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:
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?
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 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.
- 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.
- 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!!
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.
[Fellow Pastor Bloggers: What are some of your rules for blogging as a pastor?]
Well, it’s that time again. Election Day is upon us. It’s time to be bombarded by numerous campaign commercials, too many automated phone calls, and enough negative news commentary to make you begin to question the very meaning of our election process. Candidates want to appeal to our sense of duty and compassion. They spend loads of money to play on our fears and hope to somehow inspire us along the way.
It’s probably a good thing every two years for Christians to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in an election cycle?
The reason I say it’s a good thing is because if we’re not careful we can begin to believe some very wrong things about our discipleship in an election cycle. For example, if we’re not careful we might begin to believe that our votes in a ballot box count as the important act of discipleship we can offer. We might begin to believe that our being against this issue or that issue, and thus also being against every person who disagrees with us, is what it means to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. We might even begin to believe that the political party we support is the best embodiment of the gospel in our lives. And we would be totally wrong.
There is no partisan political platform or candidate for office who can truly embody the gospel of Jesus Christ – if that were so Jesus might have come as a politician and not as a servant. And the church needs to do a better job of holding one another accountable in love to live as disciples of Jesus the servant, and not as disciples of a political affiliation. Below are some things to remember and some suggestions for how to live as a disciple in the coming days, as Election Day arrives, as the run-offs follow, and as the aftermath of it all is sorted out.
I am convinced that if our churches decide to truly live as the disciples we claim to be the news in our communities might just have a story to share besides the results of the election. We could only hope…
It’s hard to believe that Advent will begin in just about a month. As you scramble to plan worship, I wanted to offer my annual gift – A complete set of Advent Wreath Liturgies for Lectionary Year B (2014). Please feel free to use these, adapt them, make them better, etc. And please do not worry about citing their source. These are offered for use in the church as worship planners and congregations see fit. Enjoy!
Isaiah 64:1-9/Mark 13:24-37
God of Salvation, break into our world with your great power and glory. Break the chains that bind us to sin. Shatter the systems of our world that promote injustice and oppression.
We light the 1st Advent Candle as a sign of our hope that God’s Messiah is coming. May we stay alert for his coming that we might hear with all of creation, the redemption song of our God.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
Isaiah 40:1-11/Mark 1:1-8
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. A voice cries out: Prepare the way of the Lord…make paths straight. Valleys and mountains shall stand side by side. God’s glory is about to be revealed to all humankind.
We light the 2nd Advent Candle as a sign of peace in a world broken by violence and injustice. God’s Messiah is on his way. Repent…be forgiven of your sins…be washed in the waters of baptism…share in God’s transforming grace.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11/John 1:6-8, 19-28
Listen. Hear the good news: God’s promised Messiah is coming. He brings good news for the poor and oppressed. He will be bind up broken hearts. He will proclaim release to those who are held captive.
We light the 3rd Advent Candle as a sign of joy — a testimony to the Light of God coming into our world that will shatter the darkness and bring healing to all who suffer and mourn.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16/Luke 1:26-38
Behold! The Lord your God breathes new life into dead spaces. God’s Messiah is coming into our world as God’s final word — life will triumph over death. Do not be afraid.
We light the 4th Advent Candle as a sign of our hope in God’s redeeming love. The Messiah is coming to establish a kingdom in the shape of that very love. And this kingdom will last for ever and ever.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
Isaiah (;2-7/Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Rejoice! Those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. Rejoice! God’s light has shined upon all of creation.
We light the Christ Candle as a sign of good news for all people: God’s Messiah has come! Share in the joy of God’s new redemption song for our broken world.
Alleluia! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
One of the emphases of my annual conference in South Georgia is to have people gather to read one of the gospels in a year. Besides the fact that it’s a conference initiative, reading Scripture is also a means of grace. John Wesley taught that the means of grace were works of mercy as well as works of piety (or spiritual disciplines). He describes those disciplines as: “… prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.” And as pastor, one of the crucial tasks of my job is to do what I can to put people into contact with the means of grace that they may grow in their love for God and their neighbors.
Below you will find a 52-week reading plan for the Gospel of Mark. I’ve worked to keep pericopes together so that each week’s reading is a solid story or set of stories that work together. We will be using this plan at Aldersgate UMC here in Savannah and I invite you to take this plan and put it to use in your local church, small group, or circle as you feel led. The readings are short considering you have a full week to do them. So read them slowly and read them often.
52-Week Reading Plan for The Gospel of Mark