Tuesday, October 29, 2013

5 Assumptions of Prayer

Luke 18:1 states that Jesus taught His disciples that "at all times they ought to pray and not lose heart (give up)." In fact, the challenge is for us "to cry to Him day and night." Jesus concludes that God the Father will will bring justice quickly, then asks a salient question: "when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" In other words, will He find His people praying and trusting, or complaining with despair?

I’d like to remind us all, myself included, of prayer's assumptions.

1. God is God of the universe. He created it and sustains it with purpose. By sending His Son to earth, God initiated His desire for reconciliation with all humanity. With reconciliation comes relationship, and with relationship comes both responsibility and privilege. Prayer is both.

2. We as humans live in a world of multiple planes. The horizontal is what we see. The vertical is what we do not see. The vertical controls the horizontal. The spiritual controls the physical and social.

3. Here is where prayer steps in. Every concern should be lifted to God in prayer. Every challenge should be a matter for prayer. If something is big enough to worry about, it is big enough to pray about. Every opportunity should be processed through prayer. Every hurt and insecurity and perceived injustice should be taken to The Lord. Every problem, decision, and plan should be laid before The Lord. That is how God designed us to live.

4. We were created to live in harmony with God's will. How can we do His will if we do not know it? Should we not go to Him and ask what it is that He wants? Yes, much of His will is found in His Word. But, the specifics of our lives on a day by day basis depend on our asking.

5. Prayer, intense focused prayer, can change the direction and trajectory of our lives personally, corporately, our families, churches, communities, and even society as a whole. There is no issue that God is unable or unwilling to resolve. But He waits for us to ask. We should pray and not give up. We should pray day and night. We should be a people who are known for our faith and for our prayers!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

10 Steps to Take Before Conflict Arises at Your Church

Last week I had the privilege of speaking to a group of church leaders in Nashville on the subject of church conflict. As a survivor of conflict, I shared with them insights I gained from the situation I faced. I want to share them with you.

1. Do not say it cannot happen to you. I am convinced that no matter how strong and influential you and your congregation might be, Satan can orchestrate conflict. I remind myself, if it can happen to Jonathan Edwards after 24 years as the pastor in Northampton, it can happen to anyone.

2. Take all threats seriously. When someone says, "I will ruin you," believe that is his or her intention. Then, take every step you can to deal with it. Ignoring it will only allow things to get worse.

3. Take pre-emptive steps. Pastors can do three things to minimize potential conflict. First, clarify expectations on the front end. If you have a way of doing things, or you will not come unless certain conditions are agreed upon, then put that in a "Memorandum of Understanding" and have the church vote on that when they vote on you. Unclarified expectations can be potentially volatile. Second, communicate demographic realities. Let the folks know what is happening and why. Third, update your Constitution and Bylaws to preclude being vulnerable to unwarranted attacks.

4. Make sure you are insured. An umbrella liability policy is relatively inexpensive and can be a life-saver in the midst of threats. This can offer a measure of security against potential financial ruin.

5. Retain the services of a good attorney. Have them do a risk profile on you and your church when things are going well. This can minimize potential threats to your congregation. (I can refer you to an attorney who does this if you contact me). I know for myself, especially when the attacks began, attorney Larry Crain, an Associate with the ACLJ, was a God-send.

6. Retain the services of a good counselor. Fortunately, I am married to one of the best counselors I know. Still, a sound Christian Counselor can be invaluable. Keeping everything bottled up inside of you is a recipe for disaster. Get a professional listening ear to help you process what you are experiencing.

7. Do not leave until God says so. Too many ministers resign and run at the first sign of trouble. Stay put until God tells you otherwise.

8. Here are some specific things that helped me: a supportive wife and family, confiding in close friends, journaling daily, praying in specifics, and constantly remembering that God is ultimately in control.

9. Forgive. You do not have to forget, but the refusal to forgive will place you in a self-imposed prison and life is too short to waste it there. Forgiveness is a choice not an emotion.

10. Finally, remember Genesis 50:20 where Joseph told his brothers,"What men meant for evil, God meant for good." God can use adversity to prepare you for greater ministry if you will respond to it appropriately. Keep you eyes on Him and trust Him with your future!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Unspoken Tension Between (Some) Pastors and (Some) Laity: A Reflection And Commentary

I am speaking to the Great Commission Research Network meeting at Lifeway in Nashville on Wednesday and this blog contains part of the material I will share.

I recently read a blog and a response to it by two men for whom I have great respect, Thom Rainer and Rod Martin. Rainer wrote a blog entitled "The Unspoken Tension Between (Some) Pastors and (Some) Laity." Martin penned a response which contributed two additional insights to the discussion.

Rainer's thesis was that a growing tension exists between some pastors and some laity in churches across America. The tension, he maintains, is not pervasive but it is growing. He suggested that it is like a family secret that no one mentions explicitly, but many speak around it and near it. And, he concludes, this tension is growing. Then he observes, "this tension is one of the effective tools used by Satan to distract from those things that are of Kingdom importance." He then relates what each side is saying. 

Pastors complain of critical people: the silent majority which allows the problems, the apathetic members who do nothing, and the self-serving who take advantage of the situation. He then assesses that ministry is messy and pastors have to relate to imperfect people. Noting that the disgruntled crowd is usually small, he reminds pastors that God called them to love the unlovely unconditionally.

From the lay perspective, there are complaints of autocratic and abusive pastors, non-leading pastors, change-agent pastors who want to make too many changes too rapidly, non-pastoral care pastors, and pastors who are poor preachers. Rainer's ultimate solution is for everyone to focus on the needs and concerns of others rather than their own needs. And to be self-giving and sacrificial. He urges all parties to embody Philippians 2:3-5: “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus.” 

Martin suggests that Rainer may have missed two icebergs crashing into our churches both centered in the pulpit. He suggests that many pastors do not understand the world we live in and as a result do not address critical issues especially from a soundly Biblical context. Coupled with that is the fact that way too many pastors refuse to call, especially the men, to anything that matters. How can men be change agents for the better in a corrupt and broken world? Pastors need to rise up and lead men to address these needs! 

I agree with what both of these men have written, but more can be said. In fact I can easily see one or more books addressing these issues.
My first thought when I read Rainer's blog was to blurt out, "better unspoken tensions than outright conflict." I pastored a church that went into a full-blown war, a "perfect storm" might be a better description. From my vantage point, here is what I saw. Maybe you can learn from my experience (nightmare might be a better word).

First, I believe three root causes were present. It started with unclarified expectations. During the conflict, I received a letter from one of my antagonists the heart of which stated, "when you came here, we wanted a preacher, not a leader." She said more than she meant to. After two decades we still were working off different assumptions and different expectations.

Added to that was the rapidly changing demographic of the area where our church was located. Ten years before the conflict, a demographic specialist told me that the demographics within the church's field of ministry were changing and we needed to change our ministry or change our location.  "If not," he cautioned,  "you will lose people to upward social mobility and you will be blamed for it." He was right. And that is the subject for another time.

A third root cause was an outdated and faulty Constitution and Bylaws. Ours did not have safeguards to preclude the unfolding disorder.

Coupled with the root causes was a complex mindset displayed by those that launched the attack. Here is my take.

1. A naive mentality was present. Music preferences were raised to conviction levels. When we started a contemporary service, I heard that we had let the devil's music into the church. These criticisms came from people who did not even attend these services.

2. I saw an owner's mentality. A small group, an old guard, most of whom lived around the church were dead set against us talking to a major business about the possibility of selling some of the church's land. They did everything possible to stop this proposal from coming to the church for discussion or vote. Their argument was "we don 't want to sell God's land." The truth is, that should have been a church decision. 

3. I saw an entitlement mentality. Sadly, the mindset was, "we have been here the longest. This is our church." For whatever reason, the notion that the entire church should have due deliberation did not matter.

Coupled with this was a Messiah mentality on the part of a few of their leaders. These people literally attempted to usurp leadership that God never gave them. And we had no way to stop this effectively.

I also saw a bully mentality. Repeated lawsuits, disruption of worship services, anonymous letters, accusations without facts, and a cheap-shot website with no owner (looped through a foreign country, with multiple anonymous blogs and articles) all added to the disarray. It is hard to disprove negative accusations.

A carnal mentality was also present. A rampant disregard for Biblical imperatives ran rampant. It was disheartening.

A gullible mentality ran with this as well. A small well-coordinated group master-minded the whole conflict. A lot of good but gullible people believed everything that was thrown out. It is sad when good people get manipulated and do not ever know or even realize what is happening.

Finally, I saw a small to medium-sized church mentality (using categories established by McIntosh and Kellar). I am all for small churches, but when a church grows, there comes a time when the management/leadership style has to change or the church finds it impossible to continue growing. One authority on church health noted that as churches grow, ministers must give up doing all the ministry and members must surrender making all the decisions. If this does not happen, the result is burnout for the ministers and chaos for the congregation.

Years after the conflict is over, the abiding question is "is the church better off?" I still have a sadness in my heart for what might have been.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Run to Win

Photo by Juan-Carlos Lagares

Last week, I wrote about running the Virginia 10-Miler road race and shared some observations. I'd like to continue that stream of thought in today's blog. 

One of my favorite PhD seminars was the Life and Letters of Paul taught by Professor Jack MacGorman. Besides giving great attention to exegeting the Pauline literature, we also gave attention to the incredibly complex cultural context in which Paul penned his epistles. Paul, no doubt was a sports fan and as such alluded to athletic contests for illustrative purposes. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, he alludes to running and boxing specifically, and sports in general. He refers to the competition and uses it as a metaphor and analogy for the Christian life and ministry.

Paul opens this passage by noting the obvious, "Do you not know that all who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?" Then, he begins to make application: "run that you may win... exercise self-control...run with an aim (with intentionality)... box without beating the air (make your punches count)...discipline your body (make it your slave)...." All this Paul says is for the dual purpose of receiving the imperishable wreath (God's reward for faithful service) at God's judgment in the future, and remaining qualified to serve in the present. Even as great as Paul was, he was constantly concerned that he might live in such a way that he would not be disqualified for ministry. 

So what does that say to you and me? Here are three insights.

1. Because life is like a race, we need to run (live) in such a way that we are winners.  We can strive for the things that pass away or the things that matter for eternity. Paul says opt for the latter. By the way, Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you."

2.  If we are going to be winners, we must exercise self-control. Embracing self-   discipline, having an attitude of deferred gratification, learning how to resist and run from temptation, and refusing to let human desires get out of control are all important components.

3.  Being intentional in our lives, working to accomplish things that benefit people and honor God are all important. By the way, from my perspective, Christians in general and ministers particularly have only two assignments: we prepare people for death, and we equip people for life. We should be intentional with both. So, what do you intend to do?

Here is the bottom line. Don't waste your life. Run to win!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Hard work, Preparation, and Goals: 6 Lessons from the Virginia 10 Miler

JC and I after the race.

This past Saturday, my son-in-law Juan Carlos (I call him JC) and I ran the Virginia 10 Miler road race in Lynchburg. I've run some some 5Ks this past year and have been averaging 20-25 miles running each week so long as I haven't been interrupted by unforeseen circumstances. Still, the most I have run recently up to the race was 7 miles on a flat course. Gratefully, the weather was cool and clear. We had a fine time and have good memories of a well-organized race. Still, the race was tough with its hills and completing it was difficult.  Looking back on the race I have several reflections I'd like to share with you from running the Virginia 10-Miler.

1. Not everyone is created equal. Talent must be combined with hard work. The elite runners, mostly from Kenya, were finishing when I was at the 5 mile marker. I am amazed at their stamina, strength, and speed. Clearly, their genes are different than mine. Still, these runners were making the most of their ability. Talent still requires hard work to accomplish anything great.

2. Preparation precedes performance. The better prepared, the better people perform. Preparation includes time, energy, and effort. Some people trained all year to do their best. I applaud them for their stick-to-itiveness. 

3. There is no substitute for conditioning. Even though I have run in the past, even completed a marathon, over the past three years with its busyness, I did not have the time to be in condition to even finish a 10 miler. This is determined by decisions. For the most part, I am in as good a condition physically as I choose to be. It’s important to remember that yesterday's conditioning is no substitute for today's conditioning.

4. If I want to improve next year, I cannot wait until the last minute, week, or even month to get started. I know what needs to be done. I will need to work on distance and endurance. I will need to work on hills. I will need to work on speed drills and intervals. So, for me, this year is a base line. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

5. Goals drive discipline. If I know what I want to accomplish, I will break it up into a series of smaller goals. The big goal helps me stay motivated to work each week to improve.

6. In life, we often compete with ourselves. My goal was not to beat my son-in-law. It is to beat me. How can I improve over what I've done in the past? I am also competing with Father Time. I want to do what I can while I can. Like Jesus said, "The night is coming when no man can work." If I'm going to compete, I better do it now...and have fun doing it.
On my high school track team on the left, at the finish line of the Virginia 10 Miler on the right.