Archive for January, 2013

Imagine that you attend your church this weekend. You’re in a great mood: your family is healthy, work is going well, and all is right with your world.

You vibrantly sing the worship songs … take notes during the pastor’s message … and feel great about your church.

Then at the end of the service, your pastor stands and reads a letter: he’s resigning … leaving your church forever … after many years of productive service.

He tells you he’s tired … that he’s looking forward to future opportunities … but you wonder what the real story is.

In my last article, I mentioned three reasons why pastors suddenly disappear:

*They’re tired of fighting a handful of antagonists.

*They’re frustrated in their efforts to reach their community for Christ.

*They are tired of being so lonely.

Let me add just two more reasons … even though I could add many more:

Fourth, their family members are hurting because of relentless criticism.

While all pastors believe that God has called them to ministry, many pastor’s wives did not receive that same call.  They believe that God has called them primarily to love their husbands and their children.  They are willing to attend services and serve in a ministry as long as it doesn’t negatively impact their home life.

But when a pastor’s wife sees her husband unfairly attacked … and she sees the toll it takes on his health and his joy and his walk with God … she begins to pull back from church people and church work.

This scenario alone can cause a pastor’s wife to beg him to quit church ministry.

And inevitably, as a few critics focus on the pastor’s shortcomings, they will target her with attacks as well.  They will criticize the way she dresses … whether or not she works outside the home … and how she performs her ministries, among other things.

As these criticisms float back her way, she will be deeply hurt … and such criticisms are meant to hurt.

She’ll pull back even more and strongly suggest that her husband resign.  Some may even threaten to leave him if he doesn’t.

But when people start attacking their children … and if the pastor hasn’t left by now, some will … she will shift into protective mode and insist that her husband resign to save their family.

Pastors going through such situations are torn.  On the one hand, a pastor once took a vow that he would stay married to the same woman forever.  On the other hand, he also went through an ordination process recognizing God’s call upon his life.

When the vow and the call clash, a pastor feels pulled in two directions.  If he goes with the vow, he may lose his ministry career.  If he goes with the call, he may lose his wife … and possibly his career … anyway.

To save their families, many pastors choose to resign from their positions instead … and the pastor normally won’t acknowledge this factor publicly.

My guess is that when pastors vanish, this factor probably plays a role more than 50% of the time.

Finally, they have been asked or forced to leave by official church leaders.

This problem is now at epidemic levels in the Christian community.  Although I’ve read that 1,300 pastors per month are forcibly terminated, it’s safe to say this is true of at least 1,000 pastors per month.

There are so many possible scenarios at work here:

*Sometimes a pastor becomes frustrated with the board because board members focus more on maintenance and money than taking risks to reach people for Christ.

*Sometimes the board becomes frustrated with the pastor because he seems to be tone deaf toward their suggestions and needs.

*Sometimes a board member is personally offended by something the pastor did or said … but never talks to him directly … and gets back at the pastor by leading the charge to get rid of him.

*Sometimes the board becomes convinced they can run the church better than the pastor, so they take shortcuts, trump up some charges, and attack him with every weapon in their arsenal.

*Sometimes the board forces the pastor to resign because they’ve lined up the associate pastor or an interim pastor to preach … while they run the church their way.

Whatever the real reason why pastors and boards stop working well together, when their relationship starts to break down, the pastor will probably be the one who ends up leaving … even if he gets along with every other person in the entire church.

When the pastor stands up to announce his resignation, he probably won’t mention his problems with the board … especially if it affects any separation package he may receive.

Just like baseball managers, elected politicians, business CEOs, and rock bands, few positions in this world come with automatic lifetime appointments.

But for some reason, many of us assume that our beloved pastor will stay at our church forever.

When he leaves, we may grieve for a while, but in the back of our minds, we wonder:

Why did he really leave?

I’ve shared five possible reasons with you.

But if you really want to know, there’s one surefire way to find out:

Why don’t you ask him?

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Several years ago, a prominent pastor announced his resignation to a shocked congregation.

I knew something about this pastor because he had taught me in school and had once led a retreat for our youth group.

After his announcement, I went online and read comments from people who loved this pastor and appreciated his ministry.

They didn’t buy the public reasons he gave for leaving.  They wanted to know the real reasons.

Why do at least 1,500 pastors leave church ministry every month?

Let me share five real reasons:

First, they’re tired of fighting a handful of antagonists.

Most pastors – about 75% – are feelers rather than thinkers.  No matter how much they claim they can handle constructive criticism, any criticism wounds them to the core.

There are people in every church who have figured this out.  They know instinctively that if they continually find fault with their pastor, he will wilt, become ineffective, and eventually quit.

While these people know the pastor’s values, the pastor doesn’t know theirs.

Regardless of church size, when push comes to shove, most pastors leave a church because of a group of 7-10 individuals.

The pastor of a megachurch once told me that no matter how well things went on Sunday, he received a barrage of critical comments on Monday.

When the criticism occurs week after week, month after month, and year after year, it’s no wonder some pastors finally say, “I’m out of here!  I’ve had enough.”

This is why every pastor needs a few spiritual bodyguards who will serve as his protectors and encouragers.

Second, they’re frustrated in their efforts to reach their community for Christ.

If a church truly wants to reach people for Jesus, it will have to make some changes.

It will have to make changes in its worship service(s) … in its leadership structure … in the way funds are allocated … in the way decisions are made … in the way people interact with Scripture.

While some Christians are eager to make such changes, many … if not most … are not.

Too many believers have a vested interest in keeping things the same – year after year – regardless of how effective their church is.

I hesitate to quote Robert Schuller at this point, but I’m going to do it anyway because I believe he’s right.  I once heard him say:

“Any church can grow if it puts the needs of the unchurched ahead of the churched.”

He’s not saying that a pastor should ignore the needs of his people.  Far from it.

But if a pastor only focuses on pleasing the congregation he already has, few if any people (other than the kids of believers) will come to faith in Jesus Christ.

If evangelism isn’t front-loaded, it won’t happen.

The pastor of a rapidly growing church once told me that as his church grew, Christians were constantly trying to get him to change the church’s mission so that it focused exclusively on believers.  Pastors can sense this resistance.

When the pastor is the only one who really cares about reaching the community – and this happens in all too many churches – don’t be surprised if he quietly disappears.

Third, many pastors are tired of being so lonely.

Why is this?  Two thoughts:

*For starters, pastors carry around the problems and pains of their people 24/7.

If you’re in a small group, you know about the sufferings of a handful of people.  But the larger a church grows, the more problems come to the pastor’s attention … and if he’s a caring pastor, he’ll be thinking and praying about those problems constantly.

And most pastors are legally forbidden from sharing the problems of counselees with anyone else … even their wives.

Many times, I’d be out with my wife, and she’d wonder why I was staring into space … but I couldn’t tell her that I was hurting for someone at church.

*In addition, pastors know they can have friends at church … just not close friends.

Why not?

It’s simple: a pastor’s primary vocational problems concern others in his church … like staffers … and board members … and loudmouthed antagonists … and the pastor does not want to run down those people to others.

Because if the pastor really opened up about how he felt, his feelings might get around the church … and hurt people … and hasten his own demise.

So he remains silent … and talks only to people outside the church … if he can find someone who will listen.

Christian counselors will listen … but they can cost a lot of money.

Pastoral colleagues might listen … if you can set up an appointment three weeks in advance.

Many pastor’s wives will listen … but the pastor can’t tell her everything.

Many pastors quit because it’s lonely at the top … and they’re tired of being perpetually lonely.

I’ll add two more reasons next time!

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Want to know a dirty little secret about large churches?

Many of them … if not most of them … grow because they’re far better at reaching the already-saved than spiritually lost people.

I once heard a nationally-known pastor confess that after 15 years of ministry, the next thing his church was going to focus on was evangelism.  A friend who attended that church told me that 98% of all their new members were Christians who came from other area fellowships.

If that’s ministry success, then maybe Jesus should have stated the Great Commission this way:

“Therefore invite disciples from smaller churches to your church, baptizing them and teaching them so they can pad the membership roster and turn your ministry into a megachurch.”

But, of course, Jesus’ Commission is to “make disciples of all nations [people groups]” … and making disciples always begins with bringing people into a relationship with Christ first.

As I mentioned in my last article, I came to a place in my life nearly 25 years ago where I saw that the gather/scatter philosophy was not working.  (The church gathers for worship on Sundays and then scatters for evangelism during the week.)

No matter how many times I told people to share their faith … or trained them how to do it … few if anybody ever did it.

(Is it because Christians can’t answer the objections of secular people?  Because we’re not filled with the Spirit?  Because we don’t make time for spiritual discussions?  Or because we don’t think anybody is really going to hell?)

Whatever the reason, I learned that 85% of all churches are either stagnant or declining, while only 15% are growing … and many growing churches are simply siphoning off believers from smaller churches.

I can tell you the day things changed for me.

A pastor friend loaned me four tapes of some talks given by Bill Hybels.  By the second tape, I was in tears.  Bill said that a high school football player at his church was so excited about their services that he reserved an entire row for members of his football squad to join him.

I wanted to be in a church like that!

So after much prayer, research, and discussion, the church I led voted to sell our property … all 1.8 acres of it … and used the proceeds to start over in a light industrial building several miles away.

In the process, we took some major risks, convinced that God was leading us:

*It was risky to sell our property… some experts advised against it … but the place had run its course.  It was time to try something new.

*It was risky to convert a warehouse into a worship center … but when it was done, it felt like heaven on earth.

*It was risky to start a new church with a group of 50 veteran Christians … but they made a great core group for a new church.

*It was risky to let a cautious, seminary-trained pastor lead such a venture … but I was able to make the transition, even though it took time.

But taking risks for Jesus is never easy, and we paid many prices:

*We sensed strong spiritual opposition constantly.

*We were continually hassled by the building department.

*We were cheated by our contractor, who charged us three times what that remodeling project should have cost.

*We kept setting and missing deadlines for our grand opening service … seven deadlines, in fact.

*We constantly battled discouragement because the remodeling project went so slowly.

One night, we took a risk and planned a concert with a well-known Christian artist for a Sunday evening.  The concert could only come off if we obtained our conditional use permit.

We finally obtained it the Friday before … with a few minutes to spare.

400 people attended that concert … one of the greatest nights of my life.

And one month later, when our church officially opened to the public, we had 311 people at our first service.

God performed miracle after miracle for our church.  Unbelievable stuff.

Many people came to faith in Christ and were baptized.

Our worship services were incredible … the best I’ve ever witnessed … and were so good that people constantly invited friends and family to them.

A bond formed among the leaders that will always be present …  and most of those individuals later became leaders in other churches.

Here are five lessons I learned by taking risks for Jesus:

*I had to change as a pastor and as a person.  I could no longer preach one way and live another way.  I had to incarnate change before anybody bought it.  But leading that church made me feel fully alive!

*Our core group had to change as well.  Some couldn’t make the changes and left the church … but most were transformed as leaders and people.

*We were forced to our knees in prayer … forced to address relational issues with others … forced to give beyond a tithe … and forced to rely on the Lord for everything … because we wanted God’s blessing on our ministry.

*We had to rely on the Lord every single day.  We were a couple offerings away from extinction … just like Willow Creek Church in their early days.

*God honors faith.  Hebrews 11 is filled with stories of people who heard God’s voice and obeyed Him against great odds, even though their actions didn’t make sense to those around them.

The late Guy Greenfield, a pastor for many years, once wrote:

“When a church is focused on taking care of itself, paying off its mortgage, paying its bills, and saving money, and shows little interest in outreach, evangelism, ministry, and missions, it is often headed for trouble. . . . Outreach, evangelism, ministry, and missions will keep a congregation on its knees in prayer (which always frightens Satan away). Satan can more easily invade a church that is consumed with secondary matters.”

I have found this to be true in all of the churches that I served as pastor.

When we were focused on reaching lost people, we were forced to get into spiritual shape, make sacrifices, and take risks.

When we were focused on ourselves, we became spiritually shabby, sought our own personal comfort, and stopped doing anything that required real faith.

God did not make churches to become self-contained clubs.  He made churches to become service-oriented organisms.

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus commended the two men who took their master’s talents … “put his money to work” … and doubled their talents.  But Jesus harshly judged the man who received one talent and hid it in the ground.

The Christian church in America is hiding most of its talents in the ground … spending its time, energy, and funding on staff salaries and building mortgages.

It’s why our services are unexciting … why we’re not growing spiritually … why people are bored at church … why nothing of any consequence is happening.

Where is the sense of adventure?

What is happening in your church that requires God as the only explanation?

It’s time we started taking risks for Jesus … just like the first church in Jerusalem.

Even if we fall flat on our face.

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Somebody recently asked me two similar questions: “What was your best church experience?  What was your worst church experience?”

My worst experience – by far – was the second church I served as pastor.

The church was the result of a merger between two small churches.  I was the pastor of the smaller church … my rookie pastorate.

We merged with a church five miles away whose pastor had been ill for months.

We gained property with a building … the other group gained a pastor and some money in savings.

I served as pastor of that church for 7 years.

Most people from the two churches were philosophically incompatible.

The group from my church – mostly seniors – kept looking back to the 1950s and wanted to replicate that culture in their new church.

The other group sought to be more contemporary.

Since I didn’t know the other group very well, I spent more time initially getting to know them … and found that I liked them a lot more than the group that came with me.

18 months after the merger, the whole thing blew up when 25 people from my group left the church.

For the next few years, the ministry was difficult.  I battled depression constantly … mentally resigned every other Monday … and began perusing classified ads to find another job.

In desperation, I began asking God to do something drastic.  I told Him that I saw 5 possibilities for my future:

*Stay at the church as pastor

*Move to another church as pastor

*Become a staff member at another church

*Go into secular work

*Sell the church property and start over in a new location

I told the Lord that I wasn’t smart enough to make the decision and that I would do whatever He told me to do.

In my mind, the second and third possibilities made the most sense.  The last one made the least sense.

Guess which one God chose?

The last one: sell the church property and start over in a new location.

Years later, I sat in the office of a seminary professor whom I had met for the first time.  As we were talking, he said to me, “I even read a story in a book about a pastor whose church sold their property and started over somewhere else.”

I told him, “That was me!”

And I still can’t believe we did that.

Why did we take that risk?

First, the church didn’t have a worship center.  At one time, the congregation met in their small gymnasium.  When I came to the church, they were meeting in their fellowship hall.  When 70 people were present, the place felt full … and people felt content.  Without a dedicated worship center, we looked minor league to newcomers.

Second, the church property was decaying.  There was a perpetual gas smell in the nursery.  Water flooded into a classroom when it rained.  The place looked deserted from the street because the parking lot was located in the back.  We looked at the costs of upgrading the place and it felt prohibitive for our smallish congregation.

Third, the church could not retain young families.  Young couples would come to our community for their first jobs, but because most couldn’t afford the cost of housing, they would move to Colorado or Texas where houses were more attainable.

Finally, the church lacked a vision of what it could become.  For years, we had the same ministries … Sunday School, men’s fellowship, women’s meetings, AWANA … and it just wasn’t working.

One year, we baptized just one person.

When I was in seminary, I was told, “Preach the Word and your church will grow.”  I did preach it, teaching through books like Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Nehemiah, Malachi, Mark, Acts, Ephesians … but we didn’t grow.

What was the problem?

In my view, it was our ministry philosophy toward spiritually lost people.

I believed that if I equipped God’s people well, they would go to their homes and workplaces, share their faith, win people to Christ, and then invite them to come to the church.

But it almost never happened that way … and yet we kept up that line of thinking for years.

We played it safe … just treading ministry water … and the people in our community responded accordingly.

Until we risked it all for Jesus.

The experience of selling our property and starting over somewhere else initially frightened me … but as I look back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made … even though it just about killed me.

The ministry that resulted was the best church experience I’ve ever had.

More next time!

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Pastors make mistakes … all the time.

Last week, I made a doozy.

I scheduled an appointment one day with an accountant for 1:00 pm.  Since I had been to the office two weeks before, I figured I could find it “by feel.”

While I found the main intersection just fine, I kept driving through office complexes, looking for a familiar-looking entrance … but I couldn’t find it.

Finally, out of frustration, I actually called the office – and was told I was on the wrong side of the street.  I promised to be there in two minutes.

So I got in my car, quickly drove to the right office, and then reached for my backpack (with my wallet, smartphone, and glasses inside) … and realized that I didn’t have it.

Suddenly, I remembered that I called the office with my backpack on top of my car … but when I got out of the car, it wasn’t there.

Oh, no!

I raced out of the parking lot and turned right … only to find my backpack in the middle of the street, along with my tax forms, which were blowing every which way.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a busy street, so I quickly picked everything up … but boy, did I feel stupid!

Since I retrieved everything … and one of my tax forms looks good with a tire track on it … I quickly forgot about the incident.

Until today.

When I preach, I love to tell stories like that on myself because it shows the congregation that I’m as human as they are.

But what many – if most – pastors don’t want you to know is that we can be fallible as well.

Let me share with you several thoughts on pastors and their fallibility:

First, pastors are obsessed with being right.

Before I preach, I study my brains out.  It’s important that I interpret Scripture correctly, illustrate it powerfully, and apply it relevantly.  When I stand before God’s people and teach them God’s Word, I want to be convincing.

After all, I’m speaking with the authority of God Almighty.

But I can still make mistakes.  I’ve had people come up to me after a service and ask, “Do you realize what you said?”  When they tell me, I’m embarrassed … and wish I could issue an immediate correction!

It’s easy for pastors to take that preaching mindset away from the pulpit into other venues … like board meetings, staff meetings, or counseling sessions … or even at home with the family.

In Marshall Shelley’s groundbreaking book on pastor-centered conflict, Well-Intentioned Dragons, Shelley tells about a pastor who used a specific phrase whenever someone disagreed with him.  The phrase?

“You may be right.”

Is it you may be right?  Or you may be right?  Or you may be right?

I don’t really know … but the phrase reflects the fact that the pastor is not the fount of all wisdom and knowledge … and that other people have good ideas, too.

Pastors need to use that phrase more often.

Second, pastors have a hard time admitting they’re wrong.

40 years ago, the most popular TV show in America was All in the Family.  While Archie Bunker’s mouth was always open – expressing opinions, putting down his son-in-law, and pontificating on the state of the world – there were two words he just couldn’t get out of his mouth:

“I’m sorry.”

I’m not an Elton John fan, but he’s right: Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.

We don’t want our pastors apologizing all the time.  Can you imagine what it would be like if a pastor apologized throughout his message?

“I’m sorry … I could have said that better.”

“I’m sorry … I didn’t pronounce Artaxerxes right.”

“I’m sorry … I was thinking about the 49ers playoff game last night.”

We want our pastors to be strong and persuasive, to proclaim the Word of God with the anointing of God.

But there are times when a pastor does need to apologize … mostly in relational settings … even if people don’t know you’re a pastor.

Not long ago, I went to the local Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and was unhappy with their prices.  I expressed my discontent directly to the server behind the counter, but he didn’t get ruffled.  I immediately felt bad about what I said.

I sat and ate my food, but on my way out, I stopped and apologized to him for the way I spoke to him.  He accepted my apology.  I was wrong and needed to admit it.

The prices were still too high … but he didn’t set them.

Pastors need to say “I’m sorry” when they’re late for an appointment … or if they get upset in a board meeting … or when they overreact to criticism.

After all, if we pastors truly believe that we’re all sinners, doesn’t that mean that we sin at times … and not just in private?

Finally, pastors struggle with certain ongoing sins.

When I was a teenager, I had a really annoying habit: I tore the bottom inch off of newspapers (the place without ink), put it in my mouth, and chewed it for a few moments.  To this day, I can’t tell you why I did that.

But I overcame that problem.  I haven’t done that in more than 40 years.

I’ve always tried to be open about sins that I used to commit … but have now overcome.

Pastors sense that they can admit a problem with overeating … or ignoring their kids … or going into megadebt … as long as they’ve overcome those sins with God’s help.

But what pastors struggle with the most is admitting that they still commit certain sins.

Like anyone else, pastors can make cutting remarks … or can talk too much in public … or can go berserk when a driver cuts them off in traffic.

Because we pastors still cross God’s moral and spiritual lines, we need to serve the Lord with humility … and forgive those who criticize us … and admit when we’re wrong.

I don’t know about you, but I’m drawn to pastors who let me know they’re just as human as I am.

And I’m repulsed by pastors who must always be right, even when they’re obviously wrong.

“Infallible” pastors may have large congregations … and write books … and be in demand as speakers.

But they won’t be able to get very close to their wives … or kids … or friends.

Because an infallible God only uses fallible servants to preach His infallible Word and reach His fallible Church.

And He can’t do much with infallible pastors.

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