Yes, I Have Been Afraid

(Ministry Stories)

I had been preaching in Waco, Texas for about a year.  Of course, I had already had some difficult experiences in the fifteen years of preaching before that.  At times, I was nervous before some meetings, particularly if I wasn’t quite sure what to do or say.  On some occasions, I was nervous before counseling an individual or couple.  So much was on the line.  Would I say the right thing?

On this Sunday morning, I was particularly nervous.  I had learned days before that I had a large tumor on my spine.  I was to have surgery in the middle of June (1994).  The surgery meant opening my chest.  Never having had surgery before, all of this was a new experience.  The doctor thought it was benign.  Yet, that was little comfort to me.  I wanted to know for sure.

That Sunday morning, I told the congregation that I was about to have surgery and that, according to the surgeon,  I would be recovering much of the summer.  I gave what information I had and then to them that I would appreciate their prayers and that Charlotte and I had already been praying about this for several weeks.  I then said:

I am cautiously optimistic and scared to death.

The church was very gracious and supportive.  That morning, they prayed for us and communicated their love for our family.

A former minister was present that morning.  During lunch, he called our home and asked if we could meet that afternoon.  Later in the afternoon, I met with him and was taken aback by what he said:

You shouldn’t have told the church that you were “scared to death.”  They must not know this.  They need to hear that you trust God.

I told him that I do trust God!  I trust that he will be with me through the whole ordeal.  I then told him that nevertheless, my emotions are raw and yes, I am afraid and nervous.  Yet, I was trusting God regardless of these emotions.

What does it mean to move forward in your life?  It means to trust God regardless of what your emotions may be telling you.  It means to trust God when you face the unknown.  It means to trust God even when there are obstacles and hurdles.

Courage is not about putting on a brave face or pretending that nothing fazes you.  Courage is not bravado while you talk about how you’ve “been around the block.”

Courage is daring to trust God – regardless.

(I had the surgery and the tumor was benign.  Yet through that experience, I learned so much about trusting God.)

 

 

Preaching to the “Old People”

(Ministry Stories)

Years ago, Charlotte and I moved to Dallas from Tennessee.  This was a temporary move.  Ultimately, we would move to Abilene, Texas where we would both go to graduate school.  However, at this point, we were in Dallas trying to get our finances in order so that we could move.  We lived in Dallas for about eight months where we worked and saved for the fall semester.  During this time, I also took a few courses at Amberton University, as well as a satellite campus of ACU, where I took a wonderful class taught by Paul Faulkner, in which he said much about life and ministry.

I began preaching for a small church outside of Dallas on Sundays.  This church was located close to Lake Ray Hubbard.  I knew an older couple who were members there and they had recommended me to the elders.

I  remember my first Sunday well.  We were walking from our car into the church building when this same couple whom I had known for many years, saw us.  The gentleman, about seventy years of age, said, “Let me encourage you to not speak real long.  The old people here don’t like long sermons.”

It struck me as a rather odd comment on my first day at this church.  Nevertheless, I assumed he had good intentions and went into the church building.  At the appropriate time, I began to preach.  A few minutes later, I looked to my left and saw this same man slumped down in his pew with his head cocked to one side.  He was sound asleep with his mouth open wide.  This was the man who didn’t like “long” messages.  I have some interesting memories of our short time with this church.  Conversations with various church members about life.  Good people who were so patient with me as I preached and gained new experiences with the church.  Most of all, I learned how much I needed God.  Through it all, this man slept each Sunday.

What Good Ministers Do Really Well

I have been a minister for many years.  Literally, every week, I am in conversation with ministers.  I have noticed that the best ministers I know do three things really well.

First, good ministers look for the kernel of truth in any criticism.  Most of us probably do not like to hear anyone who might be critical of something we’ve said or done.  I once asked a minister a question regarding feedback.  As I recall, I asked him how he was processing the feedback he was getting in his congregation.  He said, “Oh I don’t ask them for feedback.  I don’t want to hear anyone’s criticism.”

Yet, we may be too quick to dismiss any sort of criticism.  I once heard Gordon McDonald reflect on the subject of criticism.  He spoke of the value of looking for the kernel of truth in someone’s criticism.  I may not like a person’s words or tone but I may find a kernel of truth in even some of the most difficult criticism.  This kernel of truth can actually be helpful to me.

Ministers and the Lust for Applause

 

“Everyone wants to be liked and appreciated,” my friend said.  Perhaps.  But not everyone lusts for applause.  Some want applause so badly, they are willing to sacrifice their integrity.

Have you ever enjoyed something so much, that you wondered how others manage to live without it?  For some ministers and other church leaders, the desire for applause can become so important that one might begin to do whatever it takes to gain the approval of another.  A friend of mine recently referred to this as “the lust for applause.”  I have never thought about one’s craving for applause as being lust but that is exactly what it is.

One of the great sins of Christian ministry is that its leaders, preachers, elders can get shackled by a lust for applause.  It can become intoxicating and addictive.  A preacher can be so focused on gaining more and more applause that sermons become not a ministry for spiritual formation of a church, but rather a means to approval, affirmation, and recognition.

Consequently, when there is no applause or affirmation of one’s sermon or a particular project, this can be devastating.  You might think that something is wrong with you.  You might even think that you are lacking or inferior in some way.  Silence might be interpreted as rejection or failure to a preacher.

Church Leaders are Called to Behave Better

(Avoiding behaviors that diminish the influence of church leaders)

Sometimes ministers go through difficult seasons.  Sometimes elders go through difficult seasons.  At times it seems that entire congregations go through difficult seasons.

Sometimes a difficult season occurs because of someone’s irresponsibility, incompetence, meanness, manipulation, or thoughtlessness.  Some ministers and some elders have been guilty of all five.

Ministers and elders will make mistakes.  Human beings make mistakes regardless of what role they might find themselves in.

Does a minister or an elder really have to be irresponsible?  When church leaders are irresponsible in what they say or in how they act, they are basically wasting the influence and the energy of the church.

Does a minister or an elder really have to be incompetent?  Church leaders do not have identical gifts or identical strengths.  Yet, if we pretend that we always know what to do, after awhile our incompetencies will become obvious to others.  When we are not learning, growing, or developing, we will never move beyond where we are right now.

Does a minister or an elder really have to be mean?  Of course not.  Yet, so often these people are not held accountable for their meanness.  For example, if an elder says something to a minister in an elder’s meeting that is rude and unkind, what do the other elders do?  In far too many churches, they simply remain silent.   (Yes, an elder close to that minister may call him later and grouse about what his fellow elder said.  However, that elder may never be confronted regarding his behavior.)

Does a minister or an elder really have to be manipulative?  No. Of course, a minister may have several friends who are also in the elder group.  However, this minister has crossed a line when he manipulates several elders behind the scenes to basically do his bidding for him in elders’ meetings.  Ministers who refuse to manipulate know how to relate and love without resorting to self-serving manipulation.

Finally, does a minister or an elder really have to be thoughtless?  No.  However, one will have to yield to the Spirit, submitting not to the flesh but to the Spirit’s desire for our lives, our relationships, and our leadership groups.  Otherwise, we will yield to the flesh, saying what is thoughtless and hurtful, and looking for a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense instead of building one another up.

When Preachers Suffer Self-Inflicted Wounds

Serving as a minister can be hard – very hard.  Yes, there are many situations where preachers and their families have been mistreated by their own congregation.  These are real situations and deserve our thought, attention, and prayer.

Yet, I don’t want to overlook another reality for many who preach.  This reality is the self-inflicted wound.  Some of us misbehave and do not model what it means to be a healthy or a Christ-like minister.  For example:

*One particular preacher would not respond to the elders of his congregation.  Their requests, regardless of how small, were generally met with pushback.  He said openly that he does not like dealing with elders or anyone who might have authority.  He has only been with the congregation for three years. (He was at his prior congregation two years.)  It appears that unless something changes, he will be asked to move on.

*Another preacher was known to have a volatile temper, particularly when he did not get his way.  He became incensed one night in an elders’ meeting and spoke sharply to two elders who had raised a few questions about an initiative that he proposed.

*In one congregation, a long-time minister attempted to manipulate several elders so that he might get what he wanted from the elder group.  Often, he would pay one or two elders a lot of attention outside their meetings, leading them to think they were “best friends” with this minister.  Whenever this minister had a complaint or a request, he would use these two to push his agenda in the elder group.  Eventually, these two elders differed with him on a particular matter and the “friendship” was over.  It took some of the elders years to see how they were being used.

*In still another congregation, a minister was known as being very difficult for the other ministers on staff to work with.  Volunteers at the church also found him difficult.  He was once asked about his stubbornness.  His response was “That’s just the way I am.”

These self-inflicted wounds damage marriages, friendships, and one’s ministry with the congregation.  They often reflect emotional immaturity instead of displaying emotional maturity.  Such wounds may cause a ministry at a congregation to end abruptly or prematurely.  The bottom line, however, is that this does not have to be this way.

Ministry is hard enough.  However, self-inflicted wounds sometimes defeat a ministry that would otherwise contribute to the spread of the kingdom in that city.

Three Important Behaviors for Any Church Leader

Have you ever looked at your to-do list and felt totally overwhelmed?

I certainly have.  Years ago, I thought the answer was to just work harder.  I soon learned that I was missing certain priorities.

If you are church leader (or businessperson), you may have had a similar experience.  Yet, in all of the things you might have on your list, there are three behaviors which are especially important.  These three originated (for me) with Dr. Edwin Friedman who wrote Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve.

Be a calm presence.  

There is often much anxiety in congregations.  Various people want this or that.  Some may threaten to leave.  Others make demands and ultimatums.  Often a group of elders will want a new minister to carry the anxiety that is already in their group.  “If we just had a great minister. . .” They may want this person to fix the congregation or make up for their own dysfunction. Sometimes, it is the minister who is very anxious and carries into the elder group the anxiousness he feels over what various church members are saying.  It might be nice if this person was a non-anxious presence.   Perhaps it might be good if this person could at least be a less-anxious presence in the congregation.

Far too often, church leaders contribute to the anxiety in the church.  Perhaps several families leave the congregation in one month with each family saying they are leaving because  of their small children.  In some congregations, there would immediately be hand-wringing in the next elders’ meeting with someone declaring that “we must do something immediately.”  A quick, rash decision is made and a hurried announcement is made on a Sunday morning about a change in the congregation.  Often, there will then be considerable push-back from the congregation.  Quick, rash decisions are not usually the way to deal with anxiety in a church.

Stay connected.

When a congregation (or any other group) experiences anxiety, church leaders might be tempted to disconnect emotionally from those with whom they are having the greatest conflict.  In other words, if I have conflict with a particular elder or minister, I may begin to look for ways to disconnect with him physically and emotionally.  The temptation to disconnect may occur when a church announces a new project or initiative and then receives push-back by the church members. The minister might even become embroiled in an anxious dispute with the elders in an us-versus-them conflict.  He may disconnect from them emotionally and then wonder why things are getting even worse.

It is so important to stay connected (emotionally) as much as possible with the people in your church, even those who don’t necessarily agree with you on very much.  This doesn’t mean you have to be “close” or great friends.  However, one can take the initiative to prevent cut-offs and complete disconnections.

Have a position.

Staying connected with others does not mean that you do not have a “self.”  Some ministers/elders try to ride the fence on most everything.  If cutting myself off from those with whom I disagree with is on one end of a continuum, the other end might be those church leaders who attempt to lead by trying to be whatever any group in the church wants me to be.  In other words, this particular leader loses his identity in whatever group he happens to be with.

Perhaps some attempt to do this in an effort to be a peacemaker.  However, peacemaking is usually not the end result of such efforts.  These efforts basically reflect that the church leader is willing to abandon any sense of leading in order to avoid conflict.  In other words, he is willing to sacrifice progress over peace.  Ironically, true peace is really not the result of such efforts.

It is far better to state where you are in your thinking while valuing everyone else in the congregation whether they hold your position or not.

Leadership is hard work.  It begins with learning to manage yourself.  These three behaviors are very important if a congregation is going to be able to make any progress.

 

“We Are Certainly Not Lacking Any Confidence Are We”

Some years ago, a friend of mine said to me after a certain young minister preached, “Well, we are certainly not lacking any confidence are we?”

I understand what my friend meant.  This young minister certainly did not appear uneasy.  In fact, his manner, his body language, and his words indicated that if anything, he was quite self-assured.  He had a certain cockiness that some thought was funny.  He spoke way beyond his experiences and his years.  It was awkward and almost embarrassing.  There was a certainty and self-assuredness that communicated that he really had not experienced much of life.

Fortunately, I can point to a number of young ministers with a very different spirit.  I know young ministers who love Scripture, are passionate for the Lord, and who exude humility as they talk about the human condition.  These young ministers are likely to ask others for their counsel and input regarding situations and chapters in life they have never experienced.

They do not have an unhealthy self-consciousness which seems to be preoccupied with appearance, image, style, etc.  Rather, these ministers seem to have a very healthy God-consciousness that goes way beyond referring to Jesus, talking about spiritual formation, etc.

When they preach, they call attention to Jesus instead of themselves.

May their tribe increase.

When a Minister Helps to Kill a Ministry

(How to end your ministry prematurely)

Does your congregation have a good minister?  Hopefully so.  A congregation really ought to encourage and value such a person.

Unfortunately, many other ministers start out well but then make one of three fatal errors which often brings a ministry to an end.  In this case, the problem wasn’t a cantankerous elder or harassment from a segment of the congregation.  Rather, in this case, this minister made three mistakes which are often fatal to to a ministry.

Three fatal mistakes a minister can make:

When a minister fails to be trustworthy.  When a minister lies, plagiarizes sermons, or pushes a hidden agenda with the congregation, the elders, or both, this could be a short ministry.

After all, good ministers are trustworthy.  They tell the truth and live trustworthy lives.  You don’t have to wonder what they are up to.  They are authentic (no hidden agendas) and take seriously their own transformation into the image of Jesus.  This transformation includes their ethics (which impacts how they work with a congregation) and their morals (which impacts their decision making).

When a minister continually shows poor judgement.  When a minister continues to use poor judgement with his choice of words, sermons, relationships, behavior in the community, behavior in elders’ meeting, etc., this can cause a ministry to end prematurely.  Poor judgement can get a minister into trouble quickly.

Meanwhile, good ministers consistently demonstrate good judgement.  They don’t cause others to cringe when they preach.  They are not regularly pulling surprises on a church like a magician who might suddenly pull a surprise out of his hat.  You can depend on them to handle various situations in a way that is mature.  This congregation knows their minister will handle difficult situations with wisdom and grace.  Their manner reflects they are trying to work with the congregation.

When a minister is constantly looking out for himself instead of serving the congregation. Such a minister is always trying to figure out an advantage for himself.  Many years ago, I knew a minister who approached businesses in the small town where he lived and asked for a discount solely because he was a minister.  I cringed at the thought of going in a store and asking for some sort of favor simply because I preached.  While many of us would never think of of doing this, there are some who expect to be treated as extra special and not subject to the rules because this person is a minister.  When a minister takes certain liberties with the truth, with a church credit card, with an expense account, or with someone else’s wife, he is on dangerous ground.

Meanwhile, the really good ministers serve instead of looking for what they can get from someone. They choose to give to others instead of using others.

There are many good ministers working with congregations.  Many of these people are servants who use good judgment and are trustworthy.  Unfortunately, there are others who may see a ministry come to an end prematurely because they have violated trust, consistently used poor judgement, and were focused on themselves instead of serving.

 

Random Thoughts for Ministers

1. What you are doing within your congregation is good, important, and a significant way to spend your life.  What a gift you have been given!

2. Stop trying so hard to be cool, liked, valued, etc.  When you do this, it is painful for some in the congregation to watch.  It can seem like a desperate way to get validation.  Just live authentically before these people.

3. Ok, no one is perfect.  However, you don’t have to go out of your way to prove this just so that you can relate.  Seek to be a Christ-like person.  You are most valuable to a group of people when you simply take your own spiritual transformation seriously.

4. You and I both know how difficult your work is.  I did congregational ministry for many years.  I know some of the unique challenges.  However, many other men and women in your church also work very, very hard.  Some may have two jobs.  Rather than talk about how hard you work and how much you are in demand, just serve and let your life speak for itself.

5. Remember that behaviors which seem like no big deal may turn out to be costly.  Failing to return phone calls and ignoring texts or e-mails can become the very irritants that could eventually undermine one’s ministry.  Neglecting to respond to people over a period of time really can hurt a minister’s credibility.