had anyone demand that I not preach on something that seemed so biblical. Finally I said, “I will not ignore an obvious application in the Bible.”

Needless to say, he was not happy.

This was an important moment for me. I had to decide whether I was employed by the church (having a “preaching job”) or whether I was called by God, with my obedience to him being at stake.

The call makes all the difference.


Can you recall a time when you had to decide if you were called or just employed?

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I had lunch with a friend of mine who is a wonderful seminary professor. During lunch we talked about a number of concerns related to life, ministry, church, etc. At one point, I asked him what he thought about the number of seminary students who wanted no part of ministry in “traditional” churches.

no-church.jpg(I asked this question not suggesting that the desire of someone to participate in a church plant, inner city ministry, is a negative. Rather, I was interested in hearing from my friend who interacts with seminary students every day.)

He said that he suspected that there were a variety of reasons for this. We talked about some of those reasons. Then he said, “I can tell you what students said ten years ago in answer to the question of why students did not want to be in the role of pastor in a traditional church.”

The students who were asked this same question gave two reasons for not wanting to do this:

1. They did not want the 24/7 lifestyle that this ministry seemed to demand from pastors.

2. They did not know any pastors who were happy.

Later, I thought about what my friend said. “They did not know any pastors who were happy.”

Now that is a dose of reality!

Why is it that some ministers seem to get bitter and cynical?

Yes, I know that some ministers have been shamefully mistreated by some congregations. I know that some have been thoughtlessly disposed of by congregations. Some ministers receive very little if any encouragement from their elders.

It is also true that some ministers have behaved immaturely before congregations. It is true that some have used poor judgment with the members of their churches. Some ministers (like some elders) have pursued their own ego needs instead of modeling what it means to be loving and selfless.

Yet, I think about my friend’s statement. “They did not know any pastors who were happy.” Could it be that some of us who have preached for churches for many years are obscuring the vision of ministry for others? Could it be that they have never seen in some of us anything they wanted to emulate or duplicate?

Isn’t the gospel larger than our frustrations? Isn’t the joy of the Lord possible for a person even when that person is experiencing hardship and persecution?

The Key to Having a Lasting Impact on the People You Influence

Most of us have an influence on someone.key.jpg

  • Your spouse.
  • Your children.
  • Your grandchildren.
  • Your parents.
  • Your co-workers.
  • Your employees.
  • Your church.

But — will you have a lasting impact?

I once had a very sobering conversation with a minister who said to me, “We know what to do, we just need to do it!” He went on to suggest that all of the books, conferences, etc. were basically useless because it all came down to “doing it.” I knew this man. He seemed to be in a perpetual state of exhaustion. His marriage was strained. He was quick-tempered. In the midst of his good intentions, there was a hollowness that came through.

Later, I had a conversation with another man who was quieter and less active. He seemed to try very hard to communicate that he knew more than the people he was with. I felt as if I was always being critiqued and evaluated when I was with him. He saw himself as being one of the few who really “got it” and it was his mission to communicate to others what the “deeper life” was all about. Yet, to be in his presence did not seem either joyful or encouraging.

I mention both of these people because I think I understand these tendencies. How easy it is to be something other than Jesus. For many years, I saw myself as primarily a person who was doing things for God. Whether I would (or could) have articulated this or not, my faith was basically centered around doing the right things — an ever increasing number of right things. As a minister, my ministry was about doing the right activities. I lived with a constant sense of guilt and inadequacy. The goal seemed to be seeing how much I could get done. I eventually realized this was a dead-end street.

The key to having a lasting impact on others is to stay true to what is at the center of our being — who we are in God.

Ruth Haley Barton expresses this well:

A sobering truth about life in leadership is that we can be very busy and look very important, yet be out of touch with that place in the center of our being where we know who we are in God and what he has called us to do — that place where we are responsive to the voice of God above all others. When this happens we are at the mercy of all manner of external and internal forces, tossed and turned by other’s expectations and our own inner compulsions. This inner emptiness then becomes the source of frenetic activity that is un-tethered from any kind of grounded-ness in God. This is a scary place for a leader to be.

Christian leaders in particular can have a hard time distinguishing between the work we do for God and time to be with God, resting in him and enjoying his presence. Over time Scripture can be reduced to a textbook or a tool for ministry rather than an intimate personal communication from God to us. Prayer can become an exhausting round of different kinds of mental activity or a public display of our spiritual prowess.

(Ruth Haley Barton, “You Say You Don’t Have Time for Retreat? Think again!“)

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1. I encourage you to read these notes from Ann Voskamp’s recent talk at the Story 2011, Chicago. (These are Tim Schraeder’s notes.) She speaks like a poet and uses words so well. If you preach, teach, write, or do some combination of the three, it is so useful to read people who use words well. (By the way, Tim’s notes have become a valuable resource for me. He not only blogged a number of sessions of the Story Conference but also the recent Willow Creek Global Leadership Conference.)

2. A number of years ago, I had coffee with a guy who was responsible for bringing a number of high profile Christian leaders to our part of the state for various conferences. I asked him, “What have you discovered in working with these people?” He paused for a moment and then said, “Well I’ve learned that some ministers are not exactly what I perceived them to be from their books, etc. For example, I helped arrange a conference for a person who specialized in family relations. His books are wonderful. However, he was difficult to work with and not very approachable.”

He then said, “The next year, another speaker was here who had also written several wonderful books. The experience was totally different. When he wasn’t making a presentation, he was warm and engaging with people at the conference. People found him to be approachable and unassuming. It was a completely different experience.”

I am thankful for this conversation. Our exchange that day helped make me more conscious of the impression ght be leaving with people when I speak at other churches.

3. For the last three years, I have watched at least a portion of “The Nines” online conference sponsored by Leadership Network. A speaker speaks for nine minutes regarding some aspect of ministry. He or she is followed by a sucession of speakers throughout the day. This year there are 99 speakers. The date is Tuesday, September 27.

4. I am reading Preventing Ministry Failure by Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffmann. The section on intimacy is worth the price of the book. I am reading through this book slowly.

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Most Thursdays, I write a post that is especially for church leaders, ministers, pastors, etc. Those of you who are not in a similar role may find this post helpful as well.

1. I like a post that I read recently by Rachel Gardener entitled “What’s On Your Sticky Note?” She says that beside her computer, she has a sticky note which reads:

One Thing at a Time

First Things First

Start Now

I like this! I suspect that for many of us who are very busy, such reminders might be very helpful. What do you think? Do you have something similar on your desk or by your computer?

2. Several weeks ago I read Keith Meyer’s Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs. This is an outstanding book about how to live as an authentic minister who is being transformed into a Jesus-like person. He describes a time in which his own ministry when he was not really experiencing spiritual transformation. Meanwhile, he was busy and accomplishing tasks. He then describes his journey to a different kind of ministry that focuses on a minister becoming the change that a church needs. This book is just what I needed to read this summer!

Note this endorsement by Don Cousins:

Keith Meyer encourages and challenges us to reach far beyond the quantity of disciples to where the impact lies — quality of disciples. . . . I was challenged on a personal level and inspired on a leadership level as I read. For anyone interested in measuring quality, this is a must-read book.

3. Be sure to check out the site Ministry Matters. Lots of good material by William Willimon. I have read many of Willimon’s articles and books. I find him helpful and thoughtful. He helps me think.

4. It would really help churches if those of us who are ministers would model what someone has called, “mirroring the emotion.” That is, when we speak to people in our congregation, whether in a Bible class room, at Target, or on the parking lot, we practice intentional listening. We listen to their words and the emotion behind these words. This practice can really help you respond to someone in a way that is helpful, appropriate, and meaningful. This can be a real challenge because you may find yourself in a conversation about the Dallas Cowboys one moment and then a few minutes later, you are talking with another person who tells you their cancer has spread.

Pay attention to the body language, the emotion that is expressed, and the words that are spoken. This can be an enormous help in knowing what to say and what not to say. I remember having some conversations with people that I later wished I had handled differently. In most of these situations, I would have responded better if I had been more attentive to the emotion that was being expressed and then respond appropriately. In some instances, I would have changed the content of what I said. Most of the time, however, I would responded in a more appropriate manner and tone based on the emotion that I was seeing.

5. If you haven’t heard about this new book by Scot McKnight, don’t miss this post regarding his new book The King Jesus Gospel. (Forward by N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard.)

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Most Thursdays I write something for the series “Ministry Inside.” Typically, the post is a collection of ideas, suggestions, and resources having to do with ministering to a church. I write these posts with church leaders in mind. Yet, I know that many others will read and connect with some of these posts as well.runawayfromyourself.jpg

As I think about my life:


At times I have been starry-eyed, so full hope for the future that I failed to appreciate some of the obstacles and challenges facing us now.

At times I have been exhausted with a tiredness that has a way of draining the soul.

At times I have been disheartened, wondering why I can’t rise above my pettiness.

The temptation, I suppose, is to not reveal any of this. Stay in control. Don’t let anyone in. Control what people see and know. Yet, I’m not sure this is the answer.

About sixteen years ago, my physician discovered a tumor near the top of my spine. He discovered it after some chest x-rays were taken in our local emergency room regarding a totally unrelated matter.

Of course this scared me to death.

More tests. “The tumor is probably benign.” (Probably.) The surgeon said, “This needs to come out.” It would involve cutting into my chest. (I had never even been in the hospital before.)

On a Sunday morning, I told the congregation the situation and then the date of the surgery. I would probably be out for several weeks. Then I said the words that apparently made one man very nervous.

“I am cautiously optimistic and yet scared to death.”

I was then approached by an older man, a former preacher, who told me I should not have said this. “You admitted weakness and fear. You must not do this.”

To the contrary.

It is very dangerous NOT to admit weakness, fear, inadequacy, pain, confusion, etc. When any person refuses to deal with his pain (this certainly includes ministers) then that person will often self-medicate. We will attempt to keep this self-medication a secret. Consequently, a person is rocking along thinking that everything is all right and then discovers that a friend has been keeping a secret.

How do some people self-medicate? Shopping, drugs/alcohol, fits of rage, adultery, pornography, emotional affairs, gambling and the list goes on and on.

Ministers are certainly not immune to self-medicating their pain. Again and again, you hear stories of ministers revealing or getting caught in the middle of bizarre behavior. Ministers can blur the lines between the work of ministry and living as Christ-followers. As a result, when a minister is away from the church, he may not only desire a break from the work but a break from following Christ.


I would love to know what you think about this. What happens when we self-medicate instead of deal with our pain? What do we become when we spend a life time running away from ourselves?


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1. Each year I go to the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. (I go to a simulcast site at Baylor University.) This is a two-day conference that is stimulating, thoughtful, and encouraging. This year I particularly enjoyed Seth Godin’s presentation. Of course, I also am a regular reader of his blog. He makes me think. There is great value in locating someone, whether in person or through their writing, who in some way stimulates your thinking.

2. “They will take their cues from you.” Many years ago, my father-in-law said this to me after I had preached a sermon in which I had shadowboxed my way through my material. I was tense, anxious, and somewhat agitated in this sermon. Why? I was speaking about the work of God’s Spirit and throughout the sermon felt irritated as I thought about a couple of people in our church who seemed to be diminishing his role.

The problem with the sermon was not the message and its content. The problem was me. From the moment I began that sermon, I felt uncomfortable and I communicated this in my body language. My father-in-law was extremely helpful to me that evening. He went on to say, “I agree with what you said. However, you might think about this: People will take their cues from you. If you appear agitated and tense, this immediately sets the listeners on edge. They become uncomfortable because you seem uncomfortable. However, if you will relax, smile, and then explain why a particular perspective or view is lacking, they are more likely to relax and really think about what you are saying.”

That advice was incredibly helpful! In fact, I’ve thought about it numerous times over the years as I prepared a particular class or message.

3. This looks very interesting! 25 Books Every Christian Should Read. Those on the editorial board for this book include Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Phyllis Tickle, and a number of others.

4. For the last couple of days, I have spent time with a great friend and encourager to our family who primarily works with university students. The conversations have been great and stimulating. I mention this because it can be so stimulating to spend time with someone whose primary ministry is different from one’s own. Far too often ministers and others only spend time with people just like themselves, in exactly the same ministry role they are in.

5. One of my favorite blog writers is Jeff Goins. His blog, Jeff Goins Writer, consistently has good, interesting content. Two of my favorite posts are The Biggest Lie We Believe About Influence and Start Today, Not Tomorrow. Both of these posts were very motivating.

Seven Deadly Sins of Ministers

There is no exemption from temptation for anyone.Temptation (1).jpg

Certainly there is no exemption for a minister. There are all kinds of temptations for a minister.

These include:

Sloth  The minister who just gets by in his work. No real sense of working for the Lord. This can also describe the minister who is busy with the wrong things. Sloth has a way of deadening a person to any real sense of joy.

Greed The minister who is always wanting more. There is no sense of contentment or thankfulness for his present circumstances. He entertains a possible move to a church primarily because his salary would be increased significantly. He then says that the Lord “called” him there. Sometimes greed is seen in some very quiet ways such as taking on a large amount of credit card debt so the family can enjoy cars, vacations, furniture, forms of entertainment that are way beyond their means.

For many ministers, however, the greatest form of greed is that which is focused on their craving for approval, affirmation, and recognition. This form of greed can be absolutely intoxicating. There is never enough.   

Lust The minister who allows himself the luxury of looking at pornography on the Internet. After all the work and sacrifice, he decides that he deserves a break. Meanwhile, another minister might focus on his craving for power. This person seems to always be keeping score of who is getting their way in the church. These ministers may be on a path to self-destruction by their obsession with sex or power.

Gluttony  The minister who does not seem to have self-control. This person does nothing in moderation. Something is out of control. For many people, this may relate to eating and the care (or neglect) of their body. Unfortunately, in many church cultures, this is seen as a joke. Men and women may laugh at over-the-top eating and even make light of gluttony.

Anger The minister who has never dealt with his anger. Consequently, much of his emotional life is fueled by old anger issues. This may be the anger that he has with his father, with churches from the past, or even with God. He might deny that he has an anger problem. However, one does not have to be around him for very long before realizing that just below the surface, his anger is simmering. He preaches messages about the grace of God but is easily irritated by the faults of others. Far too often, his family and the congregation have felt the impact of his anger.

Envy The minister who envies other ministers. He resents other ministers who speak at more events and are better known. He can’t understand why he hasn’t had the opportunity to minister at churches that are visible and seemingly “important.” This person resents that others always seem to get the breaks.

Pride The minister who wants people to know just how important he really is. This may be the minister who is always reminding others of his extensive experience. Or, this may be the person who wants everyone to know about his vast knowledge. Or, this may be the minister who finds creative ways to let others know about his competence. As one guy told me some years ago. “Yea, I moved to this church and went to work. They had never seen anyone like me. They couldn’t believe how quickly the church grew.”

Sound familiar?

Those who have learned to walk with God humbly often approach life and temptation humbly as well. They know that without God’s provisions, they would easily become entangled in anyone of these sins. Meanwhile, others who are overly confident may assume they would never have any problem with any one of these.

Not wise.


What other temptation would you add to this list?

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1. Be sure to listen to the talk by Chuck DeGroot on “Spiritual Life of a Church Planter.” I was very impressed with this talk. Very good and helpful to ministers and other church leaders.

2. I recently read “The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action” which was produced by the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. This is an outstanding document which does a good job of articulating biblical truths about our faith and mission. You can download this at

3. Heard Rodney Plunkett preach on June 26 at White Station Church of Christ. Outstanding message! While in Memphis, I enjoyed visiting with Evertt Huffard, Carlus Gupton, Mark Powell, Rodney Plunkett, and Chris Altrock. Great people. I especially enjoyed visiting and co-teaching with my friend Allen Black, who has taught New Testament for many years at Harding School of Theology (formerly Harding Graduate School of Religion).

4. Pay attention to the people. Ministers quite often underestimate the importance of simply paying attention to the people in their churches. Not long ago, I was talking to a couple who had been visiting a congregation in their area. They said that when the preacher is before the church on Sunday morning, he is talkative, engaging, etc. Yet, when they pass by him in the hallway, he will not speak. They went on to say that on one occasion, he looked at them as he passed by and then turned his head without saying anything. Yet, a simple “hello” and a smile can go a long way with people.

I am not talking about anything that is contrived or phony. However, sometimes we may forget the importance of a single individual.

5. I was saddened to hear the news of John Stott’s death. I have admired and respected him for many years. I will never forget the first time I read his book, Between Two Worlds. I learned so much about preaching and ministry through this one book alone.

If you have never read Stott, you might even consider making him one of your mentors. Begin reading his books (particularly Between Two Worlds and The Cross of Christ). Get to know his mind and his ways.


5. Be sure to read Tony Campolo’s “Baby Smiles and Life’s Truisms.” These are very good.

6. Geoff Surratt has written a very good post entitled “The Secret Life of Pastors.” Note his four loves.

7. See Mark Galli’s “The Most Risky Profession: Why You Need to Desperately Pray for Your Pastor.”

8. Chris Altrock is my friend, a great guy, and the author of a new book on prayer. His blog is worth reading. Great reflections on Scripture.

5 Ways to Communicate Value During Significant Moments

Last week was a busy time that included a funeral at our church on Friday and then a shower for our daughter the following day. In 24 hours, we went from grieving with our friends to a time of thankfulness and joy for our daughter and her fiance’. (They are getting married in August.)

This week reminded me once again about how much we contribute to one another during these significant moments of life. We have the opportunity to communicate to our friends how much they mean to us. During these moments, our behavior can speak volumes to other people about how important they really are to us.


The following are five ways we communicate value during significant moments.

Be emotionally engaged. In many, many ways we communicate value by showing interest and concern about another’s life. I have watched my mother-in-law for years communicate this through her interest in the details of her grandchildren’s lives. Other people communicate this by regular phone calls, e-mails, and texts with loved ones.

Show up. Go to funerals. Stop by a funeral home for a visitation. Go to a wedding or baby shower. Visit someone in the hospital. These moments really do matter. Quite often we don’t realize how much they do matter until we lose a father or mother. We may not realize the importance of a baby shower until it is our child who is having a baby.

For example, when a friend loses a family member, it means a great deal for them to see you at the funeral. Attend events that are important to a family member or friend. Going to funerals, weddings, graduations, baby showers, etc. are just a few examples of times when being present communicates value. So many people underestimate how important these moments are to the people involved.

Do something practical to communicate value. One of our daughters was in the hospital for a week during her high school years. I remember one friend who called me several times each day to check on her. The first day she was hospitalized, he knocked on her door. I stepped out into the hall and he said, “I want to pray with you.” He put his arm around my shoulders, bowed his head and prayed briefly in the hall. By what he did, he communicated value toward her and our family.

When the significant moment is difficult, acknowledge that person’s experience. Far too many people ignore or even minimize another’s significant moment. “You are having surgery? No big deal! Why I have a friend who had that same surgery and she was back at work two days later.” Far better to listen intently and ask questions to seek understanding.

Make an effort to stay in touch. If I don’t make the effort to stay in touch with someone, we will probably lose touch. Some complain because friends and family do not call. Meanwhile, they do not take the initiative to make contact either. Yes, it is frustrating to feel as if you are the one who must always take the initiative to stay in touch. Yet, I’ve learned that if we are going to stay in touch I often (sometimes usually) will need to be the one who takes the initiative.


What significant moments have you experienced, that caused you to notice and appreciate the presence of others?