Posted tagged ‘ministry’

No Grow and No Go

May 7, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          May 7, 2017

                                     

Recently a pastor friend of mine was sharing his church’s “simplified plan.” Our ministry support group of five people was sitting in a restaurant having lunch together. The noise and my aged hearing caused me to misinterpret what he was saying. His congregation’s simplified plan is “Know. Grow. Go.”

I, however, heard him say “No grow and go!” I thought to myself, “That’s an unusual plan…no grow and no go!’ I asked for clarification and my friend corrected my understanding when I told him what I had heard. All five of us got a good chuckle out of it, but then I thought about it a bit more. “No Grow and No Go!” might better define many churches of various flavors around the country.

There are many reasons why a number of churches don’t desire to grow as disciples and go and make disciples of others. First of all, growing requires commitment to something and surrender of part of my agenda. “Growing” is a marathon race and the church is crowded with sprinters and jumpers. In sports there are “fair weather fans”, and in churches there are “fair weather attenders.”

Growing requires change and, whereas we are fluid in many areas of our lives when it comes to change, we are also entrenched in other ways. For example, I need a new pair of jeans but I love the pair I’ve been wearing for about a decade. The pocket that I’ve carried my wallet in has a hole in it that resembles a woodpecker’s carving. I’ve tried changing pockets, but then I feel like I walk funny. I’m considering the option of not carrying my wallet with me rather than buy a new pair of jeans that I have to get used to. That’s how we are in various areas of our lives. I drink my morning juice out of a certain plastic cup, but I drink my dinner milk from a glass. I write my blog from a certain stool at a certain Starbucks. To vary that always gives me the feeling that the quality of the writing has diminished…unless I’m visiting my dad in southern Ohio, and then it’s okay to write from the Starbucks across the river in Huntington, West Virginia.

On the other side of the equation are churches that have a hard time figuring out what that “growing” element looks like. Our recent history shows the jumping around of churches trying to nail the discipleship block. But growing followers of Christ is not easily contained in a program or a curriculum, and that’s a hard truth for many of us professional church leaders to admit. It’s not that programs and curriculums are bad or unnecessary, but rather that we often put all of our eggs in one basket and there’s, so to speak, a growing number of spiritual egg-haters!

Moving on to the “go” part we’re often unmovable! Jesus’ Great Commission too often is the great omission in congregations. To sum it up, most of a typical church’s budget goes for what happens inside the walls, and what is designated as the mission budget is what gets sent outside the walls to support people not from the church in mission work. When the budget gets evaluated each year the mission budget lies there like a clay pigeon ready to be shot at. Want proof? Just notice how many people in your church come to a potluck dinner, and compare that to how many people participate in a community service or ministry project!

“No grow and no go!” symbolizes the “standing firm congregation.” We’ve mis-translated that great hymn “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” a bit! Jesus didn’t intend for us to be stationary and anchored to what has always been, protective of our resources and unsympathetic towards a broken world around us.

Out of Shape Churches (Part 2)

April 22, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           April 22, 2017

                          

I heard a presentation a couple of years ago from a state high school athletic association commissioner who expressed the growing concern about the number of one-sport high school athletes who were getting injured. I remember him referring to the NCAA’s growing concern about this. More athletes, who were coming to college with full-ride athletic scholarships, were missing some or most of the competitive seasons because of injuries. The sports affected the most were volleyball and baseball. The main cause of the injuries was “over-use” of certain areas. In those two sports it was appearing in the rising number of shoulder injuries. Bottom line,  those muscles were overused and exhausted.

It doesn’t take too much intelligence to figure out that out-of-shape churches are susceptible to injury for the same reason. The saying that has been heard to ad nauseam is that “20% of the people do 80% of the work.” The truth of that statement also leads us to discover a couple of things. When twenty percent, or less, of the people are doing almost all of the work their spiritual exhaustion makes them vulnerable to hurt and injury. In the workout world a common term is that a certain body part, like a knee or a lower back, “just gave out!” A sudden movement or moment changed everything. In churches “the twenty percent” is in danger of the same thing happening…”just giving out!” Someone who has been heavily involved in a ministry- one of those constants that people just take for granted- suddenly stops showing up. In simple terms, they just pooped out! Exhaustion mixed with frustration frequently results in absence!

The other dilemma of the twenty percent is that some of those people are a bit warped to begin with. They may volunteer for anything, but no matter where a psycho church member is serving he/she is still a psycho! Put another way, if an elephant volunteers to work in a china shop there is bound to be damage!

Several years ago I injured my lower back. To be more precise I herniated a disc. The injury was because of lifting some heavy objects and putting too much stress on that area of my back. In my physical therapy sessions the therapist showed me some safer ways to pick up things that won’t cause injury, and some exercises that would help strengthen a weak area. Looking back at that, now it is evident to me that I was doing things wrong. Injury was bound to happen at some time.

I’m helping with the middle school track team right now. We spend a lot of time stretching at the beginning of practice and then at the end of practice. In other words, we do a lot of prep work before we start depending on various muscle functions. Years ago when I was planning on running the Pike’s Peak Ascent, a 13.2 race UP Pike’s Peak (affectionately referred to by my wife as “The Death Race!”) I would go over to Barr Trail, which runs up the mountain, and train. I’d run up five miles and then back down the five miles. On other days I’d run around our neighborhood for a few miles. Although the Ascent was a challenge my training preparation was essential in getting me to the top of the mountain…and surviving!

Out of shape churches are too quick to press a warm body, or an overly-committed body, into ministry work. They expect their volunteers to attack a mountain when they still breathe hard just going upstairs.

Healthy churches do a lot more preparation before the ministry race starts! Healthy churches understand the value of the Holy Spirit in the functioning of ministry.

The Entitled Church

March 23, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                 March 23, 2017

                       

     A few days ago I wrote a piece on the entitled church attender. I presented the idea that there are a lot of church attenders who mirror one of our cultural themes as they relate to the church. That is, there is a heightened sense of entitlement, and focus on what the church can do for “me”, as opposed to how I can join a community of believers in service and ministry for Christ.

An old friend of mine responded to that writing with another view that got me thinking. Having lost her husband in the last year she experienced a church that seemed to place its needs above her grieving. She had held a couple of positions within the congregation, and it seemed as if the church was more concerned with her continuing on in the work of those positions than it was in her journey of grief.

She was right on! The shoe is on the other foot this time! There are a number of churches who treat their servants like the Borax Mule Team. The focus is on getting things done, as opposed to being a community of believers who lean on others and are available to be leaned on.

We talked about it quite often in my years of pastoring: burn-out! The exhaustion of the saints and the pastor. It seemed that there was seldom good balance; that it was either the pastor burning the candle at both ends, or the twenty percent of the saints who were doing too much. Sometimes it was the pastor who drove “the mules”, and sometimes it was the church leaders who barked behind the pastor like an army drill sergeant!

Rarely were there situations where the rhythm of the saints and the clergy found a healthy balance.

And so my friend finds herself, after years and years of serving, now wondering about the church. Did it consider her to be like middle-management in a corporation? Did it really care for her, or simply care when it was convenient?

Honestly, that scenario has been played out too many times. Sometimes the church even uses the excuse of the Great Commission to minimize the importance of its messengers! “We’re all about Jesus, so put your pity party on the back burner!”

Entitled churches are simply gatherings of entitled church attenders who have control of the reins!

“Hahh, hahh!” says the guy with the whip riding behind the mules.

Year End Review

December 29, 2016

                                                                                   December 29, 2016

                                           

Most of us have gone through that white knuckle, anxiety-raising experience called “our evaluation.” For some it’s termed “job performance” and for others it’s the “year end review.” Whatever it was called most of us dreaded it with a passion, even though it usually ended up being a positive experience. I still remember the first evaluation I received when I was the very, very part-time youth director at First Baptist Church in Marseilles, Illinois. The pastor gave it to me and I thought it was totally unfair. My seminary professor who read the evaluation commented to me, “Sounds like he doesn’t care for you too much!” Perhaps that experience put the dread of evaluations in me. Funny thing is that the young people in that first youth group taught me a lot, and allowed me to figure out things. Forty years later I’m Facebook friends with a couple of them as we continue our journey, but from different parts of the country.

I’ve received evaluations that have helped me focus on areas of weakness and allowed me to become more grounded; and I’ve received evaluations that left me feeling defeated and deflated.

BUT now I’m retired! So who does my evaluation? There’s a few people who I’m sure would willingly volunteer, but…NO!

I guess it’s…ME! I guess I’m the one my evaluation falls to. Oh, I suppose Carol will continue to evaluate me in some ways, but that’s on a daily basis! Looking back at my first year of retirement after 36 and 1/2 years of full-time pastoral ministry means that I get to be my own judge. I have the honor of determining the good, the bad, and the ugly.

So here goes!

Needs Improvement- 

Time in The Word- Interesting that I thought I would have more time reading the Bible this past year, but it didn’t happen! I gleaned many things from it, but not nearly as many as I thought I would. No excuses or soppy-sounding reasons! It was just one of those things that didn’t happen enough. Hoping the coming year brings improvement here.

Time in Theological Reading- Pretty much like I just said above. My hope as I entered 2016 was to read some of those books of theology that have been in my personal library for…ever! Moltmann, Barth, Kung, Pannenberg…they’re all still there…staring at me with dusty covers!

Visits to the YMCA- Our monthly membership fee keeps going up and my number of visits keep going down. Playing basketball with “old farts” at 6 A.M. isn’t as likely to get me out of bed as much as it used to!

Average-

Since I’m evaluating myself I have the option of not putting anything as average. Seriously, the only thing I can think of as being average are the sack lunches I take to school when I substitute teach- peanut butter and honey on wheat bread, with a baggie of carrots and grapes, and a bottle of water…every day! TYPICAL would be a better word to describe most of my life. I go to bed about the same time each night, read at bedtime, sit on the same Starbucks stool, drink the same blend of coffee, play the same people over and over again in “Words With Friends”, type with the same three fingers (Notice I said “3!” One on my right hand and two on my left!), and watch the same TV shows week after week (mostly DVR’ed)…Elementary, Criminal Minds, and Modern Family.

Doing Well- 

Writing and Creativity- Today is the 167th posting on my “Words from WW” blog this year. Viewership this year increased by almost 30%. Feedback has been good, and I never seem to have a shortage of subject matter. I’m thinking about a book sometime entitled From My Stool At Starbucks. That’s where I write almost all of my blog posts…the end stool, mind you, at the right end of the counter that looks out at Pike’s Peak. Yesterday I came by Starbucks and my stool was taken, and like an old geezer set in his ways…I went back home! On the other side of things, I’m about 35,000 words into a novel, but I almost always do my novel writing at the public library! Weird, but productive! Carol thinks I have a girlfriend who works at the library.

Pastoring- I’ve transitioned, along with my friend Steve Wamberg, into being the unofficial pastors of First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado. I say “unofficial”, but they even call be Pastor Bill now. I even received a mailing from our denomination’s region office last week inviting me to a conference in February that deals with pastoring the small church. Understand that all I’ve done so far is preach 2-3 Sundays a month, and lead the church in a couple of planning sessions as Steve and I help them figure out the future. I will probably never officially be pastor, but they see the two of us that way. And, quite frankly, I thoroughly enjoy the people there. They are great people who love the Lord and each other. It has allowed me to fall in love with the church again!

Coaching and Substitute teaching- I am extremely blessed to coach three different middle school teams…and to get paid to do it, and to mostly substitute teach middle school students. I love it, love it, love it! An added plus is all the writing material I receive from entering this world of adolescents. It’s like watching a new episode of The Wonder Years every day!

Spiritual Growth- This is a hard one for me to self-evaluate. Two of my best friends, Roger Mollenkamp and Steve Wamberg, continue to be my peer supports. We meet every other Friday at Starbucks for coffee, conversation, and each one of us has begun reading the book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I seem to be more grounded, and on a daily discovery of what God has me in the midst of. My writing is often a prime way for me to ponder and pound out on the keyboard what it is that God is saying to me. I also continue to be in a group of pastors called our “TIM group”…Together In Ministry…that meets monthly for study, sharing, lunch, and prayer. Great group! These two groups that I am a part of continue to challenge me and support me in my spiritual journey.

Frame of Mind and Attitude- Carol gets to evaluate me on this one. She has said, and told others, that I am much more relaxed and less stressed. My annoyances are now more with achy joints and cranky knees. Carol would tell anyone who wanted to hear that this past year has been a good year for me. Four vacations together: road trips to Arizona and Ohio, another trip by plane to Arizona, and an awesome trip to Hawaii. Frequent trips together to places like Target and King Soopers- something we didn’t do as much when we were both still working. In other words, we are mostly enjoying our journey into the world of the elderly!

Year End Evaluation- Keep on doing what I’ve been doing…just better! Value family and friends, for they are the ones who add richness and depth to the journey. Seek the Lord and be amazed at what is found! And have fun!

Worship Visitor

December 5, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       December 5, 2016

                                         

Deacon John raised his voice. “Lord, we know you love us, and now we ask that you would guide us in these coming days. Lord, if it be your will, please give us a sign of encouragement! We’re few in number, but massive in hope. We praise you and thank you! In Jesus name! Amen!”

The scattered few echoed his closing word as they sat back down in the pews ready to hear the Word of God for that day. Friendship Bible Church had existed on the street corner in the small rural village for close to a hundred and fifty years, but it had been dying a slow death for the last fifty. The town had decreased, as had the church’s effective ministry in the community. Young people had been raised in the church, grown up, gone off the college or to serve in the military, and never returned.

But there was hope in the midst of the gathered twenty!

The guest speaker introduced herself. She had served as a medical missionary at a hospital in India, and was back in the area for a few months telling her stories of mission work.

“There was a little boy who arrived at the hospital one afternoon…alone…bloodied…and frightened. My nurses asked him questions trying to find out his name, where he had come from, and what had happened to him? All he would tell them was that his name was Bontha and that he had been beaten by someone. He was bleeding profusely from a deep cut on his arm. We suspected that the “someone” was related to him and he did not want to say who it was. We treated him, stitched up the cut, cleaned him up, prayed with him, and asked him how we could contact his family. He kept telling us no, he did not want his family to know. One of the nurses left him for a few moments to go get him something to eat. When she came back he was gone. We searched and searched but could not find him, and Bontha never came back.”

“Years later I was doing my rounds through the pediatric ward one afternoon and a young man came up to me. He said, “Dr. Jan!” I looked at him, not recognizing who he was. “My name is Bontha!” Suddenly I could see the little boy appearing through the young man’s face. He showed me his arm. “You stitched up my arm when I came here bleeding.”

“My Lord! Bontha, I will always remember that day.” The questions started flowing out of me. “How are you? What happened to you that day? Where did you go? What are you doing now?”

He smiled at me and said that when he left the hospital he did not know what to do and where to go. His father had been in a drunken rage and had beaten him fiercely. When his father stumbled for a moment he escaped from the house and ran away, but as he was jumping over a fence he caught his arm on a piece of metal sticking out of the top of it and tore the skin open. He knew that our hospital was close and people had talked about “the Jesus Doctor” who worked there, so he ran as quick as he could, blood flowing from his body, and made it to the hospital. When he left our hospital he knew of a little church a couple miles away where a man named Pastor John was, and so he went there and told him what had happened. Pastor John went to Botha’s home and confronted Bontha’s father, brought him to a point of complete remorse and repentance, and told him that despite the abuse he had inflicted on his son that God  still loved him. Pastor John took Bontha in for the next month until he believed Botha’s father was ready to have him back. In that time he shared the story of the gospel with both Bontha and his father, and how the son of God was beaten even though he had done no wrong. Both father and son accepted Jesus.”

There were “Amens” wrong most of the people. They were caught up in the story.

“But the story doesn’t end there,” continued Doctor Jan. “For you see when Bontha reappeared that day he told me he was a student in medical school. He was in training to become a doctor. He told me that his experience that dark day when he was so young left a lasting impression upon him. Every time he looked at his arm and saw the scar from that day he remembered the loving care of my nurses and my words of concern for him. It changed his life, and Pastor John, the pastor of a church about the size of this one, took him in and told him of the love of God.”

“I wept as I heard his words! It was a story of misery turned to hope, a life rescued from abuse and changed to promise. Just a couple of years ago Dr. Bontha joined my staff at the hospital. He is now the primary doctor in the pediatric ward. When the Lord tells me that my work is done there he will take my place as the head of staff.”

“And it all began when a frightened little boy showed up one afternoon.” The missionary lady looked around the sanctuary. She saw tears running down the cheeks of some of the saints. There were moments of awed silence. “You never know what is going to happen when you ask the Lord to use you.”

The worship service closed with a time of heartfelt prayer of several people. They sang the hymn “I Love To Tell The Story” with loud committed voices in praise of their calling. Deacon John gave the closing prayer and people began conversing.

And then the front wooden door of the sanctuary creaked as it opened and a young boy that no one recognized wearing tattered clothing came through the door. It was at that moment that everyone knew that God had answered Deacon John’s prayer for a sign!

Advocating for The Program-less Church

May 1, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            May 1, 2016

                  

I’m about to walk on thin ice with lead boots, but here goes!

I’m advocating for a church that has no programs! And just so we’re clear here, I’m not simply going to substitute the word “ministry” in place of program. We do that quite often to make it sound legitimate.

I’m not saying that programs like Awana, Frontier Girls, after-school programs, senior fellowship groups, Bible Quiz Bowl, Royal Rangers, Young Adult ministries, spring rummage sale, church softball teams, and church bowling leagues have no merit. They do…kinda’!

My concern, as one who has created programs/ministries and trumpeted their merits for three and a half decades, is that programs start driving the cart instead of being the cart that follows the horse.

In case you’re confused, the horse is God, and his ways and purposes…and ministries and churches are following in his trail in the cart.

Sometimes churches create programs out of a sense of “spiritual impatience.” We are over-caffeinated people (I’m sitting in a Starbucks as I write this!) who have a very difficult time waiting upon the Lord, and I would say even “being with the Lord.” We get into the “I need to be doing something!” mindset.

This is not meant to be a blanket statement, but many times programs/ministries get adopted by congregations who get tired of waiting upon the Lord. The Methodists down the street are getting a monopoly on a ministry to seniors, so the Lutherans jump into the fray to get part of the market share. The Assembly of God church has a rockin’ praise team so the Baptists look to upgrade.

Another dilemma sometimes happens when the program becomes what is worshiped. If it is drawing a crowd it is suddenly seen as being anointed by God. Like the crowd following Jesus as he sat down on a hillside and gave a series of blessings and teachings, programs often create followings of the devoted. Conflicts in churches happen, more often than not, over programs. I rarely see conflicts in churches over God!

I’m wondering if a church should do a “program moratorium” and let God guide the wagon. What would that look like? The picture in Acts 2, 4, and 6 would help us figure that out. It seems that what rose to the surface in the beginning days of the church was the caring of one another, the proclaiming and teaching of the gospel, worship, and prayer. The Body was built on the strength of relationships knitted together. Acts 6 shows the development of a ministry to widows, the forgotten group.

The saints would gather together, check in on one another, encourage one another in a time when there were more reasons to get discouraged. And the Holy Spirit moved in their midst!

What would happen if the only thing on your church’s schedule this week was the gathering on Sunday morning or Sunday night? Would you love your brothers and sisters enough that you’d connect with them in other ways during the week? Coffee at Starbucks? An evening walk in the park with a friend? Going with a couple of others to see a sick friend? Calling a young mom and seeing if there is anything you could pick up for her at the grocery? Praying together?

Congregational vitality is based on our connection to who is driving the cart, and commitment to one another.

What connects you to the Kingdom of God?

Reaching and Reality

April 16, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 16, 2016

                                        

  

      I remember my seminary days of studying theology, talking about it in non-personal ways, and writing papers about it that connected with my mind, but not my soul. A minister friend of mine recently referred to that period of our lives as “reaching for our theology.” That is, we reached for books on library shelves and wrote various statements in essays that were a mixture of what someone else believed and what we thought we believed. In those days, we were not adverse to do some name-dropping in these papers of theology. If a quote from Moltmann’s The Crucified God could be nonchalantly inserted into the pages we would go for it…whether we understood the run-on sentences or believed the doctrine.

Like flying in a plane at 35,000 feet and describing what Kansas is, our words were often “reaches’ for a grade, and not heartfelt beliefs. I confess…I was often in that place of reaching.

And then many of us upon graduation took positions on church ministry staffs and we soon discovered that there is a difference between “reaching” and reality. What we seemed to be able to stay a safe distance from- the actual experiencing of our statement of beliefs- suddenly moved into where we lived.

We went from explaining grace to having to live out grace in our ministries. We went from “reaching preaching” to “preaching from our life experiences.” In many ways it was good, but in some ways it was to uncomfortably close to home.

John Piper is a well-known author and, until 2013, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. I have several of his books in my personal library, including Desiring God and Future Grace (I just name-dropped, didn’t I?). In 2010 Piper took an eight month leave from his position for what he called “a reality check from the Holy Spirit.” He sensed that he had a growing disconnect between what he wrote about and who he was.

A reality check from the Holy Spirit! Many times in my years of ministry I sensed the Holy Spirit nudging my life. Sometimes I faced up to it, and other times…I just kept flying over Kansas!

One of the most difficult elements of ministry is connecting what we believe with why we believe it. It’s the knowledge getting married to the intimate, the distant God that we realize is close at hand, the words of God now being experienced with the breath of God.

In my “reaching days” I could quote from Moltmann’s  Theology of Hope, but the reality of ministry is standing by the bed of a hospice patient and talking to him about the hope of the resurrection and what it means for each one of us.

There is a difference between preaching on forgiveness and being forgiving to the person who has purposely told a lie about you that has resulted in deep emotional pain.

I had many excellent professors back in my seminary days. One that I will always be indebted to was a theology professor named Tom Finger, not because I took pages and pages of notes in his classes, but rather because he kept asking me the hard questions:

“Why do you believe what you believe?” “

“What does that mean to you and for your life?”

“What difference does it make?”

He took me from flying over Kansas to having my feet in the dirt. People like that are God’s uncomfortable blessings upon our lives, because they help us figure out life. We see their handprints upon us as we gradually transform from “reaching preaching” to “preaching from our reality.”