3 Posts from December 2008

End-of-Year Reflections

I remember it well. Exactly fifty years ago—Christmas of 1958—Bob Hope and his troupe included Okinawa along with other Asian ports in their goodwill tour. I was among thousands of others that evening—homesick for the good ol’ USA, missing my wife and counting the days. When the veteran entertainer sang his closing song, “Thanks for the Memories,” all of us sang along with him as we found ourselves flooded with memories.

I recall how grateful I was for that tour of duty: the lessons I had learned, the disciplines I had begun to employ (thanks to the Navigators), the books I had read, the missionaries I had met, the places I had visited, the journals I had kept, the letters I had written, the verses I had memorized, even the things I had witnessed inside a Marine Corps barracks (what goes on there, stays there!). And, most importantly, the call I had received from God to enter ministry.

Pastoring has to be the highest of all callings. In this position, we have the privilege of touching life at its most tender points . . . of walking with pain through its darkest valleys . . . of proclaiming truth in its purest form . . . of confronting sin in its ugliest scenes . . . of modeling integrity through its hardest extremes—while everyone is watching as well as when no one is looking. It is no wonder to me why it requires a God-given calling before one enters it or why such a struggle accompanies resignation from it.

As we review the memories of this year, let’s remind ourselves of a few essentials that are easy to forget. I’ll list them so that each one might stick in our minds throughout the Yuletide season. Three specifics come to mind.

For many, Christmas is the loneliest and can be the  most depressing time of the year. A few examples? Families of those in prison . . . and the prisoners themselves. Single parents. The aged. The hospitalized. The dying and those ministering to them. Men and women in the military. Adult children of alcoholics with frightening memories of their childhood. Recently widowed men and women. Students who can’t go home for Christmas. Let’s pray for them. When it’s possible, let’s include them.

For most, Christmas can become little more than a selfish, greedy, and unsatisfying experience. When gift-buying gets out of control, the season turns into a financial, frustrating frenzy. Even for pastors? Absolutely! Instead of slowing our pace, enjoying the lights, drinking in the music and sitting quietly with those we love, the hectic hurry to find this, get that, mail these things, and order those things can steal all the fun and eclipse the meaning. Let’s put on the brakes this year and do something really unique, like relax. (I’ll do the same! I won’t post another blog until the New Year.)

For a few, Christmas is the only time they will ever hear or think seriously about the Lord Jesus Christ. So make sure the gospel is clear and simple when you preach—especially if you have a Christmas Eve service. The carols we sing include some of the finest theology in all of hymnody. The message of the incarnation is portrayed clearly in dramatic pageants, readings, special services in large corporations, and even on campuses. Furthermore, there are Christmas cards opened and read by eyes that would never otherwise entertain the gospel story.

Let’s ask our Lord to use us to touch many hearts this season.


The Pastor’s Relationships—The Congregation

Your congregation represents people from all walks of life—all ages and stages of maturity. All flawed, yet all drawn together because they love Christ, and they love to be a part of the ministry. What a unique creation from God!

Some of these people who come to your church need time to heal. Some have experienced what I call “toxic religion.” They have had former pastors who dominated and domineered them, who took advantage of them spiritually, and who told them it was a sin to attend another church. How tragic.

These wounded people will often stumble into your church afraid. They’re fearful, first of all, that they will be found out by their friends from their old church—most of whom are now shunning them because they left. Second, they’re afraid of not knowing the “right” thing to do in their new church. Third, they may even be afraid of you. So please, have a heart. Be extremely patient with them. These individuals don’t come in and hit the floor running, ready to serve. Let your church be a place of refuge where they can find sufficient grace to heal. Be faithful to pray for them.

Some of your sheep long to be affirmed, and all of them desire to be nourished. So feed them well. I have discovered that frequent chiding and rebuking of the flock is not helpful. Help them stay balanced. Lead the sheep. In my New England pastorate I drove the sheep. That was a mistake. I learned that a pastor can’t really lead the sheep if he doesn’t love them. So learn from my mistakes.

When you need to do some kind of reproving—and that’s part of our job—do it privately and confidentially. Never embarrass a church member. I suggest you have your difficult meeting off-site, so that not even the staff will know the individual showed up to talk to you alone. 

All will appreciate your faithfulness and your tenderness. They like to know that when you’re touched by something, tears will come. Never apologize for your tears. The older I get, the more tears seem to be on the surface. Jesus wept . . . remember?

Model for them the role of a shepherd. You’re working with sheep; it’s a great analogy. And remember that you’re a sheep too. (It’s easy to forget that.) You’re not even the Chief Shepherd—that’s Jesus. He’s the Head of the church. Let’s keep Him as Head.

The Pastor’s Relationships—Take Care of Your Staff

As a pastor, you not only look after the needs of your family and your flock, but you also need to care for your staff. Do you pray for them? Do you treat them fairly? Do you play favorites? Only you can answer these questions.

When you do annual reviews for your staff, do you take your time with them, look them in the eye, and tell them what they need to hear? When I do a review, I apply what I call the “sandwich approach.” I start by genuinely telling them what they’re doing well, then I let them know areas where they could improve, and I conclude by reminding them of their value—both to the ministry and to me personally. By “sandwiching” the review, they can hear anything in the middle. But they must know that your affirmations up front are authentic and not just a primer for the bad news—or for their getting fired! They must know they are important to you. I’ve communicated some of my strongest words to staff people—some very firm words—maybe even stronger than I’ve said to my kids. But not one of them thought I didn’t love them.

Your staff needs your loyalty. Church members will come to you to talk about the staff. Watch it. Be confident and be careful . . . just as you would want them to be careful when church members come to talk about you!  Never undercut a staff member because a church member is influential or gives a lot of money. That’s dirty pool. If you have a problem with your staff member, you have a mouth and they have ears. Make the time, and get alone with them. Be willing to listen to their problems with you without being defensive. Again, just like you would want them to respond to you.

Do you pay them a fair salary? Do you compensate them the going rate they could make if they worked in the industry in your city? Take a look at that and do what’s fair.

Let me mention one more item in relation to staff. Do you check up and make sure they’re taking their day off? I had a staff member one time in a former church who rarely took his day off. I remember driving by the church on a Monday evening and I saw his light on. When I got there Tuesday morning the light was still on! I marched into his office and asked, “When’s the last time you took a day off?” He seemed proud of his answer, “It’s been about three weeks.” So I said, “That’s unacceptable. You keep that up, and I’ll let you go.” You know what? Amazingly, he started taking his day off!

There is no value in not taking a day off. My mentor, Howard Hendricks, had one wag tell him, “The devil never takes a holiday, so why should I?” Hendricks didn’t miss a beat and replied: “Oh really, I didn’t know he was your model.” I love it! There’s an old line that goes, “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” What kind of choice is that? Either way you’re out!

As a pastor you know more than most how important it is to have an advocate in your corner. Most likely, you are that sole advocate for those who labor alongside you. Please, take good care of your staff.