{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

On Praying for Revival

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The sentiment around the church today is a longing for some sort of renewal or, to put it in more churchy terms, a revival. As a Southerner born and raised just due east of the buckle of the Bible Belt, revival is a term I’m familiar with. I can remember my home church hosting revivals when I was a kid. It was a time where we had worship beginning on Sunday evenings (because back then we all came back to church on Sunday evenings anyways) and we met for 2-3 evenings in a row. We often brought in guest preachers and maybe even enjoyed some special music as part of our time together. But make no mistake, the purpose of a revival was to spark a sense of renewed fervor and vitality in the spiritual lives of all in attendance.

I’ve recently heard that word, “revival,” repeated again and again at Methodist gatherings and meetings. And it made me wonder: What does the revival (or renewal) we long for in The United Methodist Church look like?

At the heart of revival, of course, is change. The hopes of a revival is to provide space for a spiritual change to occur in someone’s life. But if being Christian teaches us anything, it’s that change must be BOTH internal AND external. In other words, if change is to take hold in our lives, then nothing remains the same.

So if we believe this applies to individuals, and that such a change is essential to live a faithful life, doesn’t it also apply to our churches and systems of being church? In other words, when we pray for revival in the church, do we take to heart the need for change to take hold in EVERY aspect of our lives together, including the very ways we go about being church?

When we pray for revival or renewal in the church, are we willing to hear God’s voice calling us to change, even if it means radically changing the ways we organize, build and use buildings, and relate to each other and the world around us? Organizational management and change consultant, Margaret Wheatley, reminds us, “Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.” If you’re an active leader in the church, I think you’d probably agree we’re experiencing a “dark night” as membership and attendance continues to decline. And we can mourn the loss of “the good ‘ol days” when people just magically showed up at our churches and everyone organized their lives around a Sunday that included worship and three meetings, bible studies, or circle gatherings throughout the week or we can offer ourselves to the change God is calling us to even if that means relinquishing those idols of how we’ve been church for so long now. 

What sort of change is God calling your church or district or annual conference to embark on? How are you being called to do things differently for the sake of God’s mission? Margaret Wheatley offers us more wisdom: “In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.” 

Maybe God is calling us yet again to articulate a common vision. If you’re a United Methodist, then you’re probably already shouting at your computer screen, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!” Yeah, but how? The creation of a mission statement does not ensure that mission happens, even if people memorize the phrasing. The how question is the true kicker for churches and our denomination – How will we go about being a faithful church to the mission of connecting people to the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that lives are changed on an ongoing and continual basis? And maybe the how question also leads us to an important distinction – Are we about the business of living into God’s mission or are we about the business of building and playing church?

A couple things should jump out:

First, in order to go about this mission in a 21st Century world we can NOT use 19th or 20th Century methods. For example, building buildings as a sign of success is something the church has done for centuries. And now as we experience a season of decline, we’re saddled with the burdens of buildings that are way too big and way too expensive to keep up. If a 21st Century world is more migratory less tied to buildings, then why do we insist on continuing to build buildings or do everything in our power to fill the ones we have?

Secondly, the very nature of mission insists that we move – move out of our buildings, move out of our aging ways of doing things, move out of our comfort zones. If mission calls us to move out, why do we spend so much time and energy trying to get people to come in to where we already are? The act of counting weekly attendance and membership might have something to say about the affect worship has on the life of a local church, but it says very little about what people do after they leave the worship service. Why not spend more time connecting with the community around us instead of just supplanting and sequestering people off into our buildings. God is doing amazing things outside of our churches and we really ought to take notice.

I guess maybe I’m trying to ask this: If we pray for the revival of the church, are we praying for a season of change in EVERY sense of the word, or are we just praying for things to go back to the way they once were when we had more butts in seats, dollars in the bank, and people who centered their lives on the well being preserving our buildings and programs? 

Needless to say, that’s a question that I hope will continue to haunt us at every turn.

Making Good Diet Decisions at Easter (For Pastors)

holiday-overeating

2015 began as the year I made some lifestyle changes. I say “lifestyle changes” because I no longer believe in going on diets. Diets are made to be broken. I read an amazing book to start the new year that said a major factor in making good decisions about your diet (and other things in life) come from establishing good habits. So at age 32 and about 15-20 pounds heavier than I want to be (I’m a short guy who carries weight very badly), I decided to just take the leap and make some lifestyle changes. My diet changed in big ways. I eat less. And I exercise a lot more (from 2-3 a month before to 4-5 times a week now).

This was all going great until Holy Week came along. You see, as a pastor this is one of the busiest weeks of the calendar year. You’re working on multiple sermons. Preparing for multiple worship services. All the while you’re trying to keep up with the normal demands of checking on people who are sick, etc.

In other words, my new lifestyle changes met a week where I am very tired, a little stressed, and don’t have enough hours in the day. Since I know I’m not the only pastor who probably struggles with making good dietary decisions during weeks like this, I thought I would share some advice I’ve been reminding myself of all week (and it’s worked…mostly)

  • Eat a good breakfast to start the day. You might want to consider swapping that bowl of cereal or piece of toast for some more protein. Eggs are an excellent source of protein and very good for you. New dietary standards reveal it was a myth that they were bad for your cholesterol. If you don’t currently eat breakfast, then shame on you. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating a good breakfast will help your metabolism all day long.
  • Have healthy snacks on hand. Buy some fruit. Get some almonds. Find something healthy to snack on between meals and especially if things get busy and you know your next meal will be later than normal. If you live in a parsonage within walking distance of your office at church, challenge yourself by leaving your snacks at home and take a 15 minute break to stretch your legs and clear your mind as you walk home to grab your snack. This way you get a little fresh air and some walking in your busy afternoon. And whatever you do, stay out of the fast food drive through line!
  • Drink more water. Studies show drinking a bottle of water can satiate a hunger craving. Sometimes you need to hydrate instead of taking in more food. Plus water will actually help your energy level in the long run. So lay off the diet cokes and sweet tea!
  • Lay off the Easter candy! Many will be present for an Easter Egg Hunt this weekend. Here’s a good rule of thumb about Easter candy – unless you have the metabolism and energy level of an 8 year old, you probably want to avoid it altogether.
  • Go to bed early. Avoid the temptation to stay up late Saturday night trying to perfect your Easter sermon. It’s done by then. And it will be good. Have faith. God will use your words in mighty ways. Getting good sleep all week is a must too. There’s a difference between tired eating and eating for fuel. Tired eating never goes well. You’re looking for something to activate the comfort mechanism in your brain. This is why tired eating is normally full of sugar or heavy in carbs. Plan and prepare ahead so you can get a good night’s rest. You’ll need it all week and weekend long.
  • Manage your Easter lunch plate well. By the time Easter lunch rolls around, you’ll be very susceptible to tired eating. You’ve finished a big day and capped off a busy week. When you go to make that plate, just be aware of what you’re putting on it. For example, if your plate is mostly brown, add some color to it in the form of vegetables. And no, as much as I wish I could change this, mac & cheese is NOT a vegetable. Also be aware of how much you put on your plate. Make sure you can see the bottom of the plate at least a little. There’s no prize for the person who can cover every square inch of their plate.
  • Plan some Easter Sunday afternoon exercise. After you enjoy your Easter lunch and that well-deserved nap, plan some exercise for when you wake up. Resist the urge to loaf around all afternoon. Go for a walk, take a bike ride, go for a run. Get out of the house. Spend some time with your family outside somewhere. An hour or so of exercise will ensure your metabolism stays active. It will also help you feel better on Easter Monday.
  • Have an accountability partner. Find a pastor friend you can call or text over the weekend. Check on each other. Encourage each other. Some pastors in my annual conference did this for an entire year and these guys all lost of a ton of weight. It turns out we make better decisions when we look to friends for that needed encouragement knowing we are not alone in our struggle.

I probably should have posted this earlier in the week. I might have made better decisions as a result. But we’ve got the rest of the weekend. May we experience the miracle of resurrection fully and may we offer our bodies to God as holy temples as we lead others through this weekend.

5 Things the Church Should Stop For Lent

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Lent is the time of year where we look at our lives and do the hard work of being honest about things that might be keeping us from growing deeper in our relationship with God. Now many use it as an excuse to deprive themselves of chocolate or caffeine or dessert. I say that’s fine so long as those things are hindering your faith life. If they’re not and you still want to give them up as an act of endurance for the next 40 days, then fine, at least add something new to your life that will help you grow deeper in your faith journey.

It occurs to me that while the church asks individuals to do this critical and honest work, maybe we should spend some time as the church doing it too. In other words, how can the church practice what it preaches about self-denial and transformation?

Below are 5 things the Church should think about giving up for Lent. Maybe you can read these and add a few of your own:

  1. Stop working people to death. Too often we associate discipleship and service with being busy at the church. Churches should really slow down and think about what it means to people when you ask them to spend 2, 3, or 4 days a week busy in a church building. Maybe it’s time to free people up to serve for the sake of others outside the walls of your building? Maybe it’s time for busy-work ministries to take a break? Maybe we should spend this season in prayer and maybe even in rest in order to actually be with God and one another instead of making those things one more item on a to-do list? Remember the wise advice of the Apostle Paul who said it’s by grace alone that we are saved, not by the busyness of our church programs.
  2. Stop viewing visitors and especially young families as investments for the future of your church. We do it all the time. Someone starts visiting our church and we get excited about the potential of what they can give the church. If it’s a young family, we foam at the mouth with anticipation of how they will bolster the size and vitality of our children and families programs. Stop it. Just stop. It’s selfish to view newcomers to your church as commodities to use for your own purposes. If a family is visiting your church, don’t find ways to make them busy (see above), find ways to connect them with God and other people. If a new person graces the doors of your church, don’t ask what they can give before they get to their seat. Give them time to connect with God. Let God’s Spirit do its work. Remember: while it’s important that people serve and become involved in the local church, it’s double important that churches don’t exploit them for their own gain in the process.
  3. Stop thinking young clergy are the key to bringing in younger members. As a young pastor, this is a real struggle. On the one hand, you can’t help but become the face and voice for “all young people everywhere.” You share a life stage with other young people who might be visiting your church. And you act as a sort of interpreter for those who struggle speaking and understanding the language of young adult. On the other hand, it’s a burden to be expected to become a magnet for other young people. If churches think a young pastor is what will bring in younger people, they’re wrong. It’s the job of the whole church, not just the pastor, to reach out to others and engage them in the life of the church. Give your young pastors a break from this burden. And for God’s sake, give your more mature pastors a break from the guilt of not being a young adult anymore! You might be surprised how young adults can connect with people of all shapes, sizes, and ages if a church is committed to things like hospitality and serving others.
  4. Stop being so inwardly focused. This is a tough one. Any church of any size or age eventually has to deal with this temptation — it’s not all about us. We need to take stock of how many ministries are geared to serve those who are already members of our churches. We need to be critical of how much effort we expend worrying about paying our bills, maintaining our buildings, and serving the needs of those sitting in our pews. That’s not to say we don’t watch over one another in love and care for each other through life’s ups and downs. It simply means part of that care is lovingly reminding each other that we are called to love and serve others, even above ourselves. It’s sort of what Jesus was all about.
  5. Stop being petty. We don’t meant to do it. But sometimes in the wonderful meaning we find in being a part of a church, we become petty. We inevitably put too much meaning in a piece of furniture, a building, a room, the color of the carpet, a certain pew, etc. because these things are symbols of how much a church means to us. That deep love and meaning is a good thing. But being petty, sensitive, or argumentative over these things are not. Sometimes it’s not about winning an argument as much as it’s about reacting the way Jesus might. And that requires we remember Jesus had no place to lay his head, no sacred pew to sit on, and no sacred piece of furniture bought in memory of a family member to guard life Fort Knox.

Bonus: A practice churches could take on during the season of Lent

  • LISTEN! Having been raised in the church and now serving it as a pastor, I can tell you this is something we need more practice at. And it touches on every aspect of church life:
    • Can’t figure out why your attendance in declining? Try listening to people who are sitting in your pews. Better yet, call someone who has become less active or inactive and listen to their story.
    • Wondering how to get more young adults and families to become involved in your church? Sit down with some young people and listen. Maybe you’re asking too much? Maybe you’re not asking enough? Maybe you’re asking all the wrong questions?
    • Are people bored or is it hard to get them to serve in your leadership structure? Listen to some leaders and ask how you might actually be making it hard to serve. As a United Methodist pastor I can testify to the fact that we love our model of leadership sometimes more than our leaders or even the mission those leaders serve. Yes, leaders serve a mission, not a model or structure.
    • Listen to people’s hopes and dreams. Listen to the ways they long to connect with God. Listen to their fears and and joys. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t speak. Resist the urge to jump into telling them how to live or what choices to make or what to believe. Just listen.

What items would you add to this list?

5 Things Small Churches Can Uniquely Offer…Right Now

Asbury UMC in Chestertown, MD

Asbury UMC in Chestertown, MD

Church leadership has long held a bent toward the “bigger is better” mantra of capitalistic America. We franchise new church plants. We structure our institutions to favor the larger churches. The United Methodist Church itself has long been geared toward starting pastors off in smaller churches to get their feet wet in leadership only to move them to bigger (and often higher paying) churches once they prove themselves as capable leaders.

The flip side of the “bigger is always better” way of viewing our churches is the reality that the vast majority of churches in America (and even around the world) are, in fact, small. Historically this has also been the case. Go back and read Paul’s letters to various churches. They weren’t worshiping 1,000+ on Sundays in a concert hall or amphitheater — they small, tightly-knit communities worshiping in homes.

Now I’m not a hater of the larger church — I’ve actually served in two different large, vibrant, downtown churches. I know the strength of larger churches from their ability to support more diverse ministry to the beauty of worshiping with a large, corporate body. But now that I’m serving a smaller church, I want to point out the unique beauty of small churches. Sometimes we need to be reminded that small churches are, in fact, beautiful and they should spend less time dealing with an inferiority complex because they aren’t as large as other churches.

Instead of trying to mimmick what the large churches in your area are doing (only to come up short of their quality because you don’t have the money or resources to duplicate it), here are 5 things I believe small churches can uniquely offer the world right where they are:

  1. Inter-generational Ministry. There is a difference between inter-generational and multi-generational forms of ministry. Just because you have people of different ages gathered in the same space for worship does NOT make it an inter-generational ministry opportunity. Crossing borders between generations takes real effort. And too often larger churches segregate people based on age and stage of life. The small church, however, can’t do that because it’s too small. So instead of bemoaning the fact that you don’t have a youth ministry with 100+ kids in it, think of ways you can put the 5-10 youth you do have in contact with people from a different generation. Numerous statistical studies actually show that an important factor in youth remaining active in the church is the presence of a deep relationship with someone older than them who is not a member of their immediate family. Segregating children and youth into their own space in the life of the church runs the terrible risk of never allowing them to encounter and forge relationships with a diverse group of people. It also sends the subtle message that they are second-class members of your church when they are not primary in the corporate ministry life of the church. Small churches offer a rich and beautiful opportunity to forge these inter-generational relationships because, well, they have to. There aren’t enough people to segregate everyone into their own corners of the church. And thanks be to God for that!
  2. Welcome special needs persons and families with special needs children. One of the quiet struggles churches often don’t recognize is how to incorporate persons with special needs into the life of the church. Small churches offer a unique opportunity to meet this need because they are small enough to warmly welcome and offer the individual attention a family who has a special needs child might need. It’s a daunting thing to take a child with special needs to church for fear of them standing out or somehow disturbing the flow of worship. It’s also very lonely for that child to get lost in the mix of a large, overwhelming children’s program. Small churches can offer love, hospitality, and attention to make a family feel welcome. And the truth is, small churches can offer a worship experience that is vibrant but doesn’t necessarily have the overly-produced feel that worship in a larger church might have. This is actually very welcoming to a newcomer who might feel their presence would alter the flow of worship for others. In other words, special needs can be uniquely and lovingly met and welcomed in a small church.
  3. More people can help lead worship. Since the small church is often less concerned with production led by professional worship leaders, it can incorporate more laity in the leading of worship. Remember: nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the sole worship leader. Liturgy is the work of the people. And faithful worship incorporates the efforts of EVERYONE as together we offer ourselves to God in praise and thanksgiving. So find ways to let people pray, read scripture, serve communion, sing, and maybe even occasionally preach in the small church. One thing we’re doing this coming year in the church I’m serving is we are shifting to laity being the primary servers of communion when we celebrate the sacrament. As pastor I will preside, but we’re asking laity to serve the elements. So we’ve had a sign-up to volunteer for this duty. Again, absolutely nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the primary server of the elements. Give people a chance to lead and serve more, you might be surprised how sharing in the work of worship might begin to transform people.
  4. More focus on community outreach. While small churches might bemoan the loss of in-house programs as numbers decline, I say it’s a great blessing. Large churches have to expend a great deal of effort managing and sustaining programs that focus inwardly on the life of the membership. Lots of money is spent on resources of Sunday Schools, youth programs, children’s ministry, etc. It’s really a rat race — just ask any pastor or staff person at a larger church in their most honest moments. Small churches just don’t have the resources to keep up in that race. So why try? There’s a great freedom in not worrying with the inwardly focused programs. You can actually look outwardly on your community and focus time and attention there. How can you open your space to community groups? Can you invite support groups to meet in your building (especially if your small church occupies a large building)? Can you find ways to resource your local community? Can you partner with other small churches or local missional efforts? You see, small church ministry is just ripe for people to finally break out from the inward, program-focused mindset of church and direct their attention to where God is at work outside of the walls of the church more fully.
  5. Offer a family feel to others. Look, families aren’t all warm and fuzzy. They have their dysfunction. And so does a small church because if often operates like a big, extended family. However through all of that dysfunction, one thing is (hopefully) certain: People know they are loved. As our world becomes more global, there is a rise to locally-focused relationships in business, commerce, and relationships. The small church can offer something that might get lost in a large church where people don’t always know one another by name — you can actually be a part of a family. In our worst moments, that family feel leads us to gossip or insulation from others who aren’t a part of our family. In our best moments, it’s an expression of true love extended to anyone searching for a community who will love them enough to never let them go. Family is tough and it’s messy. But it’s also very beautiful. And so is small church ministry.

New Year’s Resolutions for Pastors

It’s the new year. It’s that time of year when we worry about making lists of all the ways we pledge to become new and better people in the coming year. Never mind that a 2007 study from University of Bristol says close to 88% of resolutions made are not upheld for the year. This is a time of hope — we can, in fact, do what we say we’re going to do in the coming year.

While everyone works to make lofty personal resolutions for the coming year, I thought it would be a good idea to begin a list of resolutions pastors can make as leaders in the coming year. After all, it’s what we’re called to do. So below is a list (not nearly exhaustive) of resolutions for pastors in 2015. Maybe you can take a couple of these and make them personal goals of your own? Maybe you can add to this list?

[And if you don’t need any of these suggestions, please leave your name and contact information so the rest of us can contact you to meet the world’s first perfect pastor]

1. I resolve…to complain less and find more joy in pastoral ministry. Being a pastor isn’t about being a martyr no matter how much we feel like one sometimes.

2. I resolve…to study more. Fancy book-learning isn’t just for seminarians. I know I need to be more disciplined about learning, growing, and honing my skills.

3. I resolve…to waste less time. While being a pastor can feel like you’re moving in 20 different directions at a time, I know I need to focus and be more organized. Efficiency is a fruit of effectiveness.

4. I resolve…to worry less about attendance and worry more about fruitfulness and discipleship. It’s easy to become obsessed with weekly worship attendance. And it’s even easier to get together with other pastors and compare numbers like we’re some sort of competition. But numbers mean nothing if people aren’t growing in their discipleship.

5. I resolve…to encourage others to focus more on mission, and less on numerical decline in my local church. It’s easy to get lost in the wailing and moaning about the numerical decline of our local churches. We always wish we could be bigger whether we’re talking about attendance, membership, or bank accounts. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. And more than likely all of our local churches could stand to focus less on ourselves and more on the community and world around us.

6. I resolve…to make friends with and enjoy conversation with someone who sees the world differently from me. Pastors are bad about surrounding ourselves with people who think, act, talk, and believe just like we do. The worst kept secret among pastors is just how political and divisive we are with one another. We need friends who are different. We need friends who will stretch and challenge us. And we especially need friends who remind us that we’re not always right — no matter how much our ego wants us to believe otherwise.

7. I resolve…to carve more time out for my family. We don’t earn extra stars in our crown for working 80-hour weeks. Being a pastor is about being a healthy example of how to live our faith and balance our lives faithfully. We need to work hard AND play hard. After all, the greatest work of evangelism and faith formation that we’ll ever be responsible for is in our very own homes.

8. I resolve…to encourage someone younger or less experienced than me. Too often we pastors go through the ringer of ordination and serving the local church only to offer others coming behind us tough love. The most self-aware and secure pastors I know have been those who go out of their way to encourage and support me. So I resolve to pay that gift of grace forward to others.

9. I resolve…to be fully present right where I am. It’s easy to look on to the next appointment or ministry opportunity. Things get tough or stagnant or even frustrating and we begin to daydream about better days and greener pastures in the future. We all need to be more incarnational in our ministry — and that means being fully present right where we are.

10. I resolve…to be more generous with my money. Too often we pastors can write off the time we spend at the church and in ministry as the bulk of our giving. Maybe it even feels awkward that we’re called to give to the very entity that writes our paycheck. However as an act of personal discipleship, we should make sure we are being generous not only with our time, but also with our money. You’d be surprised how many lay people wonder if the pastor even gives at all to the local church.

11. I resolve…to take a deep breath and remember God is God, and I am not. Sometimes (heck, most times) our ego will get in our way. We begin to believe it’s up to us to make something happen. We believe it’s up to us to make the church grow. And we believe it’s up to us to bring change in people’s lives. Thank God it’s actually not up to us in the end. Otherwise we’d really screw things up. I resolve in the coming year to live and grow in the light of that reality.

Happy New Year! What other resolutions can you add to this list?

Favorite Books of 2014

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I want to begin a new annual post on my blog. As anyone who knows me personally can attest to, I’m a big reader. Reading has always come fairly easy and I consider it a joy. I also consider reading vital to being an effective pastor. The pastor who fails to study is a pastor who fails to learn and grow. There’s no way around it — you must read if you want to effectively lead people in their faith and grow personally in your own.

Below is my 1st Annual Favorite Books of the Year list. These are in no particular order at all, but rather they are grouped by category. There are 11 in all (just couldn’t drop one more). Not every book I read was list-worthy, and some were good but I had to make a final cut. I’ve included Amazon links if you want to learn more about the books or purchase them for yourself.

 

Leadership

  • Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. I read this in preparation for my pastoral move this June. Wheatley is a phenomenal thinker on the art of leadership from a systems standpoint. Science geeks will love how she uses some of the new sciences to describe how leaders don’t come in and fix anything — they learn the system(s) at play and how relationships that create and sustain them.
  • The Fifth Discipline the Art and Practice The Learning Organization by Peter Senge. Another read for my pastoral transition. Senge uses modern corporate examples of organizations that proved their effectiveness by staying ahead of the learning curve. In other words, the successful organizations are the organizations that know how to grow and adapt to new circumstances (something churches are often terrible at). He stresses the need for organizations to grow into a shared vision by doing the slow work of learning through a systems approach.
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins. Another great book on leadership.. The three biggest lessons I got (although others come to mind depending on the leadership situation): 1) First rule of leadership is to get the right people on the bus; 2) The second rule of leadership is to get the wrong people off the bus; 3) The Level 5 leader builds enduring effectiveness through a blend of humility and professional drive — they give others credit and take blame for themselves when appropriate.

Faith Books

  • My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. This is actually a beautiful book on doubt and mystery in how it relates to faith. I can’t recommend this more for the reader looking to be challenged in going deeper and captivated by Wiman’s beautiful way of writing.
  • Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. I’ve been in love with most everything Barbara Brown Taylor writes. Her prose reads like poetry and I often find myself not only wishing I could write like her, but I wish I could think and even struggle with my faith like she does. Her latest book lifts the beauty of darkness and how important it is in relationship to light. We can’t be a people of the light if we’re afraid to embrace the darkness.
  • The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis. My admiration for Pope Francis knows no bounds. I mean a Jesuit Pope who has rid the office of many of the luxuries it has enjoyed while reaching out to the poor, untouchable, and disenfranchised to offer them the love of Christ — who wouldn’t admire him. He’s a Jesuit which means growing in faith is gaining freedom from the things that hold us back. This first papal treatise is a case for the love of God offering us the joy to be free from things that hinder our faith. Simple and beautiful read.
  • Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton. As many of my friends know, I’m a big Thomas Merton fan. Combining his work on contemplation with the leadership material mentioned above has opened doors for me that I never imagined. As Christian leaders, we often need an added element of contemplation to free ourselves of living for the expectations and praises of others. It also puts us more in tune with the One we want to lead others to live more like. In this book, Merton does an amazing job of unpacking what holiness is — more about growing in our sense of love for God and others and not so much the rigid view of a moral code. While moral actions are important for faithful living, love frees us from our bondage and judgmental ways of viewing rigid moral laws. Merton was a Trappist monk but he sure sounds Wesleyan here if you ask me.

Fiction/Biography

  • A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. As a big fan of Flannery O’Connor and other Southern, gothic fiction writers, I couldn’t have been more pleased in finding the work of Wiley Cash. This book offers Southern tragedy, morality being turned on its head, and God’s grace coming as violently as the tragic events themselves.
  • The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. For some reason I never read this book in high school. I could kick myself for that. Corrie ten Boom writes a beautifully tragic and grace-filled account of heroism, loss, and how the power of love and forgiveness can triumph in the worst of circumstances.
  • Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Another book I can’t believe it took me so long to read. Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets and he’s also a wonderful fiction writer. This is an incredible novel that depicts the depth of faith and the struggle of a man’s calling to be a preacher in an imperfect world. If nothing else, this book is worth it’s cover price for the following exchange between the young ministerial student and one of his seminary professors:
    • “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
      “And how long is that going to take?”
      “I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
      “That could be a long time.”
      “I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. The movie was great, but the book is even better. It’s a story of a freeman being sold into slavery and the pain it takes to endure the hardship of slave life. The struggle is enormous but that only adds to the beauty of this book.

There were many that did not make this list, sadly. But I hope this offers you some ideas for good reads as you begin 2015…maybe with a resolution to read more. Happy reading!!

Rules for Pastors Who Want to Blog

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This fall made 6 years since I began blogging (wow, time flies!). Whenever I’m at preacher meetings or talk with colleagues one-on-one, I’m often asked, “What should I do if I want to begin blogging?” It’s a good question for pastors to ask. We live in a world where a growing digital influence is needed if we are to remain relevant and effective in ministry (though it’s in no way more important than our physical presence and influence). Frankly I think all pastors or anyone getting into ministry should at least consider the impact a personal blog can have on their ministry. I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with a number of people who have read my blog. Some comment on how a certain post ministered to them in a time of need. Other times I run into readers at conferences and it’s cool to see how the digital world can connect us in new ways. Pastors are in the business of presenting God’s word and blogging gives you a creative way to do just that.

Maybe this Advent season has your creative juices flowing? Maybe starting a blog is on your list of new year’s resolutions for the coming year? Whatever your motivation for starting a blog, below are my 5 working rules for pastors who blog:

1) Write Often

One of the struggles for busy pastors is finding the time and discipline to write. Let me tell you what I tell any pastor who wants to start a blog: If you can’t write at least 1 post every 2-4 weeks, then don’t start a blog. Ideally you want to write 1 post per week, but again, things come up. To build a following for a blog, you need to continually put out new (and original) material. People will not come back to a blog that doesn’t get updated regularly. It’s like a website no one tends – it’s easy to lose interest. Make sure the material you post is mostly original. Don’t be known for reposting interesting or profound stuff you find elsewhere. Your blog should be an extension of you, not a resource center. Besides writing often, try to find other blogs you enjoy and try to read and comment on their blog. I’ve found a great community of pastor bloggers. Find other bloggers you enjoy and read them too. Besides reading some good material and finding common interests, building your blog “street cred” among other similar bloggers will help drive traffic to your page. Some will share links to your material when they enjoy (and you should do the same). Others will link your page to their homepage (you should also do the same for blogs you enjoy). Either way, it’s important to build your blog’s presence with continual new material and through connecting with other bloggers.

2) Practice Finding Your Voice

Just like you work at finding and honing your voice in the pulpit, the same is true with your blog. Be creative. Try creative approaches to writing. Don’t make every post a sermonette. And don’t make every post an academic thesis. I always say 500-1500 words is best for blogging. Anything less is too short and should be a Facebook status or note. Anything longer should be trimmed down (just like in a sermon, you don’t really NEED to say everything you want to say) or it needs to be broken into multiple posts (find a way to do a Part 1 and Part 2). One of the best I know at using multiple voices is Jeremy Smith over at Hacking Christianity. He writes everything from commentary on contemporary issues to church polity for UM nerds to actual techie nerd theology. You can agree or disagree with Jeremy’s content (many do both) but you can’t say the guy doesn’t use multiple formats for reaching people through his blog.

3) Write About Things that Matter to You

If something matters to you, then write about it. Two things happen: 1) You will write with more passion, conviction, and (hopefully) clarity; 2) If it matters to you, odds are it will matter to someone else. Blogging is all about finding a niche. Practicing your voice will also help with this (see above). Don’t try to write just like this big-time blogger or that big-time blogger. Remember many of the Christian bloggers have worked to make their blog the biggest part of their job (or their only one through ad sales). As a working pastor with responsibilities, you probably won’t rise to the level of a Rachel Held Evans, but you can find your niche by writing with passion and an audience will follow your blog.

4) Remember: Church Members WILL Read Your Blog

Unlike many big-time bloggers and writers online, you will have personal interaction with at least some of your readers. And let me tell you from experience, church members read what you write. When I moved churches last June, one of the first thing many new members did before they ever met me was Google me. They found my blog and began reading my writing. That’s scary when it comes to making first impressions. So write things that you’re not afraid to stand by or at least talk about in person. While the digital world offers one sense of security in writing and throwing things on the Internet, pastors don’t enjoy this luxury like other bloggers and online writers. One thing I tell people who read my blog is that it’s been up since my first year of seminary which means I’ve probably changed my mind on some of the things I’ve written. I’ve never taken down a post, but I have revised for a new post upon further reflection. Just know that if you write it and put it online for the whole digital universe to read, odds are some neighbors and church members are probably reading it too.

5) When In Doubt – Do No Harm, Do Some Good

This final rule follows the previous one – when in doubt heed the words of John Wesley. There is a great temptation to write for page hits. In other words, there are many writers who quickly build an online following and enjoy a large online audience because they write about divisive subjects in inflammatory ways. In other words, being a jerk could potentially drive a lot of traffic to your blog. Resist that temptation. As a pastor, your blog is, in the end, an act of ministry. Write every post as though you’ll have to account for it in person with a church member, your DS, bishop, or other supervising official. Odds are, you’ll eventually have to do just that. Be prophetic, but heed the advice of Fred Craddock – “there’s a fine line between being prophetic and being obnoxious.” Speak out on social issues, but try to do so in a pastoral way. Instead of pounding a particular side of a divisive subject by constantly writing against “the other side,” try writing about how we have to love our enemies and those we disagree with even when we don’t want to because Jesus said we had to. Don’t forget the wonderful line from Dr. Will D. Campbell: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyways.” Write as though that’s actually true. Above all else, try to do no harm and maybe strive to do a little good when you write.

Happy Writing!!!

[Fellow Pastor Bloggers: What are some of your rules for blogging as a pastor?]

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