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Archive for Pastoral Ministry

With the exception of one Elder led congregation, I have always been a part of a congregational church. A congregational form of church government means that the membership sits atop the organizational chart, providing the final thumbs up or thumbs down to initiatives from subsets of the church. A congregational church may delegate some of the day to day decisions to the church staff or to a board, but reserve the “big” decisions for church wide business sessions.

A couple of things about that fact strike me as strange. For example, voting on issues always creates winners and losers. All in favor say “aye,” and all opposed say “nay.” Let’s count the votes and see which side has won and which side has lost. American politics reminds us that we have winners and losers every two years.

A second thing that is striking is that all votes are equal and count the same. The wealthiest member of the congregation gets one vote. The oldest member gets one, as do the youngest and newest members. Every member gets one vote. Just one. They’re not weighted, which is appropriate. Every time I step into a voting booth I am reminded of the fact that any other number of registered voters can cancel my vote. While this is striking, it works for America and it works for congregational forms of church government.

There is one more thing about congregation wide voting that I find interesting. Voting is based on a model of approval and disapproval. If I approve of an initiative or a candidate, I can vote “yes.” If is disapprove, I can vote “no.”

So what happens if I “lose” the vote? What do I do if I find myself in the minority of the will of the people?

Whenever I am in the minority, I move from approval to acceptance. I don’t have to approve of the action of the majority to find a position of acceptance as a minority voice. You see, I am troubled when I see a celebrity look into a television camera and say, “If so and so is elected then I’m moving to (fill in the blank some other nation).” There have been plenty of elections when I didn’t “approve” of the majority opinion and my horse didn’t win, but I didn’t move to another nation. I remained a good citizen of my community, state, and nation. I paid my bills and my taxes. I exercised my right to vote in the next election. I didn’t approve, but I accepted the outcome.

One of the things those of us in congregational churches need to remember is that sometimes things are going to happen when we don’t “approve.” But for the sake of the whole, we can come to a point of acceptance. We can continue to faithfully serve, continue to give as instructed by Scripture, and continue to work to advance the cause of Christ by serving our community and living as a faithful witness. We don’t have to always “approve.” But we can learn to “accept,” for the sake of something bigger than our one vote.

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Here’s a helpful article that is worthy of pastors’ attention about the struggles of motherhood and the challenge that churches face in meeting their needs. It’s by Dr. Heather Thompson Day, associate professor at Colorado Christian University. You can read the article at the following link: https://www.barna.com/guest-column-mothers/.

I appreciate Day’s research about the stress levels of mothers, single mothers, and working mothers. The pressures and demands of being a mother become more complex with each generation of children. While Day appeals to churches to provide support to mothers, she stops short of offering some practical suggestions. Here’s what I would offer that is practical and tangible, based on my experiences as a pastor.

  1. Lay Off the Obligation to Volunteer in Children’s Ministry. Our mother’s and grandmother’s all took their turns working in the church nursery, teaching Sunday School, and volunteering for VBS. They did their duty and did their time, and now expect the 21st century mothers to do the same. But the world has changed. Many of those same mothers and grandmothers didn’t work outside the home nor face the pressures of modern day parenting schedules. I remember one parent who told me, in so many words, if they had to watch their own kids when they came to church they “just as well stay at home.”
  2. Lay Off the Proverbs 31 Ideal. Many mothers place enough expectations upon themselves with out a pastor (usually male) pointing out Proverbs 31 as the model of perfect motherhood. Yes, the Proverbs 31 woman could do it all, and by my observation, many of today’s moms are already trying to do it all, including meeting the additional expectations they feel from other moms in the PTA or the weekly play group.
  3. Lay Off the Lip Service to Reaching Young Families. If you want to young families, make a commitment to reaching them. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. Create environments and contexts where young parents can be with each other, sans kids. Provide occasional date night opportunities for parents by offering child care so they can catch their breath. You can do the same in early December so parents can Christmas shop together for their kids.
  4. Lay Off the Sports Guilt. I’m old enough to remember “blue laws,” which virtually shut communities down on Sundays. Stores, gas stations, and even restaurants were closed on Sunday so that local churches had the market cornered one full day each week. That ship has sailed. Even Wednesday nights, a night once respected by local school districts is off the table. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to provide their children every opportunity to learn and grow possible, including sports and the fine arts. Whether we agree with it or not, sports and fine arts are going to schedule practices, games and performances on Wednesdays and Sundays. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to choose those practices, games and performances over church activities. I learned a long time ago that I’m not going to win that battle. I also learned I wasn’t going to judge or criticize parents who made the choices they made. Nothing is to be gained by invalidating a young family’s Christian commitment just because their kids play soccer on Sunday morning. So instead of judging them, celebrate them. Encourage older congregants to attend kids sporting and fine arts events. Make your presence known to them where they are, not just when they are on the church’s campus.
  5. Lay Off the Guessing Game. One of my pet peeves of church leadership is the insistence that they can sit in a room and discern how to meet the needs of mothers, fathers and young families. But if truth be told, they’re just guessing at it. Or worse, they plan as if they’ve read the latest and greatest book released on the subject by the guru of the day who lives in a different geography. There is not magic formula for reaching young families. So maybe church staffs need to quit guessing and actually talk to the mothers and fathers. No, I’m serious. Ask them. And then listen. What they have to say may not be in your church’s program or schedule, but that’s ok. You really don’t have to guess any more. And if you can discern what the needs actually are, who knows? They might be more prone to invite and bring their friends along. The gymnasium you’re thinking will help you actually may be for naught. What moms or dads may prefer is a mentoring relationship with an empty nester who has already walked where they’re walking.
May
01

Leaving Can Be Life Giving

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The most recent issue of Christianity Today had a column by Rev. Dennis R. Edwards, PhD, titled, “Leaving Can Be Life Giving.” I thought it was a powerful account of a pastor who left his position due to systemic racism and institutional toxicity. The key quote from the article is, “Pay attention to the wounded faithful who exit. Their words may be the word of the Lord.” You can read the article at the following link: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/may-june/racism-leaving-prophetic-institutions-dust-off-your-feet.html?share=BVWUKAktFXWrI2NPviYnK5OFgn0HFGos&utm_medium=widgetsocial.

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Apr
11

I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious

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Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed many conversations with irreligious people about faith. In my encounters I’ve heard one recurring theme over and over–“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” One person, when I pressed for further understanding, quipped, “Religion is sitting in church thinking about fishing. Spirituality is going fishing and thinking about God.” Without question, people are very open to spiritual things, but simultaneously bypassing organized religion to find and fuel their spirituality. Religious institutions are becoming less and less where people turn to in order to find meaning and make sense out of life. So where do they turn?

Harvard Divinity School published a study titled, How We Gather, that centered around the question, “How can we retrieve the ancient wisdom, without the constraints?” The research team discovered that people who seek spirituality do so by accessing several practices outside the confines of formal religion.

  1. Finding community by valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on serving others. Creating new communities is often more powerful than joining existing ones.
  2. Striving for personal transformation by making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit.
  3. Seeking social transformation by pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good with the goal of closing the asset gaps. This effort extends beyond geographical and political boundaries. It is global in its focus.
  4. Finding purpose and hope by clarifying, articulating and acting on one’s own personal life mission. (Yes, the secular world is challenging their employees to write their own personal life mission statements.)
  5. Fostering creativity by allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play, especially as digital interfaces become more common.
  6. Valuing accountability by holding oneself and others responsible for working toward decided goals, often without a centralized authority.

Yes, I realize that these are all core values of religions groups and local churches. The key distinction is the structure and constraints of religion and local churches. The listing above is expressed in the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic work reported in the Book of Acts. Perhaps the key is for churches to reevaluate their “constraints.” Churches have a lot of rules, some of them written, many of them unwritten. Unfortunately, many of these rules are reinforced from obscure verses from the Bible and the particular interpretive biases of church and denominational leadership. What isn’t cited from Scripture is purely the culture of the congregation. The result is that many feel invalidated as persons. Much of local church life is on the top shelf and inaccessible.

No, I don’t advocate tossing the Bible aside and giving in to every whim of popular culture. But I do think churches need to reassess what is most important and direct their resources and energy in that direction. The mandate of Jesus was and is, “follow me in a life of discipleship.” Not, join a church and become like them. The standard must be higher, not harder.

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In a recent poll released by Gallup, American church membership has declined to below 50% of the population. The study cites that in 2020, only 47% of U.S. adults belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. That’s a 20 point reduction since the turn of the century (1999). The survey states the following reasons for this steady decrease.

  1. There is a decline in religious affiliation, due in part to the increased number of churches that have eliminated formal church membership.
  2. Values have shifted through generations. With each generational stage comes a decline, which should come as no surprise.
  3. No demographic sub group is unscathed. The decline in membership is non discriminate toward race, gender, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc.
  4. While the pandemic certainly didn’t help the numbers, it didn’t cause the numbers. The pandemic revealed the trend that was already underway.
  5. While estimates remain unclear, it is certain that many churches will be forced to either close or form mergers in the coming years in order to remain sustainable.

What are the options, then, in the face of this trend?

First, churches need to re-evaluate their values toward formal church membership in favor of committed participation. Regular attenders may never formally join a church. At the same time, these same attenders may provide stability through volunteerism, leadership, and financial donations. If a church is narrow at this point, it may miss opportunities to disciple people and fellowship with them.

Second, churches need to immerse themselves in their communities to find the needs that are present instead of “just guessing at it.” For example, the Gallup Poll cites a 2017 poll among church goers which details the major reasons people attend a particular church. The results are interesting.

Reasons for Attending Church or Other Place of WorshipMajor factorMinor factorNot a factor
%%%
Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture76168
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life75168
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers642115
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities592713
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring542817
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community493614
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music383625

Three things immediately stand out. First, participation in a particular church or denominational brand is not listed. Brand loyalty is a diminishing value that may not be persuasive. The second is the placement of worship style as number seven out of seven. So guitars and drums do not guarantee growth. Again, becoming immersed in your community will enable churches to discover the needs of people and design strategies accordingly. No, you don’t have to “guess at it.” The third and final observation is that people have a desire to be involved, but not necessarily in the way churches are designed. Take, as an example, a congregation with a heavy committee structure. It is not uncommon for a church to have 6-8 standing committees, in addition to a governing board, elder board, or deacon board. These committees may have 6-9 members each. At that point it’s a math problem. Six committees with six members each equals 36, not counting other leaders, officers, or staff. For most churches in America, that’s a substantial percentage of their adults. And because churches value membership, you can’t serve on a committee even if you were willing. Younger generations may not have their grandparents values, where membership included service to a committee. Service? Yes. Committees? Pass.

These statistics can lead us to do one of two things. One is to throw our hands up, give up, and close up. The other is to allow God’s Spirit to lead us to think about church in ways we haven’t thought before. We don’t have to give up. But we may have to let go of some things that we have gripped with white knuckles. As Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “I’ve learned to hold on to things loosely, because it hurts too bad when God has to pry them from my hands.”

You can find both surveys at the following link: https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

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Mar
21

A Church Called Tov: part 3

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McKnight and Barringer spend one half of their book discussing what Tov is not. Part 2 of A Church Called Tov outlines seven habits of goodness that shift and shape a healthy culture of goodness in a church.

  1. Tov Churches Nurture Empathy. Citing the authors, “Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels, to exit our own feelings and enter the experience of others. Thus, empathy is the ability to see the world through others’ pain.” Churches therefore must keep an eye on the marginalized and disenfranchised in society. (Luke 4:18-19)
  2. Tov Churches Nurture Grace. Grace is the antidote to power through fear because it is focused on mutuality, reciprocity, and giving. It is not primarily concerned with getting and maintaining.
  3. Tov Churches Nurture a People-First Culture. By valuing people as ones created in the image of God, the emphasis on people first takes precedence over the institution. People participate in transforming into Christlikeness versus conforming to the social expectations of the church. In other words, the church invites people to “come be like Jesus,” not “come be like us.”
  4. Tov Churches Nurture Truth. Again, the reader needs to hear the word “truth” through the lens of honesty and authenticity, not doctrinal purity. Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to know the truth, do the truth, and speak truth in love. A commitment to truth on all levels will provide resistance to image maintenance, information management, and spin doctoring.
  5. Tov Churches Nurture Justice. Toxic churches promote loyalty to leadership, whether they be professionals or members of the laity. This means churches must do the right thing at the right time regardless of personal loyalties in order to maintain their position and privilege.
  6. Tov Churches Nurture Service. Recognizing Jesus’ example of one who came to serve and not be served, goodness cultures focus on serving others instead of serving self. Celebrity cultures in toxic churches promote personal perks and privileges for pastors and key leaders alike. When churches are labeled “most important” in a community or denomination, it should be seen as a warning sign. Similarly, red flags should appear when pastors are labeled “visionaries” or “entrepreneurs.” No one is indispensable.
  7. Tov Churches Nurture Christlikeness. The success of any church should be measured on the growth of members in Christlikeness. Pastors have the primary responsibility of developing personal Christlikeness and to lead others to do likewise. When churches make their primary goal numeric growth, they are sacrificing their primary work for a secondary result. Remember, Jesus concluded his earthly ministry with a handful of followers. But those who became like him changed the world.

I think A Church Called Tov is a worthwhile read for any pastor, church leader, or church member. It is a prophetic call to the 21st century American church to rethink and redirect their emphasis in ministry and relationships. The goal, after all, is to please Christ, and to receive his ultimate commendation, “Tov.”

Mar
13

A Church Called Tov: part 2

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Narcissism and power through fear are the entry points for toxic and dysfunctional church culture. When these are active in a church, the soil becomes fertile for increasing levels and variants of dysfunction. Let’s unpack those observations from McKnight and Barringer.

The first step toward dysfunction is narcissism, a personality disorder that couples self love with lack of empathy toward others. This is often manifested in the need for control of the organization and its direction.

Second is power that is maintained by fear of losing one’s status or position in the cultural hierarchy. Fear, in this instance, is passive, where violators are excluded or disenfranchised versus actively oppressed. It’s often said that cultures are developed by the behaviors they reward and the behaviors they punish. In church cultures, punishment is withdrawal and withholding, while reward is promotion and inclusion.

Next is institutional creep, which is the belief that the organization itself is first and foremost over and against the individuals that comprise the organization. Maintaining the brand and brand loyalty would be secular comparisons to this concept.

Fourth is the absence of honesty. McKnight uses the word truth here, but I prefer to think of it in terms of honesty so that no one assumes he means doctrinal purity. Since goodness and truth can not be divorced from each other, it is essential that churches that aspire to goodness make honestly the gold standard. The issue arises when authenticity is enforced on a person or persons without mutuality. And when honesty is demonstrated, it is often punished and shamed. This leads to the development of false narratives, image management, damage control and spin doctoring. The goal is not to be transparent, but to present a version of truth that is palpable to the listener and protects the institution from any appearance other than playing the victim card.

The last three threats McKnight and Barringer point out are directed toward church leadership. They a culture of blind loyalty and allegiance, the elevation of pastor as “celebrity,” and the emphasis on leadership to the exclusion of Christ, who is the true head of the church.

When one or more of these are present, Tov (or goodness) is not embodied. While it looks bleak, there is good news. Next week I’ll delve into the antidotes for each of these dysfunctional traits.

Mar
07

A Church Called Tov

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Those of you who know me will be aware of my appreciation for Scot McKnight as a New Testament scholar and author. His commentaries and monographs are prominently displayed on my library shelves with respect and admiration. His latest work, co authored with his daughter Laura Barringer, is his most prophetic work to date. A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing undertakes the task of understanding how churches that are tasked with promoting the good news of the Gospel become more renown for bad news and bad behavior by sheep as well as shepherd.

Those who follow McKnight are aware that for some time he has served as a prophet who speaks truth to power especially with regards to the dismissal of Bill Hybels, pastor of the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. He and his daughter both had been a part of the congregation, lending a great deal of credibility to their words. They do not write as ones who are launching artillery safely behind the front lines. The reader can feel the depth of personal pain as they deliver this labor of compassion.

McKnight begins with pointing out that every church has its own unique culture that has the power to transform those within its boundaries. He quotes David Brooks, who in The Sacred Mountain writes these words:

Never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are. When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the type of person who works in that company. Moreover, living life in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner turns you into a utilitarian pragmatist. The ‘How do I succeed?’ questions quickly eclipse the ‘Why am I doing this?’ questions.

Most of the people I know have experienced some form of injury at the hands of the church they attend or used to, at least. These injuries can range anywhere from a variety of abuses to emotional manipulation, exclusion, and shaming. Interestingly enough, most of the pastors I know have also experienced similar things from the churches they have served. McKnight’s point is not to pit the pastor against the people or vice versa. His point is that many churches have lost their way, and it is not that hard to do. Toxicity and dysfunction is not the result of theological aberration or denominational disloyalty. Neither is it rooted in organ music versus guitars and drums. It comes from an insatiable thirst for control and the love of oneself. Modern day Diotrephes’ if you will. (3 John 9)

The remainder of part one of the book deals with how churches become toxic and dysfunctional, primarily through narcissism and power through fear. That will provide my outline for next week’s post.

Jan
09

The Unheralded Essential Workers

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For nearly a year we have wrestled with the world wide pandemic, and as long as we have witnessed the struggle we have celebrated our health care community. These doctors and nurses have been on the “front lines” of dealing with the most severe cases that require hospitalization. Our health care workers have been honored in various ways and have been highlighted on newscasts with frequency. I join those who celebrate them, for it is deserved.

But there is a vocation among us that has equally labored during the pandemic who remain largely anonymous. They have worked around the clock, dealing with COVID-19 decedents and their families without attention as they go about their essential work. Who, you may ask, is this group? It is our nation’s funeral directors.

People usually don’t think of funeral directors and staff until absolutely necessary. Yet, they remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, bypassing weekends, holidays and paid time off because death doesn’t wear a watch, keep a calendar, or respect anyone’s plans. This is the responsibility that funeral directors signed up for. And in most cases, they serve quietly, faithfully, and for far less remuneration that one might think. For example, the average starting salary for a funeral director in my state (Iowa) is around $36,000 per year.

The pandemic has placed our funeral directors at constant risk. The burden of embalming or cremating a COVID positive case requires directors to utilize the same PPE that any hospital professional would require. Funeral directors also have to creatively help families grieve the loss of their loved one, working within the boundaries of masks, limited gatherings, and the stipulations of local churches that permit funeral services in their houses of worship. Like churches, they master live streaming to allow friends of the departed to attend services virtually. In addition, they stand alone during arrangements to provide counsel, support and understanding, compassionately listening to family members who are in the initial stages of grief.

So what can pastors, churches and church volunteers do to support this important act of service provided by our local funeral homes?

  1. Commit to cooperative service that makes the family’s needs the priority. In other words, endeavor to come alongside the funeral director to provide support for the family through the ongoing process of bereavement from the death notification, through the arrangements, during the funeral and interment, and toward the coming months of follow up. While I personally do not advocate directly participating in the arrangements, the pastor’s availability to answer funeral director’s questions about service arrangements, dates, times, music, etc. is helpful.
  2. Communicate clearly the expectations and regulations your congregation has put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, and then own them. I did a funeral this past summer where the church had established rules about wearing masks and social distancing that the pastor expected the funeral directors to enforce. That was unfair. If you have guidelines in place, communicate them to the funeral director and, at a minimum, help police the behavior of attenders.
  3. Extend hospitality to the funeral directors and their staffs. Make sure they know where restrooms are located. Inform them of your church’s customs and preferences. Let them know where the family gathers prior to the service. And perhaps, offer them a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.
  4. Treat them as the professionals they are. It takes four years of education, a year long internship and a passing grade from the state board of examination for them to be qualified to do the job. They have an incredible amount of experience and are fluent in every faith tradition in your community regardless the size. They know what they are doing, and deserve to be respected accordingly.
  5. Finally, lead your congregations to include them in their pandemic prayer lists alongside first responders and health care professionals. Their work involves incredible exposure and personal risk, and in many cases, will leave the most long lasting impression upon the family.

If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to have a conversation with one or more funeral directors in your community. Ask questions, and learn the stuff you didn’t learn in seminary. It will benefit you as you serve the people in your congregation. If you’re not a pastor, feel free to forward this along to the person who you would ask to attend to your final wishes.

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Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway, has an excellent post describing the life cycle of a pastor’s ministry. While he doesn’t cite specific data harvested from research, those of us who have been around the local church for any period of time can attest that Rainer is pretty accurate in his evaluation. You can find the article by CLICKING HERE.

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