When People Leave (3/21/24)

"Remember this: You pastor a parade. People march in and they march out." The pastor of a cowboy church said this to me and I didn't really know what to make of it. But it stuck with me. After a short time pastoring I began to understand. People come into service on a Sunday, they may even join the church and begin to serve. You begin to develop a meaningful relationship with them and then, all of the sudden, they're gone. Some will tell you why, most won't. Either way, it hurts.

It reminds me of a distinct moment in Jesus' ministry recorded in John 6. After hearing a challenging teaching from Jesus they should have leaned in rather than walk out. Jesus looked at the Twelve and asked if they would follow suite. I wonder if it was a question born of pain rather than a challenge to their fidelity. 

It's hard to be a leader. Harder still when people don't want to be led. Sometimes it's us. Sometimes it's them. Its not easy to know which, but seeing people march out of our church hurts. We want people to show up as their best, most mature self in times of confusion or challenge. Often they don't. Neither do we, for that matter. When someone leaves for what we may think is "no good reason," it makes us anxious. See if one of the following reactions sounds familiar:

None of these are helpful. What can help is to acknowledge the hurt, give grace and focus our attention on caring for those that remain in our ministry.

1. Acknowledge the hurt. We have a great resource for this in the Book of Psalms! Linger over the ones on lament and pray them. This helps us to grieve the loss. I first became aware of this idea from Pete Scazzero. He helped me see the importance of taking the time to sit with God, embrace the pain and process the loss. When we don't do this the heaviness of grief can become an invisible weight we carry. Inevitably it affects our mood, focus, and behaviors. 

2. Give grace. Remember, people are in progress. They have not arrived, but neither have we. None of us handle anxiety well all the time. This just might be a great opportunity for us to model maturity for those who have left and those who remain. This isn't possible if we nurse a grudge against the departed. Graciously forgive and move forward.

3. Care for others. Speaking of moving forward, it is important to turn our attention to those who remain. Peter's instruction fits: "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you..." (1 Peter 5:2). We can allow the pain of loss fill our hearts and minds or we can go visit someone in the nursing home, reach out to a recent guest, or call a grieving widow or widower.

We do indeed pastor a parade. People march into our lives and ministries. Then, sometimes too easily, they march out. It hurts and that's okay. Its no badge of honor to be unaffected by loss. It means we have forfeited that which is required to love well: vulnerability. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Pressure Relief for Ministers -- It's Not All Up To You (3/11/24)

It’s all up to me! That was a frequent feeling I had as a pastor. I felt the pressure to do it all and do it right or else. Or else what? I wasn’t always sure. Disaster? I’d get fired? The church would close its doors? If I had paused to think about the “or else,” I probably would have recognized how irrational my thinking was at the time.

Unfortunately, I did not push pause to think and pray. I was too busy because I believed the lie that it was all up to me.

Consider the story of Jethro. His son-in-law thought and led just as I described above. His son-in-law was given a leadership role he did not really want, leading a large group of people who didn’t really want him, and yet everyone knew that he was the man for the job. So, the people leaned on him for everything and he all too easily accepted that role.

Jethro could see the results. On the one hand, it was quite incredible. God was blessing his son-in-law’s leadership in a big way! But on the other hand Jethro could see that his son-in-law was about to wear himself out. What good would that do? Not only would he suffer, but so would the people he led. In fact, Jethro was already witnessing the tragic results of such a leadership paradigm. Jethro saw firsthand that this was beginning to happen. The load was too much for his son-in-law and the people he led were literally waiting around to get some direction from their overburdened leader.

It was all too much for Jethro. He could not keep his mouth shut. After asking a few penetrating questions, he made his first assessment: “What you are doing is not good…You cannot handle it alone.” But he didn’t leave his weary son-in-law there; he gave him some advice (as father-in-law’s are prone to do).

Jethro encouraged his son-in-law to do two things. One, keep leading. Don’t stop teaching the people what God expects. Yes, keep doing that, but Jethro encouraged him to move away from a “It’s all up to me” mindset by enlisting other leaders. Jethro explained that it would be far better to put capable leaders in place to help the people follow God and to help people deal with the repercussions when they disobeyed. That way, Jethro said, “Your load will be lighter, because they will share it with you.” Did you catch that? Share the load and the load will be lighter. It’s so obvious! And the message behind Jethro’s advice is this: It’s not all up to you! Or at least it doesn’t have to be.

Imagine being in the son-in-law’s shoes. You’re wearing yourself out for a people who seem mostly ungrateful and now your father-in-law comes for a visit and all he does is criticize. Well, that’s how I would be tempted to see it. Thankfully that’s not how Moses responded. Rather, he was all ears (yes, in case you didn’t know, Jethro’s son-in-law, was none other that Moses).

Moses took his father-in-law’s advice to heart and made some changes. God used Moses to lead His people right to the door steps of the Promised Land. Of course we know that Moses didn’t get to take the people over the threshold, but the point remains: It’s not all up to you! God did not place you in your church to wear yourself out doing everything for everyone. He has placed among you leaders and potential leaders to lighten the load. Not only will this enable you to serve better, but it will better serve your people. Why? Because they won’t be totally reliant upon you, waiting on you to do all the thinking and serving for them. Rather, you’ve taught them how to live under God’s rule and you’ve provided for them other leaders to help care for them.

Remember what Paul said about the role of leaders in the church? They are there not to do the ministry for the church, but to equip the church to do the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). I know you may want to argue that you’re in a unique position with unique pressures that override anything said thus far. You may feel that this was a nice pep talk, but your specific situation dictates a more lone-ranger approach. I lovingly tell you—You are not more unique than Moses. And your people are not more difficult than his. If you have the same mindset—that it’s all up to you—then I encourage you to consider making some adjustments, like Moses. With God’s help (and some patient endurance), you can do it.

PS—The story of Jethro and Moses can be found in Exodus 18:13-27.

Pressure Relief for Ministers -- Doing It All, All the Time  (3/5/24)

Ask any minister and they will tell you there is more to do than time to do it. How is it possible to fit it all in? Ministers are supposed to prepare and deliver sermons or lessons every week, sometimes multiple times a week. They are to care for the hurting and hear from the frustrated. They must encourage the discouraged, inspire the apathetic and rebuke the unrepentant. They should evaluate and implement a discipleship process. They commanded to call all to serve and must enlist, equip, and evaluate quality leaders. They need to seek a vision from the LORD, set goals for the people, and establish values for the staff. They rightly feel a burden to share the gospel with their community and to engage in missions beyond their back yard. They are invited to do weddings and requested to do funerals. They are expected to be a representative of the church at civic functions. They are obligated to take on a number of administrative duties which can include taking out trash, fixing equipment, turning off lights, emptying mouse traps, maintaining church-owned vehicles. The list goes on. 

Ministers will do all of these things week in and week out. If they don't, they'll at least think about them and feel guilty for not doing them. Some of them are non-negotiable and some of them only feel non-negotiable. It can be very difficult to tell the difference since there are usually a few people in the church that think they can and should do it all. Those folks forget about the minister’s own soul that needs attention and that their primary ministry is to their family. With all of that going on it can be messy inside the minister’s mind. The pressure can mount. The job can feel like it’s just too much and it often is.

Now, I wouldn’t presume to tell a minister what they can drop and what they can’t, but God can. God does. I think the pressure relief valve is this:  Ministers must do what God calls them to do in their current season of life and ministry and nothing more. This is not to say ministers can drop major responsibilities. The basics must be done and must be done well. But there is a lot of discretionary tasks and initiatives. How does one know that they’ve taken on too much?

For me, it starts when I feel that tension of “ought” rising up. My mind gets stuck on the things I “ought” to be doing, but I dread the margin-busting results. I may start to lose sleep, become irritable, find myself trying to escape through unhealthy habits (like overeating or mindless entertainment). That “ought” plus dread is a good sign I am in dangerous territory. It’s also an invitation to pause and pray and listen for God’s voice. The only real “ought” is the voice of God. Certainly the basics of ministry are outlined in Scripture, but they can’t all be done all the time. We have this moment, this season. We have limited time, energy and mental focus. Even if many good things go undone, but the God-things have been accomplished, I can rest eas(ier).

PS -- I'm reminded of a saying I heard in seminary -- "Pastor, you don't have to die for the church. Jesus already did that." Yes, die to self. No, that doesn't mean you kill yourself trying to do everything. God has not asked us to do everything. What has He called you to do today? Do that and die to the pressure to do it all, all the time.

Pressure Relief for Ministers -- Home Run Sermons  (2/16/24)

Preparing and delivering a sermon is like writing a term paper every week, capped off with an oral exam. The exam takes place in front of your family, friends, strangers who are deciding if they will come back based on how you do and even a few folks who are rooting for you to fail.

Add to all of that the pressure to hit a home run every time you step up to the pulpit (or music stand or tall round table [what's that called?]). Given that most pastors in normative size churches have much more to do each week than prepare and deliver a sermon, this pressure is simply too much. Here's the pressure relief valve -- You should not expect every sermon to be a home run, but you can prepare yourself to get a base hit. Imagine you got a base hit every time. You'd be an MLB superstar! Not that being a superstar is the goal. The goal is to be faithful and effective unto the glory of God and for the good of His people. Now, how might you get a base hit every time?

FIRST -- Much of it is in the prepation, which pastors have much control over (accept those rare weeks with multiple funerals). It helps to know what text or topic you'll be preaching before the week of preparation begins. This allows you to maximize and not waste anytime getting started. Once you do start, having a system in which you use to prepare each week will also keep you from wasting time. I use a simple three step process.

SECOND -- It is my conviction that every sermon must not only mention Jesus, but should center itself on his person, his message, his work and/or its results. If you're not of that same conviction, read the words of Spurgeon on the matter and perhaps you'll change your mind :-)  Also, to see how this can be done, listen to any of Timothy Keller's sermons or read his book on preaching. What I am saying is this -- A base hit sermon includes the gospel.

THIRD -- Prepare yourself physically and spiritually. Get enough rest. Don't eat junk the night before or the day of. Drink plenty of water. Give yourself time in the morning to review your message so you are not rushed into the pulpit. Most important of all, spend time in prayer. Do this throughout the process, but make sure you sit with the Lord in prayer soon before you preach. Pray not only for you and the delivery of the message the Lord has given you, but you must also pray for those who will hear the message. Remember, in the end, the success of preaching is in pleasing the Lord and seeking to help those who listen. Being impressive is not the mark of a successful preacher. Faithfulness is.

I do belive that if you do these three things you will preach a base hit sermon. Now, notice that I said nothing of the actual preaching event. You can't always control how things go once you begin the sermon and you certainly can't control the response of the congregation. However, if you wish to improve the actual delivery of your sermon you can go back and listen to your message,  and make notes for improvement. Then perhaps you can get a few doubles. If you take the time to get to know your listeners and if you will love them well as their shepherd, maybe you'll get a triple from time to time. And if the Spirit decides to move in an extraordinary way, you can enjoy a home run. 

Pressure Relief for Ministers -- Handling Unrealistic Expectations  (2/9/24)

The pressure a minister can experience to perform at a certain level or to be a certain kind of minister is often more than they can bear. They may not be able to articulate it, but it is not unusual for them to feel a sense of dread that they do not measure up.

This pressure can be internal. Perhaps the minister compares their weaknesses to the strengths of others. Or they hear what God is doing in another ministry and wonder what is so wrong with their leadership that God isn't doing something similar within their own. 

It can also be external. Some folks are all too willing to share their outsized expectations of their minister. Their displeasure is stated out loud, online, or with reduced giving or attendance. They might mention the amazing preacher they listen to online or how much they loved their last pastor. This could be innocent enought, but an insecure minister can take them as slights. PS--We are all insecure at some point or around certain topics).

These internal and external expectations that put pressure on the minister are not all illegitimate. The trouble is when these expectations become unrealistic. This may be in the quantity or in the quality of the minister's capabilities.

Quantity -- It would be really something if a minister was good at absolutely everything. From social media to website design to sound engineering to facility maintenance to book keeping to legal matters... and the list goes on. Yet the body of Christ has many parts and the minister is only one of those parts.

Quality -- Unfortunately (or fortunately!), our congregations have access to the best. The best preaching. The best leadership examples/advice. The best administrative tools. The best customer service. The local minister and ministry can have a very hard time measuring up to these standards!

With all that said there are a few things a minister must do and must do well. Like an actual shepherd (see Psalm 23) a minister must be able to feed the flock (preach and/or teach), care for the flock (pastor, disciple, counsel), lead the flock (direction and basic administration) and protect the flock (from false beliefs and bad behavior). These are the essential elements of a minister's work. 

Even in the essentials, the pressure to make the grade can be too much. So, here's the pressure relief valve for the minister: Though a minister cannot be great at everything, they can do a few things well. God has gifted them and will partner with them to do so. While the minister must resist the pressure from within and from without to make "A's" on everything, with God's help, they can make passing grades. 

Final thought. I've noticed that, within the essentials mentioned above, a minister will find they are more gifted in some than others. They may be great at pastoral care, but not as confident in their preaching. Or vice versa. What I've tried to do is lean into my strengths while shoring up my weaknesses. In other words, there are some essetials I am more than capable of making an "A" on while in other areas a passing grade is the best I can do and that's okay. I just don't want to fail in the essentials nor do I want to grow discouraged when I don't make an "A" on everything.