New Input for Smaller Churches

A recent issue of OUTREACH Magazine states that in the US 90% of churches have less than 350 attending. The average church attracts less than 90 adults in their weekend services. Churches with attendance of 100 or less make up 60% of the churches.

This blog focuses on the heart of pastors, specifically the heart of the pastor who leads a small to medium flock of Christ’s followers. The same issue of the magazine listed several helpful links for the small church pastor. A link I’m finding very helpful is by a Northwest Iowa pastor of a small rural church, Jim Thomas. His blog, http://smallchurch.com/ , offers helpful reflections and insights that make it worth checking out.

Calling Trumps Opinion

penguinsRecently we had a special congregational meeting to affirm the call for Joe French to be the senior pastor of Mayfair-Plymouth upon my retirement in early October. It was a great time together as a people of God.

We took a private vote of affirmation on slips of paper. The call for Joe to be the new senior pastor passed 81 for and 1 against. When I was called to be the senior pastor 39 years ago I also had one vote against me. I told Joe, “I thought I had performed the funeral for that person by now.” More likely the legacy of being against everything had been passed on from one member to another!

You aren’t in pastoral ministry very long (or any kind of position of leadership or responsibility) before you realize you can’t please all the people all the time. Then why do we continually find ourselves frustrated when we hear of some grumbling in the ranks?

The ideal is to have consensus, but we live in a fallen world and serve a congregation of fallen people (who have a pastor with a fallen nature). It should come as no surprise, then, when we don’t see things the same way.

I heard of a leader who said, “Behold! There go the people. I must hasten after them, for I am their leader.” True leadership often means leading people who don’t know (at least not yet) where they should go. As leaders we don’t get it right all the time either, but that doesn’t get us off the hook of carrying out our call to lead. I’ve found I can’t lead without sticking my neck out, sort of like a turtle who can’t move forward until he pokes his head out of his shell.

It’s a fine line to walk, wanting to be sensitive to the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of our parishioners while on the other hand keeping a grip on the bigger picture of what we believe God is calling us to be and do as His people. The challenge for those of us who pastor is even greater because we’re wired to have a pastoral heart for the people, so we can’t be a tough CEO type of leader. Then, too, we’re called to minister to the needs of the very people who voted against something (or we think they did) that’s dear to our heart and, we believe, dear to the heart of God.

The key for me is to keep the focus on God’s call upon me and not my desire to be liked by all the people. Calling has to trump opinion every time and all the time.

Looking Back on What Mattered Most

ministrypeopleNearing the end of my pastoral ministry of 39 years at Mayfair-Plymouth, I find the people of my church reflecting very little on any achievements I’ve accomplished among them. Mostly, they reminisce about the relationship I’ve had with them.

I don’t hear them saying, “I remember that amazing program you launched and how…” Instead, I hear them saying, “I remember the time you said to me…” Or, “Remember the time we were on that camping trip and you…”

Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, writes that in the large church the skill of preaching is very important, but that in the smaller church it’s the one-on-one relationship which gains the preacher the respect to be heard.

In An Unhurried Life Alan Fadling asks concerning the standards by which we measure success in ministry, “Do our conversations about ministry revolve around growing numbers of participants, successful programs or other easily measured outcomes? Or do we tell stories about particular people who are responding to Jesus, stories of seeds of gospel truth sown in people’s hearts that will grow into fruit of Christlikeness?” (An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling, 2013, IVP, loc 360)

I know, we need programs and projects. These are the tangibles of ministry. Yet, these are but the vessels, the plate and the chalice, that hold the body and blood of Christ we share through relationships with His people.

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Robert Capon

A quote from Robert Capon, as I found it in the blog of Tullian Tchividjian here.  A much needed reminder!

“I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills…and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross–and then be brave enough to stick around while [the congregation] goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

“But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they won’t be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus. Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ passion. Unless the faith of preachers is in that alone-and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness — they will be of very little use in the pulpit.”

The Passing Parade of Parishioners

treelake1This past Sunday two men of my congregation said goodbye for the last time as they passed through the greeting line. Both are moving away, one is retired and wants to be closer to where his fiance lives, the other is young and is going to pursue his dreams at grad school in another city. I was saddened by the thought that I wouldn’t see them again.

This happens regularly, of course, people leaving the church. Sometimes the leaving is of a more painful nature, a leaving out of anger. I’ve had this happen in recent months as well. Often, this starts as discontent that leads to a drifting away. They don’t like what’s going on with the church and attend less and less frequently without even bothering to tell you. Then too, there are those who leave by death.

I’ve often fantasized about how big our church would be if all the people who’ve moved on for one reason or another hadn’t done so. We’d be one huge church! I’ve also reflected on how many funerals I’ve conducted (over 400) and that if they were all resurrected for a special resurrection service we’d have to set up chairs in the narthex to accommodate the overflow crowd!

In my saner moments I realize I wouldn’t want all of those folks back who left angry, unless they had a major change of heart. Otherwise we’d have to rename the church The First Church of Malcontents. And as far as a resurrected congregation goes, I’m going to have to wait until Christ returns.

On the other hand, our church has had new folks join us, some of them having come from other churches. In a few cases I’d gladly send them back to their former pastor! Sadly, there is far too much reshuffling of the deck of Christians (perhaps a moving of cards from one deck to another is a better metaphor).

The coming and going of parishioners is a part of church life. If someone were to ask me how it’s been for me to have pastored the same church for 39 years, I’d tell them it hasn’t been the same church. In fact, it’s almost an entirely different group of people than it was 39 years ago.

Pastoring a church is much like wading in a river. The water you wade in one moment is different water from what you waded in a moment ago, and will be different water from what you will wade in a moment later.

People join the flock I shepherd and many, for the variety of reasons already stated, will leave it. I will have influence on them, and they on me, for a time, but that time always comes to an end. Though I’ve been at Mayfair-Plymouth for a lifetime of ministry that time is coming to an end with my retirement in a few months. Then it will be my turn to move on.

A congregation is not a still lake but a flowing river. I stand at a bend in that river, ministering for a while where the Lord has had me wade in, but the river stretches on both downstream into the past and upstream into the future, with many branches and tributaries. God’s kingdom is large, spanning both time and place, and I am here for my time in this specific place. Here and now is where I serve. My prayer is that I will have a Godly influence on the people God brings into my life for the length of time He brings them to me.

My prayer for the church I serve is similar to the apostle Paul’s for the Christians at Corinth. I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-6)

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The REAL Work of Ministry

DavePicBlog

I’ve recently been reminded in my reading that work for God must be preceded by being with God. In fact, my work for God must be surrounded by my being with God. Being with God is my most important work.

In my effort to be a good steward of my ministry hours I’ve always considered my “quiet time” as being on my own time and not part of my ministry time. I figure those in my church can’t do their devotions on company time, but have to carve out other time and that I should do no differently. On the other hand, I also see the value of regularly taking time “on the job” to go off and pray in the sanctuary, in a walk around the block, or even drive to a park for some extra time with the Lord. As the Lord’s under shepherd I see such times as conference meetings with the Head Shepherd.

In his book An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling quotes Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the last century. “The fact that our works are done in the service of God is not enough, by itself, to prevent us from losing our interior life if we let them devour all our time and all our strength. Work is good and necessary, but too much of it renders the soul insensitive to spiritual values, hardens the heart against prayer and divine things.” (Loc. 677) Alan Fadling goes on to say, “Overwork is heart-hardening,” and later he writes, “Genuine productivity is indeed the fruit of active abiding in Christ.” (Loc 736)

Charles Spurgeon said, “There is no preparation for the work of God like being with God! Go up into the solitude with Christ; and then, when He calls you, you will be fit to go forth for Him and tell what you have seen with Him in the Holy Spirit.” (Spurgeon Gems, Charles Spurgeon, sermon 2218, Loc 456)

I have to regularly remind myself that my effectiveness in serving the Lord is greatly affected by how much solitude I spend with the Lord. As Fadling says, it’s the “work before the work.”

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