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
It’s the end of summer. Vacation is over. It’s time to get back to the business of being the church. Odds are you’re holding leadership meetings and addressing various issues in your local church. Odds are worship attendance has felt the summer slump. Odds are you’re behind on your budget and seeing a lot of red in the financial reports. It’s time to rally the troops and make that end-of-the-year push that we all know must happen every September if we’re to continue surviving.
Have you ever wondered if things could be different?
One of the biggest lessons I’m continuing to learn as I grow into my first senior pastor position is that we must do more than just show up on Sundays. The status quo can’t keep churches going. Folks are tired of doing all the work it takes to go through the motions of simply existing as the church. The church, in our decline, is being faced with the reality that people need a compelling reason to join a faith community. It’s no longer the cultural norm. And that might just be the very best news we could hear.
I recently read an article that said reporting average attendance numbers really doesn’t tell the story of congregational health that it once did. The reason for this is that the definition of “active member” has shifted over the last generation or so. It used to be that you were considered active if you attended worship services three or four Sundays a month and rarely missed an opportunity to get inside the doors of the church. Now, if you’re present once a month you’re considered active.
We can mourn this shifting reality. We can pine for the “good old days.” Or we can see this as an opportunity to ask ourselves big questions. We, as local churches, can dare to risk being self-critical and even entertain the notion of changing in light of the changing landscape of church involvement. The problems aren’t always the fault of others or “those people” or the culture – sometimes the problem can be us.
Instead of working so hard to keep up buildings and expecting people to come to us (and then mourning when they don’t), maybe we should think about more ways we can get out of our buildings and go out into our neighborhoods, meeting and engaging others. Instead of watching people age and move out of our neighborhoods and then complaining that the church has lost its relevancy, maybe we should consider ways to change in order to better adapt to a changing neighborhood or community around us. Instead of focusing on ourselves, our needs, our frustrations, our children, our budget woes, and our needs, maybe we should turn our vision outward to discover what God is up to outside of the walls of our buildings. It’s ironic that we sing, “The church is not building…the church is a people,” and yet local congregations disband and close every year when they reach a place where they can no longer financially support a building.
As painful as it is to admit, the future of the church will be less about buildings and more about relationships; less about meeting budgets and more about giving of ourselves in ministry to the world. And on our most faithful days, it will be less about us and more about how we can better fall in love with God and our neighbors.
[This column was originally published in the 9/1/14 edition of The South Georgia Advocate]
Probably the biggest question I’ve gotten from people as I’ve transitioned from being an Associate Pastor to a Senior Pastor is how has the transition affected or changed my preaching. You see, I was one of those Associate Pastors who preached 4-5 times a year. Now that I am 9 Sundays into my new role, I’ve effectively preached more Sundays as a Senior Pastor than I did over my last two years as an Associate Pastor. Naturally, people are curious about how this has affected or changed the way I preach — after all, preaching every 7 days and preaching every 90-120 days are two very different beasts.
Below are a couple of things I tried to do while I was still an Associate with the hopes that I would be better prepared for living in the rhythms of preaching every Sunday:
The hardest lesson I’ve ever learned (and am continuing to learn) is how to find and cultivate MY preaching voice. My preaching professor in seminary was Dr. Tom Long and for the longest time I wished I could preach like Tom. Tom has the sort of voice that could inspire you if he read the menu at Wendy’s. But here’s the thing — I’m not Tom Long. I’m not Adam Hamilton. I’m not Billy Graham. I’m not Andy Stanley. And I’m not any other wonderful preacher you can think of. I’m Ben. It’s taken me a long time to be okay with that. I’m convinced that great preaching comes from a place of authenticity — you will bring your personality, the way you see the world, your sense of humor, and all of who you are to the preaching moment. If we believe what we preach when we say we are made in the very image of God, then there’s nothing to be ashamed of in bringing exactly who we are to our preaching. People will hear us more clearly the more we are clearly being ourselves.
Now onto the good stuff. Below is my basic preaching routine moving from planning sermons, preparing, and then delivering them. Feel free to follow the links provided below and check out the various resources I use on a weekly basis. However as I said before, I’m only 9 official weeks into preaching on a weekly basis. This routine could change at any moment as I continue to grow into a more effective preacher (the goal every preacher should have):
A couple of things have changed in my preaching over these last few weeks. First, I’ve officially made the move from being a manuscript preacher to being an outline preacher to being an outline preacher who leaves the outline behind in order to preach with no notes at all. It’s been an incredibly freeing and exciting transition. Because of this change, I’ve found my preaching has become more focused and shorter in length (two things I hope the congregation enjoys). Truth is I can’t trust myself to remember too many points or too many moves in a sermon. I used to preach 18-25 minutes when I was an Associate Pastor. My sermons are now 12-15 minutes. Secondly, I’ve found that I’m more of an observational preacher. Every preacher has an angle they preach from. Some are teachers. Others are great orators and classical preachers. I’ve found that through the ways I plan and prepare, I sit with a text in different ways depending on when the sermon is coming. This lets me use it as a lens to live my life and see the world around me. So by the time Sunday comes, the text serves as a jumping off point for how we can see God and the world around us (hopefully) in new and exciting and faithful ways.
In other words, my weekly goal is to allow the beauty of the text give me eyes to see and ears to hear the beauty of God in the world around us and then to share it boldly, clearly, and hopefully effectively with others.