Feed My Sheep

heart of a servant leaderEarly in ministry I heard a well-respected pastor say, “If you’re going to be a shepherd, you have to smell like the sheep.” Often times pastors struggle to know exactly what their sheep (church members) need. We want to obey God in leading and teaching exactly what He has commanded, but at the same time we can’t help but wonder if we’re meeting the needs of those entrusted to our care.

The good shepherd knows his sheep. He doesn’t just recognize them as a group of people who are members of the congregation; but instead, he knows them personally. He spends time with them, listens to them, strives to meet their needs. He is a shepherd who confidently walks out in front of the sheep and leads them to still waters and green pastures. He is not a sheep dog that tries to frighten the sheep into going a certain direction. He is the shepherd who calls his sheep unto himself and they follow him because they know him and his love for them.

In his article “9 Heartfelt Things Church Members Would Like to Say to their Pastors,” Dr. Thom Rainer helps clarify how we pastors can better lead, feed, and know our sheep.

Dr. Rainer writes:

I am among the most blessed men in the world. God has graciously saved me and sustained me. I have an incredible family. The place and ministry where I serve vocationally is a gift from God.

And then, as if I should be blessed even more, God has allowed me to serve and hear from church leaders across the world. In this article, I share some insights I heard from church members via social media, emails, blog comments, and personal conversations.

The following nine statements are heart matters for many church members. For the most part, these members are not the perpetual critics and the business meeting naysayers. These are men and women who truly love their pastors. But many of them do have some words from the heart they would like to share with their pastors. But many are reticent to do so, because they know their pastors often receive criticisms and inordinate demands for attention.

So, hear these heartfelt words from church members who love their pastors, from men and women who truly desire the best for them.

  1. “Let me know you really care for me.” That does not mean you call me regularly or that you visit me on demand. It is more of a disposition, or maybe words from the pulpit that demonstrate your love for the members. We can tell if you really care for us and love us.
  2. “Teach me the Bible.” I know you are inundated with requests, and the expectations for your time are often unreasonable. But please do not let those people distract you from your time in the Word. I am hungry for biblical teaching and preaching. Please spend time studying the Word so you can teach us well.
  3. “Help me deal with change.” This world and culture are changing so fast that I find myself dealing with fear and uncertainly. Help me understand the steadfastness of God in a turbulent world. And understand that my fear of change in the church is often related to my fear of change in the world. So lead me gently as you lead change in the church.
  4. “Don’t lead too far ahead.” I do want you to lead us. But don’t get so far ahead of us that we mistake you for the enemy and shoot you in the rear. I know change is necessary, but learn the pace of change that is best for our church.
  5. “Help me deal with family issues.” Some of us are in struggling marriages. Some of us are lonely whether we are single or married. Some of us have problems with our children. Some of us are dealing with aging parents. We hurt deeply when we have hurts about our families. Show us biblical truths about these issues. And show us your pastoral heart and concern for these issues.
  6. “Be transparent.” We know you are imperfect, but the critics sometimes cause you to hide your faults. For sure, we don’t want every nitty gritty personal detail about you and your family. But we do want to know that you have some of the same struggles we do. It helps us to identify with you better. It helps us to pray for you more.
  7. “Don’t get defensive when I offer constructive criticism.” I know that this one is tough. You get so many criticisms already; many of them are petty and self-serving. But there are many of us who love you and will, on rare occasions, offer some words that we think are best for you. Hear us without being defensive. Pray that God’s Spirit will help you discern when you should listen and when you should ignore.
  8. “Pray for me.” Please let me know that you love your church members so much that you pray for us regularly. Let us know that you consider prayer for the members to be one of your highest priorities.
  9. “Give me hope.” This world confuses me. This degenerating culture scares me. Show me how God has dealt with such hopeless times in the past that they may be times of hope for me today. Show me Christ’s possibilities, His hope, and His encouragement in difficult days.

Pastors, your task is not easy. Indeed, it is impossible without Christ’s strength. You have many church members who love you. They are often the silent members and, thus, the disregarded members. Hear these words from healthy church members that you might be even a better pastor to them.

What would you add, church member? What would you add, pastor or staff? How do these nine sentences resonate with you?

My blog post this coming Saturday: “Nine Heartfelt Things Pastors Would Like to Say to Their Church Members.”

Source: www.thomrainer.com

8 Commitments for Bible Study Leaders

heart of a servant leaderAs teachers of the Bible we have an awesome responsibility. We cannot afford to take this calling lightly. In the following post Chuck Lawless gives us eight commitments that every teacher of the Word of God should set as a goal.

I love teaching, especially when I’m privileged to lead studies from the Word of God. To be frank, though, teaching frightens me. It frightens me because teachers will be held to a stricter judgment (James 3:1). We have great responsibility, and with that responsibility comes accountability.

I am surprised, though, how little attention churches give to securing Bible study leaders and holding them accountable. Below are eight covenant commitments I would want them to affirm as they serve in the local church:

  1. I will grow in my faith and devotion to God through consistent personal Bible study. Bible study leaders have a tendency to teach from our reserves; that is, we teach out of what we learned in the past, perhaps at a time when we more faithfully read God’s Word daily. It is wrong to assume we can take on today’s teaching task on the basis of yesterday’s power. As a teacher of God’s Word, I want my personal Bible study to be present tense and growing.
  2. I will faithfully support the work of the church by regular worship attendance and financial giving. We teach not only with our words, but also with our lives. Bible study leaders who teach their group but who do not also support the church are likely growing their own kingdom more than God’s kingdom. As a Bible study leader, I want to model good churchmanship.
  3. I will be holy, knowing that what others do not see is as important as what they do see. Teaching is a public act as we stand before others and instruct. Preparation for teaching, though, is quite personal and private. When there is unconfessed sin, we lack the power of God that should mark all teaching of the Bible. The unholy Bible study leader imparts only information, but the holy Bible study leader imparts life. I want to be holy, not only for God’s glory and my good, but also for those I teach.
  4. I will teach the Word. This commitment is a non-negotiable, but Bible study leaders do not always practically keep this commitment. Conversations, food, fellowship, and prayer (all significant elements of a small group) consume the time set apart for teaching, and attention to the Bible is lessened. The wise Bible study leader takes the steps necessary to guard that time to focus on the Word. I want to meet my responsibility to lead the group clearly and intentionally to the Scriptures.
  5. I will faithfully prepare to teach each week. Let’s be honest—sometimes it’s easy to teach when you’ve done it for a number of years. We can study a little (or not at all) and still teach something. The group members might, in fact, think our teaching is great, but we know something else: we are missing the full blessing of God because we’ve not given Him time to move us in our preparation to teach. I want to long for the blessing of God when I stand before others as a Bible study leader.
  6. I will share my faith regularly and challenge the group to do the same. We must determine whether or not we will live what we lead. If we genuinely live what we lead, we will take initiative to tell others about Jesus. We will weep over non-believers because we trust the Word we teach. To not tell others is to reveal that our teaching is only for us and for people like us. It is to be selfish with the message we communicate. I want to faithfully reach out to non-believers because I believe the message I teach is life transforming. 
  7. I will seek prayer partners and pray for group members each week. We need others praying for us because we need God’s power to make a difference through our teaching. We need someone praying for us, “Lord, do not let them lead in their own strength.” Genuine prayer is a cry for relationship, an admission of dependence, and a means by which we minister to others. I want to be a prayer warrior on behalf of the group I lead. 
  8. I will strive to raise up new Bible study leaders and multiply my class. The evidence of good teaching is not only in the classroom; it is also in the lives of our hearers. The best Bible study leaders know their responsibility is to reproduce themselves in younger leaders—who will then start new groups. They might even take some of the best group members with them. If we cannot rejoice when that happens, our teaching is likely too self-centered. I want to train new Bible study leaders and start new groups gladly.

As Bible study leaders, we will answer to God for our service. What other commitments would you include in your Bible study leader’s covenant? And, because covenants are usually two-sided, what commitments should a congregation make to Bible study leaders?

Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary

Source: Thom Rainer

10 Commandments for Guest-Friendly Church Members

i love my churchThis is a great post by Thom Rainer on how to make guests more comfortable when visiting your church.

  • Thou shalt pray for people in the services whom you don’t recognize. They are likely guests who feel uncomfortable and uncertain.
  • Thou shalt smile. You only have to do so for about an hour. Guests feel welcome when they see smiling people. You can resume your somber expressions when you get home.
  • Thou shalt not sit on the ends of the rows. Move to the middle so guests don’t have to walk over you. You’ll survive in your new precarious position.
  • Thou shalt not fill up the back rows first. Move to the front so guests don’t have to walk in front of everyone if they get there late.
  • Thou shalt have ushers to help seat the guests. Ushers should have clearly-marked badges or shirts so that the guests know who can help them.
  • Thou shalt offer assistance to guests. If someone looks like they don’t know where to go, then they probably don’t know where to go. Get out of your comfort zone and ask them if you can help.
  • Thou shalt not gather too long in your holy huddles. Sure, it’s okay to talk to fellow members; but don’t stay there so long that you are not speaking to guests.
  • Thou shalt offer your seats to guests. I know that this move is a great sacrifice, but that family of four can’t fit in the three vacant seats next to you. Give it a try. You might actually feel good about your efforts.
  • Thou shalt not save seats. I know you want to have room for all of your friends and family, but do you know how a guest feels when he or she sees the vacant seats next to you occupied by three hymnals, one Bible, two coats, and an umbrella? You might as well put a “Do Not Trespass” sign on the seats.
  • Thou shalt greet someone you don’t know. Yes, it’s risky. They may actually be members you don’t know. And you may get caught in a 45-second conversation. You’ll be okay; I promise.

“Autopsy of a Deceased Church” by Thom Rainer

I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the relatively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudgingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were difficult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expression, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy. Here are eleven things I learned.

  1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.
  2. The church had no community-focused ministries.  This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.
  3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.
  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.
  5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.
  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
  8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.
  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
  10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.

What do you think of the autopsy on this church? What can we do to reverse these trends?

Source: Thomrainer.com

Leadership Insights from a Firefighter

heart of a servant leaderOver the years I have heard many different illustrations on being a good leader. Using examples from everyday life helps to clarify the role of a leader. I think “Five Leadership Insights from a Firefighter” by Chuck Lawless is a perfect example of taking a real-life experience and applying spiritual truths. His example emphasizes the importance of a unified team.

A leader may have different responsibility than those serving with him; however, they are each an equal part of one team. They are connected like fingers to a hand and must recognize the importance and necessity of the other if they are to succeed. Often times the leader of the group gets the most recognition; nevertheless, a great leader knows how react to praise in such a way that no one on the team is jealous or feels slighted.

I have had several friends who were firefighters, and I think Dr. Lawless does a fantastic job of describing the relationship between firefighters. He also challenges church leaders to create a team of many members who form one cohesive unit working together to accomplish one purpose—making disciples.

Lawless writes:

My father was a volunteer fireman when I was a boy, and I have vivid memories of his responding to emergencies when the signal sounded. On several Halloweens I dressed as a fireman. In a somewhat odd scene, our family sometimes shared lunch at the scene of a “practice” fire when the fire department burned down dilapidated buildings.

Following in my dad’s firefighting boots, I became a volunteer firefighter in my late 40s. Little did I realize how much I would learn about church leadership by serving with that team of first responders. Here are just a few of those insights.

1. Firefighters recognize the urgency of their role. The signal sounds, the details are given, and the firefighter springs into action. He must be focused on the task at hand, for a distracted firefighter is a dangerous one. In fact, everything else stops until he returns from dealing with the emergency.

I wish that were the case with all church leaders. We have the life-giving message of Christ to proclaim to the world. The signal has already sounded, and we know the details of the emergency—millions die every year without Christ. What would happen if we really recognize the emergency and prioritize evangelism again?

2. Firefighters understand the value of teamwork. From the truck driver to the pump operator to the Rapid Intervention Team (ready at any moment to rescue a fallen firefighter), every firefighter is critical to the team. More importantly, the other firefighters recognize that fact. They are trained to watch each other’s back, seldom if ever facing a raging fire alone. The best firefighters, in fact, are those that are both trained and trusted like brothers.

Church leaders, on the other hand, tend to be lone rangers. Not only are we not trained to be team players, but we also often don’t even trust one another enough to work together. Sometimes we’re simply too arrogant to ask for help. The danger is clear: church leaders who work alone are the most liable to being shot down in the spiritual battle that ministry entails.

3. Firefighters are well trained. Firefighters are required to complete training that includes book knowledge and practical training. Only when the recruit firefighter gives evidence of his ability is he granted permission to be an official firefighter. Even then, he is expected to complete additional practical education courses in order to stay current in his profession. Veteran firefighters walk alongside new firefighters, teaching them even as they together fight a fire.

I am a seminary professor, but training future ministers requires the support of the local church. We can provide head knowledge, but we can’t offer needed practical training apart from a church where praxis occurs under the care of a veteran pastor. Yet, church leaders are seemingly so busy that they have little time for this task.

4. Firefighters love what they do. Firefighters love the exhilaration of tackling and defeating a fire. Actually, they love the fire station, the fire trucks, the fire equipment, the firefighter uniform, their firefighting squad – almost everything associated with their task. They risk their lives every time the signal sounds, but they do so because they believe in what they are doing. They know that lives depend on them.

Perhaps here is where I am most concerned about young church leaders. Young leaders recognize that the North American church is in need of much reformation. We are reaching few non-believers, and church members sometimes live so much like the world that non-believers see the church as irrelevant. Some young leaders view the church in such a negative light that they find themselves trying to change a church they don’t love. That kind of leadership is quickly draining.

5. Firefighters serve proactively. Their role is to respond to fires, but that’s not the entirety of their role. Firefighters also educate the public on fire prevention. They visit local schools to teach children about fire safety. They enforce local codes to prevent open flames. In general, firefighters are always leading proactively so they won’t have fires to put out.

Good church leaders lead that way, too. They cast vision and build teams. They proactively make disciples. They know that if their leadership is only reactionary, the church will not move forward. In fact, they know that kind of leadership is not leadership at all.

Is Your Church Happy?

i love my churchThis morning Thom Rainer posted “Nine Characteristics of Happy Churches.” It is a wonderful blessing to pastor a loving and happy church. When we gather together as a body of believers we should have fun. Worshipping, serving, singing, teaching, listening, caring, sharing, or any other “ing” you can come up with should be a joyous occasion.

The nine characteristics Thom Rainer listed below can be found in any church where all the people work together as one body.

  • The pastor was a strong leader, but not an autocratic leader. He was able to maintain that healthy balance of providing clarity of vision without imposing his will on every decision.
  • The pastor regularly demonstrated and affirmed love for the congregation. In both his actions and his words, the pastor communicated clearly that he loved the members of the church. And he loved them regardless of their apparent feelings toward him, though most of the members genuinely loved the pastor as well.
  • The pastor regularly demonstrated and affirmed love for the community where the church was located. Though he could not be omnipresent, the pastor made it a point to be involved in many of the affairs of the community. He genuinely loved people in the community and viewed the entire area as his mission field.
  • The ministry staff liked each other, and they worked well together. If there are tensions among the staff, they cannot be hidden from the congregation. But if the staff is unified and banter in fun with one another, the members feed off that joy and unity.
  • A high proportion of the membership was actively involved in ministry. When church members are doing the work of ministry, they have a sense of fulfillment and joy. When they aren’t, they often have extra time on their hands to be divisive.
  • Business meetings were brief and friendly. These meetings were rarely a time of infighting and complaining. To the contrary, most of the members were too busy doing ministry to be negative (see #5).
  • A high proportion of the members were in a small group or Sunday school class. Community grew in these small groups. People who are true members of a community tend to be happier people.
  • The pastor’s time in the Word was protected. It is easy for a pastor to yield his time in the Word for the tyranny of the urgent. Thus he becomes frustrated, as he has to rush to complete a sermon, or as he does not have sufficient time to do the sermon well. The members likewise become frustrated because they don’t feel like the pastor is feeding them. A happy church makes certain that the pastor has adequate time every week to be in the Word.
  • The pastor had a small informal or formal group to whom he was accountable. This group includes those members who clearly love the pastor. They offer both encouragement and accountability for him. The interchange between this group and the pastor is frank, transparent and, overall, healthy. And all communications take place on an unmistakable foundation of love.

How do these nine characteristics compare to your church? What would you add? Which of the nine “jumped out” at you the most?

Please leave a reply, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Leaders and the Sin of Omission

Here is a great post by Thom Rainer asking “Seven Questions to Help Leaders Avoid Committing Sins of Omission.”

Rainer writes:

I confess. I shouldn’t have this nagging fear, but I do. I am sometimes haunted by the possibility that I failed to make a critical decision as a leader, and I missed the opportunity to make a difference in this world.

It’s easy sometimes not to make a decision, to let the perceived status quo become our daily agenda. Instead of becoming a leader who is a change agent, we become managers who carry out routine tasks.

Frankly, I don’t want to live my life in the world of “what if?” I don’t want to look back on this brief time God has given us, and realize that I failed to act or to make key decisions. I don’t want to be guilty of one of the most damaging types of sins, the sins of omission.

So how can we leaders make certain we are not seeking the comfort of sameness and committing sins of omission? What checks can we have to remind us that we must ever be vigilant lest we fail as a leader who acts and takes risks? I suggest we constantly ask ourselves these seven questions.

  1. Do I take initiative or do I wait for an assignment to be given to me? Leaders who rarely want to make their own decisions or take actions on their own are not leaders at all. It is a comfortable place to be where you are not responsible for any of your own initiatives. But comfort is the place where most sins of omission take place.
  2. Am I constantly seeking ways to break out of the status quo? It is cliché to say that this world and culture is changing rapidly, but it is true. Those who attempt to hold onto to the way we’ve always done it will be left behind. The irony is that the status quo is no longer a reality, and those who attempt to hold it tightly are holding on to an illusion.
  3. Is my approach to leadership only incrementalism, or do I at least on occasion seek to lead major changes? Leading by incremental change is okay for most seasons, but there are times when leaders must take major risks. I love the oft-told story of Thomas J. Watson, Jr., and the introduction of the IBM 360. On April 7, 1964 IBM introduced the 360, the first large family of computers to use interchangeable software and peripheral equipment. It was a bold and courageous departure from the monolithic, one-size-fits-all mainframe. Fortune magazine dubbed it “IBM’s $5 billion gamble.” But the gamble paid off, and the world was changed by that decision.
  4. Am I willing to make a decision even if I don’t have all the facts? No one would suggest a leader make a major decision without good information. But many decisions must be made with some level of uncertainty and without all the desired facts. Ultra-conservative leaders who keep waiting for all the facts to come in usually have a good rear view of other leaders who have passed them by,
  5. Am I willing to accept criticism? You can play it safe and avoid criticism. In fact, you can join the legion of Monday-morning quarterbacks who take great delight in pointing out where risk-taking leaders failed. But those second-guessers have stopped leading when they make decisions to minimize the criticisms.
  6. Am I willing to fail? You can choose not to act, not to take initiative, and not to take risks. In doing so, you will not fail at a particular task because you have attempted nothing. But you will ultimately fail as a leader. Every true and seasoned leader can attest to some failure in his or her life. That is the price we pay when we lead and take risks.
  7. Do I really want to make a difference? If the answer is yes, there is a price to pay. I have briefly enumerated some of them. We can’t merely declare that we want to make a difference. We must be wiling to accept the pain that often comes with bold and courageous leadership. For the true leader, it is price worth paying.

We have such a brief time to make a difference in this life. If God has given you a place of leadership, consider that opportunity a sacred trust. Don’t live this life wondering “what if.” Don’t look back on key life points and realize you failed to act, that you committed sins of omission.

May the words God gave Joshua become His words for our lives today: “Haven’t I commanded you: be strong and courageous? Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9, HCSB).

What are some of the common sins of omission you observe in some leaders? What are some other checks we can have to avoid committing these sins?