What Most (every?) Pastor Struggles With

one thingThis morning in my quiet time I reflected over the past two Sunday services in our church. For some reason attendance was down compared to last year. The flu has hit and I’m sure that accounts for some absences. But, I’ve struggled with discouragement wondering what we could do differently to encourage people to attend. Unfortunately, I’m tempted too often to allow the church numbers game to regulate my inner peace.

As I mulled over my feelings, I read Psalm 27. Verse four goes like this.

One thing (my emphasis) I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

I’ve read that passage hundreds of times but this time the first two words struck me: ONE THING. As I felt like a not-so-successful pastor because numbers had drooped, I asked myself these questions.

  • Charles, what is your ONE THING?
  • Is your ONE THING to strive always to feel competent because your efforts brought more people to church?
  • Is your ONE THING to always serve a church whose attendance graph is to the right and up?
  • Is your ONE THING yourself?

I forced myself to ask these penetrating questions in light of David’s ONE THING. He wanted more than anything to know, follow, and be with his Lord. Do I really want what he wanted? I believe I do, but sometimes for a while other things supplant the ONE THING. These uncomfortable feelings make me evaluate if I’m keeping the right ONE THING.

I’m just guessing here, but I bet many if not most pastors face this same temptation.

What is your ONE THING today?

Who are you Trying to Please in your Church?

DifficultPeople-main_FullIn Judson Edwards book, The Leadership Labyrinth, he describes 21 paradoxes in ministry. He defines the ‘relationship paradox’ in this way: the people who like you most will be the ones you try least to please.

He writes that these three kinds of people fill every church.

  1. The energizers-their very presence makes us feel better, buoy our spirits, and fill our tanks
  2. The regular folks-they may not buoy our spirits, but they don’t demoralize us either. They make up the largest group.
  3. The drainers-they sap our joy and can ruin our day

The main difference between the energizers and the drainers are their expectations of us. The energizers don’t place great expectations on us. The drainers do.

We don’t measure up to the drainers expectations. Either our preaching or counseling or leading or availability is not enough. These subtle unmet expectations may not be overt, but when we are around these people, we feel their unspoken disapproval.

Edwards pens these profound words. “When our credo becomes ‘I am as you desire me,’ we have lost the very thing that will enable us to minister effectively: our authenticity.”

Edwards rounds out his chapter with three insights into how Jesus responded to his drainers.

  • First, Jesus retreated from this drainers to refresh himself and seek God. He regularly sought renewal.
  • Second, Jesus balanced his drainers with his energizers.
  • Third, Jesus didn’t allow the drainers deter him from his plan and purpose.

Although Jesus practiced a rhythm of renewal and time away from his drainers, he never got rid of them. He still had to contend with them, just as we pastors must do in our churches.

Not everyone liked Jesus. Not everyone will like us. But God’s grace gives us what we need to serve even the most draining drainers.

What My Prayer for a Dying Man Taught Me

Have you ever been prompted by God to do something, but ignored it? Recently I almost did.

Cancer struck the father of my small group leader’s wife last year. He had responded well to treatment until a couple months ago when the cancer began to spread. With little hope that more treatment would help, his daughters placed placed him in hospice in a nearby nursing home.

I knew I needed to visit him, but for some reason I delayed until something happened to me early last Wednesday night. I felt God impress this on my heart. “Charles, you have to go see Maynard in the morning.” I don’t particularly enjoy visiting hospitals or nursing homes, but this time I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to visit him.

When I woke up I considered delaying my visit until after my noon swim. Then it would be much more convenient for me, save time, and save gas at the same time… the “killing two birds with one stone” idea. But I decided I would go in the morning anyway.

When I arrived I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced. First, the nursing home didn’t remind me of most I’d seen, musty, smelly, and antique looking. This one exuded cheerfulness with its bright lighting and halls filled with colorful paintings.

But what shocked me most was the stark reminder of my mortality.

I’m 54 and don’t consider myself old (although my kids think I’m a relic). Most of these patients were well over 70. Many sat quietly in their wheelchairs with thin transparent tubing draped around their noses to provide them extra oxygen. Many were parked in front of a TV with a bad signal as afghans clung to their laps. Mostly their heads drooped downward in fitful sleep.

I felt deeply saddened, not so much for their plight, but for the not-so-subtle reminder that one day I, too, will probably lose my ability to function as I once did in my younger years. The aging process has a way of doing that.

As I wandering through the corridors, I came to Maynard’s simple room.

A nurse’s aide was tending to him at the time and slipped out as I steped toward his bed. His breathing was very labored. Since macular degeneration had blinded him, he couldn’t see me, but I knew he could hear me. They say the last thing that goes is our sense of hearing.

Though I’m a pastor, at that moment I felt inadequate about what to pray. Nevertheless, I boldly prayed for him to have a glorious homegoing. In my prayer I also reminded him that he had left a wonderful legacy. As a very strong believer, and a fireman for decades, well into his retirement he had written a regular devotional that he had mailed to several hundred firemen friends.

After my ‘amen,’ and just before I left, I patted him on the shoulder and tearfully said, “Maynard, I’ll see you on the other side.”

Two hours later I received an email that he had passed away.

I came away with two life lessons from that experience.

  1. I must pay closer attention to God’s promptings and heed them when they come. I later spoke to Micki, Maynard’s daughter, and she said that Maynard was hanging on those last few days for something. Was he hanging on for my prayer that God used to usher him into his presence? I don’t know, but when I cross to the other side, I’ll be looking for the fireman whose signature look included a long blond ponytail (his real hair) that he wore before chemo took it away. This time, though, he will not just hear me, but will see me with crystal clarity with his new 20-20 eyes. This is the glorious hope God gives every believer that one day we will have brand new bodies, no longer broken and bruised.
  2. I must live life to the fullest now while I am able. Sometimes I whine too much about what isn’t. But one day, unless I go unexpectedly, I too will get old. I hope my mind stays sharp. I hope my body holds up to the end. But God gives me no guarantees. Right now I don’t see myself in a wheelchair sitting in front of a TV watching re-runs of the Price is Right. But if my body wears out and my mind no longer functions so that all I can do is sit in a wheelchair until God takes me home, I want to arrive there having given my all to Jesus while I could. I don’t want my life to end full of regrets.

It’s been years since I sung the lyrics to this old song, but it’s one that I hope every believer could sing and live with bold assurance.

All to Jesus, I surrender;

All to Him I freely give;

I will ever love and trust Him,

In His presence daily life.

Refrain: I surrender all, I surrender all,

All the Thee, my blessed Savior,

I surrender all.

The Apostle Paul’s Thorn: Prescriptive or Descriptive

brokennessThis week I led our staff devotions at our staff meeting and shared a thought about one of the Apostle Paul’s experiences. That morning I had re-read 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul describes his vision of heaven and his ensuing ‘thorn in the flesh’ given him by God to protect him from conceit.

I’ve read that account hundreds of times and the passage even includes one of my favorite Scriptures.

9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

As I meditated on his experience, this thought popped into my mind.

Is this ‘thorn’ story prescriptive or descriptive? That is, does God’s giving Paul this thorn simply describe what happened to Paul, and only Paul? Or does it imply that when God greatly uses a man or a woman for his purposes He will give (or allow) some place of perpetual brokenness that will keep that servant from being proud?

Sometimes when I think of pastors and church leaders that God greatly uses, I assume they face few personal problems or struggles. They seem to exude what American Christianity would deem a successful pastor. They lead growing mega-churches, speak at church growth conferences, sell lots of books, and have lots of people who like them.

However, when you get below the surface, I wonder if each of these great men and women of God also face their ‘thorns.’

I can think of a few who do or did.

  • Spurgeon experienced regular depression and was often vilified by other pastors.
  • Jonathan Edwards was fired from his first church.
  • Ravi Zacharias deals with chronic back problems
  • Rick Warren once shared in a conference that he often faces headaches when he preaches that one of his associates stands ready to complete his sermon if he can’t

I’m sure there are many more.

So, I don’t know for sure if it is inevitable that every great man or woman of God will face an ongoing ‘thorn in the flesh.’ But I believe that the higher you go in spiritual influence, the greater the chance you will.

If that is true, we who experience such thorns can at the same time experience what God gave Paul…His abundant grace.

Is Your Ministry Drowning You, Part 2

photo by David Friel

photo by David Friel

In my last post I listed 8 evidences that I was letting my ministry get the best of me. As I’m trying to get myself back on track, here’s what I’m doing that’s helping.

  1. I’m REALLY taking a day off (Do you?)
  2. I’m reminding myself that the world (and my church) can get along just fine without me taking on everybody else’s issues
  3. I’m talking less about negative church stuff when I’m at home
  4. I’m making my devotional time a priority again
  5. I’m checking on Twitter less often
  6. If you were trying to get yourself back in balance, how would you complete this list?