Encouragement for the “No Growth” Church Pastor

I pastored only one church during my nearly 40 years in ministry, but in that time I pastored a plateaued church, a growing church, and a declining church. These labels are, of course, in reference to the numerical size of the church. In fact, it was in the last years when I believe I was at my best as a pastor, when we had great leadership, and when we had initiated some significant and positive changes that we were declining in attendance!

Why were we declining when we were “doing church” better than we had ever done it? Few circumstances discourage the heart of a pastor more than when there’s little or no, or even declining, numerical growth. OK, maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it often is. That’s why I found a blog post by small church pastor Karl Vaters to be so encouraging. “We Followed the Steps – Where’s the Church Growth” is the title of the post. Go to his blog, pivot and be encouraged! While you’re there, check out his other blog posts.

Message to Myself from the Future

messagetoselfI wish I could tell my younger self of 30 years ago something of what I’ve been reflecting on since retiring from pastoral ministry. It couldn’t be by messaging or e-mail, we didn’t have that 30 years ago. It would have to be a letter.

Imagine how I would have reacted, hearing from my older self 30 years into the future? I picture myself having returned to the church office after visiting Viola Brauchle, one of our shut-ins. The mail is lying on my desk, placed there by Betty Hall, our part-time church secretary. In the mail is a letter that starts with “Dear Dave” and ends with “Sincerely yours, Dave” and in between are a few paragraphs of insight and advice to me from me. I sit back in my office chair to read the letter.

“Dear Dave, now that I’m retired I have found myself wondering if I could have done some things differently and better. Sometimes the wondering turns to regretting or downright Biblical lamenting. Did I sabotage what the Lord wanted to do through me in His church? Why couldn’t I see some of the things then as I see them now? So, what conclusions have I come to? What can I tell you that could make a difference for you, for me?

“You’re probably filled with great anticipation about now, wanting to speed read to the good stuff you believe is just ahead in the next sentences from an older and wiser you from your future. Slow down! There are no such clear instructions or directions coming in the next few paragraphs on how to navigate the difficult decisions or situations you’re facing, or going to face. Why not?

“First of all, as I look back on my past (your present and future) I’m not sure, in many cases, if I should have done things differently. Contrary to popular opinion hindsight is not always 20/20. If issues are complex with gray areas for you now don’t expect much, if any, more clarity when you look back at them 30 years from now. Sorry about that, it’s just the way it is.

“Second, in those situations where I’m pretty sure I made mistakes I can now say that God, in His amazing sovereignty, had good come out of them, so I’m not sure I’d want to advise you to do things differently. God is pretty good at turning the lemons of poor pastoring into the lemonade of Kingdom growth.

“Third, all that is happening to you in the present and will happen to you in the future is what has made me who I am today, who you will be in 30 years. I don’t think I should be messing with the space/time continuum! The growth I’ve experienced through everything, even my mistakes, is something I don’t want to lose.

“Fourth, I’ll be honest with you, I think I know less for certain than I did when I was your age. I know you think you know quite a bit, especially with all you’re reading and all those seminars you’ve been attending (remember, I was you once). I’ve had to unlearn much of what I thought I knew! This is undoubtedly discouraging, but don’t let it bother you too much. You can look forward to a growing delight in the mysterious ways of the Lord.

“And finally, before I close, I realize that I do have a bit of advice. Don’t get so upset that things don’t always seem to turn out the way you planned. I know you want to be a successful pastor, but that’s not what’s most important. Here, then, is the one piece of advice I feel it is safe to give you from the future (after all, you can’t be too careful when messing with the space/time continuum). As I look back on my ministry I am coming to the conclusion (yes, I’m still in the on-going process of being sanctified) that my self-esteem and value as a person are not based on what I accomplished or didn’t accomplish. My self-esteem and value come from basking in God’s amazing grace and love for me.

“I recall what Jesus said to His disciples when they returned from a mission He had sent them on two by two. They were so excited about what they had been able to accomplish, but Jesus corrected their perspective. ‘However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10:20) This truth is something I wished I had grasped more fully when I was your age. So, don’t hold to any idea, program, or projected outcome too tightly. Relax more, enjoy the journey with Jesus!

“Sincerely yours, Dave.”

This is something of what I would write to a younger me. OK, so we can’t go back in time, not even sending a letter to the past. It’s as if the letter I sent has been returned to me and stamped “undeliverable.” Rereading the letter I wish I could have sent to my younger self I realize that it’s all stuff I need to remind myself of in the present! Yes, messing with the space/time continuum like this is indeed strange, but I think it turned out OK.

The Heart vs. What Happens

Groundbreaking ceremony for the building that was never built.

Groundbreaking ceremony for the building that was never built.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and this is certainly true in ministry. I spent my entire ministry of nearly 40 years at one church. For the last fifteen of those years we worked on plans to relocate and build a new facility. This included buying land, maintaining that land until we could build, surveying the congregation and leadership so the building would meet our ministry needs, going through several sets of blueprints for the building, talking with a number of lending institutions, carrying out two major fund raising campaigns, and conducting countless (and I mean countless) meetings of the whole congregation and of various teams. I personally prayer-walked the land time and time again, envisioning the kind of building and ministry we would have there. The escalation of costs and the continual downsizing of the building to make the financial numbers work resulted in us scrapping the entire project. We even had a ground breaking ceremony, covered by the local media; the earth, I’m sure, has since healed the hole we dug with our shiny spade.

Under my successor’s leadership (a man whom I personally chose and mentored for over two years) the church has purchased an empty big box store and is in the process of renovating the building for their new home. I’m all for this new direction of having the church in such a marketplace setting and pray regularly that it will soon happen. But when I’m part of a conversation about God’s mysterious ways my mind can’t help but go back to the last third of my ministry when we actively sought to build on those 23 acres of land. I have wondered if I was misguided in sensing God’s guidance. I have wondered if I missed crucial times when I should have led us to act more decisively. I have come to believe that God has His very good reasons for us taking that journey, a journey that didn’t end up where we thought it would. I’ve come to a greater conviction that God is often more interested in the journey than the destination.

A scripture that has held great meaning for me is where King Solomon has the Ark of the Covenant brought into the temple he built for the Lord. In his speech the king references his father, the late King David. “My father David had it in his heart to build a temple for the Name of the Lord, the God of Israel. But the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to have it in your heart to build a temple for my Name. Nevertheless, you are not the one to build the temple, but your son, your own flesh and blood—he is the one who will build the temple for my Name.’” (1 Kings 8:17-19)

I did what I thought we should do. I believe my heart was in the right place (and to the degree it wasn’t, I’m grateful for God’s grace and mercy to cover for that). I believe the Lord says to me, “You did well to have it in your heart…”

We can plan, pray, develop strategies, pray, cast vision, pray, call for commitment, pray and implement the plan, but we’re not guaranteed the results we want and which we think God wants. There will be times we are disappointed, even deeply disappointed, at how things turn out. I believe at such times the words God saw fit to put in our Bibles, the words He had for King David, are meant for us to take personally. “You did well to have it in your heart…”


Holy Leading

Horse_mill_045493I’m reading a book by J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, called Holiness. It’s a good book for any serious follower of Jesus, but particularly for those who lead a congregation as pastor.

He writes, “While some are satisfied with a miserably low degree of attainment, and others are not ashamed to live on without any holiness at all, content with a mere round of church-going and chapel-going — but never getting on, like a horse in a mill; let us stand fast in the old paths, follow after eminent holiness ourselves and recommend it boldly to others. This is the only way to be really happy.”

Ministry can seem to be an endless round of attending meetings, planning programs, and other such things to keep the wheels of the machinery of ministry going, like a horse going round and round in a mill, grinding away at the grain, as Ryle writes. We pastors give leadership to this, we lead the parade. We could blame our parishioners for not seeing the big picture, but sometimes we lose sight of it ourselves.

Ryle reminds the reader that holiness is the goal of the major work of sanctification and we pastors sometimes need that reminder ourselves. Ryle writes, “The Lord Jesus puts a searching question to His people when He says, ‘What are you doing more than others?’ (Matthew 5:47).” It’s easy as a pastor to judge the spiritual condition of our parishioners, but it would be good for us to ask ourselves if the process of sanctification is happening in us more than in our people. “Behold, the people are ahead of me. I must hasten after them, for I am their leader.” We should be leading the way!

A Joyful Heart for Living and for Pastoring

joypicI recall sitting at a coffee counter at a restaurant sipping my black brew, pondering whatever concerning the ministry. The server on the other side of the counter asked me, “Why are you so sad?” I don’t recall my answer, just her question. I also remember thinking that I wasn’t being much of a testimony for Christ, for she knew I was a pastor. I was convicted, which didn’t help my attitude any!

Joy is the second of nine items on the apostle Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. It obviously didn’t make my list that day. Sometimes we Christians (including we pastors) can look as if we use prune juice in the cup of Communion!

I know, there are many joy-sapping aspects to pastoral ministry. Some people in our congregations, it seems, have the spiritual gift of taking the joy out of everything. But this doesn’t change the fact that Christians are to be exhibitors of joy in the Lord, and we pastors should be modeling this for them.

I can think of three good reasons why we pastors should be intentional about being joyful. First, it’s commanded!Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Second, it’s good for us. A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.(Proverbs 17:22) A joyful attitude certainly is a major contributor to longevity in pastoral ministry. Third, people love to be around a pastor, work with a pastor, and follow a pastor who is a joyful person. “Light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones.” (Proverbs 15:30) If we pastors are the proclaimers of the Good News, then our face and attitude should frequently show it.

I find it interesting that the nine qualities Paul lists that Christians ought to exhibit are called “the fruit of the Spirit.” I take this to mean that they should be a natural result of our life in the Spirit. On the other hand, the fact that Paul found it necessary to list them in his letter to the Galatian Christians suggests that they, and we too, need to be intentional about exhibiting them, including the second one in the list, joy.

The Lord loves us, has called us to this amazing calling of being a pastor (an undershepherd for Him), and is with us and empowers us for the task. If we believe this then joy should be part of our experience. I have often needed the reminder to express my joy in the Lord; I thought you might need the reminder too!

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6)

A Pastor’s Heart: Comforting or Challenging?

StGregoryIt goes without saying that the pastor’s heart touches the hearts of the parishioners. What kind of a heart for the people should we have? How should our heart impact their hearts? Should the pastor’s heart be a comforting heart or a challenging heart? The following link addresses the issue in a short article by Daniel McLain Hixon. He shares some insights from The Book of Pastoral Rule by St. Gregory the Great.

I found the article by following a link from The Galli Report, a weekly newsletter from Mark Galli, editor at Christianity Today. He, in turn, provides the link from the weekly newsletter Ministry Matters which reprinted the article from Daniel McLain Hixon’s blog, Gloria Deo . Whew! I wanted to give credit to everyone involved.

This link is from the Ministry Matters web site. “Being ‘Pastoral’” is the title of the article.

The Power of Encouragement

EncouragementBrightSmall“I could use a little more encouragement around here” is something we often mumble to ourselves as pastors. Criticism seems so easy for parishioners to express; encouragement, not so much. Encouragement seems to be important, probably because it’s in short supply! I still have a file that has virtually every kind, thankful, or encouraging note I received during my years of pastoring. I’ve thrown away every critical note! In all fairness to the congregation I served for nearly forty years, I think I received a lot of encouragement. Still, it was easy to get discouraged, a common complaint of most pastors, from what I hear.

Yes, we pastors need encouraging, but that’s not where this post is going! Let me be blunt; it’s not all about us! Our parishioners are in desperate need of encouragement too! It seems to me that what we need to do is to forget for a moment our own need for encouragement and take the initiative to encourage those in our congregation. What’s amazing, and we know this, for we have probably preached it a dozen times, is that when we push ourselves to encourage someone else we’re encouraged ourselves! We’re encouraged because we know we’re doing something good and worthwhile for another person, and often (not always) we see how it impacts that person in a positive way.

One of the best ways we can pastor the people is to encourage them! So, let me encourage you by the reminder that you have tremendous influence as a pastor, and one of the greatest ways to influence those under your care is to encourage them!

Today, make that phone call, send that e-mail, message that person on facebook, send a note through the mail, start a conversation with that person who’s within earshot.

Today, praise the person for a quality or characteristic you admire in them. Say, “Thanks!” for something they’ve said or done. Listen, just listen, without giving advice or telling a story to top theirs. Do that sacrificial, often seemingly small, good deed. Give a hug, a thumbs up, or a pat on the back. Just BE THERE with the person. Pray for the person and tell them you did.

Be a real pastor to your people! Be an encourager today!

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing… encourage the fainthearted.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11,14)