We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us!

design-34Cartoonist, Walt Kelly said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I am concerned that this has, in too many instances, become the case for some of us. 

Racially, economically, politically, generationally, and stylistically, we are fighting amongst ourselves. Friendly fire, weapon fire coming from one’s own side, is the worst. You expect to get shot at, but not by the folks wearing the same uniform as you.

It appears to me that, at times, the church has been influenced by the culture in this regard. Rather than being the peacemakers our world so desperately needs us to be (and we are called by Christ to be), a few have, I believe inadvertently, taken on the identity of brawlers, combatants, and pugilists. Without exaggeration, I don’t recall a time when Believers, church members, pastors and even ministerial colleagues have been so deeply engaged in battle with one another. I realize that only a minority of people is involved, but it sure feels major when so much of our wars are carried out in public view. Of course, there is so much more good than bad taking place, but the good doesn’t get the press like the bad.

I don’t like to argue or debate. Conflict is no fun for me. I have friends who enjoy these things. They sometimes want to argue with me about it (LOL). But this seems deeper.

 We all agree that there are times that conflict must be embraced. A few things are worth fighting over. But much of the result of the fighting I’m witnessing isn’t positive; it’s devastating. Families, friends, churches and, perhaps denominations are splitting. If we are detaching over non-negotiables, though painful, we understand. When serious Biblical or theological schisms happen, lines must be drawn. But I don’t see the redemptive value of the disagreements when the disagreements are over negotiable things, yet they end with relational ruptures. Sometimes, situations require that we divide, but more times than not, they don’t.

I hope that we can get a respite from the verbal and relational and social media jousting. It is wearying to continually navigate contention.  And until we stop, we are focused on the wrong enemy.

We have one enemy – the devil. Together, let’s fight him. Until he is defeated, we shouldn’t have enough time to fight each other. Let’s not become our own worst enemies.

Middle-Aged, “Unsuccessful” Pastors

design-32Somewhere around the halfway point in many pastors’ careers, they come to the realization that the dreams and aspirations they envisioned for their ministry will, in all likelihood, not become a reality. Perhaps they aimed too high. Maybe they thought too highly of their gifts and talents. Ambition can be a good thing or a bad thing. But it can be painful to come to the awareness that the vision that you worked on for years won’t materialize.

It’s at this point in ministry that people must make a decision. There are a few options. One can keep dreaming, pressing and working toward the original dream. We can become discouraged and quit the ministry. We can act outwardly like the fire is still burning, but on the inside we are shriveling up and dying.

Depending upon how big the vision, sticking with it can be a good and admirable thing. We can’t be quitters if we hope to succeed. But if you thought you would pastor a megachurch, and at age 50, you pastor a church of 25, perhaps the dream is not realistic or attainable. Of course, with God, all things are possible, but I am writing in general terms.

Quitting altogether is not an option, unless one never belonged in the ministry in the first place. This is a possibility, but I would advise in-depth consultation and counseling before coming to such a conclusion. The more common response to this experience is, middle-aged pastors keep on going, and no one knows that they are struggling. But deep down inside, they’re miserable.

One of the saddest seasons of a minister’s life is when they have lost their ability to reach their goals but they refuse to acknowledge it. Many feel as though they must stuff their feelings and keep grinding. Some would gladly quit if they could, but they have no other viable employment options. Still others fear being perceived as a failure. There are many ministers who are caught in this painful trap. I am of the opinion that many middle age pastors are going through the motions, with no real expectation of fulfilling a God-given vision.

Enough of the problem; are there solutions?

I believe that we can survive the disappointment of unrealized goals if we will:

Adjust passions: refocus your attention on what God called you to do. He doesn’t want you to live in a constant state of frustration and discouragement. Graciously let go of the unrealistic plans you made, and pay attention to the plans that God has for you.

Emphasize quality over quantity. Too many of us still measure success by numbers: attendance and giving. We are not called to build big churches; we are called to make disciples. If you are leading unbelievers to become solid, mature Christ followers, you are succeeding!

Share your reality with your spouse, a trusted colleague or a counselor. Pent up frustration and disappointment will eat away at a leader until is destroys them.

Humble yourself before God. Don’t be humiliated; that is the result of pride and insecurity. But God knows us; He promises that He will gladly lift us up if we’re humble before Him. (James 4:10)

Know that, if you are faithful, God is pleased with you. Let’s drop the “performance = acceptance” lie. When we stand before Him, He won’t say, “well done, good and productive servant…” He measures success according to our faithfulness.

Pastor, hang in there. Even if you feel like a failure, God knows better. If you’re still in the game, you are succeeding.

And finally, let’s pray for our pastor-friends. None of them/us are perfect. We all need an extra measure of grace. And the work we do affects eternity.

Shepherds: the Sheep are Watching

design-26While it should be intuitive, I think it needs to be said: people follow their leaders. Leaders influence and impact. Those who lead others must understand their responsibility. Those we lead watch our behaviors. They listen to us talk. Whether intentional or not, followers pick up traits and characteristics from their leaders.

But some of the influence wielded by leaders morphs into, perhaps, unanticipated results. It may be assumed that a happy leader produces happy followers, but it’s not that simple.

At the risk of over simplification and generalizations, I think…

Angry shepherds lead wounded sheep.
Critical shepherds lead insecure sheep.
Disconnected shepherds lead wandering sheep.
Shallow shepherds lead vulnerable sheep.
Arrogant shepherds lead cynical sheep.
Manipulating shepherds lead confused sheep.
Selfish shepherds lead hungry sheep.
Doting shepherds lead entitled sheep.
Cowardly shepherds lead endangered sheep.                                                                                                                                            Rebel leaders lead rebellious sheep.

And

Compassionate shepherds lead recovering sheep.
Gracious shepherds lead transparent sheep.
Patient shepherds lead confident sheep.
Courageous shepherds lead secure sheep.
Consistent shepherds lead stable sheep.
Kind shepherds lead trusting sheep.
Nurturing shepherds lead healthy sheep.
Engaging shepherds lead connected sheep.
Serving shepherds lead committed sheep.                                                                                                                   Empowering shepherds lead growing sheep.

Of course, these are not written in stone, but you get the concept.

Leaders carry the heavy load of being influencers. If you are a leader, lead well. The wellbeing of the people you lead is dependent upon you.

Shepherds: the Sheep are Watching.

Let’s Wear Out Our Church Buildings!

design-25Years ago, I wrote an article about how to keep the church spotless and looking brand-new: simply don’t use it! Never walk on the carpet. Don’t use the restrooms. Keep kids out of the nursery… you get the idea. It will stay brand new; but we would be missing the entire point of having church property.

I was talking to some pastors recently about the flack they’ve received from church members when they made changes to the church building or furniture. Horror stories abound among those of us who’ve been in ministry for a while. Churches have blown up (figuratively) because someone moved an altar or traded pews for chairs or painted a wall (or covered the lovely hand-painted mural in the baptistery!).

My thoughts today are headed this way: I would love to see all of us absolutely wear out the carpet in our sanctuaries! I hope that we see our pews or chairs fall apart. We should get great joy when we see little hand prints on the hall walls. I have no problem with glass doors with tons of fingerprints on them.

All of these things are telltale signs that the building is being used. People are coming together, fellowshipping together and experiencing life change. Isn’t that the point of our buildings in the first place?

Please understand, I am not condoning dirty buildings. In fact, dirty smelly church properties should be a bane for all of us. What I am referring to is: heavy usage! We should expect furniture to wear out. But once furniture or floors show wear, replace it or clean it. The purpose of carpet is not to make it last, the purpose of carpet is to make the building more conducive to worship and ministry.

Getting new carpet? Pray that so many people walk and worship on it that it must be replaced soon. Painting the walls in the Children’s Ministry Center? Work to bring in so many kids that it needs to be painted once a year. Let’s start wanting our buildings to show signs of wear – so we must maintain it often.

Note: I am not suggesting we allow people to destroy the property – that is ridiculous. I am suggesting that a church that is busy ministering to people will need to maintain more than a church that no one attends.

Let’s stop trying to make the furnishings last forever. Furnishings are not sacred; ministry is.

Let me conclude with a cool little proverb: “Without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.” (Proverbs 14:4 NLT) In essence, if you want a clean church, don’t use it. Empty churches stay new (but they sure smell stale!) But a well-used church will produce an even more used church!

Let’s wear out our church buildings!

There’s No Hurt Like Team Hurt

design-24This post is directed toward ministry leaders.

I’ve adapted the current phrase, “there’s no hurt like church hurt.” We’ve all come to understand that there is no avoiding pain in ministry. While some heartache can be dodged through good decision making, leaders are never exempt from hurt. Samuel Chand addresses this eloquently in his book, “Leadership Pain.” I highly recommend this resource.

But I want to address the type of pain that ends some ministries and cripples countless others. When a close associate, an “inner circle” team member or a trusted staff member betrays a leader, the cut is deep.

You’ve heard about or experienced the scenario: a longtime staff member splits the church and starts a new one down the street. An apparently loyal colleague tries to destroy you behind your back. Someone you were sure you could count on quits unexpectedly in a crucial time. It all hurts, deeper than many other things.

Of course, Jesus had His Judas. But Jesus knew who His betrayer was before Judas himself knew. We are not omniscient; we get shocked by this kind of betrayal. And for the record, none of us have been sold to our executioners.

Here is the danger: when you get hurt in this manner, your first inclination is to prevent, at all costs, a repeat event. I know guys who absolutely refuse to lead a staff. While we must learn from our mistakes and while discernment grows with painful experiences, we must prevent adjusting our leadership approach in an effort to prevent all future pain.

If you’ve been hurt deeply, just a little advice:
Don’t harden your heart.
Don’t stop trusting people.
Don’t stop risking.
I’ve been guilty of all of the above and it didn’t turn out well.

Now, you’re not a punching bag, and there is no glory in considering yourself as a leader/martyr. But it is absolutely necessary for us to remain tender hearted. If we ever stop hurting, we’re in deep trouble.

Keep hiring staff. Keep building your team. Keep letting people get close to you. You will be let down and you’ll get hurt. But the pain of this kind of hurting is nothing compared to the hurt of refusing to ever trust again.

I hope this helps someone. It helped me to write it.

What Story Do You Tell About Church?

design-21Anyone who has ever been a part of a church has a story to tell and the story we tell tells a lot about us.

Some tell stories of grace and support and growth.

Some tell stories of boredom and disconnect and departure.

Others tell stories of insult and offense and hurt.

The stories we tell are a narrative of our experiences. When we publicly share the events of our church history, we give a glimpse into our spirits. If our stories are sweet, it’s a clear indication that we had a good history in church and we are presently in a good spiritual place because of it. When our stories are bitter, our past has not been good, and our current spiritual condition is suffering as a result.

But anyone who has been part of a church has had both bad and good experiences in church. Upon which do we focus?

If your story features a crooked preacher, a lying leader, a gossiping deacon, or a corrupt Elder, you focus on the bad. In fact, through our stories, some of us reveal that we are deeply hurt, bitter and wounded. This is tragic. If your story features supportive leaders, honorable pastors, godly deacons and compassionate members, you focus on the good.

But interestingly, some who have been exposed to the same experiences tell different stories. Some who tell good stories have been brutally hurt in the church.

What’s the difference? While it is not good to compare ourselves to others, some choose to heal while others choose to remain hurt. And you can hear it in our stories.

You don’t necessarily choose your stories (some things happen to you) but you definitely choose the stories you tell.

If your stories reveal that you have been hurt – and we have all been hurt – find healing and the ability to forgive and move forward. Then your story will reveal a spirit that is whole.

What story do you tell about your church? It’s really more a story about your heart.

Pastor: Smile!

IMG_5316The world is full of negativity. People are swamped with pessimism. Doubt, fear and pain paint the world in a pale shade of gray. People need some bright colors of Good News.

My wife and I recently visited a brief church meeting. The entire team of leaders was full of joy. They cheered one another on. They smiled and gave high fives. The atmosphere was electric with joy and expectation. What a wonderful ministry climate! Immediately, I found myself drawn into their joy. But I also realized how rarely I have been a part of an atmosphere such as that.

If we hope to reach our communities, churches must create a sense of hope and optimism. (Actually, God has already created that atmosphere; all we have to do is tap into it.) If we expect to attract unchurched people with a frown, we should think again.

It may sound elementary, but pastors must be positive. Let me give you a few easy ideas:

Smile when you see people. Make eye contact and be genuinely glad to say hello.

Smile when you talk, sing and worship. Looking as though you are in anguish is not necessarily godly, and it may send the wrong message to others.

Smile when you preach. Unless the topic of your sermon is sad or painful, a smiling face creates an atmosphere of well being and confidence.

If you raise your voice when you preach, be sure not to yell at people. You can be enthusiastic without appearing angry. Few emotionally healthy people are interested in being screamed at.

Ask your leaders to smile. Greeters, ushers, worship leaders, and children’s workers should be happy.

Consider a pre-service meeting to set the atmosphere of joy and happiness. You will find it is contagious – the atmosphere will be transformed.

Admittedly, leading a church is an arduous task. There are times that the burdens are heavy. It is easy and perhaps natural for us to become so serious in our efforts that we appear to be stressed and distressed. But a smile communicates inner peace and joy. Jesus brings us true joy and He wants us to share it with others. Marcus Aurelius said, “The mind reveals itself in the face.” What does your face say about what’s going on in your mind?

We may need to retrain ourselves and others. Old habits (frowning) are hard to break. But let’s encourage the people at our churches to take advantage of the nonverbal and body language signals we send to others.

So, here is a lovely Bible verse that communicates my hope for you: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:14

Let’s overflow with hope and joy, and observe the positive impact it has!