I Have Heard So Many Secrets

(I am away on a vacation/study break during the month of July. The posts that appear during the month are from the archives.)

Through the years, as a minister, I have sat with person after person and listened to sad, difficult stories.

I have heard so many secrets.

The alcoholic father who told me of his affair with his high school daughter’s friend.The foster children who told me of a cruel woman who isolated them in a basement each evening, while the rest of the family ate dinner together. Later, they were brought the family’s leftovers.The mother who grew up constantly hearing critical, demeaning words from her mother.

The man, who as a child, had lived with a brutal, bullying father. Yet at church, his father was perceived to be very godly.

The young woman who told me of the abortion she had while in college and how she had lived with this secret for several decades.

I am reading Joe Queenan’s memoir,

It is the story of a boy who grew up in a

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Philadelphia housing project. He and his three sisters are forced to make do. They live with their father and mother in an atmosphere that does not feel emotionally or physically safe. Their mother repeatedly said to her children that she wished she had never had children. Their mother seemed emotionally disconnected from the family. Meanwhile, their father was a violent man — especially when he drank:

My father got broke when he was young, and he never got fixed. He may have wanted to be a good father, a good husband, a good man, but he was not cut out for that job. He liked to drink, and unlike some men who like to drink, it was the only thing he liked to do. Among our relatives, he had a reputation as a happy-go-lucky fellow who, once he got a few beers in him, would turn into the life of the party. He was not the life of our party. Most of the time he was already dead drunk when he came home from work, spoiling for a fight with whoever crossed him first. (p. 7)

His father, when he was drunk, beat his children, quite often. The rest of the family, instead of condemning such behavior, seemed more interested in providing excuses for such behavior. Queenan says that, “Manufacturing excuses for my father’s behavior was a family industry.” (p. 9)

Questions that Some Ministers are Never Asked

(I am away on a vacation/study break during the month of July. The posts that appear during the month are from the archives.)


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admit it.

I like ministers.

Well, at least most of them. Yes, some of them (us?) can be difficult to like. There are some ministers who behave unethically and even immorally. Some do not treat their congregations right.

Yet, It also concerns me when I hear the stories of how poorly some ministers and their families are treated. In fact, in some instances, it is downright shameful! I am thinking about good men and women who are treated thoughtlessly.

Many times, we just don’t think. We don’t think about these men and women who would be encouraged greatly by being asked some good questions by elders and/or others in the congregation.

The follow are questions that some ministers are never asked:

1. How are you really doing? (Some people are rarely if ever asked how they are really doing.)

2. Is there anything we could do as a church that would bring more joy to your life?

3. What could we (elders/staff ministers/key people) do that might bring greater satisfaction to you in your ministry?

4. Is your salary sufficient? Are we, as a church, providing for your financial needs adequately?

5. Do you feel like this is a good place for your spouse and children?

Ministry Inside.85

Some ministers are perceived to be important.servant-leader-570x311.jpg

When I first began preaching and serving as a “full-time minister,” I soon realized that some preachers were considered to be important people.

That struck me as interesting and even a bit odd.

After all, I was a business major in college. It wasn’t until after I had graduated from college that I began to think about the possibility of becoming better equipped to serve God. I wasn’t going back to school for a new career. In fact, to this day I have never referred to my work as a minister as a career. Instead, I tend to think of my work as a calling that I am doing as long as I think this is what God wants me to do.

I do remember, however, when it occurred to me that some ministers were perceived to be important people.

  • They were invited to speak at large gatherings of Christians.
  • They were described as having “preached in some of our most influential pulpits.
  • They were characterized as “highly sought after” ministers.

For a while, I thought that I should pursue importance. (Yes, this is embarrassing to admit. I know that is not a good thing. I know that idea reeks of pride. I’m just telling you what went through my head.) After thinking about this (way too long), I began to wonder if I was losing my mind. I do remember, after all, the times when Jesus was approached by people either perceiving their own greatness or wanting to be great.

3 Suggestions for Investing in Another’s Day

James Boswell (1740-1795) is best known as the author of what some have claimed is the greatest biography written in English:  The Life of Samuel Johnson. invest.jpg

Boswell was the eldest child of Alexander and Euphemia Boswell.  As a young boy he began to show signs of the depression that had affected his family for several generations.  He also experienced extreme timidity.

Many years later, as an adult, Boswell often referred to a very special day in his childhood when his father took him fishing.  The day was fixed in his mind as a significant moment in his life.   He often reflected on the things that his father had taught him on that day.  After hearing Boswell refer to this day on a number of occasions, someone once decided to check the journals that Boswell’s father had been keeping.  The man wanted to see what had been said about that trip from the perspective of a parent.  

Turning to that date in this journal, the reader found that only one sentence had been entered.

“Gone fishing today with my son:  a day wasted.”   

Wow!  Now isn’t that ironic?  

James Boswell remembered that particular day for decades.  It was one of the memorable occasions of his life.

From the perspective of Boswell’s father however, it was a day wasted.

Sometimes you and I may think that a particular day didn’t amount to much.  I may be frustrated because my plans and intentions did not seem to work out.  Yet this very day may have been highly significant for someone else.

Ministry Inside.84

In some churches, a kind of uneasiness exists between ministers and elders. Or, sometimes the uneasiness exists among the ministry staff or within the elder group.

In far too many instances, the relationship between these leaders has been reduced to an awkward superficial coexistence.

I am not talking about situations where there is open conflict and quarreling. Rather, I am thinking about congregations where the relational investment by leaders into one another’s lives seems to be at a minimum.

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Many years ago, I was in a situation like this for a time. It was incredibly difficult. I felt alone and the need to be guarded. Something was missing that I couldn’t quite identify at the time. I just knew that I felt out of place.

In congregations where there is this uneasiness, withdrawals are often made, while the relational deposits are rare. As a result, these people no longer trust one another with their hearts.

  • A minister completes his tenth year at a congregation. Nothing is said either privately or publicly to acknowledge this He feels hurt and unappreciated but then is embarrassed that this seems to matter so much to him.
  • An elder wrestles with depression. He mentions this to his fellow elders and later regrets doing this. They don’t seem to take this seriously and now he wishes that he had said nothing.
  • A children’s minister feels a real loneliness within the leadership group. She doesn’t feel valued by the others.
  • An elder does not reveal his real opinions in the regular leadership meetings. He does not trust the intent of several of his fellow elders.

These kinds of relationships can be draining and life depleting.

Furthermore, such relationships may not be the model that the congregation’s leadership wants them to imitate.

It is very difficult for a church to rise above the character and functioning of its leaders.

Do we really want our other ministry groups to function like we do?

Do we want our families to function like we do?

Do we want the life groups in this church to function like we do?

It is incredibly important that church leaders be committed to create an encouraging environment. Often, there is not the kind of encouragement expressed that can sustain those serving as ministers or elders. Ministers and elders bless the entire congregation when they are committed to shepherding one another as leaders.

“I Shouldn’t Say This, But . . .”

You’ve heard these before haven’t you?Mouth.jpeg

“This may not be right, but . . .”

“I don’t want to gossip, but . . .”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but . . .”

Why would we say something like this? Why would we acknowledge what is wrong and then proceed to do exactly what we want to do?

“Look, this really isn’t a big lie. This is what you have to do in this business if you don’t want to lose an account.”

“No, I didn’t tell them what was wrong with this car before I sold it to them. It’s up to them to figure it out. I’m not about to lose any more money on this car.”

“OK, I’m not proud of what I had to do to pass the test this morning. You don’t understand; if I don’t do well on this class, I won’t get into graduate school.

“Maybe my resume isn’t exactly accurate. Look, I need to make this look as good as possible. This is what everyone else is doing. There are a lot of people wanting this job and I need any advantage I can get.

“Plagiarism? No, you don’t understand. Everybody has to use someone else’s material now and then. It’s just a part of it.”

“I know you are over twelve, but tickets are so much cheaper for children under twelve. I told the ticket lady you were under twelve. It’s no big deal.”

“Yea, I was up late last night. My child had a paper due that I had to write. No, she had not even started. If I had not written it for her, she would have gotten a bad grade.”

“Hey, if my wife asks where we went, tell her that our golf game lasted longer than normal. I don’t want her to know where we went.”

Some people rationalize and justify behavior if it seems to give them an advantage.

Meanwhile, as followers of Christ, we are invited to do what may seem irrational. We are invited to trust God with our lives. We are asked to turn the management of our lives and future over to him.

So often, we don’t trust God. We like the idea of trusting God. We do not like the notion of trusting God with the details in the practical areas of our lives. We do not know if he will take care of us even if we do the right thing. We do not trust him with our future. So, we take over and “do what it takes” in our feeble attempt to manage our lives.

Do you feel this tension in your life? Do you feel the tension between wanting whatever might give you an advantage (though it might involve dishonesty) and knowing you have been called to trust God?

I have found it to be fairly easy to say, “I want to trust God.” I have found it more difficult to trust God with a particular decision or issue when a lot might be at stake. Yet, I know that God wants me to learn to trust him with the details and the outcome.


Have you felt this same tension in your own life at times?

Ministry Inside.83

Each Thursday, I write a post particularly for church leaders. The following is part of a list of habits for church leaders who want to grow and develop. You can find part 1 here  and part 2 here.

Habit #6. Adjust your expectations.

See-the-world-inside-a-toilet-paper-roll_2.jpgWhen I first began preaching, my expectations of people were way too high! I was constantly disappointed in others. My assumptions on the front end were skewed. For example, I thought that everyone who was connected in some way with our church was trying to live right. It wasn’t everyone’s personal weakness that was the surprise but that we were not even united in our intentions.

Meanwhile, my expectations of God were far too small. I didn’t really believe that he might do amazing things through prayer. I didn’t expect God to do anything in my life. Consequently, I lived with a strange set of expectations for both the church and for God.

I began to grapple with this and lowered my expectations of people so that anything that a person did that was good was an act of grace. Meanwhile, I began to raise my expectations of God, thanking him for the grace that I experienced in him whether I witnessed his power or not.

Habit #7. Pay attention to people.

This particular habit is so important. It is a gift we can give to one another that can add energy. Basically, you follow two practices:

  • You attempt to catch people doing what is right.
  • You ask about what is very important to another person.

Habit #8. Empty your mind regularly.

In David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, I have learned the importance of emptying one’s mind (or doing a “mind sweep”). Basically, one takes everything that is going on in the mind and lists it on paper.

In his workshop, one of the exercises involved writing everything we were thinking about. I thought, “This won’t take long, I am only thinking about a couple of things right now.” We took about ten minutes for this exercise. I began my list and could not believe all that I wrote down. I wrote everything from “Get the tire fixed” to “Got to call Steve on the way home.” Each time I wrote something down, I then seemed to recall one more thing that I had stored in my mind.

Allen believes if we do not regularly empty our minds, then stress is the result. You must have a system in place by which you can empty your mind and know that you will come back to the things you have written down and deal with them.

What habits would you add to this list?

Tom Olbricht: Reflections on My Life

For several weeks, I have been reading portions of Tom Olbricht’s new book Reflections on My Life: In the Kingdom and the Academy. Olbricht serves as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion, Pepperdine University. For many years before serving at Pepperdine, he taught at Abilene Christian University.

I bought and am reading this book for one reason: my deep love and respect for Tom Olbricht. I entered Abilene Christian University in the ’80s to work on a Master of Divinity degree. My first semester I was in the New Testament theology class taught by Olbricht. From then on, I took every class under him that I could possibly take. His love for God and the church was evident. For him the theology of the Bible was not something to be discussed at a distance but was in response to the God who loves us forever.


The book chronicles much of Olbricht’s life in great detail. Through this autobiography, the reader gets a feel for Olbricht’s experiences throughout his life in both the church and the academy. His travels and interaction with preachers and professors get much attention. As I read through various parts of the book, I continually came across names of people I knew very little about but had some interest in because of their work as professors or preachers.

One of the strengths of the book is Olbricht’s ability to tell a story. In fact, his passion for details serves to add color and flavor to these stories. One can almost hear the sound of his voice on these pages.

Not only does this book give insight into Olbricht’s life it also serves as a history of churches of Christ during a significant time in the 20th and 21st centuries.

I am grateful for Tom Olbricht’s ministry both in the church and in the academy. His teaching left a deep imprint on my thinking, my theology, and my ministry. I will be forever thankful.


Wanted: Moments of Grace

It was an embarrassing moment as a young minister.

Charlotte and I had been living in Abilene while I finished seminary. I had just completed my studies and moved to north Alabama where I began preaching for a church. Now, I was a full-time minister for a congregation.

I was overwhelmed and had no idea what to do.  So, I began doing what many young ministers do: I watched several experienced ministers to learn how to do this work.

One preacher I had been watching seemed to put a lot of energy into welcoming guests.  He was at the large urban church near where I grew up.  Some hotels get four and five stars for a rating.  This church would probably rate five stars in somebody’s review. People in my circle talked about this church as if they were the group that seemed to do most things right.

I did notice that they seemed to do things smoothly, unlike me.  I handled things awkwardly at times.


One of my first Sundays I introduced a new family and asked them stand. After all, I had seen the minister at this church do the same.  I then moved on to introduce another new family.  Upon introducing them I asked them to stand.  The couple stood, but I noticed the man had a puzzled look.

“Jim, I’ve been a member of this church for a number of years.”

I froze.  I wanted to hide.   

Ministry Inside.82

Each Thursday, I write a post particularly for church leaders. The following is part of a list of habits for church leaders who want to grow and develop. You can find part 1 here.

Habit #3. Choose to contribute to healthy communication.

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James Bryan Smith, in a seminar on The Good and Beautiful Life, said that our technology is way ahead of our ethics and etiquette. Remember that there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. Yes, email, text messaging, and other forms of communication are all helpful. Yet, they do not take the place of actual conversation with people who are right in front of us. I once heard of a family who spent an evening together — sort of. Throughout the evening, though they were in the same house, they emailed one another.

Choose to be the bearer of good news. Look for what God is doing in your church. Make a list of what you’ve witnessed. Catch people doing what is good, right, and godly. Far too much time and energy is wasted talking about what people did wrong.

Habit #4. Speak about others in their absence in a way that would not surprise them if they were present.

Stay away from anything that even remotely resembles manipulation. Love and manipulation are two very different ways of treating people.

I remember the first time I heard the expression, “It is better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.” A minister was telling some others that he typically did what he wanted in the congregation and then later asked forgiveness if that seemed necessary. I heard an elder justify his practice of not communicating with his fellow elders with this practice.

Really? Is this what we want to teach our own children? What if everyone practices this? Is this really the way of Jesus with one another?