Re-post: Mending Fences

In 1956, when I was a young pastor in the Pacific Northwest Conference, the late Reverend C. W. Burbank was my conference superintendent. I had been appointed to the New Westminster church on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and Kathleen and I had crossed the continent from Kentucky immediately after my graduation from Asbury Seminary. Our personal belongings and four little children were packed into our turquoise colored Plymouth and a large spring-less trailer joggled along behind us every mile of the way.

Before Superintendent Burbank entered the ministry he was a logger. He had an outdoors ruggedness about him. He was not a seminary trained man; back then, seminary training for ministers was less common and more difficult to attain than now. Many pastors of earlier eras got whatever theological training they received by means of serious correspondence courses they were expected to wade through.

But he was an urgent preacher, well respected by his peers, and a man of down-to-earth common sense, something he learned or polished, as I understand, while in the logging business in the Okanagan Valley of Washington State.

During one of my first conversations with him he shared a bit of wisdom. He explained that some ministers are more skilled at mending their fences than others. He meant that when a misunderstanding or even an unintended interpersonal rift developed, such pastors seem to have a knack for restoring trusting relationships.

Others, he went on, leave the gap unaddressed and allow it to take on a certain permanence. If this happens with another family, and then another, Rev. Burbank explained, the misunderstandings accumulate sufficiently to destroy the trust of the congregation as a whole. A wall develops and the minister loses the trust of the congregation and he must move on.

Rev. Burbank didn’t say exactly how to recover healthy relationships. Nor did he mention what to do if a pastor’s efforts to keep fences mended are rejected. That is another aspect of the issue, and there are such situations. To take his counsel a step further, here are a couple more suggestions.

First, the greatest hindrance to correcting wounded relationships is pride – that dangerous quality within us that makes us tend to over-rate our worth or abilities. Pride is a point of vulnerability with all of us, Christian or not. When something is said or done from either side that injures our self esteem the rift is in danger of opening. Before repair can even be attempted pride must be acknowledged and brought to heel.

Second, once a rift happens, anger tends to follow and it invariably only clouds issues. So, no correction should be attempted until anger has been faced and dissipated. Most of us have learned this lesson by unhappy experience. In the face of breakdown of relationship and accompanying anger, only the indwelling Spirit of Christ can save us from further anger-prompted division.

Third, wise pastors will know that once in awhile, a relationship may grow cool or may even seem beyond repair. This may be due to disagreement on a particular issue. Or it may arise when a parishioner seems to have a fixed point of view about some circumstance. In these sorts of cases, when honest efforts have been made to restore relationship and fellowship—without success—ministers should labor on. As all pastors learn, in a busy growing pastorate there will be those who do not agree with the minister on issues. After honest efforts have been made to seek corrected and restored fellowship — without success — ministers should go on with their work diligently, all the while treating objectors with civility and grace. Only humility can keep the door open to the other person permanently. And it can only be hoped that the minister’s continued faithful service to the congregation will bear fruit and that eventually hearts will melt and be reconciled.

Ministers are much more likely to stay afloat in troubled waters and navigate through rocky relationships if they remember that their ultimate accountability for their efforts is to God. Their hope is that God may be pleased, since it is to him they will finally answer. Just remembering this makes them more careful to avoid missteps.

Mending fences is not only a challenge to ministers. Broken relationships are a universal peril in our fallen world. It would be hard to find someone of mature years who does not have a measure of pain over damaged relationships and even unresolved relationship issues at this point. So ministers and laymen alike need strength and grace help in the arduous task of living openly and charitably — insofar as possible — with all. Praying for increased sensitivity to the needs of others for Christ’s sake is the starting point.

Many years after our conversation, Rev. Burbank died in the pulpit while doing what he loved — preaching the gospel. I am just one of many who profited from his ministerial leadership and wise counsel. His insight regarding mending fences was a lifelong gift, not always exercised to the greatest effectiveness, but always treasured.

Photo credit: Josh Liba (via flickr.com)

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What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Administer (Part Three)

8276676055_a1758f96c5_mWe don’t usually think of the clergy as administrators. That activity, we say, is for professions such as school principals, head nurses and shop foremen. The basic tasks of ministers are preaching and teaching the Scriptures, counseling, visiting those in need, and sharing the Gospel.

True, but even so, ministers know that administration undergirds their activity for the Lord.  Every church is a body of believers who will flourish in a context of organization and order.

Churches are complex organizations. Multiple programs may be carried out in the same building; membership is voluntary; programs are carried out by volunteers; difficult members must be respected; real ministers don’t have firing rights; and in all of this a minister must have his or her hands on the tiller.

In a small church, a pastor may be closely involved with administrative details such as who will unlock the doors, clean the church, and manage the lights during worship. In larger churches, the pastor may administer such details through a staff of co-workers for the Gospel.

Where does a minister begin to give serious input into the actual functioning of a church? If the church’s annual business meeting is in June, in my opinion, the minister’s first and best opportunity to affect the organization of a church administratively begins in the spring of the year.

At this June meeting the congregation votes to fill lay positions for the new church year. To prepare for the annual meeting, a nominating committee is in place and active by the month of March, and is composed of four or more respected members plus the minister.

With the list of all church positions before them, the committee begins to consider prayerfully who should be nominated to continue their position, who nominated to another position, and what fresh talent should be incorporated into the nominations. This is a delicate but rewarding task that should deepen relationships and trust in leadership.

At the close of each nominating committee meeting, names of potential nominees should be assigned to different members of the committee. Each committee member makes contacts with the potential nominees, in order to describe the position and seek agreement to stand for possible election to that role. The minister may take one or two names to contact–persons proposed for the most significant offices. By the time of the annual meeting in June all nominations are settled, ballots prepared, and the election proceeds.

When this work is completed thoroughly ministers will be freer in the fall to preach and teach, call on new contacts, and give spiritual counsel. When it is not done thoroughly they will discover they must spend time solving administrative problems that should have been cared for by the process just outlined.

Even when freed up to serve the congregation in this way, ministers demonstrate their administrative abilities most clearly by their conduct of public worship. There’s something about a well-ordered worship service that calms the human spirit and engenders harmony, thereby enhancing the worship of God. The preparation of the sermon; choice of what to sing, selection of Scripture readings, preparation to lead in a pastoral prayer, and even the presentation of announcements and offerings — all can be executed either so as to add to or detract from the sacredness of the moment.

When administrative tasks are shared by the congregation, under skillful leadership, the church is likely to reflect the holiness of God to the community. It is not just God’s children who are holy; the enterprise as a whole through all of its programs, and its times of worship can also reflect a “holy glow.”

Under a minister’s good administration and through well-chosen committees the building is kept clean and tidy; bathrooms are always fresh and presentable; closets are free of clutter; parking lots are in good repair; the kitchen is spotless; and into this setting ushers welcome worshipers in the name of the Lord. This context gives the serious minister and his or her congregation a set-apart and holy meeting place for members and visitors.

Such a church has reason to expect fruitful ministry, growth in faith and maturity, and often an increase in numbers by a Spirit-led ingathering of souls.

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Photo credit: Caroline (via flickr.com)

What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Preach and Teach (Part Two)

William Hatherell; John Wesley Preaching from the Steps of a Market Cross, 1909

During 19 years as bishop in my denomination I listened at times to lay committees ponder the qualifications of a pastor being considered for appointment. One question was sure to surface from the laity with urgency: “Can this person preach?”

This question is particularly urgent now that a pastor’s neglect of this task can be concealed by the availability of “quickie” sermons from the internet. Real preaching takes more than that.

Preaching is rooted in the history of Christendom. It reflects, for one thing, the widespread influence of the Reformation – that mighty movement of the Spirit to renew Christendom in 16th century Europe.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and many others came alive to the deeper truths of the Bible. As a result, biblical preaching was revived as God’s primary way of shining the light of the Gospel on his fallen creation and particularly on our human depravity. We can be saved! And begin to be ‘repaired!’

Later, the Methodist movement of the eighteenth century engendered the same high regard for preaching. John Wesley, a Spirit-appointed leader of that renewal, had much to say to his growing ranks of preachers.

For example, he gave them 12 rules to follow as Methodist preachers. The twelfth included this instruction: “It is your part to employ your time as our rules direct: partly in preaching and visiting from house to house, partly in reading, meditation, and prayer.”

They were to take the task of preaching seriously and also allow adequate time for reading, meditation, and prayer to inform and energize their efforts.

However, the often-asked question, “Can this person preach?” has deeper roots than either the Reformation or the Methodist revival. Long before and standing above these movements, the New Testament is rich in language that reflects the centrality of proclamation and teaching in the life of the church everywhere.

The most common word in the New Testament for preaching — used more than sixty times as a verb — means “to herald.” A herald is a servant to whom a ruler entrusts his message, expecting it to be delivered clearly and with authority, regardless of the cost.

A second New Testament word applied to preaching is translated as “to evangelize.” We know well that the word means “to broadcast good news.” Sermons, whatever the issue, should have some element of this in them.

These two words do not exhaust the vocabulary for preaching in the New Testament. The idea of teaching occurs, too, and these three elements — preaching, proclaiming, teaching — require that careful thought, serious preparation, and spiritual energy be invested into each effort.

In order to bring the three elements forward faithfully and with effect two pastoral habits are necessary. The first is good Bible study habits — the techniques and resources for exploring deeply what is in the passage upon which the sermon is based. The second discipline is to set aside and actually use significant time in study, prayer, and preparation at least five mornings a week.

And of course the congregation also has a role: to be committed to support the serious minister’s efforts with prayer, deep listening, and occasional encouragement for the pastor’s commitment to faithfulness in preaching.

To be a servant of the Word of God in the pulpit is a demanding assignment in these times of many distractions. But fulfilling the task enabled by the Holy Spirit and His work in the minds and hearts of hearers brings its rewards for the souls of both pastor and people — now and in eternity.

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Photo credit: John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism

What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: Pastoral Care (Part One)

handshakeOur son, Robert, converses every now and then with a Lutheran minister. This man has agreed to come out of retirement several times to serve one congregation after another until the congregation’s officers find a long-term minister.

Recently, he reported to Robert that during one congregational interview a woman on the committee asked, “Do you visit in homes?” He replied without hesitation, “Oh my! That goes without saying.”

He then explained to Robert that through the years his custom had been to tell each congregation that if anyone had a neighbor or knew of someone in need or in the hospital who had no pastor, he would make a pastoral visit. To him, this kind of home or hospital visitation was an important aspect of pastoral care.

Pastoral visits, in some places, may have been taken from the pastoral agenda or at least dropped to a low priority. I heard of a young pastor who declared to a friend, “I don’t do hospital calls.”

I am sure the retired minister, along with a host of other pastors in chorus, would say “What a missed opportunity!” Such personal visits (at a home, in hospital, or in the pastor’s study) often open an opportunity to understand heart issues and present Christian counsel. They also allow pastors to minister to shut-ins, to families in distress, to newcomers to the congregation, and to parishioners who appear to be dropping away from congregational life.

Pastoral visits have a deep social dimension. They include conversations about troubling or unresolved moral, relational, and faith issues. Their ultimate purpose is to apply some aspect of the Gospel to the soul. Thus, after a pleasant conversation, the pastor may ask a question about spiritual matters or may read a brief scripture and offer prayer. When such ministry is maintained the results are placed by faith in God’s hands, and when fruit appears, pastors give thanks to God for his goodness.

One Sunday evening in the church I served in Western Canada I noticed a young man in the congregation I had never seen before. After service I spoke to him briefly. The ushers had obtained his address in the visitor’s book. A couple of nights later I went to his apartment. I learned that he was a 19-year-old German immigrant to Canada named Gunter whose loneliness had prompted his visit to the church.

My apartment visit and the warmth of the people of the congregation drew him back. Several Sundays later in an evening service Gunter came to kneel at the altar to give his heart to the Lord. When we stood around him afterwards we asked if he would like to say something. He said only, “I feel much more better.”

He was a quick learner and soon mastered English. In time he attended Seattle Pacific University, trained for the ministry, graduated, married, was ordained, and served as an effective pastor until a rare disease took his life regrettably. I will never forget that pastoral visit with my friend, Gunter, in his apartment.

I could draw up a list of memorable pastoral visits. Some, like this one, added tangibly to God’s Kingdom. For others, I have no follow-up. Many visits are cause for rejoicing. At the same time, there are memories of pastoral failures too — missed opportunities, ineffective approaches, broken connections. In our humanness we pastors on occasion come short and must commit our disappointments to the Lord and his mercy.

But, oh how precious the memories of heart-to-heart conversations in a home or pastor’s study concerning the deepest issues of life. And how enriching the knowledge that the good fruit of those visits still flourishes decades later. And how comforting the thought as well, that the results are the Lord’s and his Spirit is still working in the lives of those visited decades ago.

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Photo credit: Sam Butler (via flickr.com)

Re-post: What Really Makes the Church Grow?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will care for itself. A local church is a complex body and there are many other standards that must be met for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors and if their performance in the pulpit is exceptional the church will thrive in every other respect. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear the spiritual burden for growth and outreach along with the pastor.

It does not even mean that brilliant preaching is necessary for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the center for spiritual nourishment for the congregation is the pulpit, and if the pulpit lacks authenticity either in content, clarity or unction, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings ablur, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. I’m told that if the mixture is made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst, but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of the listener; it must nourish the spirit. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first century pastors who were assigned to oversee young established congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them in writing?

“…the overseer must be…able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2)” “Command and teach these things” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write this way without remembering that on many occasions I have fallen far short of doing what I believe is so needed. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive. So, “forgetting what is behind,” I call any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in Spirit — anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today — for the edification of the Lord’s people and the genuine growth of Christ’s church everywhere.


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Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Both Tender and Tough

Photo Credit: skedonk (via flickr.com)So, as we saw in my first post on this topic, the Apostle John knew how to address his people with tenderness at a time when heretical wolves were threatening the flock. Is that all? Does that mean that pastors’ main task today is to console their people like a nursemaid hovering over a sick child?

I note another characteristic of the Apostle in his first letter, one that I consider complementary to the first. Without this, in fact, he would not be John. On the one hand, when it came to caring for the flock and dealing directly with them, he was gentle. But, on the other hand, when it came to upholding sound doctrine and confronting the heresy threatening the integrity of the church, he was tough and unbending — a virtual warrior.

Here’s one of his strong declarations: “The man who says, ‘I know [Jesus Christ]’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (2:4). Here’s another, “No one who lives in [Jesus Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (3:6). There’s no give there. His epistle is marked with such statements.

Here’s the hint we need: All of John’s applied doctrine — that is, doctrine that calls his people to a certain manner of life — arises from the conviction with which he begins his epistle: that God, in Christ, actually came into human flesh! We call it the Incarnation. John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at, and our hands have touched — this we proclaim” (1 John 1: 1). At this point, John reflects no give. Primary doctrine is a life and death matter. Loving pastors stake their lives on it.

This was necessary because heresies were beginning to threaten the young church before the first century closed.

There was a heretic named Nicolas whose followers believed and taught that in moral matters, anything goes. Antinomianism is the word for this position. John could not countenance this, because he knew that such teaching could permeate the church like yeast in an unbaked loaf of bread.

There was also a heretic named Cerinthus, with whom John himself apparently had doctrinal run-ins. Cerinthus believed that matter was evil and so denied that Christ actually came in the flesh.

In addition, gnosticism — a heresy that threatened the church in the second and even third centuries — was beginning to sprout as an enemy of the gospel. The church was under attack.

Pastors need both virtues today — tenderness and toughness. The saints today need to know that they are under pastors who care for them with a tender love. At the same time, they should sense that they are being guided by pastors who have a clear sense of doctrinal integrity and who will lay down their lives to guard against the heresies of today that threaten the minds and hearts of God’s people.

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Re-post: Tenderness Plus

Photo Credit: the bpp (via flicker.com)I recently taught seven lessons from that little gem of truth tucked away toward the end of the Bible called First John. Seven lessons by no means exhaust the richness lodged in this epistle, but amidst all the riches, two things about pastoring stand out to me each time I read the letter through.

Today, I’ll write about one of them, tomorrow about the other. The first one is about the writer’s loving tenderness for his flock.

First, some background. Tradition says that the writer is John the Apostle, aged and living now in Ephesus. But, aged or not, he continues his pastoral work. Perhaps the letter is written to a special congregation in Ephesus. More likely it is to a string of churches that he is superintending in that region of Western Asia.

One thing is obvious — the young church is besieged by false teachers (1 John 2:18,19, 26; 4:1-3). It needs inspired pastoral protection and guidance. That is what John’s first letter is about, delineating the truth that separates true believers from heretics. And how does he go about this task?

In the midst of an heretical attack on the church, he shows his tenderness toward his flock as reflected in his repeated words of address: “My dear children” (2:1); “Dear friends” (earlier translated, “Beloved”) (2:7); “Dear children” (2:18); “My brothers” (3:13). And on and on throughout the epistle, at least 15 times. The believers he addresses must have already been torn by uncertainty over the teachings of the antichrists who had come among the flock. They needed to feel the regard of a tender and loving shepherd.

Is pastoral tenderness, whether expressed openly or covertly, needed by congregations today?

Toward the end of the twentieth century, reports began to surface of some pastors who were treating their parishioners very roughly. At that time some leaders on the seminar circuit were promoting the idea that pastors should function more like CEOs do in the industrial world. The irony is that good CEOs don’t mistreat their employees. Even so, some pastors tried.

For example, one parishioner went to her pastor to speak of a concern. To her shock he responded: “If you don’t like my leadership, go somewhere else.” That was not an isolated case. It is reported that another pastor told a faithful parishioner bluntly: “This church has a front door and a back door.” The implications were clear.

It’s true that a church member may sometimes need to find a different place to fellowship. But in civility challenged times like ours, we could all stand to pray for the gift of gentle love such as the Apostle John displayed toward his flock as he taught them. Or that made Jesus be forever remembered as the “great shepherd of the sheep”
(Heb. 13:20).

But there’s a matching aspect to John’s leadership, and I’ll write about that in my next post.

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