Learning to Fire the Bright Spots

When I was just out of seminary and beginning to lead my first church as a full-time pastor, a retired minister, the Rev. C. P. Stewart, told me a story I have carried with me throughout my life. Here it is:

Back in the days when steam-driven locomotives pulled 100-car freight trains across this continent, a westward bound train was laboring up a pass in the Rocky Mountains.

Its pace gradually slowed until finally it came to a standstill. The fireman in the engine cab was young and found himself defeated and helpless.

Riding the caboose at the end of the train was a retired fireman. He walked the length of the long string of boxcars, climbed into the locomotive’s cab, and offered his help.

The young fireman was glad to let him take over.

The retired fireman started methodically shoveling coal into the firebox. The steam gauge began to rise and when it registered that pressure was adequate he signaled the engineer to open the throttle.

After a couple of sharp tugs the train began to move again and this time made it up the grade of the mountain pass.

Amazed, the young fireman asked his senior what he had done differently, noting that he himself had been shoveling just as hard.

As the train moved forward, gradually gaining speed, the older man opened the door of the firebox. First he pointed out a couple of clinkers — residue of burned coal — lying dead in the ashes, then pointed to places in the bed where the fire was burning brightly.

Pointing out this contrast with his long poker, he said, “If you want the train to move you have to fire the bright spots.”

Rev. Stewart was giving a young pastor a tip on how to go about leading a congregation without becoming a casualty of stalled initiatives.

Local churches are complex and lots of activities are going on at the same time – children’s programs, choir practices, committee meetings, some of which can at times be stalled by a variety of conflicting opinions.

While helping a church grow, gaining momentum and depth in ministry, Rev. Stewart intimated, one must take courage from the programs that are thriving, reporting this good news to the congregation whenever possible.

But the story fits many situations: the highly energized family, the public school classroom, the student striving to work her way through college, to name a few.

Things in life go better when one learns to fire the bright spots.

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Photo credit: Thomas’s Pics (via flickr.com)

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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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May Pastors Have Special Friends in the Congregation?

3888805992_ea38e68690_mPastors are not supposed to have favorites in the congregation. It’s a universal rule, but not always easy to follow.

When pastors break this rule, the effect is similar to that produced when the parents of four children regularly show special favor to one of them, or the schoolteacher shows such favor to one student that class members call that student “the teacher’s pet”.

The rule is broken when pastor and spouse single out one particular couple for special time and attention. They may be at one another’s home often, eat together frequently, or even go camping together in the summer time.

Though some members may not care, this special closeness doesn’t sit well with other members of the congregation. It makes some who are not chosen for this favor feel like second-class citizens, as if they don’t rate at the same level.

Those who disapprove of such chumminess may be called immature or jealous and may be ignored. Their opponents might ask, don’t pastors have a right to have friends too?

But there is a legitimate and crucial pastoral principle violated by such selective closeness. It is that he or she must be seen as pastor of all the people at all times. Some members may be more likeable than others but all members are equally deserving of the pastor’s love and pastoral care.

The rule doesn’t mean pastors must dole out attention with precision, like a pharmacist counting out pills. When a family has a crisis — a member is hospitalized with a serious illness, someone loses a job, a wayward child is causing distress — that family will naturally receive special pastoral attention to see them through their particular crisis.

The pastor may even give special attention for a time to newcomers to the congregation or to new converts. Mature members will understand the reason for this attention.

It’s the special attention meted out for nothing other than socially personal reasons that needs to be seen as inappropriate for wholesome pastoral care. Pastoral tenure at a church has sometimes been shortened by pastors’ lack of awareness in this regard.

Still, you may say, this kind of constraint is unfair because pastors need close friendships, just like anyone else.

Many years ago I heard the late Rev. Robert Fine address this question in a minister’s gathering. He proposed that pastoral couples with need for closeness with special friends might develop a friendship with another denomination’s pastoral couple in the community. Even then, the association should be discreet, not time consuming.

Although this counsel may seem severe, remember that it is a pastoral gift to project love and interest toward the whole flock without favoritism, and to sense needs and be motivated to serve them equally across the congregation.

The rule to work with is clear, and any pastor can measure himself or herself against it: “Am I equally pastoral to all of the people, all of the time?” If the answer is yes, love for the Lord and wisdom in caring for the whole flock will take it from there.

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Photo credit: James Emery (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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Re-post: 10 Tips for Young Pastors

Photo Credit: "Outside the camp" via flicker.comPastoral work is demanding. It has its peculiar stresses. But, it is also deeply satisfying when done with wisdom and care. Here are some suggestions gleaned from 22-years of pastoral ministry and another 19-years as a general church overseer.

1. Ground your ministry in daily Bible reading and prayer. Pray daily for your people. Pray often through the day. Consider that pastoral labors grounded in prayer are the “gold, silver and costly stones” the Apostle Paul speaks of as durable building materials used in pastoral labors (1Cor. 3:10-15).

2. If your study is at the church, be there at a set time each work day. I suggest 8 A.M. God honors a good work ethic.

3. Spend your mornings in sermon preparations, reading, and related study. Be diligent. If you have a secretary, have her guard these hours. Don’t allow legitimate resources to become time-wasters — the Internet, TV, video games, long telephone calls, news papers, news magazines, etc.

“If in the morning you throw moments away,
You’ll not catch them up in the course of the day.”

4. Get an exercise program and stick to it, whether it be jogging or swimming or walking or exercising to a DVD. If you have no better idea, consider, as one possibility, incorporating this routine into an extended noon hour. A jog, then a sandwich, an apple, and a beverage need take no more than an hour-and-a-quarter.

5. Do not have favorites. If your attachment to one person or couple or family becomes obvious — you meet regularly for meals together, even go camping together — this will make other members feel second rate. The pastor must be pastor to all the people all the time. If you need more intimate friendships, form them outside the congregation — with a neighboring minister, for example.

6. Never, discuss church problems in the presence of growing children.  They do not have the wisdom to handle adult problems.
Their trust may be damaged, and eventually their respect for Christ and his church.

7. If division develops over some issue (whether to launch a building program, add a staff member, change the music program, etc.) give leadership through proper channels. But don’t take sides by talking informally with one faction or the other. To do so will deepen the congregational rift and likely shorten your tenure.

8. Develop a clear understanding of your boundaries and observe them — with the opposite sex, the aged, children, young people, church officers, staff members, etc. Strive to keep all pastoral relationships above reproach.

9. However modest your income, set an example of responsible stewardship. Show leadership in tithing your income. If you have debts that are out of hand, seek professional counsel. Your care with money will increase the congregation’s trust in your leadership.

10. Never ask to borrow money from your parishioners. To do so puts parishioners at a disadvantage, may reduce their respect for you, and if not repaid as agreed may create a rift that puts your pastoral tenure at risk.

Pastoral ministry is built on the ability to preach and teach the Bible. But it is also grounded in genuine godliness, basic ethical competence, good interpersonal skills, and beyond these on common sense. These ten points do not tell the whole story but they offer some time-tested suggestions about how to avoid the traps that sometimes spring and limit or even shorten a minister’s usefulness to the Lord and a congregation.

 

Photo Credit: Outside the camp (via flicker.com)

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When Two Become One

WeddingPastors are supposed to bring theological grounding to all events they administer. That is one of the reasons for the years of pastoral training.

Consider the issue of marriage. Its boundaries are becoming increasing fuzzy in the secular mind. A war rages on to open up the traditional definition — one man and one woman — to other options and perhaps soon to increased numbers in a union. This means pastoral care of the modern wedding must reflect what the Scriptures teach about marriage.

In my recent book, The Pastor’s First Love: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling, I spell out in brief some ideas about marriage as a rite of passage in Christian understanding. Here’s a sampling from the book:

A wedding is a ‘rite of passage.’ Across two thousand years, the church has considered certain events to be epochal moments in life’s journey: birth, baptism, marriage, conversion, death. These have not always come in the same sequence or been given the same weight. But such events are so momentous that they deserve appropriate celebration.

When a man and woman come to the altar, what happens there in a few minutes changes them forever. They approach the altar as two single persons, legally unrelated; they leave as a married couple; a new unit in society. Their status will be forever altered, and so will the church community of which they are a part. Should not anything so crucial deserve appropriate celebration in the setting of Christian worship? The event is more than a legal moment; it is a sacred moment of life-changing significance.

For a Christian couple, a wedding may be a very personal matter, but it cannot be a private one — limited to two people only. It is the couple’s wedding for sure, but it is also the church’s, meaning it also belongs in the context of a particular unit of the body of Christ.

“So, the Christian church has a large stake in the wedding: its sanctuary provides the setting; its congregation provides the witnessing community; its ministers provide the authorized officers; and its rituals provide the theological content concerning what the event means. It can be argued that all of this is brought together best and most coherently when the couple meet at a Christian altar and the people gather with them in a setting conducive to the worship of the God who is the creator of marriage.”

I recognize that across a lifetime of ministry spanning well over 60 years, secularizing trends have had their effect on church activities. On occasion, two people raised in a church setting may still need gentle and loving instruction as they approach their wedding — that is, on what the parts of the ceremony that solemnizes the relationship mean. And of course, pastors need to teach their people some basics even at a time when no wedding is in the offing.

For example, Christians consider marriage an “institution” ordered by God at the time of creation (Genesis 1&2). Therefore, the couple must not appear at the altar as though they were creating something new. They may be demonstrating a fresh version of the event but they are entering into something that has been there from the beginning. This should make the moment for them not only joyful but also humbling and worshipful. That’s why we are not so likely to speak of “performing” a wedding as “solemnizing’ the event.

Also the words spoken in ritual should reflect accurately the meaning of the event from a Christian perspective. Rituals that are designed by the couple to make feelings the dominant element are not nearly as useful as rituals that proclaim the event as ordained by God, call for comprehensive pledging, and ask God in deep earnestness for his blessing on the couple at the altar. To achieve this in the face of today’s secularizing influences may require some counsel of the officiating minister.

It seems to me that, as never before, Christian communions ought to give special attention to the wedding’s content and meaning. Weddings, insofar as possible, should be shining reflections of the grace of God which enables two, a man and a woman, to become one — profoundly united in all aspects of their life together!

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Photo credit: Adam Woodrow (via flickr.com)