Archive for April, 2011

When I was a pastor, I didn’t like to self-censor myself when I preached.  I wanted the freedom to talk about any issue and tell any story.

But there were some I just couldn’t bring myself to tell in church for one reason or another, usually because they made me look bad.

For example, in the second church I pastored, I inherited some shut-ins that I had never met, so I thought it would be a good idea to meet them all.  One morning, I visited a married couple in a nursing home.  The wife couldn’t see and her husband couldn’t hear.  To communicate with the husband, we used a small blackboard.  When I left, I was pretty sure they had no idea who I was.

After a little while, the wife died, and I didn’t hear about it for quite a while.  Her husband sure wasn’t going to tell me, and the family never contacted me – and I didn’t have any contact information for them.

I started feeling badly about some of these shut-ins, so I began praying publicly for “The Shut-in of the Week” during the Sunday service.  We featured a different shut-in every week.  If we had PowerPoint back then, I could have shown everyone who the shut-ins were with a digital photo, but at least we were praying for them.

One of the shut-ins I prayed for continually was the husband who couldn’t hear.  When I came before the Lord, I was passionate about praying for him because I felt so badly for him.  Because I didn’t know how to communicate with him, though, and because I didn’t think he knew who I was, I didn’t make a habit of going to visit him.

One Sunday, after praying for this man again, one of the senior ladies in our church pulled me aside and said, “Jim?”  I said, “Yes, Veronica.”  She said, “You know John So-and-So that you prayed for today?”  I said, “Yes, what about him?”  Veronica replied, “He died four months ago.”

Not good.

There was another older couple in that church, and I tried to visit them every few months, but they were pretty cranky.  Their last name was Brown and the man’s wife called her husband “Brownie.”  His claim to fame is that he used to park cars at the Hollywood Palladium back in the Golden Days of Hollywood.  He showed me all these photos featuring him and movie stars.  It must have been great fun parking those cars and I tried to be as enthusiastic about it as I could.

We said the Lord’s Prayer occasionally at our church at that time, and Brownie came one Sunday when we were saying it.  The next time I came to their home to visit, he said I didn’t say the Lord’s Prayer correctly.  He said, “It’s not ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ but ‘in earth as it is in heaven.'”  (Talk about picky!)  I think we opened up a Bible to see what the proper preposition was, and I was right, but he maintained I was still wrong.

I didn’t want to visit them anymore after that.

But one night, it was Visitation Night, and Kim went visiting with another woman at the church, and they ended up at the home of the Browns.  (If you called ahead on Visitation Night, people would say they were too busy to see you.  If you just dropped in, you had a better chance of catching them off-guard.  It was always a safe bet to see the Browns because they were so old that they weren’t going anywhere.)

Anyway, evidently Mrs. Brown couldn’t see who Kim was, because once everybody sat down, she began criticizing the pastor in harsh terms.  Kim didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The Browns had stopped coming to church, so it couldn’t have been anything I said in a sermon.  Must have been that mini-argument I had with Brownie about “in” and “on.”

When Mr. Brown died, eleven people came to his service.  I was suprised he got that many.

When I was an adult youth leader during my sophomore year of college, we youth leaders planned a special event: George Washington’s Birthday Party.  We held it in the worship center at our church.  We hid eggs all over the auditorium (I know, it wasn’t Easter, but that was the point) and then gave the kids prizes afterwards.  The best prize?  A brand-new Bible.  The worst prize?  A hamburger from McDonald’s that I had kept in the trunk of my car for a solid week.

That hamburger went on my resume when I later applied to be the youth pastor at our church.  (I got the job.)

But I almost didn’t because of what happened in children’s church a couple years before.

During my freshman year at Biola, all students had to be involved in a Christian service assignment for three hours every week.  I had no clue what to do.  Somehow, I ended up in children’s church.  I knew nothing about teaching kids.

For the first few months, I did okay.  I kind of prepared for the lessons and kind of taught the kids.  Most of the time, I was just trying to control the class (and watch the clock).  My supervisor, whose name was Frank, didn’t appreciate the fact that I would someday teach for a living.

Well, one time, I didn’t have anything prepared, so in a moment of temporary insanity, I brought spray paint to class.  I am not kidding.  Spray paint.  We were going to color in the Bible lesson for the day.  I had been teaching second graders, but now I was working with kindergartners – not that it mattered.

The last thing I remember was a kid named David spraying paint not on the lesson, but all over his new white shirt.  (I’m still amazed that one of his family members is on Facebook with me.)

I got fired from my Christian service assignment.  In fact, I think I was the only kid in the history of Biola to flunk Christian service.  My ministerial career almost ended before it started.  And when I applied to be a youth pastor a couple years later, guess who showed up to make sure I wouldn’t be hired?  That’s right – Frank.

Thank God he got overruled.

See why I couldn’t tell these stories in church?

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We were very good friends.

We met every Thursday for breakfast.  We’d tell each other about our weeks, especially about the challenges we faced in our jobs.  We shared our private pains and special joys with one another.

Nothing could harm our friendship.  After all, we were both pastors.

My friend was the associate pastor at his church, filling in while the senior pastor was in the hospital for months.  While he had ideas for his church, he didn’t feel right implementing them while his pastor – and supervisor – was incapacitated.  The months dragged on, but the senior pastor just wasn’t given the green light to return.  The church got into dire straits financially and began to spiral downward.  Some of the governing leaders in my friend’s church wanted him to ignore the pastor’s plight and lead the church ahead, but my friend felt that was a breach of ethics.

A tough, tough situation.

I was pastoring my first church a few miles away, and it was slow going.  I was under thirty, most of the people in the church were over sixty, and there were few people in-between.  I was reaching mostly people my age, and when my generation gained as many people as the over sixty group, power struggles began to emerge.  Since the church had booted their previous pastor, I thought I might be next.

Then one day, my friend called to tell me that a leader from his church proposed that our two churches merge.  There were about 80 people in my friend’s church and about 50 in ours.  Their building was paid for while we met in a school multi-purpose room that was scheduled to be bulldozed down by the school district.  We needed a building.  They needed more people and money.

Merger talks began.

Then the senior pastor from my friend’s church suddenly got well enough to attend a few merger meetings.  Somewhere along the line, he just disappeared.

While the boards from the two churches began merger negotiations, my friend and I continued to share how we felt about everything.  We both agreed that we would look for pastoral positions outside of the proposed merged church.  Neither one of us really wanted to pastor it.  I had read that in many cases, merger math is 1+1=1.  In other words, if you put a church of 80 and a church of 50 together, when the dust settles, you’ll have a church not of 130 but of 80.

So my friend began looking around, and a church in the Northwest expressed interest in having him as pastor.  I too began looking around, but the right situation didn’t open up for me.  I did not want to be the pastor of the new merged church.  I wanted to go elsewhere.

The board from our church gave the board from the other church one condition for merging: I had to become the new senior pastor.  The board from my friend’s church evidently wanted me to be the pastor as well – but I didn’t want the job.

My friend accepted the call to the Northwest church, and I was glad for him.  I still hoped I could find another ministry somewhere else.  But in the end, I didn’t.  On October 2 – the deadline set by the new board – I signed an agreement that made me the senior pastor of the new church.

My friend was convinced that “the fix was in.”  He believed that since he found another ministry, I should have done the same.  And I tried.  I really did.

He never spoke to me again.

I don’t think I’ve ever publicly told this story before even though it happened 28 years ago.  Why not?  Because I lost a friend – a good one – and for a long time, just thinking about it caused me great pain.

And I’m sure it caused my friend pain as well.  It’s hard to lose a close friend like that, no matter what you do for a living.

But how can two pastors – of all people – part ways like that?

There’s a story in Acts that many of us have read.  Paul took Barnabas on his first missionary journey, and they also took along Barnabas’ cousin John Mark (author of Mark’s Gospel).  During that initial adventure, John Mark left the two missionaries and returned to Jerusalem.  When the duo planned their second journey, Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark again, but Paul refused, believing that John Mark would probably desert them again.  Barnabas wanted to give his cousin a second chance and was willing to vouch for him.  Paul was the task-oriented leader, Barnabas the people-centered encourager.

Dr. Luke writes in Acts 15:39, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.”

How could Paul – writer of half the New Testament, church planter deluxe, the chief proponent of divine reconciliation – sever a friendship with his mentor and colleague?  Shouldn’t they have hung around and tried to settle their differences before doing the Lord’s work?

When Paul returned to the churches he had planted on his first journey, some of the believers undoubtedly asked, “Hey, Paul, where’s your companion Barnabas?”  I doubt if Paul wanted to explain why his friend didn’t come on the trip.  Barnabas probably received similar queries anyplace they knew Paul.

Later in Paul’s ministry, he had positive words for both Barnabas and John Mark, although the latter doesn’t appear until 2 Timothy 4, the last chapter Paul ever wrote.  But thank God, everybody reconciled in the end.  Yet had Paul or Barnabas died first, they might have never have worked things out.

It’s ironic, but church ministry causes pastors to both make and lose friends.  Pastors make friends primarily with those with whom they serve: staff members, board members, key leaders, and ministry team leaders.  Friendships are forged as believers march together toward a common vision.  During such times, it’s natural to think, “We will always be friends.”

But sometimes disagreements surface between the pastor and a leader.  Sometimes the pastor feels he has to talk to a leader about their ministry and that leader becomes upset.  Sometimes the pastor believes he has to intervene in a leader’s life because he sees self-destructive tendencies.  There are even times when a pastor notices that a ministry is repelling people rather than attracting them and he feels the need to intervene.

When a pastor takes any of these actions, he risks his friendship with that leader.  Why?  Because he has to balance that friendship against Christ’s command to make disciples.

I’m writing about this because when a pastor is forcibly terminated, he isn’t sure he has any friends left in a church.  He knows the governing leaders will put their own spin on his departure and that he may end up being portrayed as someone who is incompetent or unspiritual or even evil.  He then has no idea who or how many people will end up believing what is said about him.  Should he try and approach friends in the church, he may be rebuffed or even ostracized.  The only way he really knows those friendships are intact is if his friends contact him and tell him that their friendship is still “on.”

I know about the loss of such friendships firsthand.  During my last church ministry, I lost some good friends, most of them male.  They chose to walk away for reasons of their own.  While I’ve come to accept what they did, the severance of our friendships hurt a lot.  On the whole, women were much more faithful and understanding.  This parallels the sufferings of Jesus when His male disciples fled but His female friends stayed by the cross and tomb.

Being the pastor of a church is a tough job – and it’s getting tougher.  People all come to church with their own expectations and impose them on the pastor, who can’t possibly meet each one.  For this reason, your pastor needs your prayers, encouragement, and support.

And he also needs friends who – come what may – will stand by him, and stand strong with him, and see him for who he really is: a deeply flawed person called to advance the kingdom of God.

I recently had lunch with a man who has remained loyal to his senior pastor for forty years.  Years ago, this man was the only staff member to stand up for his pastor when the rest of the staff banded together to get rid of him.  That pastor and his staff member have provided leadership to their church which now impacts more than 15,000 people every weekend.  Imagine what might have happened had that staff member not stood with his pastor.

Jesus told His disciples in the Upper Room, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials” (Luke 22:28).  It meant the world to Jesus that in His hour of need, eleven of His twelve disciples still considered Him their friend.

Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Even your pastor.

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As the saying goes, “You’re as healthy as your secrets.”  We all have them.  Sometimes it’s something stupid we said or did, and other times it’s something stupid someone said or did to us.  We just don’t feel like talking about it, not to our best friend or spouse or even a counselor.  We just don’t want to go there, and there are times when that’s best.

But we can’t throw a shroud over everything in our lives.  Some facts about us are public knowledge, and others can be discovered without too much digging.  Just go on the internet and type your own name into a search engine.  That stuff’s out there?

But I don’t want to write about personal secrets, but about church secrets.  How forthcoming should the leaders of a church be about vital information?

When I was a kid, our church had a small wooden board nailed to the wall at the front of the worship center.  The board listed numbers that changed every week: last Sunday’s attendance for Sunday School, morning worship, and maybe evening worship, too.  And if the offering receipts weren’t listed on the board, they were placed in the bulletin.

What was the thinking behind these displays?

It was: “This church is open about information.  Many of you are members here.  Members have a right to know how their church is doing.  Rather than have you pull the information out of us, we’re going to lay it out there for everyone to see.”

Was this thinking wise?  Well, if a church wasn’t doing very well, the evidence was right there in black and white.  The average person could track the church’s progress or regress.  That might affect their own attendance, or giving, or morale.  It was a risk to put those numbers out there.

But since my childhood, I’ve been in many other churches that listed either the attendance or the giving in the bulletin – or both.  More churches list the giving than the attendance, but many still do it.

Is this healthy or not?

Some would say, “No, it’s not healthy.  It’s making people focus on the wrong things.  When we come to church on a Sunday, we should laser beam all our attention on the Lord.  We shouldn’t spend any time counting noses or funds.  Besides, I don’t really want to know those statistics anyway.”

But others would say, “Yes, it’s healthy.  It means the leaders are open about our church, whether we’re on the upswing or going through a rough patch.  And besides, if we value membership here, our members always have a right to know how the church is doing at any given time.  May as well just lay the information out there.”

I do not presume to have the final answer on this issue, but I know where I come down: on the side of transparency.  Let me make four arguments for it:

First, transparency is modeled in Scripture.  The Bible is full of numbers, from the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis to the number of Israelites leaving Egypt through the growth of the church in Jerusalem.  How much poorer would we be if the Bible never gave us any of those figures?

In addition, the people in Scripture are transparent about their feelings.  Moses didn’t want to obey God’s call and go to Egypt.  Elijah didn’t want to leave the cave and fulfil the Lord’s next assignment.  David ran the gamut of human emotions in the Psalms, often within a few verses.  Paul practically bled out when he wrote 2 Corinthians (we wouldn’t have most of the NT epistles if all the church problems were edited out), and the Gospel writers give us hidden glimpses of Jesus’ true emotional state (think the cleansing of the Temple, Gethsemane, and His words from the cross).  If the Bible was simply a book of duties and commands without human emotion, how could we even relate to it?  The genius of Scripture is how open it is about God, human sinfulness, and what it cost Jesus for our redemption.

Second, transparency means that we keep our members informed.  As the commercial used to say, “Membership has its privileges.”  Some churches either play down membership or don’t have it at all.  When our pastor gave his annual “State of the Church” message last January, he dazzled all of us with a bunch of numbers, but he never mentioned any membership statistics.  Most Calvary Chapels don’t have membership, either.  For some, membership is institutional rather than missional and separates a congregation into “haves” and “have-nots.”  If a church doesn’t have or value membership, then its leaders might be justified in keeping information from the congregation.

But if a church does have membership, its leaders must share certain key data with its members.

For example, even if a church doesn’t publish its giving statistics, members have a right at any given time to know how the giving is going.  They should be able to contact the church office or a board member for that information.  It should not be kept from them.  If the leaders are worried about what the member will do with that information, could that serve as evidence that the leaders have something to hide?

In addition, members have the right to know the decisions (not deliberations) that a church board is making.  Members have a right to attend board meetings and to examine board minutes.  While most members will never take advantage of these opportunities, remember: membership has its privileges.

Members are not entitled to know all information.  By law, pastors cannot discuss the identity or issues of those they counsel, and certain information about personnel cannot be shared, either.  But members are entitled to have enough information.

For example, if I’m a pastor, and I publish the giving numbers in the bulletin every Sunday, and we’re falling further behind budget, some people will be upset, and some might even stop giving because, they reason, we’re on a sinking ship.

But, if I don’t publish the numbers during the year, I have to share them sometime.  If I wait until the end of the year, and then the church finds out we’re tens of thousands of dollars in the hole, that could destroy the trust bond between us.  The members will ask, “Why didn’t you share this information with us sooner?  We could have increased our giving or done something about it!”

I’d rather just lay the information out there for everybody to see.  So what?  What are we afraid of?

It’s amazing to me.  I hear Christians lambasting the government for not being forthcoming when it comes to government spending and debt, but how open are our churches?

Third, transparency increases ownership.  Since information is still power, the more data people have, the better decisions they can make in their own lives and ministries.

When I was a pastor, I used to tell the staff, “Giving isn’t meeting budget right now, so manage your expenses tightly until things turn around.”  Conversely, if we just had a huge giving Sunday, I’d tell them, “Okay, if you’ve been holding off on a key expense for a while, this might be the time to pull the trigger.”  Don’t we operate on the same basis in our personal lives?

Years ago, Win Arn and his Center for American Church Growth published a little book on church ratios.  The book was crammed full of fascinating information (based on research) that was invaluable for church leaders.  For example, the average Christian will get to know 64 people (I think that was the right number) in a church regardless of size.  In other words, no one should expect to befriend everyone in a church above 64 people.  Rather than keep those goodies to myself (so I could be the fount of all wisdom), I’d share that information with as many church leaders as possible.  I wanted them to feel responsible for the church’s success as well.  It’s elitism when leaders assume that people can’t handle the truth.

Finally, transparency reduces conflict.  In our culture, as we all know by now, when a crime has been committed, the coverup is deemed worse than the crime itself.  We have seen this with Watergate, the Monica Lewinsky situation, and now the Barry Bonds perjury trial.  The same reality is true in churches.

The more information that a church’s leaders give its people, the less anyone will be able to say, “You’re engaging in a coverup!”  (Which only leads to people sniffing around trying to find out what’s being hidden.)  If I’m regularly sharing information with leaders and the congregation, I never have to worry about anyone claiming that I’m hiding things.

Our pastor does a great job of keeping the congregation informed of key matters on a regular basis.  After his message, he’ll frequently take five minutes to share something he wants us to know about the church.  He’s extremely honest in what he says, and as a former pastor, I resonate with him.  He treats us all like adults, not children, and we respond in a likeminded fashion.

Whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter – because I’ve been as transparent as I know how to be!

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