The Best Christmas Present You Can Give

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Give words. Give written words.

Years ago, when I was almost 18, and just about to graduate from high school, my grandmother gave me a Bible for Christmas.

It’s a great Bible. In fact, it was my first study Bible…a New American Standard, Ryrie Study Bible. I still have it and occasionally use it today. It was a great gift. An expensive gift at the time.

But, inside she included these handwritten notes. She shared her heart. She wrote Scripture that was important to her. She encouraged me to live a life of value. She expressed her joy in being my grandmother.

It was the greatest part of the gift. The most valuable.

It was then and it is now.

I still have the Bible…although I have many other Bibles on my shelf…but I can replace the Bible. I can’t replace these notes.

My grandmother died a few months ago. She was my last remaining grandparent. As soon as I heard of her death, I went to that Bible…to read the notes she had written. I have read these notes 100′s of times since she first wrote them. I’m positive…Lord willing…I’ll read them 100 more.

The best Christmas gift ever! … at least that a human can give…

(Take a hint…who needs a letter from you?)

12 Bible Verses Which Have Shaped My Life

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Here are 12 Bible verses that have helped shape my life. There are so many others, but these were the first 12 to come to mind. I memorized these years ago and they’ve been timeless truths…daily reminders…I have “hidden in my heart”. All verses are from the New International Version, because I that was the version I primarily used at the time.

You may want to pick one, write it on an index card and put it on the refrigerator, and hid it in your heart.

Here are 12 life-shaping verses:

Noah did everything just as God commanded him. Genesis 6:22

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. Ecclesiastes 5:2

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 1 Peter 1:14-15

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Psalms 51:12

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Proverbs 4:23

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed. Proverbs 16:3

I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me. Psalms 13:6

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. 1 John 5:21

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. Exodus 14:14

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. Proverbs 25:2

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. Proverbs 16:9

What is one of your life-shaping verses?

7 Hard Words I’d Say to Every Pastor

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I love pastors. I love to encourage pastors. And, that’s Biblical. (Ephesians 4:29…or something like that.)

Seriously, I’m a pastor. And, I work with pastors everyday. Having not been a pastor in the business world longer than I’ve been a pastor, I’ve still got somewhat of an objective…almost outside perspective. And, now I am a pastor. Have been one for over a decade. Sometimes I wish I could share with pastors what I’m really thinking.

Well, maybe I can.

Here are 7 hard words I’d say to every pastor:

Your family should not be second to your ministry – Your ministry is important. It’s your calling…hopefully your passion. But, so is your family. Or, at least, they should be. In fact, I’d claim that if your family suffers, almost without exception, so will your ministry.

You may never feel completely in control – I realize the ministry has so many unknowns. You work mostly with volunteers. You can’t seem to motivate people to do what people need to be doing. That’s not going to change. You are walking by faith, remember.

You need someone in your life, besides your spouse, who knows the dark places – Your spouse will usually feel the need to cover for you…and almost always see the best in you. You need someone who knows you well, but can look at you and say…”You’re not telling me the whole story. What’s the real deal?”

Your pace often determines your longevity – If you run too fast…you’ll burnout. If you run too slow…you’ll get bored. And, either is dangerous.

You aren’t the only one who can do that – In fact, God has designed the church as a Body…with many parts…who can do many things. Are you seriously allowing yourself to be held responsible for everything? You’ll be far more successful in ministry if you learn to equip and release.

Your church can function without you – You aren’t indispensable. You’re awesome…and wonderful…and the greatest pastor ever…maybe…but the “church” has lasted for several centuries without you. Sorry to break that to you, but when we come to realize this as true, it is a freeing reality. Jesus is in control.

You’re doing better than you think you are – Admit it. You’ve been comparing yourself to others…haven’t you? And, it’s depressing at times. How can they do the same or even less effort as you do and seem to get more results? But, God has a plan for you. It’s unique from His plan for everyone else. Be faithful to what He has called you to do. And, don’t worry about everyone else. And, someday…I’m convinced…you’ll indeed hear “Well done…good and faithful servant…well done.”

Pastor, do you have a hard word you’d share with other pastors? (Here’s your chance!)

Two Things All Good Leaders Do

Yes or no buttons

Help their team say no

They can’t do everything. They are limited. Everyone is. And all of us can easily get distracted by seemingly good things and fail to do the best things. Good leaders give their team the authority to say no. 

And, when there is backlash for the decision, they defend them. Every time. 

(I hear the pushback. Some team members will take advantage of this…they will always say no. That’s true. And, in those cases, we handle the problem with the person. We don’t change the rules for everyone else.) 

Help their team say yes

Good leaders give their team the freedom to dream. They empower the team to take their ministry in new directions. They make sure they aren’t so distracted with mindless and burdensome tasks that they can’t pursue the things that spark their interest, or to move swiftly when change is needed. They encourage the team to be proactive rather than reactive. 

And, when team members do things different than the leader would, the leader looks to see if the vision is being attained, and, if it is, then submits to the leadership of the team member. 

Leader, does your team have freedom to say yes and no? What could you do to help them more?

7 Suggestions TO DO When the Church is in Decline

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I recently posted 7 suggestions NOT to do when the church is in decline. (Read that post HERE.) As expected, I had numerous requests for the companion post. And, this is that post. I chose a picture of growth for this post. Thinking positive!

It should be noted that this is a more difficult post to write. There are no cookie-cutter solutions for reversing a church in decline. Churches have unique characteristics, because they have different people. They are different reasons that cause decline. It could be anything from poor leadership, to being locked into the traditions of men or simply a change in population in the community. It’s difficult to copy what someone else has done, because the causes are so different.

I do have a few suggestions. When I’ve worked with a church in decline I almost always give at least some of these same suggestions.

(Now in any post like this I explain…I don’t know what I have to other than I’ve been blogging long enough to know some of the responses I will get. GOD IS IN CHARGE. Period. Listen to my preaching…pick any Sunday…and you won’t hear otherwise. I have a philosophical and even Biblical mindset that God has given us responsibility to lead His church well. We are under His direction and work by His strength, but He gave us minds and creativity to use for His glory. )

Here are 7 suggestions TO DO when the church is in decline:

Evaluate – What went wrong? What is going wrong? Why are less people attending? Why are new people not? Ask the hard questions. Is it programmatic? Is it a people problem? Is it a Biblical issue? Is your church just plain boring? If nothing has changed in the programs you offer in the last 50 years…I may already have your answer. But, ask questions. Ask for inside and outside opinions. This takes guts, but is critically necessary. You can’t address problems until you know them. You may need an outside perspective. You could trade with another church, by letting them evaluate you and you evaluate them. Ask visitors. Recruit a “secret shopper” attendee to give you an objective look at the church. You must evaluate even if you are afraid to know the answers.

Own it – The problems are real. Don’t pretend they are not. At this step, cause or blame is not as important. They were important in the first step, because they may alter your response, but now the problems are yours. They are not going away without intentionality. Quit denying. Start owning the issues. I see too many churches avoid the issues because they are difficult…or unpopular…to address. Find a Bible story where people of God were called to do something that didn’t involve a certain level if risk, hard work, fear or the necessity of faith. I suggest if you find one example you can refuse to own (and address) the problems.

Address major, obvious issues – This is hard. Perhaps the hardest one. If the church has “forgotten your first love”…repent. If the church holds on to bitterness and anger from the past…forgive. If walking by faith has been replaced by an abundance of structure…step out boldly. If the church is in disunity it must come together first. If you love the traditions of men more than the commands of God…turn from that sin. Now. And, if the problems involve people, don’t be a people pleaser, address them. (Told you this is hard.) Yes, this requires leadership. All we like sheep have gone astray. Church leaders lead. And, leadership takes us through the hard places to get to the best places. But, if there are obvious issues that need addressing, you can try hundreds of special programs or events and nothing is going to work, because there’s a roadblock to address first. (Side note here. Not every church can be saved, in my opinion. God promises the Church will prevail, but that promise is not given necessarily to Third Street Baptist…or Broad Street Methodist…or the church at Laodicea. If these issues can’t be solved it will be very difficult to move the church forward.)

Find alignment – Where does the church best find unity? What will everyone get excited about doing? This is many times a vision, or a moment in history that was special to everyone, or a common thread within the DNA. Find that and focus attention on it. In my experience, God will not bless a church in disunity, but churches have issues, causes or programs that everyone can get excited about and support. Working together builds enthusiasm, momentum and unity.

Regroup – At some point, regardless of how drained you feel from the decline, you’ve got to come to a strategy of what to do next. It needs to be written. You need a road map of where you are going in the next season. (It is Biblical to think ahead. Consider Luke 14:28) I’ve never personally been able to plan in great detail more than twelve months out and sometimes, especially in times of less clarity, only a few months, but you need a plan. Start with your overall vision and explore ideas of how to accomplish it again. Put some measurable goals in place to make progress….things you’ll do next week, next month, and in a few months down the road. It will hold you accountable if you have an action-oriented strategy. It will build momentum as people have something to look forward to doing.

Reignite – Put your energy and resources where it matters most. This often involves getting back to the basics of what it takes to achieve your vision. If you are a church with a heart for missions, for example, amp up your mission efforts. If special events are your wheelhouse…do them. It may mean not doing things that aren’t working. They tend to drain energy and resources. (And yes, this is difficult and often unpopular.) Look for what is working, or has the potential to work again…the fastest, and begin to stir energy around that program or ministry. You need quick wins so the church can feel a sense of progress again.

Celebrate – There will be wins. You may have to look for them some days, but when they occur celebrate. Celebrate big. Remind people that God is still moving among you. Now, it should be noted, for the overly celebratory types, that you can’t celebrate everything. If everything is wonderful…or amazing…then wonderful and amazing is really average. They need to be legitimate wins. If you celebrate mediocrity you’ll set a precedent of mediocrity. But, when you see signs of heading in the right direction, make a big deal out of it.

Those are seven suggestions. I strongly encourage you, if you want to see the church growing again…if the church yearns for health again…be intentional. Be willing to ask for help. Raise the white flag and invite honest dialogue. The harvest is ready…the workers are few…we need you! We are losing too many churches and not planting and reviving enough. Do the hard work. Pray without ceasing. And, trust that your labor will not be in vain. Praying for you.

What suggestions do you have for a church in decline?

7 Suggestions When God Is Silent

Here Are My Prayers

Elijah had been used of God to hold back rain from the people for over three years, because of their sins. Obviously, he was not well liked as a preacher. I can imagine the stress he experienced during those years.

Something strikes me, however, that seems to further complicate Elijah’s situation.

Consider 1 Kings 18:1:

“After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.”

According to a couple New Testament passages, this “After a long time” was actually three and a half years. The famine was three and a half years long. For three and a half years, the people apparently continued to sin, Elijah continued to hold on by faith, but God said nothing. God was apparently inactive…not speaking…even to His great servant Elijah during this time.

Have you ever been there? Has the silence of God in your life ever been eerily strong?

Imagine you had been faithfully serving…God is using you…you are in constant communication with Him…and then suddenly…everything is quiet. You have to wait.

The separation must have seemed unbearable. Elijah is not liked and unpopular. He’s an outcast from the people and the One he trusted most was seemingly absent.

God would soon do a miracle through Elijah…one he couldn’t even imagine…certainly not script, but during this period all Elijah could do was wait.

If you have been follower of Christ very long, you have had periods where it seems God is nowhere to be found. We often call them periods of spiritual dryness. Sometimes I refer to it as being in a spiritual funk.

What should we do during the times of silence, before the miracles of God come through for us?

If you are like me, you can figure out how to celebrate a miracle. You don’t need much help doing that. The tough part of life is figuring out what to do during the years of silence…during the years when miracles are seemingly nowhere to be found.

What do we do during the spiritually dry periods of life when we don’t hear clearly the voice of God?

Here are 7 suggestions for those times:

Don’t ignore the silence… – Some of the biggest moves God has made in my life have come after a period of spiritual dryness…when it seemed like God was doing nothing in my life. Stay very close to God and watch for Him to eventually display His power. He will in the fullness of time.

Confront known sin in your life – This wasn’t the problem of silence for Elijah, but the problem for the Israelites was that they were chasing after other gods and living lives in total disobedience to God. Sin may not be the reason you don’t sense closeness to God right now, but if you have known sin in your life it will affect your intimacy with God.

Go back to what you know – Get back to the basics of the faith that saved you. You’ll do it 100’s of times in your life, but you must remind yourselves of the basis of faith…which is the very character and promises of God. God is in control. He really is…even when it doesn’t seem that He is anywhere to be found.

Make a decision…Choose sides – You can’t adequately serve God and the world. (Consider Joshua 24:15) Something happens in life, often sin, busyness, boredom, or a tragedy…but if we are normal, we have periods where we grow away from our close relationship with God. God hasn’t moved, but if you’ve shifted in your obedience, get back securely on the right side.

Trust More…Not less – Times of silence may be filled with fear, but ironically, these times require more faith. Times come in our spiritual life when our enthusiasm isn’t as real as when we began our walk with God. That’s not an indication to quit…it may be that God is using that time for something bigger than you could have imagined…but whatever is next will most likely require a deeper level of trust.

Listen and Watch Closely – Some day God is going to make His plans known to you. Don’t miss them. He may come to your personally, through His Word, circumstances or another person. You’ll need to be in a position to know that God is moving. (Read THIS POST if you need help discerning God’s will.)

Get ready to receive – God will break the silence some day…and when He does it WILL be good. If you mope around in your sorrows, you’ll be less prepared to receive the good things to come. Not because of your circumstances, but because of your faith, clothe yourself in joy as you wait for God to bless you after the period of silence.

Are you in one of those periods of silence today? How do you handle these periods of time?

7 Aspects of the Man: Nelson Mandela (And Quotes)

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Nelson Mandela. He is referred to as the “Father of a Nation”. He lived a life of inspiration. He is mourned around the world. His life was long, and varied. He had plenty of highs and lows. Married and divorced three times. Prison. Labeled a terrorist. I don’t know all his story. Probably neither do most of you, but, from what. I know, I’m impressed how he ended. He finished well.

Here are 7 examples of the man Mandela was:

A man of peace – Pictures of Mandela can be found with leaders from all political spectrums. He brought peace to a nation and inspired peace in others. He fought for peace. (I think one key here too is that he was a person of humor. Countless reports mentioned that he made people laugh frequently. I love that.) Mandella once said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy,” 

A man of suffering – Mandela spent 27 years in prison because of his stand for equality. Eighteen of those years were spent sleeping in an 8 foot long cell. He was willing to suffer for a greater cause. He understood suffering as a part of achievement. One or his more famous quotes, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

A man of courage - Mandela was willing to stand against bigotry, tyranny and injustice, even at personal risk. Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

A man of conviction – And he inspired others with that conviction. He once said, “If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man.”

A man of triumph – Much of what the world admires about Mandela is the man he became after his years in prison. Bishop Desmond Tutu said that prison shaped him into the man he was in his final years. He once said, “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.

A man of humility – I love this quote of Mandela, “Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.”  It’s amazing that he gave up the presidency after one term. He most likely could have held the power position even longer. It’s reported he lived modestly, even giving away a third of his income as president.

A man of faith – My favorite trivia about Mandela isn’t trivial. Apparently, he was a believer. I loved THIS ARTICLE from Christian Today. Read some of Mandela’s quotes. It’s hard to deny his faith. As an example, consider this statement of Mandella. “Each Easter marks the rebirth of our faith. It marks the victory of our risen Saviour over the torture of the cross and the grave.”

Nelson Mandela wasn’t perfect. None of us are. Politically speaking we may have even disagreed on some issues. But, what a great life! What an inspiration! What a great legacy! Rest in the peace you fought to realize.

5 Options for Dealing with Emotional Pain

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What do you do with pain? You’ve been injured. It wasn’t fatal, but it hurt. In this post, I’m talking about emotional pain. The fact is emotional pain often hurts more than physical pain. It certainly can last longer. All of us have experienced emotional pain. Some more than others.

What do you do with emotional pain?

You have options. Here are 5:

Rehearse – You can keep reminding yourself how much it hurt. You can go over and over again in your mind the people to blame. You can live the hurt repeatedly in your mind. The longer you do the longer it seems to hurt.

Repress – You can pretend it doesn’t hurt. With the right performance you can even convince people you’re okay…even yourself…for a while. But, deep inside, when the fake smile goes away and the pretend laugh goes away, it still hurts.

Resent – You can build a grudge. You can increase your anger towards others. But the depth of the grudge will be directly proportional to the depth of the pain and the time of recovery.

Repeat – You can hurt others because you were hurt. Get even at your next opportunity. Take out your hurts on another. But the emotional pain remains. It does.

Release – You can let go, admit it stinks, ask God to begin to restore your heart and allow you to begin again. Emotional healing is almost always a process that takes time. It may require outside help. It won’t be easy, but it begins with the intentionality to release the pain and move forward.

Choices…choices.

Which will you choose? 

Obviously this is a simplistic approach to a very complex issue. But the principles are true. If you have serious emotional injury, get help. Don’t struggle alone. See your physician. See a counselor. Talk to a minister. (As a word of counsel, if it is serious emotional issues most ministers aren’t equipped to counsel through this. But, most can refer you to someone trained to help you.)